Vibist Mike Neumeyer fully re-imagines the Beatles’ short-story masterpiece “Norwegian Wood”

Milwaukeean Milke Neumeyer continues his pied-piper ability to captivate with his four-mallet mastery of both vibes and marimba which, set up at 90-degree angles around him (above), he controls and merges like a traffic cop turning street commotion into a magical mystery turn.

I subscribe to Neumeyer’s YouTube video output, and this is the fourth time I’ve felt compelled to comment on his work, which reveals a mastery of video techniques to enhance the single performer, typically with multiple and simultaneous screens.

Here, he smartly choses to interpret a masterwork of pop music imagination, John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood,” from arguably the Beatles’ best album, Rubber Soul, released in December 1965.

What’s impressive and enchanting, is that Neumeyer essays the melody and chords with a fine sensitivity to the implied lyrics and their evocative storyline, of a rustic, one-night romance.

Yet, in the middle, he takes off on a sophisticated jazz improv on the tune, with the effortless abandon of “this bird” who flies at story’s end, yet with wings fully weighted with the smoky romantic nuances of the encounter. Aside from his deft sliding through the chord changes, Neumeyer’s solo seems to open small widows of discovery on the well-known song. It’s worth replaying to absorb the solo again.

Throughout, the sustained sonics of the mallet-struck instruments enhance the glowing aura of fantastical immersion, so the narrative self wonders if he’s even spent the night with the elusive bird, or was it all just a dream?

One might play the original song from Rubber Soul, either before or after this rendition, to refresh your sense of Lennon’s original small stroke of genius (and George Harrison’s exquisite sitar interlude), all reminded of superbly by Neumeyer’s contrasting yet vivid musical setting. Still, as we revisit, we must sigh again, “this bird has flown.”

Here’s a You Tube of the original “Norwegian Wood” (all the more a miracle of miniature tale-telling, at a mere two minutes!):


Jamie Breiwick and Matt Meixner venture far on the road less traveled — their extended instrumental single “Hollywood”

Here’s my review of an extended single “Hollywood,” by trumpeter-composer Jamie Breiwick and synthesizer player Matt Meixner, published in The Shepherd Express:



Bill Evans lives (!), in color(ization) in a full concert from 1965, plus “The Universal Mind” of Evans

Jazz pianist Bill Evans in 1965. Courtesy BBC
I wanted to share this full concert video of The Bill Evans Trio, from London in 1965. Some may question colorizing a B&W film but the BBC camera work is very good, with striking angles abounding.
Evans was one of the greatest and most influential of modern jazz pianists. He expanded the instrument’s harmonic palette while staying largely within the middle of the keyboard, like a magician pulling marvelous things out of a deep, dark mysterious hat. He forged an extraordinary exploration of internal, inverted and augmented voicings, very ambidextrous, two-handed phrasing, and a rare impressionistic touch, sometimes moody and murky, other times crystalline. Yet he was fully capable of robust, singing swinging.
The bassist is Chuck Israels and the drummer is Larry Bunker.
The host is Humphrey Littleton, a British journalist. He has an excellent quip, after the trio interprets “Summertime.” This trio is a reason why many musicians have come away from hearing it “poised between elation and utter despair.”
The concert opens with a superb Miles Davis composition, “Nardis,” that Evans made his own, and strangely, Miles never recorded.
Plagued with a chronic heroin addictions, Bill Evans died at age 50, making this video all the more rare and precious.
Enjoy, and may Bill Evans live forever, to let our hearts sing. 1

However, this is not the be-all-and-end-all of Bill Evans on video. In 1986, I was fortunate enough to see and review this video, The Universal Mind of Bill Evans: The Creative Process, for Down Beat magazine (note the extended blurb on the video cover from my review for further details). The video was then titled Bill Evans: On the Creative Process.

The video is intelligently and wittily introduced and commented on throughout by comedian-pianist Steve Allen. What follows is a enlightening conversation by Evans and his brother Harry, dominated by the pianist, of course, until his pianist brother skillfully cues up Bill’s illuminating demonstration of the jazz harmonic realm as applied to the standard “Star Eyes.” .

Amid the conversation Bill Evans tosses out some off-handedly dazzling piano segments to illustrate his points.

For all the sophistication that arises, also fascinating is Evans’ introductory comment of valuing the opinion of a “sensitive layman,” perhaps as much as a professional musician, because the pro musician “must fight to preserve the naivete that the layman already possesses.”


  1. Fortunately there is a wealth of audio recordings of Bill Evans that traverse his career, shortened as it was. One of the most striking and valuable of very recent releases is Bill Evans Behind the Dikes, recorded in the Netherlands in 1969. The two-disc set is superbly produced on the Elemental Music label, and includes Evans performing two classical orchestral pieces, Granados’ Granadas, and Faure’s Pavane, with the Metropole Orkest. Evans trio otherwise includes Eddie Gomez on bass, and Marty Morrell on drums.
  2. Courtesy Down Beat magazine

The savage beast in Texan Nanci Griffith? It would’ve risen, now that her home state has betrayed her and all her sisters

Singer songwriter Nanci Griffith was an activist with plenty of strong stances but, unlike a Texan who became president, this Texan did “do nuance” in politics, as her two campaign buttons here suggest. Courtesy The Guardian

Music moves us, as it does the savage beast. Can it move the savage beast within us? I was accused, long ago, of avoiding cliches in my music writing, when I really try to respond in a creative and vivid way to what I hear from musical artists. That approach can allow the music to carry me where the artist has the power to go, and can lead to plenty of metaphors and similies, in an effort to evoke or describe music in words.

Still, I know some cliches have staying power, or can rise Phoenix-like from the past, so the “savage beast” can cut, or bite, in two ways at least (there I go with the charred simile and painful metaphor, but that’s just how it comes out.).

The savage beast or SB (to not belabor the name of the aging, wizened creature) comes to mind today for two reasons, which bite in opposite directions:

1. The SB (8) (can an “o” be aptly inserted between those two consonants?) is Senate Bill 8, the outrageous new Texas law against a woman’s right to choose an abortion, which that the state legislature just passed. “The Texas law, known as Senate Bill 8, amounts to a nearly complete ban on abortion in Texas because 85 to 90 percent of procedures in the state happen after the sixth week of pregnancy, according to lawyers for several clinics.” 1.

In other words, most women are unaware they are even pregnant at six weeks, so their right to chose is effectively revoked.

The ban allows no exemptions for rape or incest.

Even more bizarrely draconian, the bill gives any Texas citizen a $10,000 motive to sue any person they believe might have “committed” an abortion, or even facilitated one, even a cabbie or Uber driver who takes a woman to a clinic. If the suer wins, they also win $10,000. Has any state law ever been more corrupted by the money motive? (The Supreme Court’s notorious 2010 Citizens United case, may still take the cake nationally for money-corrupting politics, contorting the 14th amendment into a weird concept of “corporate personhood”)

2. The SB within Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith, a true daughter of Texas who died recently, but has made her view on the political subject quite clear. I think the new law would have the SB within her rising again. She made it musically clear when she composed and recorded her song, “Time of Inconvenience,” which protests pro-life activism against Roe v. Wade, and aims her slightly sideways-yet-pointed irony towards those who feel it’s too “inconvenient” to make their voices heard for justice, especially today, to get out from behind our devices, and expose ourselves perhaps to verbal or even physical abuse.

The song, recorded on Flyer in 1994. has been covered by several other artists. And if you listen to the song now, it is startlingly relevant today, even setting the bigger-picture scene of:

We’re living in a time of inconvenience./ Compassion fails me with this meanness in the air./ Our city streets are filled with violence./  So we close the doors to the anger/ and pretend that it’s not there…

Griffith uses the first person plural throughout the lyric, so she included herself among those guilty of feeling that certain activism is inconvenient. But Griffith was clearly not closing her doors at this point. She was out in the streets…”Here I go again…the evil seems to cling to the soles of my feet…”

Here is the song in a YouTube video

The one time I saw her live, in Madison in 2008, I recall a bracing forthrightness about her, a fearlessness about speaking her mind on anything. By then, she’d survived two cancers and looked older than I expected. But clearly wisdom, weary yet heavy-booted, carried her songs and buttressed her being.

She was indeed an activist with largely liberal voice, and “Inconvenience” includes a kicker line: “And if you ain’t got money / You ain’t got nothin’ in this land.” But she also  understood political nuance, unlike fellow Texan George W. Bush, as suggested in the two campaign buttons in the photo at top, one extolling the reasonably moderate Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower, the other the new breed of Democrat represented by Barack Obama..

And even if in “A Time of Inconvenience” “the right-to-life man has become my enemy,” she’s speaking about more than a woman’s right to choose. She’s singing about “the age of greed and power/ where everyone seems to need someone to shove around./ Our children come to us for answers/ Listening for freedom but they don’t know the sound.”

Part of the freedom she references is the freedom of life denied an innocent man wrongly condemned by the death penalty, which isn’t addressed explicitly in this song and yet in the video you see the brilliantly pointed rejoinder to both Citizens United and the death penalty on a protest sign: “I’ll believe corporations are people the day Texas executes one.

She does directly address the death penalty in a later song, “Not Innocent Enough,” inspired by a conversation she had in a car with Phillip Workman, who was later executed in Tennessee for allegedly murdering a police officer, based on false witness testimony and evidence that was withheld or manufactured, the county district attorney at the time admitted. The state Supreme Court refused to hear Workman’s final appeal.

Philip Workman in 2002, executed May 9, 2007. Wikipedia.

“I wanted to tell him, ‘You know you didn’t do this, hang in there.'” Griffith recounted in an interview with 2 “But I didn’t. It’s overwhelming. I started writing that song not long after that conversation with Phillip, but I didn’t finish it until after he was executed.”

Q. What kind of reaction have you gotten to the song?
A. “Everyone’s amazed that they didn’t know about this case, just like The Lovings Vs. the State of Virginia (which inspired the title song of her 2009 album The Loving Kind). Just as they are amazed with the case in Texas where the guy was executed and then exonerated after the execution. I’m a total abolitionist when it comes to the death penalty but these cases make me feel stronger about that than ever.”

Though she always excelled at vivid, character-driven storytelling songs and those of failed love, she clearly became more activist over the course of her career, with an increasing array of politically-charged songs, including “Cotton’s All We’ve Got,” “It’s a Hard Life,” “The Loving Kind” (about interracial marriage) and “Hell No (I’m Not Alright)”

 The latter song became an unexpected anthem in 2012 for protesters during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

That same year she told an interviewer that she was “too radical” for contemporary US politics. “I was angry about something,” she said about “Hell No (I’m Not Alright).”. “Apparently everybody else was angry about the same thing.”

In her book, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music, She comments about “Time of Inconvenience.”: “It says, ‘I would go to war to protect a woman’s right to choose.’ In other words, I’m saying if you take the law away from me, that gives me the right, in America, to make my own choices, that would be the only thing I would pick up a gun to defend.”

Would Nanci kill in those circumstances?
“I would go to war to defend that law, and if a woman’s right to choose, and to do with her own body what she sees fit, were taken away from me, I would go to war, I definitely would fight for my constitutional right to keep the boys in Washington out of my bedroom. As a say in that song, ‘The right-to-life man has become my enemy.’

“When I do voters for choice shows for Gloria Steinem, there are always people outside with their placards and signs and shaking those rubber fetuses in the air and all that horrible stuff. So I would hope that by writing about these concerns and similar subjects I’m carrying on that great tradition in folk music.” 3.

Those tempted to begin messing with the stance of a woman protecting her right to chose, remember she’s considering lethal protection in self defense. This recent meme addresses the duplicity of being “pro-life”: New Rule: If you ban abortion before you ban military-style assault rifles that massacre children in school, you’ve lost your right to be called “pro-life.” 



2. Interview with Griffith:

3. Nanci Griffith and Joe Jackson, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music, Three Rivers, 1998, 72


Photo Essay: Anything Goes with Eric Jacobson Quintet and singer Alyssa Allgood in Lake Park

The Eric Jacobson Quintet warms up a large crowd at Lake Park, before accompanying singer Alyssa Allgood in a Cole Porter repertoire, Monday night. All photos by Kevin Lynch

Like many folks, I’m still catching up with the post-pandemic (?) live music just now sprouting up around Milwaukee. This is the first time I’ve attended this Lake Park concert series and, alas, it was the last of the summer.

The Series, at the Lake Park Summer Stage, is called Musical Mondays and is sponsored by WMSE 91.7 FM and The Lake Park Friends.

The Eric Jacobson Quintet and singer Alyssa Allgood made vintage Cole Porter love (and love “gone-wrong,” or even “for sale”) songs fit right into the fertile, ripe late-summer atmosphere.

