Essay: `It's a hard life wherever you go' for the last, great, folk heroine

Spurned by radio, America's traditional music is struggling just to survive. That it has made it this far is largely the work of Nanci Griffith. Jasper Rees on the life of that `Daft Woman'

Nanci Griffith
Sunday 29 November 1998 00:02

Last Sunday in Dublin, three people were folding their creaking limbs into a minibus parked outside a hotel off Grafton Street. They looked an improbable menage. A tall, white-bearded man with pebble-lens glasses and a broad-brimmed hat; a short, black woman in a braided skull cap; a strong-jawed woman, the youngster at perhaps sixty, with straw platinum hair. The faces may not mean much, but the names will ring a bell to anyone familiar with the Greenwich Village coffee house sound of the early 1960s: Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Carolyn Hester. If you dropped a bomb on the bus as it ferried them to a rehearsal in the Olympia Theatre, Bob Dylan would suddenly find himself attending a lot of funerals.

This folk encyclopaedia made flesh is accompanying Nanci Griffith on a short tour of Dublin, Glasgow and London, where, tonight and tomorrow, they will round off the Barbican's Inventing America season. In total 23 musicians have assembled to mark the release of Other Voices, Too: A Trip Back to Bountiful, Griffith's second volume of cover songs from the rich folk tradition in American music. The first volume, Other Voices, Other Rooms, won her a Grammy five years ago.

You don't want to enquire to closely about the average age of the Dublin ensemble. At the rehearsal I got talking to one of the younger-looking musicians at the side of the stage. He turned out to be Ian Matthews, who joined Fairport Convention in 1967. He is now 52. Griffith routinely refers to these repositories of musical wisdom as "our elders". At 44, she is just abut the youngest person on stage. That's quite an age to be a spring chicken, as her recent health record testifies. She was operated on for breast cancer two years ago, and last month finished a course of radiotherapy to deal with thyroid cancer.

Ageism is the battle that folk music has been fighting ever since a conservative music industry decided to distance itself from a left-leaning genre in the early 1970s. All these musicians will ruefully tell you that folk is the F word. Some time after Dylan went electric, folkies were rebranded singer-songwriters, while the term folk gathered dust on the shelf.

Griffith convened the Other Voices project to blow away the cobwebs. For a dozen or so years Griffith, a songbird with a country accent, has been the folk singer people on both sides of the Atlantic have used as a route map round the territory. She in turn has deployed her own musical standing to exhume the reputation of folk composers who have found it hard to find a modern audience. "She's done things for all of us," enthuses Carolyn Hester in the wings of the Olympia. "I've never experienced anything like it. There's no ego here. Everybody is helping each other."

The plan with Other Voices, Too is to revisit a specific period from pop's innocent past in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was a time when, says Griffith, "folk, rock'n'roll and the blues all merged on a very commercial level on radio. They weren't singled out or put into any cubby hole at all. They were just hits. We want to say, `Hey, it played on the radio just fine. Why all of a sudden do you say it can't be played on the radio?' "

Radio is music's oxygen. Griffith sings of its liberating influence in "Listen To The Radio", one of her best known songs, which doubles as a tribute to the gritty Nashville diva Loretta Lynn. It tells of a woman who leaves her brutal husband and drives out of town with the radio on. These days she wouldn't be able to find a decent radio station to listen to - certainly none that plays Lynn or Griffith or Griffith's guests on either album.

On the first album the guest list included such luminaries as Dylan, John Prine, Woody Guthrie's son Arlo, Guy Clark, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris and Leo Kottke. For the follow-up Griffith summoned an even heavier brigade, most of the above, plus half of Texas - Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, the Crickets, Griffith's ex-husband Eric Taylor - sundry survivors from the 35-year-old Village scene, plus a sprinkling of British folkies, led by Richard Thompson. But it's largely the recruitment of Van Ronk, on the album and on tour, that gives the project its scholarly patina. An old-looking 62, Van Ronk is the closest folk music gets to its own professor. You can practically see the thought-bubble floating above his head framing the question, what precisely is folk music?

"The appellation has always been problematic," Van Ronk explains in a dingy kitchen backstage. "You can get 10 scholars in a room and get 15 different definitions of what folk music is. I myself have a very strict definition. It's traditional music passed on orally. The minute you know who wrote it, it ain't folk music."

According to those parameters, not much on Griffith's two anthologies qualify. Luckily, Griffith's take on folk is generous enough to embrace almost every generic shade.

"Folk music to me is a great broad sense of things," she says. "It is the writer who is capable of capturing their social time and climate, in which they live, to pass on to the next generation." By her lights, even rap music qualifies in a broad church sheltering Van Ronk's minutely exclusive sect.

But whichever way you slice it, folk is old timer's music: hand-me-down tunes can't be handed down until one generation has spawned another one to hand it down to. Griffith tells a signal story of recording with Ian Tyson, one half of the 1960s folk duo Ian and Sylvia, for Other Voices, Too. "We started singing together, and Ian said, `How can she do this? She's matching my phrasing and singing it word for word with me.' Jim (Rooney, the producer) just looked at him and said, `Do you think she didn't listen to you from the cradle? She knows every nuance of your voice.' " That's your folk tradition in action. It's also your proof positive of the brittle morale in the folk community. Tyson 65, couldn't quite believe that even Griffith would be intimate with his singing style. In effect, the two Other Voices albums attempt to turn up the volume on the fading soundtrack of Griffith's youth.

