For the love of the cover: Nanci Griffith and Keeping Folk Songs Alive, at Passim
By Daniel Gewertz
The talent of Club Passim’s Nanci Griffith evening represented at least two generations: it was a nice understated tribute to the singer-songwriter, who often performed in the venue in the mid-1980s.
At the 2021 Americana Awards, held at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, Boston’s Joe Henry and Aiofe O’Donovan performed “Gulf Coast Highway” in tribute to singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. Two nights later, at Cambridge’s humble Club Passim, that same song was presented in an even more poignant rendition by Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry.
To quote the song’s second chorus: “And when she dies she says she’ll catch a blackbird’s wing / And she’ll fly up to the sky, come a sweet springtime blue bonnet.”
These two cities, Cambridge and Nashville, have little in common, but they both figure prominently in the Texas troubadour’s career: Cambridge, the first northern city in which she found a fanbase, and Nashville, Music City USA, the metropolis she made grow. to call home – where she did well enough to buy a nice house, but never got a desired spot as a cultural fixture in the town’s main industry, country music.
The local event was the latest in a series of occasional Passim songwriter nights. Each show delves into the work of a single songwriter, inviting local talent to perform one song each. Friday’s presentation – which allowed for socially distanced audiences – began with the screening of six previously recorded videos, followed by eight live acts on and off the tiny Passim stage. (“Gulf Coast Highway” was one of the video selections.) The talent represented at least two generations: a nice understated homage to Griffith, who often played Passim in the mid-’80s.
Contemporary American folk music is a genre almost impossible to define and just as difficult to keep healthy. Classical music has its rich benefactors, jazz its conservatories and its clear history. Folk is unfortunately still linked in the minds of the general public to a single era – the early 60s – and a single instrument, the acoustic guitar. When up-and-coming talent on the folk circuit finds pop success, some have been known to drop the genre like it’s got cooties: like a high school jerk dropping his nebbishy friends upon admission to the crowd.
Burgeoning singer-songwriter scenes have been as rare as hen’s teeth since the heyday of Greenwich Village in the early 60s. You could count LA in the early 70s. 80s was a talent catalyst, with the late Jack Hardy at the helm, and Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega its best-known members. At Passim, with the endorsement of the late Bob Donlin, the same era saw the talent of Bill Morrissey, Patty Larkin, Cheryl Wheeler and, of course, Tracy Chapman gain a foothold. In Austin, Nanci Griffith was an essential member of a scene that included her friend Lyle Lovett. The Kerrville Folk Festival was for some time a talent pool. Guy Clark’s home in Nashville was another.
But these scenes were exceptions, and they were all assisted by father figures or organizations. A few enduring folk venues in America have clung to unconventional methods to ensure the scene doesn’t shrivel up. When Passim became a nonprofit nearly 25 years ago—eventually branching out with classes, grants, and special events like Songwriter Nights—one of the first models must have been the Chicago Old School of Folk Music. , born in 1957. Roger McGuinn was a banjo and guitar student. By the ’70s folk was dwindling, but the Chicago scene had Steve Goodman and John Prine.
The Songwriter Nights at Passim are presumably intended as a reflection of the kind of songwriting that occurred in Greenwich Village 50 and 60 years ago. New York folkists such as Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, John Sebastian and, most notably, Richie Havens, have told me in interviews of the glory days of the “basket houses”, where one was paid passing a basket, but the real riches passed down were the brilliant new songs of his peers. “Someone was running up and saying ‘Did you hear the new one from Dylan or Ochs or Paxton? It was a scene of songwriters, but also strong performers.
Programming Passim events such as the Nanci Griffith Night can be a “top-down” way to promote awareness of polished songwriting, but it’s a good step nonetheless. None of the 14 acts had met Griffith, and only a few had seen her perform. But the songs – and the voice – had an impact. Mark Stepakoff, who delivered a moving version of “Listen to the Radio,” wrote this in an email: “It was really the vocals – harsh and nasal, but also soft and delicate. There really was no other like it on the roots scene… melancholy, but tough and determined.
Starring among the live acts was Louise Mosrie delivering a captivating “Late Night Grande Hotel,” a post-breakup song about a tenuous stab at independence. A repeating line is, “I’m just learning to fly again.” But there are also dark and revealing ones: “No one knows another’s heart”; and “living alone is all I’ve done right.”
Mosrie also provided the closest thing to a first-hand anecdote about Griffith. Mosrie’s partner Cliff Eberhardt had written a song in 1993 that Griffith liked so much she offered to add harmony vocals for free. She even traveled a long distance to get to the recording session. Eberhardt was delighted. But his singing was quite wrong: in particular, very sharp. Eventually, the producer, worriedly, pressed the recall switch. “Uh, Nanci,” he said, “maybe you’re a bit lively.” To which Griffith replied in his most nasal voice: “A little? If it were sharper, it would gouge out your eyes. It was a fun anecdote, but it also said a lot about Griffith and his unique combination of fragile-soft and unpleasant-tough. Generous towards his friends, of course. But also in such close contact with her flaws that she didn’t need to work around them.
Griffith was well known as a songwriter who enjoyed recording the works of other writers. Four of 14 were covers on Friday, including a gritty, powerful version of Ric Allendorf’s Sandy Denny classic “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” filmed on a farm: Allendorf leaning against a tractor, the sky beautiful. Somehow the wind didn’t affect the catch. The song is paired with crystal-clear female vocals (Denny and Judy Collins), but Allendorf showed how a less pretty, simply strummed version — with a well-formulated, expressive voice — can communicate beautifully.
The premiere of a masterfully designed, drawn, colored and sung animated video by Lisa Bastoni, with elegant production by Sean Staples, has also been pre-recorded. The song, “Across the Great Divide,” written by the late Kate Wolf, was the first selection from Griffith’s Grammy-winning 1993 album. Other voices, other pieces. Hearing Griffith’s version on the radio recently stunned Bastoni. “I put down the laundry basket I was carrying,” she wrote, “and cried for several minutes straight.” She had known the song for years, but events in her life made it powerful. In the album’s liner notes, Bastoni quoted a comment from Emmylou Harris: “Songs need to be sung with new voices in places where they’ve never been heard before, in order to stay alive and… to have a new life.
The live part of the Passim show also included, among others, “Outbound Train” by the trio Noble Dust, with cello and trumpet, and the duet of Susan Levine & Doug Kwarter (The Lied To’s) polishing “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go. ” Kwarter also added an emotive dobro solo to Rob Siegel’s solid version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley.”
The inclusion of songs by other writers may have been, in some cases, a serendipitous decision. But Nanci would have dug it.
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and film for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he has published personal essays, taught memoir writing and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his impersonation of Elvis Presley.
Comments are closed.