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Produced by Marxer, “Minstrel Song” included Griffith’s luminous reading of Dement’s “My Life,” Jane Siberry’s “Bound By The Beauty” and John Martyn’s “May You Never,” with its serene counsel “may you never lay your head down without a hand to hold/ May you never make your bed out in the cold.” Which sounds like a physical therapist’s mantra….
Eventually, Griffith cut her hospital work to part-time and then to supervisory status. “The physical therapy work I have done most of my career does involve a lot of physically supporting people, and my own balance became a safety issue….One of the biggest ways that this Parkinson’s has affected me is just simple stamina and endurance, and the most helpful thing I’ve done is simplify my life. I used to be the mother of all multi-taskers—two careers, a very active social life, benefit work, you name it.”
It took almost two years to record 2003’s “Sands of Time,” produced by Marxer, Chris Biondo and Lenny Williams, who had produced and recorded with Eva Cassidy. “She was driving herself to the sessions and was able to sing pretty good,” Biondo recalls. “She’d get tired or frustrated when I asked her to sing stuff over—-it was at the beginning of having to deal with things that were going to put an end to her being able to make records anymore. But she’d muster up strength on her own, it was something to look forward to.”
This was also the beginning of what might be called the Grace Griffith Community Chorus, consisting of peers like Marxer, Cutting, Cathy Fink, Carey Creed, Jody Marshall and Lisa Moscatiello, all supportive and ready to fill in should Grace tire or falter; they and other musicians provided both musical and logistical support as her concert schedule was necessarily cut back; she no longer did solo shows and had to stop playing guitar and tin whistle. “I try to make it so I only have one thing because simple things like standing up, keeping your balance, things that one can usually just take for granted, have become something that I have to work at. The fewer other things I have to be juggling, the better.”
Griffith’s next album, 2006’s “My Life,” took a year and a half to record and, not surprisingly, reflected the continuing effects of the disease as well as the attendant mental and emotional struggles. Griffith noted that “it was recorded during a profound change in how I define myself. I’m hoping this eyes-wide-open look at struggle makes the beacon . . . shine more brightly.”
The Washington Post thought so: “As it turns out, the light Griffith intended to radiate is everywhere, illuminating her performances of contemporary and traditional tunes alike, as well as two poems set to music that contribute to the album’s themes of hope, spirituality, wonder and gratitude.”
Strings were added to her previous recording of the title track, and Griffith turned again to Siberry for “Calling All Angels” and to Tish Hinojosa for the insistent declaration “Love Is on Our Side.” ”Passing Thoughts” was Carey Creed’s ruminative piano setting for a poem written by Griffith’s older brother Fred Sisson, diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 40, six years before Grace. Sisson, who died of cancer the same week Griffith presented her last major concert in 2006, had channeled his energies into poetry and photography—and, says Creed, “he would come to her concerts when he was able and read his poems. It meant a lot to Fred to have an audience for his work.”
“Passing Thoughts” offered a sense of hope and resilience amidst doubts and fears, insisting that
“….The same hand that spawns the avalanche forms the peaks of snow
The same hand that lets the fighter crouch and makes him form a fist
As well crafts the lovers’ lips and forms the lovers’ kiss
Child, when life seems dark and is so full of pain/ Choose to look for joy and rebuild with the rain
Know your questions–know them well/ Don’t hide what you don’t know
You will be right and wrong many times before you go
Accept the hand of fate — don’t deny the random chance
Sing life’s joy and beauty, make your fate a joyous dance”
Soon after that 2006 concert, Griffith underwent a radical surgery called deep brain stimulation (via implanted electrodes) in hopes of regaining some of her lost abilities and quelling some of the disabling symptoms of Parkinson’s. Because this was an experimental procedure, there was potential risk to her voice but in the end it was not affected.
“She had to be awake for the operation” Marxer recounts, “but the improvement was incredible, because before that she was barely able to walk and talk. It gave Grace her voice back.”
With typical determination, Griffith also found a new stage that framed both her gift and her struggle. She started appearing at national and international Parkinson’s conferences, including the 2006 World Parkinson Congress in Washington and the 2010 World Parkinson Congress in Glasgow, Scotland, where she sang at the opening ceremony: her medley of the traditional Scottish tune “The Seasons” and “Sailing” from this event is available on YouTube.
At an American Parkinson Disease Association symposium in Massachusetts, Griffith sang “My Life” and Jennifer Berezan’s upbeat, irreverent “If I Can’t Dance” from her “My Life” album.
“Life is a cup of water from which we’re all drinking
And whether it’s half full or empty depends on your thinking
Cause beauty and terror are racing wherever you go
But if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of that show.”
Griffith told the Boston Globe “For me, it speaks to being ashamed of the way we move and letting that shame crimp your style. It’s a song to me about being free to go out in the world and be yourself and not be ashamed.” Soon after, she sang it at Washington D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, accompanying a dance troupe comprised of people with Parkinson’s.