A large and diverse crowd seemed to soak up the concert’s slightly ces la vie spirit of passing love and passing summer, even as the sunset melted into nightglow, sustained by self-brought wine and foodstuffs, the deeply verdant setting, and insouciantly swinging music. Yet this was no pure August idyllic — mosquitos hovered in small clouds as did hungry bats and nighthawks, chasing after them.

I don’t consider the images below good photojournalism, as I’m more of a writer than a photographer, plus I’m just getting used to a brand new camera. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share some of these, as these musicians are worth remembering and catching up with, as is the concert series, even if you must remember this (not a Porter allusion) until next summer. My “favorite” photo, such as it is, might be the “happy accident,” which is more background leaves than anything.

I arrived late and, with my photo-taking focus, won’t make a critical assessment of the performance, aside from a general thumbs up to the music, and to the weather gods who finally gave us a cool evening break.

The spirited band was led by trumpeter Eric Jacobson, with saxophonist Jesse Montijo, keyboardist Mike Kubicki, bassist Clay Schaub, and drummer Dave Bayles.

Singer Alyssa Allgood may be less known to Milwaukee audiences. The Chicago-based vocalist has earned consistent critical acclaim for her instrumental approach and accomplished scat and vocalese singing. She has gained attention for “her technical control and [the] creative imagination of her work” by critic Howard Reich of The Chicago Tribune.

Allgood was named “Best Jazz Entertainer” in the 2019 Chicago Music Awards and won the first Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Vocal Competition held in Washington D.C. in 2017.
Her performance credits include a residency at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Club in Shanghai, appearances at Birdland Jazz Club in New York City, and headlining appearances at the Green Mill, the Jazz Showcase and Winter’s Jazz Club in Chicago. Allgood has also appeared at the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Dakota, the Jazz Estate and Noce Jazz Club.
Allgood’s debut album, Out of the Blue, was released in Fall 2016 to wide critical acclaim. It received a 4 star review from DownBeat Magazine and was named a “Best Release of 2016” by seven different publications including The Huffington Post and All About Jazz and a “Best Debut Release of 2016” by The New York City Jazz Record.



Drummer Dave Bayles

I remember “Dirty” Jack Covert, a man who could sell you any record and you’d almost always be thankful


Jack Covert, in 2017,  when he retired from his successful career in the book business, after a memorable start as a small Milwaukee record store owner. Courtesy

Dirty Jack hit the dirt hard, for the last time. It may be the last time, but I don’t know a music fan who dug deeper into music as a record buyer, and into album warehouses and personal collections, as an eager buyer-seller. Dan Burr’s Crumb-esque cartoon strip (below) illustrates that Jack Covert well, (taken from the linked obit by Dave Luhrssen of The Shepherd Express:)

Jack Covert obit

I’m a bit late in acknowledging Jack, but last week I was distracted by writing about the death of Nanci Griffith, another great person who fit into the popular music world in her own slightly square-peg-in-a-round-hole way.

Dirty Jack’s Record Rack, on Farwell and Irving, was my favorite record store in my youth, even though I ended up becoming an album buyer at Radio Doctor’s Soul Shop and Peaches Records. 1

But in the early ‘70s, Jack’s Rack was closer to my Downer Avenue family home during college at UWM, even during my early years working at Radio Doctors. And Jack’s always had plenty of jazz in stock as well as rock, as Jack’s tastes leaned jazz-wise, as did mine. Plus, his hole-in-the-wall shop was THE PLACE for hole-in-the-corner “cut-out” LPs, a dream for a collection builder’s on a budget. 2.

And Jack knew how to buy and sell. I remember Jack several times almost physically escorting me to the cash register with an album I was unsure about. He also wasn’t shy about letting his crankiness show right in the store and, with that Snidely Whiplash mustache, you shoulda been a bit suspicious of this guy (see the snapshot photo in Dave’s obit piece). Yet I almost always was thankful he sold me.

Dan Burr’s affectionate cartoon history of Dirty Jack’s Record Rack. The store staff members in the last panel, below Jack, are (L-R) Ed Heinzelman,* album buyer Terry Wachsmuth, Mark Schneider and Chris Ballone. Courtesy Dan Burr and Shepherd Express.

Take a look at the smile in the photo at top, taken when he retired. Back in the day, Jack would jump on you, then flash that I’m-your-pal-with-three aces smile, whenever he and you needed it.

And how many record stores in the 1970s had custom marketing matches, with the owner’s beaming mug on them, proclaiming it “Cut-Out Capital of the World!” ?



His second-in-command at the Rack was a slightly-built long-hair named Terry, who had a bit of Jack’s crankiness, in a more skittish way. But Terry really knew his stuff, as did Mark Schneider, the friendliest Jack’s employee, in my memory. Mark wore his erudition gracefully. Today the San Francisco-based Schneider —  married to my former Milwaukee Journal colleague, rock critic Divina Infusino – comes to mind when I see Steve Earle’s guitarist Chris Masterson, who’s grown into a killer axe wielder since I last heard him live. Masterson, like Mark, has an affable personality and the same sort of long, ultra-blonde hair, and glasses. 1

I digress partly because I know Jack was a smart businessman who really valued and knew how to use his best employees. I think Mark would agree.

I also admit my comparisons of record store personnel to pop music artists may seem a bit over-the-top. But it’s something that I think Rob Fleming might nod his head to. He’s the slightly grandiose fictional owner of the record store in Nick Hornby’s wonderful novel High Fidelity, a comparison to Dirty Jack’s which Dave Luhrssen also makes aptly. I don’t think Jack or any of his guys floated through the sort of confused romanticism as does Rob (played by John Cusack in the hit film version). They knew how to channel their romantic impulses into music passions.

I had moved to Madison by the time Jack was hired at Schwartz Booksellers so I didn’t see him succeed as founder and president of 800-CEO-READ, a company that steered through the challenge from big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble and the rise of “with ingenuity and a commitment to superior customer service for authors, customers, and the publishing houses themselves,” as the company’s press release on Covert’s death explains.

Jack Covert is also the co-author of 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You (Link). The 100 Best has been translated into over 10 languages and the hardcover sold over 40,000 copies.

I’m still an “any-day-now-it-shall-be-released” author, but maybe Jack and I connected a bit because he also turned out to be something of a journalist. He wrote more than 600 monthly Jack Covert Selects business book recommendations that run in newspapers and business journals across the country, and has been featured on CNN and NPR, in Inc. magazine, Fortune, the Harvard Business ReviewWashington PostNew York PostBusinessWeek, and more.

That’s dealing in the big time. Not everyone in “big” business is a crooked wheeler-dealer. At this point, I’ll make no more personality comparisons to famous people.

Yes, Jack Covert had the smarts and personality, and always knew how to sell his stuff. I’m sure that mustachioed smile and those crafty ways are serving him well with Saint Pete at The Pearly Gates.


  • Thanks to Dirty Jack’s staffer Ed Heinzelman for background information.

1 Unlike Mark Schneider, Masterson may actually be albino, like his fellow guitar gunslinger Johnny Winter. But Masterson was tearing up “Hey Joe,” with Steve Earle at an even nastier pitch than on a 2017 video available on YouTube. I saw Earle and Masterson do that great murder ballad as an encore recently at Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

2. Cut-outs are out-of-print records, typically with a hole punched in the corner of an LP, or a mark obscuring the normal USBN scan bar. I suspect Jack Covert would later know very well how to find and market out-of-print books in a similar fashion.


The Don Linke Trialogue turns the key, opening the shuttered door to live music at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts

The Don Linke Trialogue

Guitarist-singer-composer Don Linke has evolved and expanded considerably since I first knew him, eons ago, in the jazz fusion band Jasmine, in the early 1970s.

But his gritty charm, flair, and derring-do still seem fundamental to who he is. So I’m glad he’s headlining the first jazz concert of the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts since the pandemic shut-down of live performance there.

The Jazz Gallery Center for The Arts. Photos courtesy JGCA.

It should be an enjoyable and invigorating evening.

Here’s my preview, from The Shepherd Express, of The Don Linke Trialogue, with a highlight on drummer Victor Campbell, who’ll host the event at 7 p.m. Sept 3, at the JGCA, 926 E. Center Street. Milwaukee.:


Congratulations, by the way, to the new Executive Director of the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, Kai Simone. Having just recently me her, I anticipate good things from her leadership, but must get to know her a bit. I’ll share more with you, when I do.

Mike Neumeyer’s hard-to-resist power of positive vibes


I strive to be neither an optimist or a pessimist, as Herman Melville, somewhat of a spiritual role-model, described himself. My orientation to Melville distinctly more than to his clearly-optimist contemporary Walt Whitman (as great as lovable as Whitman is!) suggests a personal intellectual bent.

Similarly, I’ve always been fascinated by existentialism, but as a resonant, timely, and influential cultural phenomenon, more than a philosophy I instinctively embrace. Now, alas, the adjective “existential” has been drained into an almost a meaningless quasi-political cliche, as apt as that may be.

On the other hand, many more people now understand the basic concept, if not its philosophic implications.

Nevertheless, if anything, I harbor the arc of history that bends toward justice and hope, and realization for self, community, and nation, though I’m still worried about the latter.

Which brings me to the curiously remarkable Milwaukee musician and composer Mike Neumeyer, who I have critically appraised in this blog previously. 1

Multi-instrumentalist Mike Neumeyer, showing his mallet chops (top), and personality (above).

He’s at it again, a video of his self-styled vocals, accompanying an extremely skillful production of multi-screen instrumental performance.

“Life” allows for a broad philosophical application, but emerges as a combination of feel-good geekiness and sophisticated, hip musicality.

The you-gotta-believe affirmation of his lyric and singing is enhanced by the beaming sophistication of his jazz-improv playing, and its cultural range, as he comingles the traditional African djembe hand drum, along with his two main axes, vibes and marimba, and an atmospheric touch, a synthesized sort of vibes mallet board.

It’s beautifully presented from different angles but without overwhelming the viewer — while infiltrating the open mind/heart with his big-gulp-of-yes vibes message. And what’s delightfully disarming is his self-aware goofiness, here in the form of the various T-shirts and hats he appears in, like an irrepressible Mad Hatter, including a highly caloric ten-gallon cheese-head hat.

Neumeyer has also done plenty of adroit four-mallet “pure” music playing and recording, as well. Those inclined to diss such a talented and likable artist might check in the mirror for Scrooge-like cragginess emerging (say, a crookedly distended eyeball and brow while feeding your default mood).

Plus, it seems we could use all the positive-reinforcement creativity we can get, especially after I just read an unsettling, stare-deep-into-American-apocalypse essay about the growing threat of racist white-supremacist militia groups, in the latest New York Review of Books. It’s right here:

How Can We Neutralize the Militias?

So, I’m hardly just peddling Pollyannaism. I hope Melville would approve, given that the “lone orphan” Ishmael (and that author’s slightly dominant alter-ego) does survive the catastrophe, to tell perhaps the greatest American fair-warning parable epic, Moby-Dick.

I hope we have a Neumeyer-ish Ishmael musician (and author and political type) — A Brave New World Geek Squad — to survive, and keep hope and power alive, through what worst may come.

Meanwhile, thanks, Mr. Neumeyer, for your geeky, vibrational gust – more like an uplifting, meditative breeze – of affirmation.
May the force be with you, and us, and our democracy.

OK, that’s a hoary trope, but right now “the force” seems to have some replenished potency in the face of numbingly countless “existential threats.”

So, onward fellow citizens and creative types, and ride the righteous vibe as far as you can.


  1. Here’s my previous comment on Neumeyer a song., “Living the Dream,” with its  political implications:

    Vibist Mike Neumeyer gives us the sound of changing our lives, of “Living the Dream”

    And here’s my first comment on a video of a self-accompanied song by Neumeyer, inspired by the death of his father:

  2. Mike Neumeyer builds a vibrating stairway to heaven, for “dad” and cancer research

The late Nanci Griffith leaves a tender hole in American roots music

Nanci Griffith. Courtesy The New York Times

Though slightly belated, my regard for, and honoring of, the late Nanci Griffith is no less ardent. It was a shock to hear of her passing, August 13 at 68, and only now am I gathering some thoughts and feelings. I was also belated in becoming a true fan of hers and, though I saw her live once, I missed the opportunity to write substantially about her in her lifetime.

She had survived breast cancer and thyroid cancer in the mid-1990s but, by her choice, the cause of death is unreported. But Nanci Griffith was a great talent of contemporary singer-songwriting, or what even became “progressive country,” or, as she preferred, “folkabilly.” She was among the most historically mindful and learned of such artists, living within and extending their own tradition. It was all the more impressive that she was a woman in a genre, like so many, still dominated by men, especially as she was part of the extraordinary generation of Texas singer songwriters that emerge from the so-called “outlaw” era of troubadours.

With her apple-cheeked prettiness and easy smile, she hardly seemed “outlaw,” but Griffith understood well the expanding possibilities of contemporary songwriting that the alt-country outlaw movement provided.

