From the Summer 2001 issue

Eva Cassidy and Hope

by AL BENNER

In his book The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield expounded a philosophy that there are no coincidences, only opportunities that we fail to comprehend. I don't know if I believe that in its entirety, but sometimes coincidences do happen that make me wonder if someone is trying to tell me something.

I rarely watch Nightline. It comes on at the time I am generally watching Hardball on CNBC or Sportscenter on ESPN. I was flipping channels a few weeks ago during the commercials and came across a story on Nightline concerning Eva Cassidy. It was a story that usually wouldn't hold my attention. But something kept me from changing back.

Eva Cassidy died at the age of 33 from cancer. She was mainly a small club singer who was hard to classify. She sang music that she wanted to sing, be it gospel, folk, pop, blues or jazz. As such, she never was signed to a major label because she refused to sing just one way. But that didn't seem to bother her. She refused to compromise.

When she died in 1996, you would think that would have been the end of Eva Cassidy. But slowly, almost methodically, she started to become known. A CD titled Songbird, a compilation of tracks from her few studio recordings and live performances, was released and radio stations started to play it. Without a marketing campaign, without the media, and of course, no personal appearances, people started buying this album whenever they heard a track on the radio. In the UK, the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show started playing the album and Songbird started outselling all the top names on major labels. This has apparently happened in other countries whenever a broadcaster plays her music.

Thus in 2001 she made American TV. By coincidence, I caught a program I rarely ever see. I am not embarrassed to say her version of "Over the Rainbow" had me crying like a little boy that night. And it still brings tears to my eyes so far every time I hear it. Yes, I did purchase Songbird and another album called Time After Time. On first hearing these albums, I was struck by the hodgepodge of works. Since these were put together after her death, there is no one clear style throughout. Also, there is a simplicity because it hasn't been tainted by being commercially recorded. I confess at first I thought, "well this is nice, but nothing spectacular." The more I hear, however, the more the clarity and simplicity of sound and spirit emerge. Eva does have a very pure voice and she does remarkable and wonderful things with classic songs. And like many people who heard her live and in her few recordings that are now available, she grows on you like the beauty of a rose. A rose is beautiful because of its wonderful simplicity. And Eva's voice is beautiful because of its wonderful purity.

Now, my purpose is not to sell Eva Cassidy albums. I was just struck by Eva's story--how a musician who would not compromise stayed true to herself. She sang songs she wanted to sing, not songs she thought would be popular and land her a contract. Somehow she established a unique sound. And through it all, although she may have been discouraged, she never let on that she was. The success that I am sure she wanted, never came in her lifetime, but came afterwards--not through a big promotional campaign but from a groundswell from ordinary people.

So, not only in the present, but in the future whenever I am discouraged about the status of my music, I will think of Eva Cassidy. I will think about someone who played what she wanted to play, and sang what she wanted to sing, but gave it her own personality. For those of you who think nobody is listening to your music, stay true to yourself. Don't compromise. If you believe in yourself, maybe a little bit of Eva exists in all of us.