The very best Christmas present I ever received from an in-law is Nanci Griffith’s masterpiece Other Voices, Other Rooms, a collection of covers from songwriters who influenced Griffith’s own music making. My sister-in-law Linda Birdsong gave it to me in 1994, saying she thought I’d enjoy it. Understatement of the
century Clinton years.
I ended up purchasing ten or so more CDs to check out the work of some of the featured songwriters, which include Kate Wolf, Vince Bell, Townes Van Zandt, Frank Christian, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, Woody Guthrie, Janis Ian, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Malvina Reynolds and Harry Belafonte, just to name fourteen.
The magic begins with a cover of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” an incredibly beautiful composition that embodies concretely the passage of time in both terrestrial and temporal images.
Here are the first three verses, but I encourage to go to YouTube (who won’t allow me to embed a link) and check out a live version:
I’ve been walkin’ in my sleep
Countin’ troubles ‘stead of countin’ sheep
Where the years went I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away
I’ve been siftin’ through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago
Although they’re all excellent, the next song that blows me away is the third cut, Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” a duet Nanci performs with the great Arlo Guthrie.
Other personnel featured on the album include Dylan himself, who plays harmonica on “Boots of Spanish Leather” and Guy Clark on the Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi.” Also, Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement are sprinkled about, and the final cut “Wimoweh” features Odetta, the Indigo Girls, John Prine, James Hooker, Holly and Barry Tashian, John Gorka, Dave Mallet, Jim Rooney, and Nanci’s father Marlin Griffith.
Demonstrating just how much of life is fraught with loss and longing, the overall mood is melancholic with “From Clare to Here” (featuring Peter Cummin), Jerry Jeff’s “Morning Song for Sally,” Michael Burton’s “Night Rider’s Lament,” and “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” (featuring John Prine who wrote the song).
Of course, Nanci produced an admirable body of work herself, and she’s certainly going to be missed. From everything I’ve read about her, she was a lovely person, generous, intelligent, somewhat scholarly.
Sad, sad, sad.