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Their View: The politics of Nanci Griffith

Their View: The politics of Nanci Griffith

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There’s been a lot of bad news lately. The COVID-19 infection rates are up — again. The Taliban is back in charge of Afghanistan — again. And Nanci Griffith is dead.

The former kindergarten teacher-turned singer-songwriter passed away in Nashville last week at the too-young age of 68. Griffith — who specialized in a blend of folk and country — what she called “folkbilly” — was never a Top 40 pop star so her name may mean nothing to some, but she was a Grammy winner, so there’s that. For our purposes today, she was one of the few singers to write a song about Virginia.

Griffith’s 17th studio album, released in 2009, was titled “The Loving Kind,” which may seem generic until you realize that it was about the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the Caroline County couple whose interracial marriage was illegal in the state until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such laws in 1967.

Griffith was not known for political songs, at least not initially, but “The Loving Kind” was an exception. It’s a bittersweet kind of song, which was one of Griffith’s specialties.

They were the loving kind

She was black and he was white

In Virginia nineteen fifty-eight

They found love amongst the hate

Virginia is not a state that has inspired a lot of songs, a point we’ve ruminated on before. Virginia doesn’t easily rhyme the way Tennessee does or the Carolinas do, especially once they’re converted to “Caroline,” or Alabama, once it’s revised as “Alabam.” There’s no “Midnight Train to Virginia” but there is a “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Of all the southern states, Virginia seems to suffer a deficit of name-checks in popular music, so whenever the state does find itself featured in a song, we like to take notice. Griffith sang about a Virginia story when others did not.

The normally-prolific Griffith once told Country Line Magazine that she was suffering an uncharacteristic bout of writer’s block when she came across an obituary for Mildred Loving in 2008: “I sat and cried because I did not know her story, which should be in every history book. It should be championed throughout the nation. They got thrown in jail for getting married, and they became the reason government is out of the loving business for interracial couples.”

We said that Griffith wasn’t known for political songs, although that changed over time. She was mostly known for sweet, slow songs about small town life — Kathy Mattea had a Top 5 country hit with Griffith’s “Life at The Five and Dime,” Suzy Bogguss had a Top 10 country hit with “Outbound Plane,” which Griffith co-wrote with Tom Russell. Many of Griffith’s songs reflect her Texas upbringing, as evidenced by album titles such as “Lone Star State of Mind” and “The Dust Bowl Symphony,” which makes her Virginia song so unusual. In later decades, though, social commentary — which is a form of politics — began to creep into Griffith’s songwriting.

Her 2009 album, “The Loving Kind,” marked a definite turn. Besides the title track, other songs took on the death penalty, the environment and . . . Lyndon Johnson. Johnson hasn’t been inspiring much verse since anti-war demonstrators in the ’60s were chanting “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” But he inspired Griffith. For years, she wore a big Johnson button on her guitar strap, which is not the usual sort of thing you see at a concert these days.

One day a musician with whom Griffith often co-wrote asked if she’d ever written anything about Texas. Well, she’s written lots about Texas, but she thought some more and that led to a different song about the history of Texas — “Cotton’s All We Got,” sometimes listed as just “Cotton.” It starts off as an ordinary-sounding song about poor cotton farmers in rural Texas until it gets to this ...

In the days before the powerlines

when LBJ taught school

We dreamed of a fairer nation

and promised to change the rules

To build a great society

and all the folks in the same room

fighting a war on poverty

and taking us to the moon

In eight succinct lines, Griffith sums up what Johnson’s legacy might have been if it hadn’t been for that messy little business of Vietnam. She told in 2019: “I feel he was very naïve on an international policy level but he was a brilliant man when it came to domestic issues. We had Lyndon Johnson cramming Medicare down the throat of a Congress in order to have what we have because everybody was very against Medicare and they were calling it socialization. Thanks to Lyndon Johnson we have the Voter’s Rights Act, we have Medicare we have all kinds of relief programs and nobody ever mentions him. And it’s just sad because he was such a great senator and other than the Vietnam War he was a brilliant president.”

In 2012, Griffith, whose songs otherwise never included a bad word, recorded the defiant “Hell No, I’m Not All Right.” It’s ostensibly a song about a relationship going bad, but the sentiment, and the lyrics, can fit almost any purpose. The Guardian reports that the song “became an unexpected anthem in 2012 for protesters during the Occupy Wall Street movement.” That year she also told an interviewer she was “too radical” for U.S. politics, which might have come as a surprise to many who just listened to her songs to hear stories of Rita and Eddie at the five and dime and how:

Eddie played in the barroom band

’Til arthritis took his hands

Now he sells insurance on the side

Griffith was at her best as a story-teller, a teller of tales both fact and fiction. “The Loving Kind” fits in that tradition. So, too, does another one of her songs. It has nothing to do with Virginia, or the South, or small towns, subjects that fascinated Griffith to the end. However, it’s a song that resonates with us so permit us this digression. Her 2001 song “A Pearl’s Eye View” is about Georgette “Dickey” Chappelle, a photojournalist from Wisconsin who became a war correspondent during World War II, a profession she pursued over three decades — always sporting an Australian bush hat and pearl earrings, hence the title of the song. Chappelle was with the Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima. She was jailed for seven weeks by the communists for her coverage of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. She learned to jump out of airplanes with paratroopers. When fighting escalated in Vietnam, she showed up there. And it was there, on patrol with Marines in November 1965, that she died when a piece of shrapnel severed her carotid artery. She was the first American female journalist killed in action. Griffith captured Chappelle’s story poignantly, singing:

And now, we trace her wings

In her footsteps without fear

Now, sadly, we trace Griffith’s wings, as well.

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