Until 2010, Griffith performed low-key shows with a series of regular partners, including Zan McLeod and Dominick Murray [she made the “Irish Fire” CD with Murray] and Greentree with Carey Creed, Jody Marshall and Paul Nahay. “We took over booking, publicity and driving in order to help Grace keep performing,” Creed explains. “That gave Grace a way to be still involved but she could also back off if she needed to.”
Her last regular partner was Lynn Hollyfield, a singer-songwriter who is also a physical therapist. “We were always prepared [to step in] but Grace was pretty amazing and could go a long time despite the fatigue that came along with the Parkinson’s,” says Hollyfield. “She would get so energized by being on stage, and she could always work the audience. She was willing to go out and be in front of people—-not at all self-conscious.”
Griffith also became a speaker/educator/advocate to health-care professionals and students, herself the prime exemplar. In fact, she developed several reliable one-liners, telling audiences who might be noting her problems with balance “by the way I’m not drunk….and if I don’t smile, it’s not because I don’t like you, it’s the Parkinson’s keeping my face from moving.”
According to producer Chris Biondo, “Passing Through” started out as an a cappella project, partly “because Grace thought it might be easier” recording for a few hours before the effects of her medications would start to impact her vocal delivery (this after 90-minute journeys from her home in Southern Maryland, the driving done by Griffith’s husband Patrick, Marxer and other friends). The vocal tracks were recorded over two years, Biondo putting together the best elements of multiple, sometimes laborious studio performances to try and make the result measure up to the older, more naturally-Grace tracks. It was, he says, a process of frustration versus determination, but it also “gave Grace something to look forward to.”
As always, the Grace Griffith Community Choir and Orchestra stepped in with by-now familial support, as Jennifer Cutting did with “Leaves of Autumn.”
“When Grace told me she would be putting out an album of unaccompanied vocal music, I sat down and wrote her a bittersweet song about seasonal change, which I realized she was going through with Parkinson’s. She added the Irish ornamentation so it sounds almost like Sean-nós (a highly ornamented style of unaccompanied traditional Irish singing).
The only other purely a cappella track would be Laurie Lewis’ “The Wood Thrush’s Song,” with Grace on lead vocal and a calling-all-angels chorus featuring Creed, Hollyfield and Jody Marshall. It’s a song Griffith and these collaborators had been singing for years and, Creed says, “it was a beautiful day to be able to make that song come to life in that fashion.”
Many musicians, including pianists Lenny Williams and Paul Nahay, guitarists Al Petteway and Richard Miller and bassist Biondo, contributed to post-vocal track arrangements that are sparse and suitably subtle. Celtic harpist Sue Richards enriches Griffith’s reading of W.B. Yeats’ poem about love and nature, as well as Anne Lister’s upbeat “May Morning.”
Susan Graham White, now an international judge and competitor in equestrian sports, effected a Hazelwood reunion on her mystical meditation “Brigid’s Shield,” evoking the Celtic cross representing St. Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland and the protectress of horses, poets and dreamers.
“Bridget O’Malley” is a traditional Scottish ballad that Andy Stewart learned from his parents and re-introduced into popular music in the ‘60s. In a similar vein: English poet and folk icon Sydney Carter’s elegantly shimmering “Bells of Norwich” is based on a prayer by 12th century English mystic Julian of Norwich.” (Carter is best known for “Lord of the Dance”).
A trio of previously-unreleased older tracks includes Griffith’s version of a late-blooming Emmylou Harris original, the ruminative “Cup of Kindness.“ (Harris got her start in Washington folk clubs in the early ‘70s). There’s even a return to roots with Griffith’s sublime version of Betsy Rose’s “Water, Fire and Smoke,” from her 1993 self-released album. Like so much of her repertoire, it’s substantive and spiritual, a fervent prayer to nature amidst a disclaimer about organized religion:
It’s been a long journey to come to this place /I’ve traveled in time, I’ve traveled in space
I’ve traveled in circles and come face to face/ With the water, fire and smoke….
I’ve pondered and worried, I’ve tightened the rope/ Feasted on sorrow and starved out my hope
Now I come like a lover, my heart in my throat/ Give me water, fire and smoke
Water for cleansing my eyes and my ears/Fire the transformer of sorrows and fears
Smoke for my ancestors drawing them near with the water, fire and smoke
So run from the churchyard, the word and the cross/ Run to the forest, to the rivers and the rocks
You will find the green altar deep in the moss / You’ll find water, fire and smoke.”
In January of 2014, Griffith moved into the Kensington Park Retirement Community outside Washington DC, and by St. Patrick’s Day, roads long traveled seemed to be crossing again. A community offering independent living as well as assisted living, it had been the home of Marcy Marxer’s mother until her passing in December, so musical parties were not unheard of there, with a bonus of bringing staff and residents together in song and movement.
Griffith has had a steady stream of visitors, many of them musicians, of course. For St. Patrick’s Day, always an excuse for joyful sounds, Marxer and Irish bouzouki virtuoso Zan McLeod livened spirits with some Celtic jams, while Grace sang a few songs and seemed to have a great time. It may not be a green altar deep in the moss, but where she lives the bird feeders are always full and there’s a popcorn stand in the foyer—and a grand piano. As always, the healing goes on with Grace.