“Other Voices, Other Rooms” is the title of Truman Capote’s first novel, published in 1948. In her sleevenotes for the album, Nanci Griffith writes that 1948 marked “a time of new voices in literature and coincided with a rebirth of interest in folk music”. Whereas her previous eight albums were mainly comprised of self-written songs, this album consisted entirely of covers of some of her favourite songs with guest appearances from some of her favourite musicians.
Across The Great Divide
This is not the song by The Band but, instead, was written by Kate Wolfe who was an influential folk singer/songwriter from San Francisco. She died in 1986, aged 42, from leukaemia. Nanci Griffith’s version is awesome, one of her very best songs and includes harmonies from Emmylou Harris as well as mandolin and violin from Stuart Duncan who fully deserves to be described as a virtuoso. He first came to my attention on The Transatlantic Sessions. James Hooker plays piano on this track, as he does on 10 others on the album. He once recorded with Jimi Hendrix, founded The Amazing Rhythm Aces and toured with Stevie Winwood before playing with Nanci Griffith for 20 years.
Woman Of The Phoenix
Vince Bell is a Texas musician who, in 1982, just as his career was taking off, was hit by a drunk driver. He took six years to recover from his injuries and he had to learn how to play the guitar all over again. “Woman Of The Phoenix” is a song from his first album, “Phoenix” which includes guest appearances from John Cale, Victoria Williams and Lyle Lovett. Nanci Griffith’s version includes violin playing from Alison Krauss.
Townes Van Zandt was one of the most influential singer/songwriters of his generation who died in 1997, four years after the release of this album. “Tecumseh Valley” is the second song on Side One of his first album, “For The Sake Of The Song”, released in 1968. It’s a desperately sad, beautiful song, about the downfall and suicide of a miner’s daughter named Caroline. On Nanci Griffith’s version, Arlo Guthrie sings lovely harmony vocals and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle playing is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. Nanci Griffith’s middle name is Caroline and this meant that this song was always special for her.
Three Flights Up
Frank Christian was a phenomenal acoustic guitar player, who played on three Nanci Griffith albums as well as two Suzanne Vega albums. He was based in New York and released four of his own solo albums. He died in 2012. He plays on five songs on the album, including “Three Flights Up”, his own composition which is a compellingly charming song recounting the time he spent in a freezing cold flat which was three flights up.
Boots Of Spanish Leather
Nanci Griffith sings a lovely, simple version of this well known Bob Dylan song in which the future Nobel Prize Winner plays harmonica. It’s a little too sanitised for my taste and the sadness and yearning for a lost love, that was essential to the original, seems to be missing.
Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness
By contrast, this is a fantastic version of one of John Prine’s better known songs and the harmonies that he provides are utterly charming. The lyrics of the song were written after John Prine saw pictures of astronauts’ faces being pulled back whilst they were approaching high speeds. He felt that his heart had been pulled back in the same way after the breakdown of a relationship.
From Clare To Here
I was never a fan of Ralph McTell and I disliked “Streets Of London”. This prejudice means that I ignored all his other work until I heard Nanci Griffith’s beautiful version of this song. Philip Donnelly’s lead acoustic guitar playing is astonishing, Pete Cummins’ harmony vocals are terribly sad and Nanci Griffith’s voice is at her most haunting. Both Philip Donnelly and Pete Cummins are Irish musicians and the song was inspired by a comment made by an Irish worker on a building site in London.
Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound
Tom Paxton is another folk musician who learned his craft in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. I sometimes get confused between Tim Rose, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Tom Rush and Tom Paxton. “The Last Thing On My Mind”, “Ramblin’ Boy” and “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” are all classic songs, written by Tom Paxton, who was born in Chicago in 1937. Nanci Griffith’s lovely version includes a duet with Carolyn Hester, who was also an influential figure in the folk scene in Greenwich Village. Bob Dylan’s first recorded performance is on her third (eponymous) album, and in 2000 she recorded a tribute album to Tom Paxton. The song describes someone who was born to roam, in complete contrast to Tom Paxton, who had a very happy and settled family life.
