It was a moment that rarely occurs in this unpredictable journey called life, a moment locked in time, a moment to make one realize that sometimes a voice cannot be silenced, even by death.
I do not recall what department store I was in, but I remember the bland "shopping" music playing over the loudspeakers, endeavoring to induce shoppers into buying products they did not need with money they did not have. Suddenly, in this milieu of vapid consumerism, the mundane music had been replaced by an unforgettable voice, which drifted softly, almost hypnotically, throughout the store.
I remember smiling at first, because the song this voice was singing seemed curiously out of place. "What possible reason," I asked myself, "could any store have for playing something as outdated as OVER THE RAINBOW?"-a song popularized by the late Judy Garland in the 1939 motion picture The Wizard of Oz.
But as I listened, I realized this was not the OVER THE RAINBOW from my grandparents' generation. There was something magically unique about it, vocal inflections-sometimes hesitant, sometimes pronounced-that radiated new life into this timeless classic. The rendition was bewitching, haunting and visionary all at the same time.
A few weeks later, once again by chance, as I was engaged in the "sport" of channel-surfing with my television's remote control, I stumbled upon ABC's late-night news program "NIGHTLINE." I normally did not watch this show, nor indeed any of the rubbish the corporate-controlled media endeavor to promote as "news." But the opening narration attracted my attention as it briefly told the story of an unknown singer who had become famous approximately five years after her untimely death. It was then I discovered the origin of that mesmerizing voice I had heard in the department store. It belonged to Eva Cassidy.
Eva Cassidy, the NIGHTLINE program explained, had been a nightclub singer, performing primarily in and around the Washington D.C. area. She had never sought fame, and, according to many of her friends, would probably have been uncomfortable with it, even though she possessed talent superior to many, if not most, of the artificially manufactured "superstars" who inundate the music industry.
She also refused to subscribe to one of the primary "rules" of the record companies-that singers should confine themselves to one musical genre. She performed folk, gospel, jazz, country, rock and blues, and all exceedingly well. Although this was an unmistakable testament to her extraordinary talent, it also meant that she could not be compartmentalized and marketed to a specific audience. Ironically, because of her insistence on performing different styles of music, which appealed to everybody, she appeared destined to reach nobody. So, in 1996, when she passed away from melanoma at the age of thirty-three, her music might have faded away as well, and, like a buried treasure, the world would be poorer for losing a talent it had never even known.
But, to paraphrase from the classic folk song JOE HILL, "Sometimes it takes more than death to kill someone. And Eva didn't die." Approximately five years after her untimely passing, a British tourist happened to purchase one of her locally released CDs (compact discs) while touring the Washington D.C. area, and, captivated by Eva's remarkable voice, subsequently convinced a British radio personality to play her music on the air. This led to her CD entitled SONGBIRD becoming a best seller in Great Britain, and soon her music was being sold throughout the United States.
In the world of popular culture, there is a proclivity to immortalize those who die young. Frozen at the peak of their success, never ravaged by time nor the transient nature of fame, those who are forever young, like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Bruce Lee, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and countless others continue to inspire new generations of fans.
But a premature and/or tragic death alone does not always guarantee enduring fame. Sometimes the legacy of those who leave the world far too soon is enjoyed only by small groups of dedicated people who embrace the esoteric beauty and genius that "popular" culture often disdains. Phil Ochs, Lenny Bruce, Nick Drake and Harry Chapin, amongst others, are just some of those who are unfairly forgotten.
Phil Ochs, a folk musician, refused, unlike many others of his era, to go "mainstream." Consequently his songs never became hits on "Top Ten" record charts. Lenny Bruce cleared the pathway for many modern "stand-up" comedians through his use of "curse" words as a form of satire and social commentary, enduring, in the process, numerous criminal prosecutions for
"obscenity." Nick Drake, another singer, had been relatively forgotten until his song 'PINK MOON" was used as background for a television commercial, and singer/storyteller Harry Chapin (who had been inspired by Phil Ochs) received little air play because his songs were "too long" for radio. Before his passing, Chapin had also devoted countless hours and funds towards eliminating world hunger, ultimately founding an organization called "World Hunger Year."
Still all of these individuals had, in varying degrees, achieved some semblance of national fame or recognition during their lifetimes, and that degree of fame or recognition often increased (although sometimes only briefly) during the weeks or months following their deaths. Eva Cassidy's story is unique because she not only moved from virtual obscurity to worldwide fame without ever achieving national recognition during her lifetime, but she did so YEARS AFTER her untimely death.
There is a popular belief in America that if one works hard, remains diligent, and has talent, he or she will ultimately be rewarded. Unfortunately this has become, except in rare instances, more myth than reality. In today's world, talent is often secondary to marketing, promotion, and physical appearance, and hard work is usually no match for nepotism and cronyism when it comes to opening doors. The new American idol is excess, and its demigods are the scions of inherited wealth, who have never had to work or struggle to achieve their "success," yet are incessantly fawned over by sycophantic media, as if the happenstance of being born into the "right" family actually required some effort or ability. But the legacy of Eva Cassidy proves that sometimes true talent cannot be silenced.
Towards the end of his life, Phil Ochs expressed increasing disillusionment with a world controlled by "cruel, cruel machinery and terrible, heartless men." Those words still resound with truth today in a world where warmongering, greed, hatred, hypocrisy and deceit appear to be "attributes" to be rewarded, instead of evils to be condemned.
In such a world Eva Cassidy would undoubtedly have been forgiven if she chose not to sing "WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD," a song made famous by the late Louie Armstrong, to an audience gathered to pay tribute to her just days before she passed away. But sing it she did, and in so doing helped us all remember that in a world so often immersed in ugliness, sometimes beauty can shine through. What a wonderful world this could be if such beauty would linger just a little bit longer.
David R. Hoffman, Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru