Grace Griffith, a fixture on the local Celtic and folk music scenes, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1998. Recently, she released what is likely her last album, titled "Passing Through."
Every couple of months over the course of two years, Grace Griffith would get into her car and drive from her home in Accokeek, Maryland to Chris Biondo’s recording studio in Kensington. The folk singer was headed there to lay down some tracks for a new album. The 40-mile drive didn’t take long, but on some days it felt interminable.
“I think that she really had a lot of things to overcome just to get in a car and come over here,” Biondo said.
Griffith has Parkinson’s disease — an illness that makes it hard, even impossible, for the brain and body to communicate. Linda Ronstadt described the illness to reporter Dan Rather in a 2013 interview in this way: “With Parkinson’s disease, there’s nothing wrong with the muscle, but there’s no phone lines between your brain and the muscle, so you can’t get the message to work.”
Ronstadt announced she had the disease last year and hasn’t sung publicly since 2009.
No matter if you’re a Grammy-winning superstar like Ronstadt or a fixture in the local folk and Celtic music scene like Griffith, trying to sing with Parkinson’s is brutal.
But that didn’t stop Griffith from finishing her latest record, which she titled Passing Through. The album comes out next week.
“It took a lot of courage to do what she did,” Biondo said. “I would imagine that it was painful to have to drive here and it’s painful not to take the medicine and it’s painful to sit in a room and have somebody to tell you to sing something over and over and over again. And during the process have deterioration of your health happen.”
Griffith grew up in a family of 10 on a farm in Waldorf. She went to school to become a physical therapist, but music was always her true passion. Over the years, she landed gigs around the region and came to be known for her “seraphic voice,” as one local music critic called it.
With the onset of Parkinson’s 16 years ago, Griffith had to adjust her approach to the craft. As her health deteriorated, singing became more difficult. But she and Biondo found a workaround.
“The Parkinson’s treatment is based upon taking medicine that causes your muscles to do things they wouldn’t normally do. If she didn’t take this medicine she would shake,” Biondo said.
One of the hallmarks of the disease is uncontrollable tremors. Griffith’s cocktail of medications help prevent that. But if she doesn’t take the medicine, she can actually sing, Biondo says. At least until she can no longer tolerate being off the meds.
Because of her illness, Griffith didn’t know if she had another album left in her. But with the help of Biondo and co-producers Lenny Williams and Marcy Marxer, as well as a whole host of musicians who donated their time and talents, “Passing Through” came together.
What initially began as a quiet, reflective a cappella album turned into something much more.
The first track on the album — “Brigid’s Shield” — is one of the bigger production numbers. The lyrics seem particularly prophetic: “Here under Brigid’s Shield/there is still a voice/and a truth revealed.”
“We just started throwing stuff in there and before you knew it, there was a ton of instruments. There’s percussion, bass, fiddle, cello. So that thing grew into something,” Biondo said.
One of the quieter numbers, “Down By the Salley Gardens,” is spare little tune based on a William Butler Yeats poem — just vocals and a harp. It’s hard not to be moved by Griffith’s yearning voice.
“Grace is going for the throat. She’s trying to stir people’s emotions,” Biondo said. “And I get that because that’s a form of art and I like that.”
Griffith’s condition has worsened since she began recording this album. She now lives in a nursing home not far from Biondo. But she’s in an intensive speech therapy program designed for people with Parkinson’s. And she’s still singing every day.
"She seems to be pretty determined to hang in there and to keep making music. So I wouldn’t bet against her,” Biondo said.
On July 20, friends of Griffith’s will host a tribute concert for her at the Birchmere in Alexandria. Proceeds from the show will go towards Griffith’s treatment.
Music: "Brigid's Shield" by Grace Griffith from Passing Through