Nanci Griffith's Other Voices
A Personal history of Folk Music
by Nanci Griffith and Joe Jackson
Random House Inc November 1, 1998
(Personal note: I loved the dedication to this book. It reminded me of Barbara for sure. Besides these pages, Susan is mentioned on pages 44, 120, 202, 204 and 211) To the memory
of all the voices in the choir
no longer earthbound of
this airwave ....
We will sing your remembrance
often ... loudly.
Franklin, TN 1998
Lucinda Williams, Susan Cowsill, Nanci Griffith, John Stewart Odetta Peaches, Steve Earle
You Were On My Mind
Joe: In 1962, Ian and Sylvia had a hit in Canada. We Five and then the Cowsills hit with the same song later in the 1960's. In Europe the singer was Crispian St. Peters who, quite tellingly, cut the reference to drink!
Susan Cowsill, Singer
Nanci: All pop versions changed that lyrical reference to drink. When we were doing it, though, I sat down with Susan Cowsill, who was with the Cowsills in the 1960s, and she said they left it in. Still it's going to be a shock to some people. And though I never heard Crispian St Peter's version I do know that many, many people had hits with Ian Tyson's songs. And as a child, I adored Ian, so it was a great honor to even see him walk in that door of the studio.
But Sylvia actually wrote this when they were together. She wrote it one night when he was out; I'm told she wrote it in the bathtub. It is such an unusual song, even structurally. They recorded it in 1961, and it was a hit in 1965 for We Five, which is probably where Crispian St. Peters got it. But I was just a kid at the time, and I remember that I'd close the door and blast the radio out loud because I loved that song so much. We Five did at least stay true to the original song, even where it changes keys in the middle of a line.
Vocally, it was very hard for us to record, but it meant a lot to Susan Cowsill, in particular, because although the Cowsills had the rock hit with this, they came from a folk background. Their mother had died a long time ago, but she was originally part of the New York folk scene. When Susan was at the session she said, "I really wish my mother was here now. It would mean so much to her to be back with all these people who were a part of that folk scene." And we had these three voices: Susan Cowsill's, Maura Kennedy's , and mine. Then we brought in Tom Russell to sing low bass. And Emmylou Harris was there the day we were recording.
So we started singing, and my bandleader, James Hooker, said, "We've got a problem here." That's when he pointed to the fact that there was a modulation in the middle of a line in the third section of the song. Fortunately Susan is brilliant at harmony parts. So we played the Ian and Sylvia version and the We Five version and realized that the modulation was in the same place. We finally figured out that it never was a problem for Ian and Sylvia because they're just two voices. They never had to solve the problem of finding a place for the third voice to go! We Five handled it by having one voice drop out when the key changed. We didn't do that. We tortured ourselves, and at the end of the day, the three voices were there. But it was a hell of a challenge.
(Note: I ask Bob how they handled this situation on the Cowsills version and on 4/14/03 he replied, "Well it just wasn't that comlex for us because we ended up ADDING harmonies instead dealing with the accurate vocal complexity. We actually sing too many harmonies in "You Were On My Mind". ")
We did that song forever in the Cowsills. My mother, Barbara, sang lead. Mom sounded like the lady on the We Five record. She was only thirty-four years old. She really respected those folksingers like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio. My mother coulda been a contender, if she hadn't been so damned scared; she would have been right up there, I think.
Nanci reminds me of my mother, a little ball of energy. In my brain, my mom is still thirty-five, five feet two, hot shit, and sings like a bird. She had a great sense of humor and a cheeky disposition. Nanci winks at me like Mom did.
I told Nanci coming into this session that I wasn't sure what I was doing there, except that I figured out Nanci had been a Cowsills fan. She said, "It's just the way it's supposed to be. You're supposed to be here."
On a historical level I knew why I was there. But it was amazing to be with all these professional institutions walking around. As an adult singer and songwriter, having Nanci refer to me as a sister-in-arms helps me validate myself. For that little kid with that godforsaken tambourine to be invited to participate in this is some kind of confirmation. I marvel at the respect I get. It's humbling and make me very appreciative of getting to grow and create doing it.
My mother would've loved to have hung out with John Stewart or Mary Travers, to have sung on their records. It would have blown her mind. And it's kind of cool, this many years later, me doing that. It's almost a vicarious kick for her. I'm sure my mother was floating all over that studio, singing along.