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Defining Folk as 'for the People'

Pop music: Nanci Griffith, who plays in Santa Ana on Wednesday, says the genre is many genres, all American institutions.

June 30, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If any TV executives decide to revive the old "Hootenanny" show--an early-'60s folk-music showcase--they should consider Nanci Griffith as host.

Griffith has a series of albums celebrating the folk tradition, with the new second edition, "Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful)," bringing together several generations of singers and songwriters to honor the music in true hootenanny style.

She also has overseen a book, "Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music," to be published in September by Random House, with interviews and accounts of modern American folk music figures.

And she's one of the headliners on the Newport Folk Festival national tour, also featuring Joan Baez, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle, which includes a stop Sept. 20 at L.A.'s Greek Theatre.

But if producers do want Griffith for such a show, they should first have a good discussion with her about her definition of folk music. Otherwise they'd be in for a big surprise when brought in anything from rap to ballet.

"Pete Seeger defines folk music as being songs for the people," says Griffith, 44, speaking by phone from backstage at the recent Telluride Folk Festival in Colorado on her own tour, which arrives Wednesday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana. "I kind of agree with this.

"This album includes Stephen Foster ['Hard Times'], the father of pop music. Michael Jackson may think he's the king of pop, but the real king lived in the 1800s. And I consider rap music to be folk music, and jazz and country blues. They're American institutions, and that's folk music."

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Still, the two "Other Voices" albums don't tackle all of that; rather, they redress a grievance Griffith has about musicians closer to what we usually think of as folk music, but who have been ghettoized outside of the mainstream.

"The whole reason for doing the first volume [1993's 'Other Voices, Other Rooms'] was my disgust with the music industry in that folk music has become such an F-word that they had to relabel everybody in the late '70s and early '80s as singer-songwriters just to deal with them," she said.

"For this album, we really had a period of time we wanted to cover--the mid-'50s and '60s--when folk and rock 'n' roll and hillbilly merged," she said.

"There was no label placed on Buck Owens, or on Ian & Sylvia when the pop group We Five had a hit with their 'You Were on My Mind.' It wasn't labeled as country. 'Walk Right Back,' Sonny Curtis' song, which was a hit for the Everly Brothers in '62, was not considered rock 'n' roll or hillbilly or country or Dust Bowl or anything."

To bring that together for these sessions, Griffith brought together songs that straddle, or ignore, such genre lines, from Woody Guthrie's angry elegy "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" to the Weavers' rousing sing-along classic, "If I Had a Hammer."

She also this time reached outside of the American legacy for the work of two English songwriters, both former members of the folk-rock pioneer Fairport Convention: Richard Thompson (the opening, jauntily rocking "Wall of Death") and Sandy Denny (the gorgeously muted "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?").

To make it happen, she collected a cast of performers spanning several generations--from folk icons Odetta and Jean Ritchie to daughters of Emmylou Harris (Meghan Ahern) and Carolyn Hester (Amy and Karla Blume)--and traditions (from a herd of Texans including Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker and Steve Earle to Englishman Thompson).

She also had Susan Cowsill (a child star in the '60s family group the Cowsills and, currently, with husband Peter Holsapple and former Bangle Vicki Peterson, of New Orleans' Continental Drifters) in on several sessions, completing another generational cycle.

"Her mother had been part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early '60s, and when the Cowsills had their overnight pop success, she was shunned by that scene and it broke her heart," Griffith said.

"Her mother died [in the '80s], so she was fulfilling a dream of her mother's: singing 'Deportee' with Odetta and Dave Van Ronk. Susan wrote a piece for the book about this, and it's so eloquent and beautiful, it brings tears to your eyes."

The Harris and Hester daughters even managed to bring a little of their punk and rock leanings into the sessions--though no rap appears on the album.

And what of ballet? Though not part of the "Other Voices" project, there is a ballet involving Griffith.

Paul Vasterling, a former member of the Joffrey Ballet who now leads the Nashville Ballet, used seven of Griffith's songs to create an ambitious piece titled "This Heart." The music has been arranged for orchestra, with Griffith playing guitar and singing as part of the presentation.

"It tells a whole story, the middle and indefinite future of a relationship," she said of the piece, which has been performed six times and may be presented on PBS via the "Austin City Limits" show.

"It's been a real experience, to be a jamming kind of musician and all of a sudden . . . sitting there with symphony charts and know I've got to play exactly what's written or else I leave the dancer hanging in mid-air."

Still, in the same way she's often made connections between her music and literature (her first novel, "Two of a Kind Heart," will be published next year by Random House), she stresses that classical is not incompatible with her folk projects. Rather, it's an additional element of the tapestry of musical heritage.

"It's so important that contemporary music move into that area," she says. "It brings young people into classical music, really turns my audience on to different possibilities."

* Nanci Griffith plays Wednesday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $45-$47. (714) 957-0600.

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