The Heroes of This Country
193 · 8 October 98
Nanci Griffith: Other Voices, Too
Back when I believed I'd never have children, and it seemed like most of the people I considered my peers felt the same way, I assumed that some of us, in the end, would be coopted by the system (worrying about being coopted by the system is what, in my generation, replaced complaining about The Man), and end up forgetting, or else rationalizing away, all the reasons we once believed that childbearing was a social trap, designed to crush our most noble human aspirations and insure planet-wide, self-perpetuating mediocrity. This is probably an inevitable attitude, for a certain type of kid; your impression of parenthood is formed primarily by observing your own parents, who are, essentially by definition, the most embarrassingly uncool people in the known universe. Only now, as I get older, am I slowly beginning to appreciate the magnitude of some of their accomplishments, and recognize the complexity of the problem. Whether this constitutes being coopted by the system, you'll have to decide for yourself.
If you'd asked me, at the right petulant, self-pitying moment in my childhood, I might have told you that I grew up poor. Half an hour later I'd have realized how offensive this claim was, and come back into the living room to emend it: I grew up relatively poor. My family lived, for the thirteen years of my K-12 schooling, in the Park Cities, a community that sits, like a donut hole, entirely surrounded by Dallas, Texas. The jewel of the Park Cities, in real-estate terms, is Highland Park, a bloated, social-vertigo-inducing evocation of the American Dream with all the grace of a unicorn that turns out, on inspection, to be a jaundiced cart horse with an eight-inch malignant brain tumor growing straight out of its forehead. Highland Park provides the bulk of the tax base, and so earns the right to have its name on the high school, a nominally public facility with its own indoor tennis center, professional-grade football stadium, trophy case full of profoundly pointless memorabilia like formal commendations from President Reagan and, during the time of my attendance, an average, in a 1600-person, four-year student body, of exactly one black person. (And yes, he was the running back on the football team.) I lived in the less-prestigious, and proportionally less garish half of the Park Cities, University Park, so named, perhaps surprisingly, because it contains a university, albeit only Southern Methodist, a private college also not especially renowned for ethnic diversity. My father was a professor of physics there (as had been his father before him, and as might, if only a few Chinese butterflies had died different deaths, I have been, too), and college professor was about where the Park Cities wage-scale trailed off into "Other" to make the percentages add up. My mother did not work. (That is to say, I learned that because she was rarely paid for her activities, "No" was the answer the question "Does your mother work?" meant to elicit. My mother worked, and still works, harder than I ever hope or plan to, and it has only just occurred to me that my ideas about the proper ends and intensity of effort were mostly formed by watching her, not my father, much of whose diligence and industry, at least professionally, took place in a small, eternally musty office four blocks away.) When I really think about it, though, I understand that the climate I grew up in was one not of scarcity or refusal, but of constant analysis and resourcefulness. I never had to keep wearing clothes I had worn out or outgrown, for instance, but neither did I ever get to wear the standard uniforms; the HP kids wore Izod shirts and Stan Smiths, and I wore JC Penney's in-house variations on the same themes. My father postulated that Fox shirts and Alligator shirts were, except for the logo, totally indistinguishable, and when I failed to offer any fabric-related observations to the contrary, the issue was closed. At the time, particularly during my one cowardly attempt, circa seventh grade, to Fit In, this was infuriating and unresponsive. The localization of the differences between the two shirts was wildly irrelevant; what mattered was that wearing a shirt with a half-inch alligator on it earned you waves of peer approval, and wearing one with a half-inch fox earned you the position of honor in after-lunch keep-away games using your own thermos (which was only around to be stolen because another idea my father couldn't stomach was paying for small, overpriced, cafeteria-vended cartons of milk, when I could just bring several insulated ounces with me from home). In some cases, and perhaps the shirts and the milk are both examples in this category, I'm not entirely ready to give my parents credit for having a conscious pedagogical agenda in mind, rather than saving relatively small amounts of money at what, for me, were large social costs, but the aggregate effect of these insistences, and others like them, I can't imagine having become myself without, which is saying very nearly the same thing. Or to say it even more clearly, I might do the same thing to my hypothetical child, some day, even if I could afford not to. In the war between the alligators and the foxes, the foxes may appear to be in perpetual rout, but they're the only ones who gain anything from the struggle. Sometimes conscription is the only way to insure that someone will be able to look back with pride on having fought in the right army.
