Sing On, Timeless Angel

Nanci Griffith (July 6, 1953 — August 13, 2021) is getting a proper listening to this afternoon, nearly a month to the day since she took her final breath. Away on a journey that had swiped my ability to use my phone or access the web, her death had been lost on me for weeks.

As the music app buffers, I feel the loose disconnect that comes when friends haven’t greeted each other for a while. “Across the Great Divide” hitches my heart and by “Once in a Very Blue Moon,” I am transported back to Houston, three decades past, when I was freshly divorced, newly single. A third song spills into me like a tearful memory, one that must be sopped up again and again, leaving a wistful watermark. “I’m working on a morning flight to anywhere but here” Nanci admits with a breathy sigh, “. . . and I’m watching this evening fire burn away my tears. . . . All my life I’ve left my troubles by the door . . . . leavin’ is all I’ve ever known before.” A righteous organ bellows the yes, lords in a wash of heavenly grief behind her voice, and the final cymbal shimmers an angelic amen.

“It’s not the way you say you hear my heart when the music ends. . . . I am just learning to fly away again…” “Late Night Grand Hotel” by Nanci Griffith

Cassettes of Nanci made by a friend of a friend played in my bedroom boombox nearly every morning when my son and daughter were in elementary school and our a.m.s revolved around the bathroom and the kitchen and the backpacks splayed on the floor. Nanci offered acoustic birdsongs to start the day, happy encouragements, even when she was singing of drowned children or being blinded by the sun. “If your sorrow has been your shaaaare . . . .if you are traveling back to Georgia . . . . won’t you take me with you there?” Her sweetness held me like a mother would, and I knew I wasn’t done with the need to be mothered. But before you’d know it, I’d cut the power on the boombox, and Nanci’s voice would vanish like my coherence. There was no other way to take the next step demanded of the day but to march. “Kids!” I’d shout down the hallway — clomp, clomp, clomp — “it’s time to go!”

Now I am on the other side of so many things — the kids grew to man and woman, my teaching career burned out, and folksy musicians got trapped in the plastic sleeves of cd organizers under the extra pillows in the top of the linen closet. Yet, here was Nanci , springing from Spotify, her voice gripping me by the shoulders like an old friend. “You’ll be the mule, I’ll be the plow, come harvest time, we’ll work it out,” she promises, repeating with the power of conviction that “there’s still a lot of love in these troubled fields.” I can’t help but believe her and close my eyes in prayer that the world, our world, will believe in love long enough to work it out.

My listening session comes to an end as “Goin’ Gone” and its sweet fiddler’s solo tells me so. Nanci’s confession turns into a goodbye, and I thank her as her voice fades: “From the place where I stand watching, I swear my ship is coming in. Deep in the waters of love, I am falling, sinking like a stone, deep in my heart, I can hear love callin’, goin’ once, goin’ twice, goin gone. Goin’ once, goin’ twice, goin gone.”

Rest now, timeless angel, and thank you for your songs.

If you don’t know Nanci Griffith, take a moment to learn about her in this NRP story or have a listen to her mournful and piercing, “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go.

My Thursday posts will resume as of today. I plan to expand my reach with commentaries on books I read, TV series I view, and art I discover, all with a slant toward social justice and personal voice.

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