Patty Griffin’s Latest Act of Bravery

On a Saturday night this April, the folk singer Patty Griffin sang with her arms stretched out to a packed Town Hall audience in New York City. Her performance would have been unforgettable in any context—but was heightened with the knowledge that she wrote the majority of the songs when she was sick with cancer. Radiation treatments annihilated her voice, leaving her to write the record with a quarter of her usual abilities.

That night, at the Town Hall, she was singing at full strength from Patty Griffin, her tenth studio album—released just before she found out she was cancer-free.

Photo courtesy of Michael Wilson

“I still needed to write, so I started writing,” Griffin told us over a cup of tea at the Hotel Ludlow. It was 6 p.m., the night before the Town Hall concert, and she had just spent the afternoon in a full schedule of interviews including a radio program that left her stuck in rainy traffic on the way in from the Bronx. Still, her presence was calm and deeply thoughtful as she meditated on the album’s implicit question.

“Everybody gets sick, everybody dies,” she said. “Nobody gets out of this alive. What do we do in the meantime? What do we do with these lives?”

For over two decades, Griffin has built a following as something of a folk bard—someone who preserves and performs stories in song form. Many are written in the voice of an imagined other: like a war widow baking to survive grief in “Making Pies,” and an old man looking back at his life in “Top of the World.” In Patty Griffin, notably self-titled, she delivers one dozen tracks—half from a female perspective, some autobiographical, and half from a male point of view.

It’s hard to imagine anyone dismissing Griffin’s talent, but that’s what happened when she started her singing career in Boston in the mid-nineties. “We have a woman here that does that,” labels and managers told her. “We already have one of those, we don’t need you.” She was working as a waitress, making a living by taking orders. When she finally got into the music industry, she had trouble asserting her voice and vision.

The recording process for Griffin’s first album went so badly that the record never came out. “I didn’t know how to take charge of the production, so it took charge of me,” she explained. Looking back, she thinks it came down to social conditioning. “I have strong opinions and I know how to actually direct people…but the training that I got from a little girl on was: don’t do that.”

The Grammy award-winning musician voices direction more freely now, walking into studios, rehearsals and sound checks ready to give notes. She enjoys saying, “let’s try this, I hear this, let’s change this,” and making it happen. She feels lucky to work with a team, including supportive men, who remind her that it’s their job to ask her what she wants to do.

During Griffin’s cancer treatment, she was similarly inspired by the self-assuredness of her two female doctors. “You have to be so confident to be able to tell people what to do as a surgeon,” she notes. “These were complex surgeries around muscles required for singing. [My doctors] were probably 15 years younger than me. I thought: how great is that?”

At the Town Hall concert, Griffin didn’t mention her battle with cancer but the audience knew. “We missed you, Patty!” someone shouted out from the dark between songs. “I missed you, too,” she replied, smiling with her face tilted toward her guitar while she tuned the low E string.

The concert was made up of mostly new songs: “Coins” was about waitressing; “Mama’s Worried” addressed Griffin’s poverty as a child and her own mother. Reflections on climate change, social status, racial injustice, family history and immigration are among the silences she writes into.

“Bluebeard,” a track that retells the legend of the man who forbids his new wife from looking in a locked closet containing the skeletons of his former dead wives, represents something to Griffin about the state of our current society. Like the wife in the story, there’s a closet we don’t want to look into—but know, with a deep and undeniable dread, that we must. 

This concept of not looking away was a central message in Griffin’s music and comments. The song “Wheel,” dedicated to Eric Garner, goes around in unfinished injustice. “Mama’s Worried” and “River” are autobiographical, but also place women as stand-ins for nature. (Griffin is so taken with the idea that women and nature are intertwined that the image of her in a forest is the cover art for her album.)

At the Town Hall, the folk star performed a stripped down set with just two other musicians, including one who simultaneously played a drum kit and the bass on several songs. Griffin wore a black belted sheath dress and white leather ankle boots, jamming out with her curly hair worn undone. She looked undeniably strong, sometimes playing and sometimes setting down her guitar to command the room with her voice. It was a show in her name, with her band, on her terms.

She was still at the beginning of her self-titled tour—headed to play back-to-back gigs in Chicago, Indianapolis, Toronto, Nashville and Ann Arbor before dates in Ireland, the UK and Netherlands. When asked what success means to her, she laughed and said “I’m in it, baby!” She added, “I think success is being aware of how lucky you are, and how grateful you are for any opportunity to just be alive and doing something. I’m at a point in my life where I really am grateful for every day. And that’s pretty successful to me.”

Griffin hopes her songs might give people a sense of connection. “When I listen to music, I want it to open up my heart a little bit and take me somewhere that I need to go. Like how that old Peter Gabriel stuff makes me want to dance down the street in front of everybody. And Billie Holiday makes me wanna lie down and cry.”

The singer enjoys showing her cards when it comes to influences, something we noticed as we walked into the concert to a Peter Gabriel song, and out to Leon Russell tune (both are inspirations she’s cited for the new record). She’s also referred to Billie Holiday, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Eddie Bo and James Baldwin as sources of inspiration, along with Clarissa Pinkola Estés folk tale collection Women Who Run with the Wolves, a book she “mined” from for her second album Flaming Red. “I took the red shoes from that book,” she said, noting that Estés re-writes folk tales in a way where women aren’t idiots.

Griffin has a history of writing defiant female personas. In our interview, we asked her if she purposefully set out to craft a catalog of empowered voices throughout her career like “One More Girl,” “Be Careful,” and basically all of the Living with Ghosts album. For those songs to work, she said, she had to believe them before anyone else could. 

“I’m always trying to find a way to personally not feel disempowered by the structures around me,” Griffin shared. “To get myself undominated by whatever it is—whether its growing up poor, or thinking of myself a certain way; [to see] nobody’s better than anyone. There’s a lot of hierarchical thinking, and women always tend to be up against it.”

“If I had a piece of advice, it’s to not think of this as ever being finished for girls,” she said, sharing what wished she’d known early on. “Women have been in the position of being in service, unpaid largely, for such a vast period of time. We have to support each other.” 

To that end, she’s committed to “getting herself educated” and being an ally to disenfranchised groups, turning free days of the tour into learning moments, where she and her band reflect in places like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the site of the hate crime in Charlottesville, and spend time with socially conscious students at Howard University. She stopped short at making an argument for art and social justice to always go hand in hand, but suggested that silence is not golden. 

To make a difference, Griffin said, “involves being a little more brave than we’re used to being.” Through her latest work, she is showcasing just what that kind of bravery looks like.

About and

Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.
Samantha Lee has published in Grow Northwest Magazine, Yes! Magazine, and Cotton Xenomorph and has been awarded a 2019 fellowship at the Mineral School. When she's not writing, she’s watching culinary competitions with her two children and their cat, Fern.