One of the more dramatic demonstrations of my parents' notions of fiscal proportion was our annual family summer vacation. Richer families, of course, do not take family vacations at all, they send their children off to camp, or just have them periodically committed or something. At least, they certainly do not take family vacations like the ones we took. Some time around the middle of July, for enough years in a row that it seems like my entire childhood, we would pack approximately a third of the contents of our house into our stoic Toyota station wagon, and point it, sputteringly, northwest. Day one of the yearly pilgrimage was an experience without which you will never understand Texas, an epic, variationless crawl through fields of cattle, fields of oil wells, and a series of towns whose only cultural export would ever be newspaper photographs of trailer parks mauled by tornadoes. Not very many people live in Chillicothe, or Childress, or even Wichita Falls, but I had always lived in a large city, and the idea that people could survive, either emotionally or physically, out there in the middle of nowhere, absolutely dumbfounded me, and to an extent still does. Dallas tells a shiny, modern story of Texas, variously cosmopolitan and swaggering, best when it synthesizes the two; Amarillo and Dalhart and Dumas (or, elsewhere, Waco and Lubbock and Odessa) are the grim, dusty truths of which Dallas is a Disneyization. Did you know that it is possible for an entire city to smell of manure? The souls of slaughtered cattle choke the Texas panhandle. I always felt better the years when the first leg of the trip made it over the border into New Mexico, an entire day of driving barely sufficient to convince Texas to release its grip.
Day two usually involved somewhat less gross mileage, as once you get out of Texas there are more things to stop and see. I discovered, personally, during the first trip, and reconfirmed every year thereafter, that the whole state of New Mexico mostly made my skin crawl. I think it was the idea of living in houses made of mud that first sickened me, followed later by the perception, which must have been totally erroneous, that there were no book stores in all of Santa Fe. But there were consolations: a visit to Carlsbad Caverns left me as awed as I've ever been at a natural structure; Santa Fe, however much I hated it during the day, is the most beautiful city in the world when they line it with luminares for the night (although this only happens at Christmas time, so I'm conflating trips); there's a stumpy little mountain, somewhere along the route, that looks exactly like the one in Close Encounters. Over the border in Colorado are the Great Sand Dunes, my second favorite natural structure, literally a mountain range composed of sand, steadily blown up against the side of the Rockies since their invention. This second leg would end somewhere in Colorado, within striking distance of our destination.
The destination, reached without much further ado on the third day, was a dilapidated resort called Arapaho Ranch, granted use of the term "resort" through an obscure grandfather clause, and most famous, if the word can be stretched to cover this sense, because a short riverbank skirmish in the TV mini-series Centennial was shot on its property. You reach it through a fractal-like process of repeatedly driving away from things: from bustling, industry-scarred Denver to the mountain-hippie enclave Boulder; from Boulder up the Boulder Canyon to a town called Nederland, which at the time had little more than a dam, a laundromat, one culinarily-dubious pizza restaurant and a small corral where you could pay to sit on a tethered horse for a few minutes while it slowly, despondently circumnavigated its tiny universe; "out" of Nederland towards Eldora, a minor mining town trying to reconceive itself as a minor ski resort, whose motto might as well have been "'Eldorado' without anything to 'do'"; halfway to Eldora you reach an enormous gate that guards the entrance to, as best you can tell from the road, nothing at all. The magical kingdom you can't see, across a couple breathtakingly rickety bridges and over a laden-station-wagon-taxing hill, is a series of small, spartan cabins, built in a style my mother identified as Depression Eclectic, which project an aura of having been hastily erected, long ago, to house army recruits, or wartime internees, or perhaps pensioners to whom society has decided it owes only an extremely small debt of gratitude, and then, through some sort of bureaucratic error, never occupied. Each cabin was given a name with a vague American Indian resonance, and then furnished with a collection of lamps, chairs, tables, ovens, etc. that the rummage-sale/military-surplus syndicate had spit out as unsalvageable. I dropped in on the place about four years ago, and it looked physically unchanged, so I assume it is there still. How the experience has mutated, I couldn't guess; a part of me fears the cabins have been wired for cable-modems by now, and they're being marketed as high-tech product-development gestation chambers.
