Three Flights Up, In Memory of Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith, 1953-2021

Nanci Griffith died yesterday. She was 68 years old.

When I read the news of her passing, I went right to my blog, thinking I would post an article I was sure I had written about her. I hadn’t written anything about Nanci Griffith. Shame on me.

Nanci Griffith was part of the great folk-country resurgence of the late 1980’s, along with artists like Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam (to name just a few). Nanci built bridges, she made connections. Nanci made it easy for mainstream audiences to connect to her music. Born and raised in Texas, she never shied away from her deep southern twang, and her songs were heartfelt tales of love that survived, love that was lost, and love that had been treasured for generations. She connected people to the story of her life. She connected people to a music they may not have known before.

My wife Lynn and I had the chance to see Nanci Griffith perform at the Chicago House of Blues after the release of her great 2004 album Hearts in Mind. I will never forget her performance of the song “Beautiful,” which she wrote about her step-father. There is not really a strong tradition of tender loving songs about step-parents, but Nanci loved her step-father, and she wrote a remarkable song.

She put her guitar down, and stood right at the microphone while the band behind her played. Her arms gracefully reached out to the audience with every word of the story of the man who married her mother and helped to raise her, the man who instilled in her a love of music and artistry. She wanted only to share the love she felt for her step-father with the audience. She wanted to embrace us as he had embraced her. She did everything in her power to make sure we understood the depth of her affection for him, and the important role he played in her life. Every word was clearly articulated. Every sentiment was clearly understood. It was one of the finest, most connected performances I have ever seen.

But the first music that really connected me to Nanci Griffith was her 1993 Grammy award winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms. Much more than a cover album of great country folk songs, she covered each song with participation of the original artist. John Prine sang with her on “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.” Townes Van Zandt played guitar on his great song “Tecumsah Valley.” Bob Dylan played on “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The list of great artists and great songs continues through the album.

As it turned out though, probably the least known song on the album is the one that resonated with me the most. Ever since 1993, the song “Three Flights Up” has been a source of comfort and enjoyment in the Glickman house. It has been included on many of our household playlists, and it has truly become as treasured in our home as much as any family heirloom, or any piece of beloved furniture.

“Three Flights Up” was written by Frank Christian, who died in 2012. Christian was well known in the folk music circles of Greenwich Village. Though he never achieved the fame or success of some of his contemporaries, he was a widely respected guitarist and songwriter.

The song is mid-tempo, driven by a lovely arpeggiated chord progression. The song starts, and it never really stops.

“We returned to that five room flat
Now it was empty, and this the last time
There were blinking pictures of how we’d sit and chat
Some of them are scattered
Others shattered in my mind.”

I have always thought of this song as a song of home, a song that celebrated a humble, yet cozy and comfortable space for a young couple in a happy relationship. But, in fact, this is the story of a relationship ending. The boxes are packed. The furniture is moved out. Another couple or young family is getting ready to move in. The flat is empty now, but probably not for long. They look around the empty space, and the memories come flooding back. Even the simple act of walking up the stairs is an act of remembrance.

It was always, three flights up
Cathedral bells kept time.”

Maybe those cathedral bells felt like a warning, maybe they were a celebration. Walking up those three flights, what would they find when they walked in the door? A warm embrace? A challenging argument?

“In the winter, a chattering cold
While the building shook, like ragweed in the wind
Stories from the heat pipes, we were told
But now they only leave me
With a half-enchanted grin”

The gentle music, still moving at the same exact mid-tempo pace, is bright and happy in a way the lyrics are not. They amusement they once got from hearing sounds through the walls and the pipes is gone, and that memory is just one more thing they are happy to leave behind amongst the ashes of their relationship. The five room flat is no longer a welcome place for them. The way they lived in the city no longer brings joy and warmth.

Bicycles squeezed down alley ways into view
And towels warmed on over doors
To not freeze
Was the only thing to do.”

Now they are looking at an empty flat. The furniture is gone, only the memories are left. Someone new will soon be moving in, and new memories will be made. New treasures will be found. New challenges will be had.

But even now, recognizing the trouble and pain that brought them to this moment, there is sadness that the relationship is over. What if they had worked harder? What if they had paid closer attention?

“I wonder if we kept to the fair warning
‘Cause I can see it in the flowers
Dyin’ on the window sill
I know we must be out by tomorrow mornin
But I’m going against my will.”

Nanci Griffith released her last album in 2012. During the last few years, I would wonder from time to time if she would be releasing new music soon. A new Nanci Griffith album was always a welcome event. With her passing, I have learned that she has been sick the last several years, even having survived cancer twice.

As per Nanci’s wishes, they have not released the cause of her death, but maybe the cause is not so important. Maybe it’s just important that she was here. That she shared her music, and beautiful and generous spirit with all of us. That by herself, and with great collaborators, she created some truly great music.

I know we must be out by tomorrow morning
But I’m going against my will…

“Three Flights Up”
Written by Frank Christian
Performed by Nanci Griffith
Released 1993

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this. I had always imagined this song was about university students, at some cobbled street cathedral city (as in Boston or Oxford or Cambridge) at the end of an academic year, and thus their tenancy has come to an end. So they’re looking back on the life they’ve lived there.

    Any thoughts?


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