Tuesday, September 30, 2003

A Local Singer’s Battle and Triumph

We were heart-broken to learn this past weekend that Grace Griffith, a very talented and much-loved Washington, DC-area-based singer-songwriter well-known to fans of traditional and contemporary Celtic and folk music here and around the US, faces a long, hard, rocky road ahead in the form of advancing Parkinson’s Disease, a gradually crippling neurological disorder.

Anyone who has experienced Griffith’s music, whether on CD or (especially) in one of her small, intimate local concerts (which, sadly, have become much less frequent), can testify to the magic she works with her voice, a magic which goes straight into the listener’s heart and soul. This is to be expected, for Griffith pours her own heart and soul into her performances; so much so that, even long before PD set in, the experience would, she has said, leave her completely drained both emotionally and spiritually at the end of a concert. Not surprisingly, then, she developed a large, loyal following over her 20-plus-year-long music career.

But even more noteworthy than her wonderful voice (which, happily, remains unaffected by PD), Griffith is known among friends and colleagues for her kindness and generosity, especially towards other lesser-known singers, songwriters, and musicians --including one (about whom more in due course) who would later surpass her in fame and attention. For example, although she is a talented composer and lyricist in her own right she rarely records her own work, preferring instead to give other artists a chance to give their work more exposure.

In a highly competitive field like professional music, it’s unusual for one recording artist to risk his or her own career advancement for the sake of another performer. To do so would be seen by many as foolhardy rather than as what it really is –unselfish and noble.

Yet in early 1996, Griffith did exactly that when she convinced her record company, Blix Street, to sign on the phenomenally talented singer Eva Cassidy, who at that time was playing Washington, DC area pubs and other small venues. Once Blix Street followed Griffith's advice, Cassidy become an international star almost overnight, and continues to remain popular in Europe and Canada since her untimely death later that same year. Griffith's career, on the other hand, seems to have been eclipsed by Cassidy's.

In an article she wrote earlier this year, Griffith downplayed her risky act of generosity because, she noted, she had struggled with the decision to carry it out:

…My debate was between my better self and my ? less-than-better self. The better self was inclined to pass her beautiful music along regardless of any potential cost to my own position, because beauty should be shared. The less-than-better self was voicing concern that I might be shooting myself in the foot by making my record label aware of an artist of such caliber -- I have often been accused of not being competitive enough in a competitive world, and I was thinking twice about this one. But I am a person who must follow a certain way to be comfortable in my own skin.

In our opinion, not only was what Griffith did objectively praiseworthy in and of itself, the very fact that it was the result of a spiritual struggle -- a conflict between one's better inclination to serve another at risk to oneself and one's lesser impulse to “look out for number one”-- made her choice something more than merely praiseworthy.

It made her choice heroic.

The same choice would not have been as significant --or heroic-- if it had been made by someone who had no such conflict to overcome. Such battles within ourselves –battles, ultimately, between self-giving love and self-serving egotism-- are often more important than any other battles we may find ourselves engaged in, even when we end up "losing" in the end:

For when such a choice is made we enter the ranks of the angels.

In her case, Grace Griffith's battle between her "better self" and "less-than-better self" ended in a triumph rather than a loss, for it resulted in a great accomplishment: Were it not for Griffith’s efforts to promote her younger, much lesser-known “competitor” --who also happened to be one of her most ardent fans-- the world would probably not have known about Eva Cassidy.

For that gift, as well as for the gift of her own music, the world has Grace Griffith to thank.

No comments: