Few artists have straddled the worlds of folk, country, rock and pop as easily and gracefully as Nanci Griffith, who died on Friday 13 August, aged 68, with no cause yet confirmed.
The ubiquity of From a Distance, force-fed to me by the folk choir at mass every Sunday evening for a year or two in the early 1990s, soured me on Griffith for a while. I knew she’d recorded it; I assumed she had written it. To this day, I still don’t care for it, and it put me off listening to more of her music at the peak of her mainstream visibility – around the time of the release of Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1993.
The song that made me get Nanci Griffith – why musicians from fields as far apart as Irish folk, stadium rock, bluegrass, indie, and mainstream country would come together to work on her records – was On Grafton Street. But it happened slowly, and without me knowing.
In 1994, my mum was into a record called Talk to Me by Irish folk singer Frances Black. I didn’t know who wrote the songs on the record (Griffith wrote or co-wrote three), but one of them struck me and stayed with me. Black’s recording of On Grafton Street was how I first heard that song, but when I heard Griffith’s reading of it – particularly a lovely live version from a New Year’s Eve gig in 1994 – Black’s version paled a little.
Something magical can happen when the right words meet the right snippet of melody and are sung by the right voice.
“Funny how my world goes round without you” – the opening of On Grafton Street’s chorus – is one of those. Whether that chorus was written by Griffith alone, by her co-writer on the song Fred Koller, or by the pair of them together is relatively unimportant – it’s the alchemy of voice, word and tune that makes the song what it is. It’s a fine song when Frances Black sings it. When Griffith sang it, it became transcendent. Now, if someone begins a sentence “Funny how…”, my brain will immediately add “…my world goes round without you”. The words belong to that melody now.
I can’t claim encyclopaedic knowledge of Griffith’s music. I’ve heard Flyer*, Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Last of the True Believers. But even that much – two albums of mostly original songs, one of covers – is enough to know that we lost a major songwriter when Griffith passed last week, the kind that don’t come along that often.
*It’s not easy to hear Flyer. You’ll look for it in vain on Spotify. If anyone needs an object lesson in why Spotify is the enemy, not just of dedicated archivists but anyone with more than a passing interest in music history, well, there you are. A Grammy-nominated album by a substantial, major-label artist – not available, presumably because of rights issues.