remember where I was when I first heard Eva Cassidy’s “Fields
of Gold.” I can tell you the exact location, the date and the
time within minutes. Evie and I had just enjoyed a wonderful
dinner at my mom’s home in Chevy Chase on Christmas evening,
1996. We were driving back to Damascus, on Connecticut Avenue.
We were one of probably a handful of listeners tuned in to a
university jazz station on our car radio.
As we approached the Randolph Road intersection near Aspen
Hill, at about 10:00 p.m., Cassidy’s recording began to play
unannounced. I nearly drove off the road. Who was this singer?
And where did this song come from?
Although only a first-take live production, sung to the
backdrop of two guitars slightly out of tune with each other,
it remains the most hauntingly beautiful recording I’ve ever
heard. To this day, it’s hard to stay dry-eyed, even just
replaying it in my mind.
Evie set out the next week to find the CD containing that
track. The large chains didn’t have it, but a local store had
a small supply, and we felt fortunate to get a copy for
ourselves, plus several for friends. I was stunned to find
that Cassidy was a local singer. I had never heard of her, nor
had any of my musician friends.
The CD itself was a homegrown production, recorded live at
Blues Alley, a small D.C. club, and released by a very small
record company in Rockville, near my home. The recording
itself was rough-hewn, with flaws left in and no studio
trickery. The band on it is good, but not unusual.
Yet I can only describe Cassidy’s singing as preternatural.
It draws you in and invades you like the book in Never
Even so, I knew that this CD--Cassidy’s only solo
album--had little chance of success outside the Washington
area. Female singers face an uphill battle to begin with, and
those performing only cover songs on low-budget recordings
seldom get airplay. But . . . there’s always the future.
Cassidy was so unknown, that it took some weeks before I
finally connected with what “the future” meant in her case.
The song that had captivated me that Christmas evening, I
sadly discovered, had been part of a posthumous tribute to
Cassidy, who had died of melanoma the month before at 33.
I knew now that her music had no chance of ever gaining the
acclaim it deserved. Records don’t arouse popular interest
without extensive promotional performing by the artist and
huge financial investment; and radio stations don’t pay
attention to deceased singers who never had the backing of a
major record company. Predictably, her Blues Alley CD went out
of print within a year.
Fast forward now to 2001. The
Washington Post notes in an article on March 23: “Eva
Cassidy, the Washington songbird who couldn’t land a record
contract during her lifetime, currently has the no. 1 album in
What happened in these intervening years defies every
principle of marketing and commercial success known to
humankind, and it defies the most optimistic imagination.
Several small labels released compilations of live and studio
recordings of Cassidy’s. One of these, Songbird, took
hold in Great Britain, after a radio station aired a single
selection, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then was inundated by
calls from listeners wanting to know who the singer was. Word
of mouth took over, as one listener--astounded as I was on
that memorable Christmas evening--told another of their love
for Cassidy’s music. Without marketing and promotion, without
fanfare, Songbird sold over one million copies in Great
Britain in late 2000 and early 2001.
I noted with amazement then that four of the five
top-selling albums on Amazon in the United Kingdom were
Cassidy’s; a re-released edition of her Live at
Blues Alley was No. 2. And Songbird was the top
selling CD among the vast selections on America’s Amazon.com;
her music had taken substantial hold in the United States as
“Fields of Gold” had even captured
the attention of its composer, Sting, who called it “a
beautiful rendition. I’ve rarely heard a voice of such
It’s now November 2006. Since this month marks the tenth
anniversary of Eva Cassidy’s death, it seems fitting to
reissue this article that I first published in May 2001. Her
popularity has continued to grow strongly during this time,
and the lessons we learn from her life experience are
timeless. The success of Cassidy’s music is the most inspiring
example I have witnessed in my own lifetime of talent, pure
and simple, triumphing over all the odds in the marketplace.
The Post aptly notes, “Cassidy, herself, would have
been as shocked as anyone at this turn of events.”
The Tenacity Factor
I see Eva Cassidy’s case as a highly dramatic and extreme
example of a dynamic that we each experience in our own lives,
if we don’t allow ourselves to lose heart too easily. God
gives to each of us the ability to do certain things well. He
grants us gifts, through which we are able to help others
greatly. We find immense personal fulfillment in making use of
them as well. He also leads us in establishing dreams and
goals based on our gifts, that keep our life moving in
The gifts we possess personally vary greatly from one of us
to another, and cover the whole range of human talent--from
homemaking to the ability to perform brain surgery. Yet we
each enjoy a unique mix of talent that perfectly reflects
God’s intention for our own life and his distinctive image
within us. We are far and away most helpful to others--and
most fulfilled--to the degree that we’re employing this
potential, and letting it define our major choices and goals.
If we’re honest, though, most of us will admit that we feel
underappreciated much of the time when it comes to our gifts
and dreams. Our discouragement stems as much as anything from
not receiving enough positive feedback--compliments,
affirmation and assurance that what we’re doing makes a
difference. Just this week a friend who is developing an
important new ministry wrote me, “I am pledged to
perfection--or at least some level of quality that is higher
than most seem to demand--and sick about how hard I’m working
with little to no credit or reward.” Call that a very human
expression, if you will; but we’ve all been there often.
