Monday, November 29

Nanci Griffith: A Folk Singer Committed to Both Gender and Activism | Folk music

In 1993, when the world was captivated by the new sound of grunge rock emanating from the Pacific Northwest, Nanci Griffith quietly released a collection of song covers intended to guide listeners to a network of singer-songwriters who carried the torch of music. U.S. music.

Today, Other Voices, Other Rooms is considered a landmark album for not only introducing the songs of Woody Guthrie, Kate Wolf, Townes Van Zandt, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker, and John Prine to a new generation of listeners, but also for its community and multigenerational spirit. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had already created the plane in 1972 with Will the Circle Be Unbroken? that brought together different generations of country, folk and bluegrass artists in the same studio. The ages on Griffith’s guest list don’t go that far back. But Griffith, who died on Friday at the age of 68, seemed on a mission to leave at stake a community of grassroots contemporaries who deserved to celebrate how far they had carried tradition.

There was also the case of good timing: Bands like Uncle Tupelo and Freakwater were already paving the way for the alternative country movement of that decade and Other Voices, Other Rooms became a forerunner that helped open doors for larger audiences. you will hear artists like Van Zandt, Prine, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Iris DeMent, John Gorka, Vince Bell, Guy Clark and the Indigo Girls for the first time. Even Bob Dylan blessed the project, appearing in a cameo with a harmonica. It would earn him a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

On Friday, Kyle Young, executive director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, called her a “master songwriter who took every opportunity to advocate for kindred spirits … Her voice was a clarion call, a both gentle and insistent. “

Griffith was unique in that she was largely steadfast in her commitment to the fundamentals of folk music, her first love. He presented an austere image on stage and in interviews, and his voice had a plaintive, unadorned quality that could convey wanderlust and quell despair. In many ways, she was a woman out of time, sounding paired with an earlier era where regional features like a soft chime, revealing her Texas roots, were seen as strengths, not something to soften and extinguish.

When artists like Gillian Welch and Iris Dement appeared on the scene, Griffith had been paving the way for nearly two decades. Today, you can hear the same idiosyncrasies in Elizabeth Cook and Margo Price.

Nanci Griffith in 2011
Nanci Griffith in 2011. Photography: Stephanie Paschal / REX / Shutterstock

His songs remained distinctly Southern and reflected his small-town upbringing, earning him comparisons not only with other songwriters, but also with short fiction writers like Eudora Welty. Love at the Five & Dime, a song made famous by Kathy Mattea, followed the life journey of a couple who met in their teens at the counter of the local Woolworth store. “And they danced the waltz through the corridors of the five and ten cents / And they sang / ‘Dance a little closer to me,’” he sang. Another song, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret) managed to portray rural adolescence without sounding moody or sentimental.

Before Other Voices, Other Rooms, Griffith had signed to MCA Records and worked with the likes of rock producer Glyn Johns to rebuild his sound within the realm of studio brilliance.

That didn’t work out because Griffith was a traditional folk singer at heart. He continued the confessional lyrics and political urgency of the Greenwich Village era with a vibrant vocal style and traditional country musical flourishes. He was born in Seguin, Texas, where his father sang in a hairdressing quartet and worked as a graphic artist and his mother sold real estate. After settling in Austin, the family disbanded. His parents divorced in 1960 and Griffith, then a teenager, sought solace on the local coffee circuit and began writing songs.

As a teenager, he watched Carolyn Hester perform and fell in love with the Village-era veteran throughout his life, as he did with Odetta, the black singer of the mid-century popular revival. The musical template for both women was simple, almost sparse, creating room for the raw intensity of their singing, a recipe for Griffith’s own work.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Griffith’s own work used to be downright political. He was an activist and in his music he frequently conveyed the harshness of living among those who do not benefit from the spoils of capitalism. “We live in the era of communication / Where the only voices that are heard have money in their hands / Where greed has become a sophistication,” he sang in 1994 in Time of Inconvenience. “And if you have no money / You have nothing on this earth.” Another song, Hell No (I’m Not Alright), became an unexpected anthem in 2012 for protesters during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

That same year, he told an interviewer that he was “too radical” for contemporary American politics. “I was mad about something,” she said of Hell No (I’m Not Alright). “Apparently everyone else was angry about the same thing.”

Her 2009 album, The Loving Kind, borrowed the title from Mildred Loving, a black woman whose 1967 supreme court case struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage and the song pointed to the same injustice directed at gay marriage, yet a hot topic at the time. The album also struck the death penalty, environmental degradation, and George W Bush, but was never addressed by name.

Doing so was not Griffith’s style. His poise, taste for the collaborators and the material, and the tenderness he invited to sing never wavered. She was a singer determined to Woody Guthrie’s maxim that a guitar and a song were still strong weapons to end the worst in us.

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