Do Re Mi
“Do Re Mi” was written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 and echoes some of the sentiments expressed in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath”. Dust Bowl migrants, heading West in the 1930s hoped that a better life awaited but work was not guaranteed and many families endured terrible hardship. The song is given an upbeat positive rendition by Nanci Griffith and the great Guy Clark joins her on harmony vocals. Although there are no Guy Clark songs on this album, Nanci Griffith recorded a fantastic version of his “Desperados Waiting For A Train” on the companion album, “Other Voices Too”, in 1998.
This Old Town
Another song that references the hardships suffered by workers in the Dust Bowl is Janis Ian’s “This Old Town”. The problematic fortune of a town are listed – fire, drought, hurricane and the after effects of war service. Despite everything, “this old town still stands” and the singer recognises that a town is a place to form friendships and call home – that’s why she’ll never leave. Janis Ian has had a long musical career, releasing 23 albums, with “Hope” appearing in January this year. Her most well known song is probably “At Seventeen”.
Comin’ Down In The Rain
Buddy Mondlock travelled from his home state of Illinois to Texas in the mid 80s, where Guy Clark heard him and was instrumental in getting a record deal for him. While he was singing at The Bluebird Cafe, Janis Ian saw him and they started writing songs together. This led to Nanci Griffith inviting him to sing a song on a show she was recording for Irish television. She liked the song, “Comin’ Down In The Rain”, so much that she recorded it for this album. This is, I think, one of my two favourite songs on the album (the other one is the next song, “Ten Degrees And Getting Colder”). It has everything: it’s a sad song about a man in a desperate state of mind with a sumptuous melody, sublime mandolin playing from Stuart Duncan and a wonderfully sympathetic vocal performance from Nanci Griffith.
Ten Degrees And Getting Colder
A man is hitch-hiking in the freezing cold by Boulder Dam. He had been born in Milwaukee (“though he never was that famous”) and had travelled the country, playing his songs wherever he could. Once, in Arizona, he had met a woman and fallen in love. They had travelled to Boulder in the Summer but she had left him and now that Winter has come, he is so destitute that he has sold his Martin guitar and is trying to get back home to his mother. For nearly 60 years Gordon Lightfoot has been writing songs including “Early Morning Rain” and “If You Could Read My Mind”. In my opinion, he’s never written a better song than “Ten Degrees And Getting Colder” and Nanci Griffith’s interpretation is perfect. As if the song wasn’t incredible enough, the marvellous Iris DeMent sings astonishing harmony vocals. Phew.
Morning Song For Sally
Jerry Jeff Walker, who died in October 2020, wrote “Mr. Bojangles”. He started playing in Greenwich Village and subsequently moved to Austin, where he was instrumental in starting the “outlaw country” music, along with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. This beautiful song reflects on a two week romance which, in many ways, was perfect but was always destined to be short lived. The playing by Stuart Duncan (mandolin), James Hooker (piano) and Pete Kennedy (electric guitar) perfectly complements Nanci Griffith’s restrained vocals.
Night Rider’s Lament
Michael Burton wrote this song, which has been covered by Jerry Jeff Walker and Suzy Boggus. They sung the song together at The Austin City Limits in 1991 and this was Suzy Boggus’ breakthrough moment.
Are You Tired Of Me Darling
This song (written by G.P. Cook and Ralph Roland) was first performed in 1877 in a show by Sweatham and Fraser’s Minstrels of Philadelphia. It was recorded by The Carter Family in 1934, The Stanley Brothers in 1969 and at least 26 other versions exist. The version here is very sweet with harmony vocals supplied by Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris.
Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reynolds and Allen Greene wrote this song in 1959 and it became a hit for Dick And Dee Dee, reaching Number 27 in the Billboard Charts in 1963. Chet Atkins plays lead guitar here.
This traditional South African song makes for a disappointing end to a truly wonderful album.
In 1994, “Other Voices | Other Rooms” won a Grammy for The Best Contemporary Folk Album. It’s a masterpiece.