I went to convocation with few expectations. My only previous experience with Gaelynn Lea’s work was through her NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Beyond that, I was ignorant. I took my place in the balcony and listened to her speak. Lea was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. Her convocation was largely concerned with the difficulties she had faced not from the condition itself, but from our society’s response to it.
Lea said that because of the support of her parents, the first major barrier she faced from her disease was nearly going untreated for respiratory failure. Her physician walked into the room, took barely a look at her and declared “She’s so small; there’s nothing I can do.” It was only through her parents that another doctor was consulted and recommended a course of action which saved her life. Lea attributes this as the time when she realized she would have to be an advocate for her own care.
Although she was educated at Macalester College and well-qualified, Lea experienced great difficulty in finding employment. She described how she learned years after an interview for a position with the Boys & Girls Club that once she had left the room one of the senior interviewers asked the others present if she might “scare the kids.”
On another occasion, she was brought in for four separate interviews for a position before eventually being offered the job. Possessing great humor given the circumstances, she quipped that she wondered if she was being vetted for the Presidency. Upon leaving, her replacement was hired after only a single interview.
Lea also described her difficulty in obtaining government support through the MA-EPD after her marriage. She called the county to be certified disabled and was told she didn’t qualify. When she asked what she was expected to do, being unable to afford necessary care without this assistance, the employee matter-of-factly suggested divorce. Lea said she became very angry and swore at the employee, who began to backtrack. It turned out the employee had been mistaken, and Lea was eligible. Lea reflected on how many people may have acted on such inaccurate unverified information and urged thoroughness in such important matters.
The last major barrier Lea talked about was lack of accessibility. She described the difficulty of often being unable to go many places or have access to basic facilities once there. Lea noted the importance of funding for accessibility.
An especially compelling point was when she polled the audience as to who had been educated in school on civil rights for disabled persons. A miniscule number of people raised their hands.
She briefly related the story of the 504 sit-in, a 28-day sit-in staged by disabled activists trying to ensure the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 passed unadulterated. Though this is the longest non-violent occupation of a government building in US history, she herself had only learned of it within the last several years. She also noted the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but felt businesses too often attempted one kind of accommodation, then declared things weren’t working out. She reminded us that the legislation was made to protect individuals and not businesses. It may take a while to find the correct solution, but most often there is one.
She ended her talk speaking about the concept of disability pride, acknowledging her disability as a vital part of herself. She noted some of the freedoms it has offered her from things like traditional beauty standards and expectations. She said she detests phrases like “confined to a wheelchair,” and, with more of her good-natured humor, noted: “Without my wheelchair, I’d be confined to the floor.” The final thought she asked us to remember was the concept of disability as diversity.
She took out her fiddle and played her song “Watch the World Unfold,” a hauntingly beautiful tune about confusion, doubt and identity, it begins and ends with a line that speaks volumes to Lea’s skills and sensibilities: “Pushing up, pushing up, through the dirt just like a seed, but you’re never quite a flower you feel more just like a weed.”
After hearing the song, I couldn’t wait for the concert that evening. I was not disappointed. The energy in the audience was high as we awaited the beginning. The music of another Duluth artist, Charlie Parr, played in the background. When Lea came onto the stage, the audience fell reverently silent. We waited while she situated herself amongst her equipment. She began the concert with “Watch the World Unfold,” and from that moment seemed to hold the attention of the audience completely. The panels in the Kracum Performance Hall lit up with cool tones evoking the inherent melancholy of the music, the deepening chill in the fall air, and the colors of the aurora, appropriate for a northern Minnesota artist.
The way Lea plays is nothing short of extraordinary. She uses a looping pedal to create deeply textured tracks for her to sing over in her remarkably ethereal voice. At times it sounded like an entire orchestra was with her, but still she sat alone onstage. She played a mixture of traditional fiddle tunes and original compositions, both beautiful. Her technical skill was impressive and really shone in some of the traditional songs, especially one called “Metsäkukkia” (Finnish for Forest Flowers). Before playing the song, Lea commented that she had no idea what sort of flowers the writers of the song could have had in mind. As she played, it became very apparent what she meant. The song was intense, chaotic, apocalyptic. A song that made one feel unsafe just by hearing it.
Though her renderings of traditional tunes were very striking, I believe it is in her own songs that Lea shines the most. Her voice is unlike any I’ve heard before, and her poetry is sincere, heartfelt, melancholy. When she stopped playing, she waited for the applause to die away and, after each song, sincerely thanked us.
As I continued to watch her play, I realized I don’t believe I have ever seen a musician more unified with her instrument. Lea cradles her fiddle against herself in the manner of a cello, seeming to embrace it. She uses her whole body to play, including turning her fiddle with her foot to change which string she bowed. At times, when operating her looping device or when ending a song, she would hold her fiddle upright by resting her chin on its shoulder like an old friend. Her technique was not restricted to mere bowing. She plucked accompaniment for the loops and frequently employed double stops, often with heart-wrenching effects. The intense emotion in her music was clearly discernible both in its sound and on her face.
I don’t know that I can do much justice to her music in further description, but I can say that among my favorite songs were those previously mentioned, “The Long Way Around,” “Grace and a Tender Hand,” (the first she ever wrote) and “I Wait,” and I would encourage anyone to listen to at least one. For her “last” song she played one of my favorite traditional Celtic tunes, “The Parting Glass.” We gave a standing ovation after which she noted that traditional encore procedure presented considerable logistical difficulties for her, but asked, nonetheless, if we wanted one more song. We did. She played the first song she ever performed in public, the classic anti-conformist anthem “Little Boxes.” She invited us to sing along.
After the concert, I met her in the lobby, shook her hand and thanked her for the performance noting how moved I had been, especially by “Watch the World Unfold.” She thanked Carleton for being so welcoming and expressed an eagerness to return someday.
I have said much in this article, so I would like to end with some of Lea’s own words. I believe Lea’s goal is made clear in the lyrics of her song “Grace and a Tender Hand:”
“If I could bring you peace today, my battle would be won.”