Yet she may have involuntarily related to the outlaw sensibility. Griffith told The Irish Times that her family as “really dysfunctional”, and her song “Bad Seed,” from the 2012 album Intersection was addressed to her father, and included the lines “Bad seed, there’s a darkness I can’t hide – too much pain to keep inside.”

She learned to play guitar by watching a PBS TV series hosted by Laura Weber and started to write her own songs. At the age of 12, she debuted as a singer-songwriter at The Red Lion club in Austin.

She was inspired by country-music icons like Loretta Lynn. “She was the first singer I ever saw of the female gender who wrote her own dad-gum songs and played her own rhythm guitar,” Griffith said of Lynn in a 1989 Austin City Limits appearance. , and she defined herself by saying: “You take a whole lot of Woody Guthrie and a whole lot of Loretta Lynn, swoosh it around and it comes out as Nanci Griffith,” she told The Irish Times.

The great African-American songwriter Odetta was another key influence, as was the fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt, with his uncanny gift for vivid and moving storytelling songs.

Years later, the book she co-wrote, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices was subtitled A Personal History of Folk Music, and conveyed the depth of her appreciation of the vistas the art form spanned. Certainly since Bob Dylan, singer-songwriting, as she exemplified, became more skilled, nuanced and literate, and worthy of the mantle of “art,” even though it was nominally a “mere” folk art form.

Impressive and reflective with a certain ambition, the book conveyed her insight and ideals about the long line of folk song-writing tradition. “”Preserving the history of each generation of humankind is like creation to me. There is the urge to continue that. And the way I do it is through music. I certainly try to bring real live people into my music and champion regular people, regular folks.” 1

Author and activist Gloria Steinem commented: “Nanci Griffith Is a poet with a guitar, a creater of both thought and sound, and now she introduces us to the full music that inspired her. This book stands on its own and explains the layers of depth we hear in Nanci’s songs.” 2

The 1998 book took off from off from her acclaimed 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, which probed the history of folk music with brilliant pinpoints.

That album (which earned her a Grammy) and its sequel, Other Voices, Too (A Trip to Bountiful), provided as deep and concise a sense of historic and contemporary folk and songwriting traditions as well as anything this side of Smithsonian collections. It honored and and interpreted, among others, the work of Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Woody Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Johnny Cash, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Kate Wolf, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Ian Tyson, and even reaching as far back as Stephen Foster, and a traditional African song. 

Nanci Griffith, Jim Rooney, center, and John Prine hug after a performance by Nanci Griffith and John Prine at the Americana Music Association awards show in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Josh Anderson)

Yet there wasn’t a whiff of the academic about this. Aided by her longtime producer Jim Rooney (pictured above with Griffith and John Prine), these albums sounded all very personal for her. She sang all of the songs though sometimes with guest performers. Her starkly testifying interpretation of Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley” carried at least as much emotional weight as the songwriter’s own, given that it is the tragic story of a young woman, named Caroline. 3 

Part of the song’s genius is Van Zandt’s understated narrative voice. A recent You Tube comment, remembering both artists, cherished the line: “and it seemed to me, the sunshine walked beside her.”

Speaking of the legendary Van Zandt, Griffith was instrumental in producing one of the most memorable live tribute concerts, an Austin City Limits program (available on YouTube) which gathered, for a round-robin of Townes songs, a splendid lineup that included herself, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Peter Rowan, Jack Clement (Van Zandt’s producer) and John T. Van Zandt (Van Zandt’s son).

Griffith’s voice, a crystalline contralto with clarion projection, sometimes was characterized as a girlish, and could convey vulnerability and tenderness, but I never heard easy sentimentality. Her voice was fully capable of a steely strength, a quirky Texas twang, tart irony and even a virtual growl, as the lyric or emotion demanded.

Some observers sniffed at an apparent literary self-consciousness, when she posed on several album covers clutching favorite books, by authors like Larry McMurtry and Truman Capote. But this struck me as heartfelt celebration of literary value, especially as she proved her substantial skill at songwriting and storytelling, and as a luminous melodist, even from some of her earliest recorded efforts. That included songs like “Love at the Five & Dime,” “Ford Econoline,” “Mary and Omie,” “Gulf Coast Highway,”  “I Wish It Would Rain,” “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go,” “Once in a Blue Moon,” “Saint Teresa of Avila,” “Bethlehem Steel,” “If I Could Only Fly,” and “Hell No (I’m Not Alright),” among others.