This would be most galling because the key aspect of our three-week visits to Arapaho Ranch was a radical imposed simplification of social and technological stimuli, one that today I don't know if I could cope with. There was electricity, but we brought no television, no radio, no recorded music, and this was well before computers were an issue. We did not read newspapers. Once a week we'd have to visit civilization to buy groceries (you feed yourselves; of course my parents would choose a vacation during which my mother's daily family-maintenance chores actually got harder, not easier), but otherwise the range of standard daily activities was something like this: hiking; reading books (my sister and I each brought approximately our weights in reading material, and the pre-trip bookstore trip to amass it was a summer highlight itself); prospecting for edible mushrooms; sitting by the creek; wading in the creek; and sitting motionless on a porch, with a camera in hand, for hours on end, attempting to photograph the world's most skittish hummingbird. Or that was the range of adult activities, anyway. The impromptu guild of children present, however, had several additional pastimes: crashing through the woods along what only a willful imagination could construe as paths; playing Add-On (the trampoline game where each player has to do the series of connected tricks the previous player did, plus one more) until everybody was either too motion-sick to continue, or somebody blew a landing and smacked their head on the frame; building elaborate lean-to forts in an old abandoned foundation and then taking turns assaulting and defending it, armed with bushels of viciously barbed pine-cones that inflicted pain on the thrower and the target with an instructive indifference; and perhaps best of all, lying awake after I'd been put to bed, listening to my parents and their friends talking, through the thin single-panel wall between the bedroom and the living room. How my father, a physicist, became friends with so many professors from SMU's theology department, it never occurred to me to wonder, nor how they'd collectively hit upon the idea of coming here, of all places, every summer, nor why the theologians fascinated me, even though I'd declared myself to be an atheist as soon as I'd learned the meaning of the word. I don't have the slightest recollection of what the group would talk about, only the visceral recollection of the warm glow in which I would eventually drift off to sleep, hearing how happy grown-ups could sound, late in a mountain night, lit up by candlelight refracted through wine glasses, a thousand miles away from every mundane headache in their other lives.
In keeping with the laissez-faire structure of the place, Arapaho Ranch had only a single organized social event on its weekly calendar. There was a large stone fire-pit, with an enormous metal-slab grill over part of it, in the center of one of the clearings by the creek, ringed with picnic tables, and on Monday nights the current population of the ranch (a dozen cabins? that many?) would assemble there for Campfire. Beer and soda would be moored in the creek for refrigeration, carcasses of sundry creatures would be staked out on the grill, marshmallows would be set ablaze with shrieks of delight. Eventually it would get too dark to eat any more, and a few people would wander off, but the ones who really cared stayed, because the culmination of Campfire was an old-fashioned sing-along folk-song marathon, and by our second year at Arapaho Ranch, Dad was the master of ceremonies. And so here is another thing without which I think my life would be immeasurably poorer, and a skill I don't have that it seems like a good parent must. My parents met folk-singing. My father, in fact, was my mother's guitar teacher. He was a graduate student at Yale at the time, and in a folk trio called something like Marty, Myra and Mac (he was the Mac); my mother grew up in New Haven, and sang in a duo with a woman named Mary (I promise this isn't a story problem). I thus owe my very existence to folk-singing. I learned the meanings of "hootenanny" and "sing-out" before "gig" and "encore". There was always music in our house, when I was growing up, but the impetus for actually getting the guitars out and teaching my sister and I how harmony works (or at least how to stay out its way) was practicing for Campfire. Folk music, in that old sense, shares arrangement parameters with the stuff that trades under the name today, but the social functions of the two forms are completely different. Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, for example, are storytellers, and their songs exist to be sung by them, to audiences of people who sit and listen. Just sitting and listening to the old folk songs would be perverse; they exist to be shared. So Dad would play, and set the outlines of the songs spinning above the crackling embers, and we would all join in. The goofiest, most unsophisticated songs are the ones that break down people's resistance, even if they think they hate them. Anybody can muster a chorus or two of "This Land Is Your Land", or "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", or "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain". Once you exhaust the communal canon you just do every verse of the other songs twice, teaching them as you go. With mountains around you, and water gurgling past on the way from glaciers to the sea, you sing songs suited for the space, geography lessons and oral histories, prospector eulogies and iterative mnemonics, songs about the Erie Canal, "Roll On, Columbia" (our family trademark). At least half the time they'll sound silly. If they don't sound silly, you aren't doing them right. Voices weave in and out, forgetting the thread and then catching on again. Self-consciousness doesn't last long; if you're going to sing the wrong note, sing it loudly, so somebody can catch you when you fall, so the momentum of the group can guide you back into tune, even when you wouldn't know how to get there by yourself. You don't know many of these people, but you've eaten with them, and you're going to be here with them, miles from anything, for at least a week, so you give yourself over to the care of a spontaneous community that has no tabloids, no hierarchy, no history, and so for an evening can be entirely free from time and consequence.
Translating participatory music to a recorded medium is, of course, an intrinsically flawed concept, something like trying to novelize a roller coaster. Singing along with a CD isn't the same, at all. You need to see the other singers' faces, to see them smile when you stumble, to see them nod at you to take the lead on the next verse, to hear them try to follow you, even when neither they nor you are sure where you're going. This is one format that demands interactivity in the most literal sense, where you must be able to affect the art, to enter the art, to appreciate it. Other Voices, Other Rooms, Nanci Griffith's first homage to her folk heritage, evaded this paradox by paying tribute more to the songs as compositions than to their contexts or functions, and so ended up being a sort of what-if fantasy of how the sing-along era might have sounded if it had been cast for performance, instead. This is an intriguing idea, to me, and I think Nanci did a remarkable job of selecting material that was suited for the transformation, so that when she was done with it she had a patchwork covers album that read like a coherent, if somewhat harrowing, elegy to hardship and resolve. Other Voices, Too, obviously, is the sequel, and I bought it expecting more of the same, but it isn't. You can't reproduce the experience of a fire-lit sing-along on a CD, a logistical problem that no amount of technology will ever solve, but you can record what it sounds like. If you've never participated in one, I'm not sure what this album will evoke. There's very little, as attending one of your significant other's reunions will demonstrate, as tedious as listening to other people's nostalgia. If you have experienced one of these, though, you probably didn't record it, and so your memory of it has dimmed, and it almost certainly sounds better in your dim memory than it did in person. Nanci's great gift to all of us, then, is a version of our memory restored to sound, coming out of stereo speakers, just the way we've grown accustomed to thinking it emerged from our throats in the first place. The album's most charming and critical detail, in fact, is that Nanci somehow convinced a veritable legion of veteran performers to sing and play like they're old friends, stuffed and a little drunk, not professional recording artists. By the time Nanci, Maura Kennedy, Susan Cowsill and Tom Russell get done relishing the "whoa-whoa" flourishes at the ends of the lines of Sylvia Fricker's "You Were on My Mind", blues sounds like an artifact they've dug out and polished to a shine without ever really understanding what it was originally used for. Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Eric Taylor all crowd around the microphone for Clark's "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train", which also has Richard Thompson on guitar and James Hooker on piano, an ensemble that anybody else probably would have tried to make another "We Are the World" out of, but here they just take turns with the song's simple, sad verses. Nanci and Lucinda Williams, two of the most unaffected singers alive, turn Bob Ferguson's "Wings of a Dove" into a such an artless duet that I have to hold my head sideways to be sure they're singing harmony at all. Nanci, Tom Russell and Carolyn Hester drawl through Ian Tyson's "Summer Wages", accompanied by Fats Kaplin's pedal steel guitar and Bela Fleck's banjo, and it comes out sounding like Romeo and Juliet to Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler"'s West Side Story. Nanci uses Dave Van Ronk and Eric Von Schmidt's arrangement of the standard "He Was a Friend of Mine", and persuades both arrangers to join her, along with Taylor, Russell, Hooker, Frank Christian, Jean Ritchie, Lucy Kaplansky, Rosalie Sorrels, Julie Gold, Odetta and Caitlin Von Schmidt, voices spilling over each other in a gloriously cacophonous free-fall jumble. Producer Jim Rooney and instrumentalists Hooker, Doug Lancio, Philip Donelly, Ron De La Vega and Pat McInerney get to sing on Stephen Collins Foster's prayerful "Hard Times Come Again No More". Williams, Tish Hinojosa, Odetta, Earle, John Stewart, Cowsill and Lee Satterfield all turn up for a haunting ensemble rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)", and I don't think the song will ever again have the right protest urgency to me in any other setting. Iain Matthews, Clive Gregson and Russell, doing a comically gruff bass line, help Nanci blanch all the cynicism and squalor out of Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death". Nanci and John Prine wheeze somberly through the hilarious small-world tragedy "The Streets of Baltimore", about a country boy losing his girl to the bright-light allure of not exactly the most glamorous city, which might be the archetypical old-style folk-song predicament, a story that inspires empathy and amusement at the same time. The sense of déjà vu is strongest, for me, on the traditional "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm", done with Tom Rush, Emmylou Harris and pretty much everybody else, and on Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes' "If I Had a Hammer", sort of a "Kumbayah" for people who distrust authority too much to be boy scouts, which also works in Matthew Ryan, Richard Thompson and Gillian Welch. Like all the strongest folk songs, both of these are heavily repetitive, as repetition is how shared experience reinforces itself. Both also thrive on potential, less on the actions we will take than on the proofs that action is within our abilities: "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" is about controlling a flood not by erecting barricades but by turning it into an anecdote afterwards; "If I Had a Hammer" sets up its calls to arms (or against arms) as hypotheticals, even though by the end of the song the necessary equipment has all been located. Folk music is not about Galveston flood walls and redwood forests, it's about the willingness to take stands, together. With enough voices under it, even a song that could crush a single person can float.
And by the time Other Voices, Too is finished, and sixty-nine musicians have been involved in one way or another in floating these nineteen songs (including, astonishingly, thirty-six who I know from their own work), I realize that Nanci has not only advanced the arts of stand-taking and sharing pain, she's also achieved my greatest social fantasy, perhaps my only social fantasy since I gave up on the alligators, which is to bring together every person I've ever loved or admired, together in fact like they always seem together in my head. Not all of my friends are musicians, so we wouldn't make an album, but the product is not the point of the dream. These people are my community. I want to see them again. I want to see them smile, or nod, or wince. We need to touch. All these walls, much thicker than the panels in the cabins at Arapaho Ranch, separate us from the people whose feedback we need most, and vice versa: different cities, different jobs, time, inertia. All this capacity for remembering connections, so little for sustaining them. I should be able to turn my head in a certain direction and feel the heat of any fire I've ever sat in front of, pick up any dangling conversation I've ever left unfinished. Otherwise what do we achieve that lasts? This album won't help me do any of that, but I think it's the sound of Nanci succeeding in turning the sound in her head into a record other people can listen to, and if the noise in her head can be recorded, then maybe mine can, too, and if these noises can be recorded, then maybe I'm not crazy to think that they're real.