If we’re at all normal, too, we receive criticism regarding
our gifts and aspirations that sometimes is plainly unfair. It
takes very little in the way of negative feedback to
discourage us. One unkind remark stays with us and affects us
more than twenty compliments.
We can be unfairly self-critical as well. Cassidy had such
a low opinion of her own work, that she almost nixed the
release of her live album, which led to the eventual surge of
public interest in her material. Had she succeeded in
squelching its production, many people--a multitude far
greater than she remotely thought possible--would have been
denied the benefit of her music. Cassidy had a hairsplitting
decision to make in this case, and fortunately decided to
swallow hard and allow the release of this recording, with all
We each face many hairsplitting decisions, where our
temptation is strong, out of discouragement, to stop using a
gift or discontinue pursuing a dream. Of course, when we cave
into disappointment in such cases, our perception that we’re
unappreciated and our efforts unneeded always becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy, for we stop doing the things that
bring positive feedback. We make our own bed.
Yet when, as an act of faith, we’re able to rise above
discouragement and continue the pursuit of a gift or dream, we
find that in time acclaim does come. We receive the positive
feedback we’ve longed for, and discover that our work is
benefiting others significantly. This recognition can take
longer to result than we wish, and almost always comes in
different ways than we expect. But it does come--if we stay
faithful to our gifts and dreams. There simply seems to be a
law of human life that this is true.
I’m not implying that any of our endeavors will necessarily
reap the surreal success that Cassidy’s music has. And life
doesn’t offer any guarantees. Still, we benefit from a
principle of life--a tendency--that with high
likelihood operates to our benefit when we give it time. In
time, we experience results that are highly gratifying to
us, and that leave us immensely glad we didn’t give up.
What this boils down to for each of us is the need to
operate at a high level of faith as we seek to develop our
gifts and work toward our dreams. It’s vital to stay focused
on the long-term results of our efforts. This means many, many
times when we need “to feel the discouragement and do it
anyway.” And do it not with grim resignation, but with the
conviction that God is working behind the scenes in countless
ways for our benefit as we stay on course. We need to be
strongly convinced that over time he rewards such tenacity by
turning our “mourning into dancing” (Ps 32:22), and by using
our efforts to meet critical needs of others.
Compelling Biblical Examples
Two similar incidents in the Gospels offer encouragement to
any of us who feel underappreciated with respect to our gifts.
They also give us inspiration to take the steps of faith so
necessary to nurture our gifts and move toward our dreams.
In one, a woman described as “a sinner” enters a Pharisee’s
home where Jesus is dining. She “brought an alabaster flask of
ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she
began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the
hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with
the ointment” (Lk 7:37-38 RSV).
The other incident also takes place at a dinner Jesus is
attending. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, “took a
pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of
Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was
filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (Jn 12:3 RSV).
Both of these women did something supremely creative, in
light of who they were, as an act of devotion to Jesus. And
both aroused the contempt of others for what they did.
The Pharisee in the first incident assumed the woman’s bad
reputation disqualified her from doing anything notable, and
viewed her act as audacious. The men at the dinner Mary
attended believed she had wasted highly expensive perfume that
could have been sold to help the poor.
It’s interesting to speculate why the woman in the first
incident was crying. Was she overcome with gratitude to Jesus?
Moved by sheer joy in doing something creative that benefited
him? Or was she hurt--dismayed that the Pharisee disdained her
gracious act--and unable to hold it in? Since Luke is silent
on the point, and emotions are complex, I’m inclined to think
all of these factors were involved.
We each experience tears at times when we personally give
our gifts and dreams the attention they deserve, and for a
similar variety of reasons. The elation that comes from doing
something creative that deeply reflects who we are can do it.
So can the perception that our work is benefiting others, or
is likely to do so. And, of course, criticism can do it too,
as can the lack of positive feedback when we need it. Tears
are part of the package when we take our dreams and gifts as
seriously as we should. If we don’t experience them on
occasion, we’re probably being too easy on ourselves.
Whether or not tears reflected hurt in this woman’s case,
she almost certainly felt the Pharisee’s disdain before she
proceeded with her act of kindness. Mary, too, given her
highly intuitive nature, probably felt the contempt of the men
in that room before she emptied the bottle of perfume on
Jesus’ feet. It’s to the credit of them both that they didn’t
let their fears of criticism dissuade them from following
their convictions. They symbolize for us those times when we
need to take steps of faith to reap the gifts God has given
us, in spite of anxiety about how others may react.
Most encouraging is Jesus’ response to these women. He
praised them each effusively. He went as far as to tell the
woman in the Pharisee’s home, “your faith has saved you” (Lk
7:50). The implication for us personally is deeply inspiring
to think about. When, out of devotion to Christ and compassion
for others, we take those scary steps that best reflect our
creative nature, we are operating most authentically in the
realm of faith. And it’s faith that is unspeakably
constructive and healing, in its impact on our own life and
the lives of others.