Nanci Griffith on the back cover of “The Last of the True Believers,” from 1986. Courtesy flikr

Her title song from the album Clock Without Hands borrows the title of Carson McCullers’ last novel, and contemplates the metaphor, awareness poignantly muted and transient:

I’m a clock without hands/ I’m walking through the midnights/ Counting all the moments/ Of the loves I’ve left behind./ Crying on the shoulders of the days/ I’ve forgotten now.

And Griffith selected covers with great acumen. Two of her most popular songs were by others, “From a Distance,” and “Lone Star State of Mind,” not to mention the brooding Sinatra standard “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” or, by contrast, Sonny Curtis’ fiery ode to lost-cause rebellion (with Curtis harmonizing) “I Fought the Law,” other signs of her artistic and critical powers.

She also had the vision, or chutzpah, to record an album of her work titled Dust Bowl Symphony, with the London Symphony Orchestra, which proved more cinematic than grandiose.

Though she hadn’t released a studio album since 2012’s excellent Intersection, there’s still a sense now of “where do we go from here?”, as Nanci Griffith, like the clock without hands, intuitively beat an illumined pulse forward, as much as she did on the present and the past.


1 Nanci Griffith and Joe Jackson, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices, A Personal History of Folk Music, Three Rivers, 1998, 71

2 Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices, back cover.

3. Here’s Griffith and Van Zandt doing “Tecumseh Valley” together. The pathos seems lightly carried, with the see-saw rhythm. And yet, deferential Griffith has her radiant moment:

Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts is finally back with live music, this weekend

It’s more than “mere light” — it’s a luminous light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that we can actually see, hear, and feel. With the Jazz Estate still in a worrisome limbo, the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts will give the Milwaukee jazz and creative music community a gentle jolt — finally offering its first live post-pandemic performance event Saturday.

Mere of Light harpist Elyse Leda Fairyland. Courtesy

It’s an experimental, environmentally-oriented multi-media event: a trio called Mere of Light, at 6 p.m. Saturday August 21, at the JGCA, 926 E. Center Street. The slightly outre humility of the group’s name may belie what will unfold, and I can’t attest to much more that this information from the JGCA (I’m working on a couple of other assignments for Shepherd Express.) It’s a recording release event for Mere of Light’s new EP, Fell Tales, which involves “field recordings and poetic lyricism to draw connections between the current world and fantasy realms.”  The music and vision arise significantly from the harpist Elyse Leda Fairyland. It sounds a bit enchanting and very JGCA, which thrives creatively on unpredictable arts activity:

The event, running from 6 to 10 p.m., also includes Annie Grizzle, a multimedia artist interested in “the nonsensical intersection between the mappable and the abstract.” Annie’s work has been featured in X-Peri, Radioactive Moat, Reality Beach, Metatron, and numerous other publications.

The third performer is C.Vardi, who is working on a “project of processing existential and geological trauma through chiaroscuro drone music.”

(Adios Amigos?: The previously scheduled JGCA event, “Audios Amigos,” with Brooklyn-based composer-performers Lainie Fefferman and Jascha Narveson, has an unfortunately prescient title, given a slight play on words. The performance, slated for Friday August 20, has been cancelled due to “unforeseen circumstances.”)

The venue actually got through plague (which is really not over!) on the financial upside, partly due to strong visual arts sales, and a dedicated volunteer board, and strong corporate funding as a non-profit.

Among the venue’s many excellent visual art exhibits are two which will close on Saturday, Aug. 20th: “Nature Neglected — “Are We Loving it to Death?” and “Imagine It!”

An image from the JGCA exhibit “Nature Neglected,” closing Saturday. Photo by Virginia Small. 

The first actual jazz event at the storied community-oriented arts venue on Center Street (remember The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery?) will be guitarist-vocalist Don Linke’s Trialog, featuring drummer Victor Campbell and sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, at 7 p.m. on Friday Sept 3.

Then follows the jazz duo of Michigan-based, Coltrane-influenced saxophonist Ben Schmidt-Swartz, with ace Milwaukee drummer Devin Drobka at 7 p.m. Thursday Sept 9.

It’s a small, relatively intimate venue, so stay mindful, get COVID vaccines, practice heathy social distancing, and masking, when appropriate.

But believe in our culture, and our nation! Supporting the JGCA is a great way to express your belief.