Years have passed since my younger self first had his heart broken and thought for sure the world itself would never survive the trauma. It did, yet I am still amazed at just how intensely the heart can feel. I don't know how that works, that palpable knot you can get in your chest when experiencing emotion. There must be some biological explanation. The other internal organs don’t feel much if at all, unless something is seriously wrong with them. But emotions can manifest as an actual physical sensation, one that we acknowledge when we say something is "heartfelt." And I suppose this is how the heart came to be symbolic of love, because that is where you feel it; because nature is a romantic poet, apparently. It make the most sense, to me, for emotions to be felt by the heart, beneath our shells at the core of our being. But of course, it is not just love the heart feels; it can feel sadness, joy, regret, longing, and a host of other emotions. Effective art can conjure these physical sensations in our chests and provide us with the mysterious and emotional cleansing we call catharsis. There are few singers and songs that resonate with me that deeply, and fewer still that can overflow the heart and cascade into chills down my spine. But it does happen, and Eva Cassidy is among these few.
Eva Cassidy spent many years in the Washington, DC folk music scene, performing her own arrangements of cover tunes for small audiences. She simply did whatever songs she loved, and this took her across many different styles. Cassidy was first and foremost interested in the beauty of music, in ferreting out the emotional kernel of a song and presenting it afresh and anew. As one writer put it, “She could sing anything — folk, blues, pop, jazz, R&B, gospel — and make it sound like it was the only music that mattered.” She dabbled in the music business, singing backup here and there, but was never picked up as a solo artist by a major label because she didn’t fit nicely into their marketing ideas. A record company exec visiting from New York asked Cassidy what she wanted to play: "Pretty much anything except for that pop crap,” she replied. The exec walked away and never came back. And she seemed fine with that. Cassidy was not interested in the least in sacrificing artistic integrity to record company demands aimed at "marketability" just to sell a record or two, or a million.
She was content and getting along playing in local venues to a few dozen people when she was diagnosed with a cancer too advanced to combat. Three short months later, she died at the age of 33, counting at most a few hundred fans in her lifetime. After Cassidy's passing, another gifted singer, Grace Griffith, brought Cassidy's Live at Blues Alley album and a few other songs to her record label, Blix Street Records. The albums were released and remained in relative obscurity for a few years until a DJ played a couple of tracks on his BBC radio show. Requests for more immediately came rolling in. A few months later, she had sold 100,000 albums. A few years later, she had achieved three consecutive number one albums in England. This set a record for most posthumous No. 1 albums rivaled only by a one Tupac Shakur, who was anything but obscure prior to his death. And would you believe that in 2005, Amazon.com issued a Musicians Hall of Fame, ranking the Top 25-selling CDs in the site's 10-year history, Eva Cassidy was number five, out-ranking Elvis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Ray Charles; yet most music fans reading Amazon's list had never heard of her!
But as tragic as her story is, don’t be fooled into thinking this is what gives her songs a deeper sense of emotion. It may, but more important is her simply stunning delivery. When she covers a song, she makes it her own — newly arranges it, strips it down to its essentials, imbues it with more life than the original, and sings it with more emotion than it had ever been sung before. Her phrasing is effortless, and her voice is near-flawless, with amazing subtlety and dynamic range coupled with unerring intonation. It is the audible equivalent of staring at the sky through the branches of a leafless tree — something unseen, the spaces around what is heard, alludes to something deeper. Yes, it is that profound.
And there it is, we recognize it, a feeling resonating in our chests. There are so many quotes to throw out here, such as fellow musicians talking about the first time they heard that mysterious voice. One musician described her voice as "heart-stoppingly eloquent." Some DJs were stunned, speechless — even “nailed to the wall." Others heard her recordings in those early days after her death and made it their mission to bring her voice to the world. Even Sting, upon hearing her version of his Fields of Gold, remarked, “I've rarely heard a voice of such purity.” He said he had always been quite territorial about that song, arrogant even, only to be brought to tears by her version, her vocal interpretation.
And so it was, at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, when Michelle Kwan, competing in her second and final Olympic competition, had just won the Bronze Medal for women's figure skating. Having won several US and World competitions, as well as a Silver Medal four years prior; the Holy Grail of figure skating, the Olympic Gold Medal, had eluded her for the last time.
Ms. Kwan had captured the imagination more than most figure skaters had, certainly at the time, skating with an exuberance and effortlessness that could and did leave Olympic judges in tears. Though not always out-jumping her competition, in overall artistry and grace she was considered by many to be the best.
The 2002 figure skating medal winners were invited to give a competition-free final exhibition. She chose Eva Cassidy’s version of "Fields of Gold" for her performance. Oh but I must admit, the backstory of both Kwan and Cassidy DOES bring an added emotional depth to this story! Because if there was ever a better pairing of simple grace and beauty, ever a greater display of hopeful longing and the tragedies and triumphs of the human spirit, well, don’t tell me about it because I’m certain my heart would just break in two! The pairing was magnificent.
Without the pressure of competition, Kwan was able to do what she does best, and she skated what many consider to be the most beautiful performance of her career. I most certainly agree.
She kept the Cassidy song for the Champions On Ice tour, which included a stop in Cassidy’s home town. Cassidy’s parents saw Kwan skate along to their daughter’s voice (can you just imagine!) and were invited backstage to meet the figure skater, where she shared how much their daughter's interpretation of the song meant to her. Kwan’s "Fields of Gold" routine soon became her most skated routine. Fans often saw Kwan singing along with Cassidy while skating, a rarity amongst figure skaters:
I never made promises lightly
And there have been some that I've broken
But I swear in the days still left
We'll walk in the fields of gold
We'll walk in the fields of gold
Eva Cassidy CDs in the NYPL Catalog
To Preview some great tracks from Eva Cassidy, click the links below:
Please Note: online audio tracks are an excellent source for previewing, but are compressed and do not match CD quality audio.
All the colors of the rainbow, all life's palettes of beauty and sadness and sweet passion and eternity — it was all there in that voice that came from that heart and those hands. — Grace Griffith