Her antecedents were musical. As a preacher between the wars her great- grandfather, a Welsh veteran of both sides in the American Civil War, led a church quartet with his sons. Nanci was brought up in Austin, Texas, by parents she describes as "beatniks". They moved in artistic circles but, it seems, always the same ones. "They had very different tastes in things. My father would go to a coffee house to listen to folk music and my mother would go hear a swing band." He was into country; she hated it, and still does. "When I wrote `Ford Econoline'," says Griffith of one of her twangier compositions, "my mother said, `I dislike that song so much'."

Her parents separated when she was six. She acknowledges that musical differences may have signalled a deeper incompatibility. They seemed to agree on only one thing, that Nanci didn't need much looking after. There was no custody agreement, and in the place of parental authority there was "total neglect". From the age of 12 to l6 she and a boyfriend truffled the dung-enriched fields outside Austin for magic mushrooms. She was also dyslexic. "I learnt to type on mushrooms," she says. "I was a terrible student but I excelled in that because I could get into this rhythm." The boyfriend drove his motorbike into a tree at l6 and died. Griffith moved to her sister's in Houston. You can still hear the echo of this and other trials - her parents' divorce; her violent marriage to Taylor, a heroin addict and Vietnam survivor; her ten largely homeless years driving from bar gig to bar gig all over America - in Griffith's songs of loneliness and loss and cussed self-sufficiently.

But there were consolations in a beatnik upbringing. Her conquest of dyslexia deepened her love of reading. On three of her album covers she is clutching books as if they're badges of achievement. Other Voices, Other Rooms takes its title from Truman Capote's first novel, which she ecstatically hugs in the cover shot. Reading, as well as her father's guiding taste, may in turn have sent her in the direction of folk, because no other type of music so clearly aspires to the condition of literature (often, it must be said, to the detriment of melodic invention).

Why Capote? "Because he and Tennessee Williams wrote prose that read like poetry. When Truman wrote the book it was really about finding one's own roots and facing them." So it goes. The sub-title of the second volume "came from Horton Foote's film A Trip to Bountiful, which is about an elderly woman's venture to try to get to her home town, because that's where all things started".

If folk music, like the literature of the US South, is largely a matter of where you come from, there's a perfect encapsulation of that on Other Voices, Too. "Wasn't That A Mighty Storm" - in Griffith's version a rip- roaring gospel anthem for 40 famous voices - is so atavistic that even Van Ronk is prepared to call if folk. " No one knows who wrote it," says Griffith. "It's an oral history that was passed on and ended up in the Library of Congress in the archives." It tells of the storm on 18 September 1900 that destroyed the Texan harbour at Galveston. After New York, Galveston was the second port of entry to America, and several of Griffith's ancestors - from Cardiff and Aberdeen - first set foot on American soil on the Galveston dock. The storm, says Griffith, "is probably the most famous hurricane in America, because it was so destructive. Every time I've read about what's been going on in Central America, I've seen the storm of 1900 referred to. " When Griffith sings it, she thinks of her 101-year-old grandmother, "knowing that she doesn't remember it because she was too young". And that'll do as a working definition of folk: the historical rooted in the personal routed through the musical and the topical.

The oddity of the umbilicus linking Griffith to her roots is that she is a prophet without honour in the Lone Star State.

She recently wrote to several Texan publications to complain of consistently bad reviews. "I'm the only native female songwriter that's every gone across the Red River and made something of herself. I totally get ignored because I don't fit the mould. I'm not a good old boy, I don't wear hats, I don't wear boots. I don't play the game. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Austin Chronicle and said, `I've taken 20 years of your abuse. I'm very upset about it. Leave me alone.' They said, `This is what we expect of this daft woman.' " So she doesn't yearn to make the trip back to Bountiful so much that she'll actually go and live there.

The "daft woman" has been described elsewhere as America's tuning fork. The last person of whom that was said is Pete Seeger. Like Seeger, whose band the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings, part of Griffith's essence as a folk singer is that she can make enemies. But it's a skill that most folk singers have lost, which may explain why folk music is now on the life-support machine of Griffith's patronage. The battles for civil and workers' rights have been won; the hammer of justice in Seeger's "The Hammer Song", which closes Other Voices, Too, has helped shape a society that folk singers can't really grumble about.

In the course of our conversation Griffith's vents her spleen on an array of topical issues, the Starr Report, Christian fundamentalism, women's issues. But not much of this surfaces in her work. The song with which she closes most shows, and the one that should be around in 100 years, is "It's A Hard Life Wherever You Go". But it doesn't say anything new, or not according to her 101-year-old grandmother. "As far as she's concerned," says Griffith, "it's the most important piece of music I've ever written. It just showed that I was paying attention when she was talking to me."

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