It was December 30, 2002, a stormy day in New York. I was stuck an extra four hours at LaGuardia Airport, trying to fly to North Carolina to perform on New Year's Eve as part of Raleigh-Durham's "First Night" celebration. I had read countless magazines while waiting, and lucky me -- someone just left a complete New York Times. That's how I came upon this story.
I had never heard of John Edwards, but I was intrigued, especially since I was headed to Raleigh-Durham. At the time I was performing wirelessly, which meant I could leave the stage and go anywhere in the hall that I wanted. In my show I was performing a song called "You Look Pretty Good For Your Age," which somehow morphed into a male beauty pageant (sometimes songs take on a life of their own, and that's what happened with this one). I'd strap a miner's light to my head, get up close and personal with the audience and by the end of the song I crowned the best looking man in the room, "Mr. Seattle" or "Mr. Boston," based on where I was performing, then bring him onstage for some silly fun.
Because it was First Night I was doing three 45-minute concerts, so I carefully crafted three newspaper collage crowns for that night -- "Mr. North Carolina," "Mr. Raleigh-Durham" and "Mr. New Year's Eve." My thinking was that each man I crowned would be thrilled (or mortified) to be chosen, and I had to give each one a different title in case they all showed up in the future at some local function with their crowns on (it could happen).
Besides being handsome, the men I crowned had to prove their intellectual prowess by answering some pertinent questions, like "Who is better in basketball -- Duke or UNC?" That New Year's Eve I threw this question into the mix: "What's the name of the 49-year-old senator from North Carolina who is about to announce his run for president?" In all three shows, all three handsome men knew the answer was John Edwards.
It wasn't until a few days later that I found out that John and Elizabeth Edwards were in the audience for one of those First Night concerts. After I had returned to New York, John Edwards' office contacted my agent. The senator asked that I autograph an album to his wife, Elizabeth, but send it to him so he could give it to her. He also wanted to know if I would be available to do concert appearances on his behalf during his campaign.
I was very happy to autograph an album to Elizabeth, but I wrote to the senator's office that I didn't know enough about him. I would need to do some research and get back to them.
Though he showed promise, I later wrote that I didn't think he was ready to run for president. I suggested he think about maybe running for VP.
I never heard from John Edwards again.
But I did hear from Elizabeth. We became pen pals -- turns out she had many of my albums and had seen me perform in other places in North Carolina, but had never introduced herself. For the next few years I would send her rough mixes of songs as I was writing them.
I often have knitting circles at my concerts, and during the fall of 2004 I started knitting a shawl for Elizabeth, and passed it around at the knitting circles (and also in airports when people would stop to admire it) -- knitters from coast-to-coast happily added stitches to it, especially when I told them who it was for. I was so sure the Kerry/Edwards ticket was going to win; I thought Elizabeth would have this beautiful shawl to remind her of the exciting months running up to the election.
As we all know, they didn't win, and then it was announced that Elizabeth had breast cancer. Her shawl wasn't completed yet, so now everyone adding stitches did so with a heavy heart.
When finished, I overnighted it to Elizabeth. She wrote me a beautiful thank you note, and later wrote about it in her book Saving Graces. It meant a great deal to her because so many knitters across the US and Canada had contributed to it. In my note with the shawl I told her that at some airports when knitters sat down to add stitches, a few told me they were Republicans, and wouldn't be voting for the Kerry/Edwards ticket. Elizabeth was that rare political wife that everyone loved and admired, party affiliation notwithstanding.
If only we could have loved her husband as much as we loved her.
In 2006 Elizabeth invited me to her book release party at an art gallery in SoHo, and asked me to sing a song. It was so crowded and noisy that night and the venue had the most primitive of sound systems with just a single microphone -- but I was thrilled to meet Elizabeth and her husband face-to-face. I remember Fran Drescher was there, too. I also met John's New York barber, and the barber's wife.
Elizabeth read the part of the book about the shawl and then asked me to do a song. I don't even remember what I sang, but she hugged me and autographed a copy of Saving Graces. The excitement in the room that night was palpable. It was fun to be around that kind of energy.
I continued to send Elizabeth my musical works-in-progress, and one of those songs was inspired by Bob Herbert's column "Hooked On Violence" that ran in the New York Times on April 26, 2007 in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech. That column affected me so deeply I could do nothing else in the world until I could write a song -- "More Than One Million Americans."
I sent her a rough mix of that song, and Elizabeth responded with a handwritten note, not an email -- telling me that sending that song to her was not enough, that I had to put that song out into the world. I had no plans to make an album that year, but when I got that note, I knew that I had to. With all she was dealing with -- for her to take the time to send me a handwritten note, I had to follow her lead. That song is on the album Happydance Of The Xenophobe.
I get a good amount of hate mail from gun owners because of that song. I always write back to them, "I just give statistics and ask questions. All I ask of you is not to shoot the messenger."
Friends ask me if I worry about angering the gun-totin' segment of our population with an anti-gun song and I always say no. If any of them took a shot at me my record sales would skyrocket and they'd never want to see that happen. I feel like that vaccinates me against them.
When the scandal broke involving her husband I went through my music library and emailed Elizabeth songs by friends that I thought might help. One was the Michel LeGrande song "On My Way To You" sung by a New York singer named Kevin Dozier. She told me how much she loved that song, and I was so hoping that she would have a miraculous recovery, then fall in love with a man she'd be deliriously happy with for the rest of her life. Sigh.
I was performing in Israel when she died. I gathered with the Israeli musicians, taught them the Tom Paxton song "Peace Will Come," and we ended the festival dedicating it to Elizabeth.
Nine and a half years ago I first read about John Edwards in a newspaper while waiting out a snowstorm at LaGuardia Airport. It almost seems fitting that he'd be in the audience for a show that included a male beauty pageant. But watching his life unravel has been painful. Part of me wants to see him punished, but then my thoughts turn to his three youngest children. I don't think Elizabeth would want them to suffer any more than they already have.
If only we could have loved her husband as much as we loved her.