Sunday, 2 February 2020

Eva Cassidy

Songs become synonymous with their first great interpreter or with the writer who chiseled out a gem from a stray idea.

Take Over The Rainbow by Harold Arlen and Yip Hapburg. Your first instinct is, “Oh yeah, the Judy Garland song.” And you’d be right, she nailed it as Dorothy in Wizard of Oz.”

Fields of Gold is less well known. Recorded by Sting in 1993 it shimmers with beauty and regret.

It’s hard to imagine anyone improving on Sting’s heartfelt but understated delivery. After all he wrote it and knows whereof he speaks.

And then along came Irish-American Eva Cassidy.

I first caught word of her in musician circles. I never saw her live nor heard or on the radio - just murmurs about her talent in dressing rooms back in the early 90’s.

And then as happens with musicians the murmurs ceased. Every locality has such a talent. You watch a golden-boy or girl blow away an audience, then 20 years pass and they’re doing the same wondrous thing in the same club, but their golden aura is now streaked with grey.

This could have happened to Bruce Springsteen at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park – bad breaks, lazy managers, messed-up record companies, drugs and drink have waylaid so many great talents. And without Lady Luck forget about success.

About five years ago while trawling for songs for Celtic Crush - my weekly show on SiriusXM - I remembered the conversation I’d had about Eva Cassidy in a DC dressing room.

Within seconds I was listening to her version of Over The Rainbow on iTunes. I played it three times so stunned was I by her power and sensitivity.

An inner core of sadness and reflection informed her voice but it was also hard to ignore Eva’s sense of optimism and fragile beauty.

In an odd way she reminded me of Padraig Pearse’s words: 
 “The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass…”

Eva had taken a song that Ms. Garland had immortalized with her vast unique talent, and transformed it into a churning, though poignant, elegy.

I pressed on and found her version of Fields of Gold. Later on I was to learn that Sting cried when he first heard Eva’s version. As well he might. To discover something new about your own song through someone else’s interpretation is a rare gift.

The fields of barley that Sting first wrote about now glowed in a more golden sunlight, while the west wind that coursed through them had veered east in Eva’s telling bringing with it a cool hint of mortality.

After luxuriating in more of her music I looked up her biography. Imagine the shock to find out she had died almost 20 years earlier. But that she’d become a huge success internationally partly due to Irish radio host, Terry Wogan playing her on his BBC show.

I introduced her to Celtic Crush without fanfare, often placing her in the middle of a three-song set.

I wanted to see how people would react to the “live” Eva; death so often casts an odd afterglow on a performer’s reputation.

The vast majority of my listeners around the US and Canada had never heard of her but they connected almost instantly with the diamond-hard, ethereal quality of her voice. 

She is now one of the most popular singers on Celtic Crush and I never play her without closing my eyes and allowing myself to be swept away by the experience.

She’s also a fabulous guitarist. I often try to block out her voice – no easy thing - and revel in her chord choices and fingerings.

Most of the tracks you’ll hear from her were recorded live at Blues Alley, a small DC club. Many too are from 1996, the last year of her life, when she realized the cancer would not be beaten.

And yet there’s not a hint of self-pity in her voice, just the usual enigmatic beauty powered by a rare spirituality.

When next you need to believe there’s something more to life than mere banal existence, give Eva a listen - you won’t be disappointed.

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