The Blog

Earth Angel

Five years after her death, the music of Eva Cassidy is spreading.

11:01 PM, Jan 20, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Throughout childhood, Cassidy displayed a compulsion to create (an accomplished painter, young Eva cut her teeth sitting in front of her parents' television, drawing likenesses of Nipsey Russell). While her father describes her as a "happy, happy kid," the introspection that haunts her music was always evident. Barbara recalls that when Eva first saw Ray Charles perform, she asked her mother why he was wearing dark glasses. After Barbara explained that Charles was blind, Eva began crying. "How's he going to get home now?" she wanted to know.

Cassidy's sensitivity wasn't blunted by age. Her parents say she often swerved her pick-up truck to avoid running over caterpillars, and when she would see a worm on the scalding concrete, she'd deposit it in the grass before it shriveled and died. "Eva was a person who felt things stronger than the rest of us," says Margaret Haven, who helped Cassidy eke out a living by employing her to paint middle-school murals when Eva wasn't playing club dates or working with her mother as a plant-propagator at Behnke's nursery. "She could find peace in the simplest things."

What gave Cassidy the greatest peace were her frequent sojourns in the sun-kissed marshes and waterways of Southern Maryland. In death, it's where her ashes are scattered. In life, it's where she went on twilight walks with her mother, who Eva often referred to as her soul mate. "She had a sense of wonder about her," says Barbara Cassidy. "Spring was her favorite season. Her birthday's on the second of February, and I'd buy her a cake with sugar roses on top. She'd save one, stick it in the freezer and on the first day of spring, she broke it out like it was a celebration. Like right now," her mother says, her throat tightening as she peers out the window at a perfect April day. "She would say, 'I wish I could just hold the time still and have it be spring.'"

All around the Cassidy home, remnants of Eva linger. Her red-haired cat lolls on the floor, while the hallway features her sun-and-moon mural. In a back room, her father keeps his cello, which he occasionally plays along to his daughter's music. It's the same room where a steady procession of friends and family that Eva called her "angel brigade" maintained a vigil over her bed until her last breath was drawn. The living room, where I interview her parents, is where she sang one final time with Grace Griffith and her brother Dan, a fiddler who lives in Iceland. Weakened from the cancer that spread after a melanoma was misdiagnosed some years earlier, Cassidy managed to softly sing a German version of "Silent Night," perhaps as an early present to her mother, since she wouldn't make it to Christmas.

As her father permits a videotaped viewing of Cassidy's last public performance, a benefit held for Cassidy at a Georgetown club two months before she died, her mother, unable to watch, goes outside to spy the wild violets that were Eva's favorite, now blooming through acidic soil. On tape, Eva enters the club with a walker and takes the stage, her hair ravaged from chemotherapy, her nose seeping from the morphine. After Chris Biondo grabs her around the midriff and hoists her to a stool, she lets go with a version of "A Wonderful World" that could make you forget Louis Armstrong ever sang it. As she reaches the last word of the song, "I think to myself what a wonderful . . .", she takes a five-second rest. Her face is open and intent, as if she is trying to freeze time by etching the faces of those assembled into a permanent snapshot. "The tears wouldn't stop, man," says Chuck Brown, who grew so emotional he left the stage in mid-song. "She loved life. She loved this wonderful world."

The tape concluded, her father dries his eyes on his shirt sleeves, and shows me his daughter's artwork. Many of her paintings, which contain an ethereal serenity, also bear a curious motif--a bubble, the size of a translucent beach ball. Her parents don't know what it means, nor do her friends. But Grace Griffith has a theory: "Bubbles are beautiful, transient things. We come and we go, and we don't know where we come from or where we're going. But we have beauty with us, and it doesn't last forever."

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.