She Caught a Blackbird’s Wing

Singer and songwriter Nanci Griffith died a couple of days ago. She had planned to be a schoolteacher, but her music wouldn’t let her go. She won the Grammy Award for her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, which included the song Tecumseh Valley by Townes Van Zandt. My favorite of her own songs is Gulf Coast Highway.

She is remembered both for songs she herself wrote, as well as for the songs of others to which she gave life. “From a Distance” written by Julie Gold, is an example of Nanci Griffith elevating someone else’s song with her voice and her interpretation.

Emmylou Harris performed a number of Griffith’s songs, and the two performed on stage together.

Below is an excerpt from a documentary and live show that may help you understand more of her background and career:

The best songwriters are always trying to lead us into new dimensions of comprehension, and when they succeed they deserve to be celebrated. The best singers can take what can seem mundane at best, and elevate it into something soul-wrenchingly divine.

For example, Eva Cassidy took the hum-drum song “Fields of Gold” by Sting, and she turned it into something ethereal. Nanci Griffith rescued Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” out of obscurity and made it easy for Bette Midler to turn it into a world hit a few years later.

It takes both — good songwriters and good performers — to make the world of music come alive. It can be rare to find both talents in one body. And so we miss them when they go, we miss the songs they would have written, even if we are not aware of the lack.

I prefer to feel that aching pain in the chest, having a sense of what is lost. Feeling the sweetness of that pain is one good reason to stop drinking, smoking, and taking pills. And perhaps, feeling that pain and sweetness in its fullness, come to write songs again…

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