In Mary’s case, Jesus informed those present, “wherever
this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done
will be told in memory of her” (Mt 26:13). It is stunning to
realize how accurate Jesus’ prediction has turned out to be.
For twenty centuries untold people have taken inspiration from
her act of faith, as we are doing at this moment. Here is one
of Scripture’s most compelling examples of how the long-range
impact of a step of faith can vastly exceed one’s wildest
We’re reminded that when we personally take such steps, we
open ourselves to God’s greater possibilities, which in time
abundantly override those moments of discouragement that tempt
us to put our gifts on the shelf. Staying faithful to our
gifts and dreams is the key. And farsighted in judging their
We learn this lesson from Eva Cassidy as well. During her
lifetime she had not the faintest hint that her music would
eventually arouse the explosion of international interest that
it has. She simply gave her heart to her music, doing the best
job she could, laying it as a gift at the feet of others--and
I suspect at the Lord’s, since many of her songs reflect a
spiritual side and Christian convictions. Her example is
invigorating to think about whenever we’re inclined to focus
too greatly on frustrations of the moment.
An Essential Paradigm Shift
As I was in the process of writing
this article, People Magazine published a feature on
I was struck by a statement of former Beatles promoter Tony
Bramwell: “You remember when you first heard Eva.” I felt a
little less like I was waxing overemotional in confessing how
the memory of that moment, frozen in time, still affects me.
Then there is the recollection of Cassidy’s bassist, Chris
Biondo. A few weeks before her death, friends organized a
tribute concert for her at Washington’s Bayou nightclub.
Cassidy, walker-assisted, hobbled on stage, joked about her
condition, then sang, “What a Wonderful World.” “There was not
one dry eye in the house,” Biondo remembers.
Recalling that event brings home what is perhaps the most
important reminder Cassidy’s experience offers us--that life
is not infinite, and choices do not present themselves
forever. We need to be about the business of harvesting our
gifts and dreams while we have the opportunity, and cherishing
the time God gives us to do so. We waste so much time spinning
our wheels, ruminating over disappointment--with people, with
ourselves, with God, with life and with doors that fail to
open as we wish.
Yet when we are able to shift our focus from discouragement
to the immediate pleasure of using our gifts, and to the
long-term benefits of staying faithful to our dreams, the
effect upon our well-being and productivity, and the benefit
we bring to others, is indescribable.
The truth is, we cannot afford the luxury of ruminating,
certainly not as a lifestyle. Not if we’re going to realize
our highest potential for Christ, and open ourselves fully to
his best provision for us. The good news is, we can break the
tendency to brood over disappointment--even radically alter
the way we respond to it.
When life deals us a substantial blow, to be sure, we need
to allow ourselves time to mourn and recuperate. Grief is
important in major losses.
So much of our grieving, though, takes place over minor
losses--the small victories not won--the compliment not
received, the criticism too freely given, the break in daily
life that didn’t occur. We can’t turn our emotions off like a
spigot in these cases, and prevent ourselves from feeling any
hurt. But we can choose not to nurture the hurt feelings. And
we can choose to turn our attention back to doing those things
we do well and to pursuing those dreams that are most
important to us. When we make this shift, we’re far happier in
the present, and we set in motion a pattern that over time
brings even substantial improvement to situations that are
If ruminating over small losses eats up much of your
energy, why not resolve to change the pattern. Make a
commitment--to God and to yourself--that from this point
forward you will accentuate the positive when you experience
disappointment. Resolve that, when people or circumstances
fail to respond as you wish, you’ll not dwell on hurt
feelings, but turn your attention back to your goals. If
there’s a lesson to be learned from the disappointment, you’ll
learn it, but won’t browbeat yourself for making a mistake. If
no obvious lesson is evident, you’ll not brood over the
incident, but will keep your life in motion.
Make this a serious resolution, and one you embrace as you
begin 2007. Take some time to express it to God, and ask
earnestly for his help in carrying it out. Resolutions like
this can make a major difference, especially when we recall
them often and continue to remind ourselves of the benefits of
Draw on all the help God gives you to keep your life on
track as you move forward. Put yourself in the most
encouraging work and social environments possible. As fully as
you can, avoid negative people; seek to be around those who
are supportive and who see your life dynamically. Expose
yourself to teachers who encourage you to be who you are in
Christ, and to books that do the same. Most important, draw on
the Lord’s encouragement through worship and prayer; ask him
for the grace to treasure the opportunities life offers you
for using your gifts, and even to laugh at the situations that
Let me add one further note, which seems especially
appropriate for this particular article. Music is also one of
the remarkable means God uses to encourage us, restore our
heart, stimulate us, and help us focus on what is important.
We don’t have to look beyond Scripture for countless examples
(2 Ki 3:15). Find what sort of music helps you most; take time
to enjoy it, and allow God to refresh you through it.
If perchance, you’d like to look to Eva Cassidy’s music for
such help, I would of course highly recommend it. And you
shouldn’t have trouble now finding her recordings in a record
store near you.
Just one word of caution.
Listen at your own risk.