‘The Wing and the Wheel’ – Nanci Griffith

A song I can play on an instrument

Nanci Griffith - One Fair Summer EveningI have already reminisced about Nanci Griffith’s One Fair Summer Evening, of how it introduced me to the beauty of the acoustic guitar, and of how I impressed my guitar mentor, Bob Sims, with a spot-on rendition of “The Wing and the Wheel.”

And at the risk of sounding conceited, I am amazed at how much discipline and patience that was required to decipher the intricate pattern of finger-picking and then practice it until it became second nature. It’s a quiet song that lends itself to finger picking; playing with a pick would simply be too loud and brash. And so, late at night, instead of studying or working on term papers, I would play the accompaniment over and over while thinking, my fingers mindlessly flipping through the notes as one might do with knitting or working a rosary.

“The Wing and the Wheel” is played in the key of G, capoed up several frets depending on your vocal range. The bass note intones throughout each phrase, and a D and E alternate back and forth on the high end of the register.

It’s the second measure that gets interesting. The G in the bass changes to a B, and the high notes move to a ringing. mournful F#, almost a G, but close enough to sound incomplete. It’s a major seventh chord, but with the B in the bass it sounds more like a B minor. Almost a G, almost a B minor. It’s a wistful chord, sounding half sad and half hopeful.

The next measure modulates to an A minor seventh – still sad – and ends on a D, changing to an A in the bass. And then it starts all over. Nothing is forthright, each measure deviating somewhat from a traditional chord phrasing.

If the notes are filled with longing, the lyrics are even more so, with Griffith waxing nostalgic about growing apart, with friends leaving their ideals behind for the suburbs, “where their dreams are in their children playing.” Wings and wheels carry us away from those we love, and those times that we cherish.

In introducing “The Wing and the Wheel” on her live album, Griffith said, “Sometimes in life we look around at one another and become very complacent. This is a song that I wrote about two friends of mine who reminded me in the most glorious way that there’s no need for any human being to ever be complacent.” I have always wondered what that meant, for this song seemed to help me become more complacent, working my way through the notes as I worked through the mental and emotional turmoil of college. It also helped me to realize that I could play that damn guitar.

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