While Emmylou Harris’s Pieces of the sky did not hit the top of the charts, it had a crucial impact on young listeners in the second half of the 1970s, merging country, rock, and folk to provide a hybrid form of country that appealed to an audience that was otherwise removed from the typical country audience in age, politics, and geography.
Despite its eclectic repertoire—ranging from old country standards to the Beatles—one of the album’s great strengths lies in Harris’s coherent stylistic approach, which bridges the gaps between pieces that one might be surprised to find together. This wide-ranging yet cohesive sound was to become one of Harris’s trademarks.
This according to “Emmylou Harris: Pieces of the sky (1975)” by James E. Perone, a chapter in The album: a guide to pop music’s most provocative, influential, and important creations. III (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012, pp. 21–25).
Today is Harris’s 70th birthday! Above, the singer-songwriter in 1975, when the album was released; below, the full album.
While Mstislav Rostropovič is widely remembered for his vast talents and fearless politics, his associates also knew him as a man of boundless high spirits.
As a conductor, he often hopped off the podium at the end of a performance and kissed and hugged every musician within reach.
Notorious for his mischievous sense of humor, he sometimes surprised his accompanists by pasting centerfolds from men’s magazines into the pages of their scores. At a 70th-birthday tribute to Isaac Stern, he performed Saint-Säens’s Le cygne wearing white tights, a ballet tutu, a swanlike headdress, and red lipstick (inset, with Stern and Gregory Peck; click to enlarge).
This according to “Mstislav Rostropovich, 80, dissident maestro, dies” by Allan Kozinn (The New York times 28 April 2007, p. A1).
Today would have been Rostropovič’s 90th birthday! Above, dancing with Joseph Brodsky and Mihail Baryšnikov; below, a high-spirited encore piece.
Critics, scholars, and performers have long noted that Arturo Toscanini’s reputation for absolute fidelity to the printed score was little more than a public relations myth.
Now that the legendary conductor’s annotated scores are available for study, three types of alterations can be observed: (1) modifications of dynamics, articulation, bowing, phrasing, and tempo; (2) orchestrational adjustments; and (3) the introduction of new material.
The combination of Toscanini’s Italian musical heritage and Wagnerian aesthetic convinced him that the highest service that a conductor could render was to impose certain types of musical changes whenever he sensed that a composer’s artistic conception was threatened. In his mind, there was neither egotism nor hypocrisy in this approach.
This according to “Toscanini and the myth of textual fidelity” by Linda B. Fairtile (Journal of the Conductors Guild XXVI/1–2  49–60).
Today is Toscanini’s 150th birthday! Below, his recording of the first movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, one of the works discussed in the article.
In an interview, Ry Cooder recalled the inspiration for his album My name is Buddy.
“Once I was hipped to Buddy the Cat, I knew that’s my guy. He was a mascot of a record store, living up in Vancouver. They found him living in a suitcase in the alley. I said ‘Okay, I’m there. I can go with that and I know what to say.’”
Buddy is the album’s protagonist—a laid-off, disenfranchised cat who is joined by Lefty the Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad as they travel down the Lost Highways, Cardboard Avenues, and Sundown Towns of a bleak, destitute U.S.
“It’s a tip of the hat to the disappearing of the American working man,” Cooder said, “to the neighborhoods, the way of life, the life that people made for themselves, how they worked, what they achieved…No one’s gonna argue with a cat.”
This according to “Three (or four) chords and the truth: The saga of Ry Cooder and a cat named Buddy” by John Kruth (Sing out! LI/3 [autumn 2007] pp. 52–59).
Today is Cooder’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in 2009; below, Three chords and the truth, the album’s centerpiece.
Heitor Villa-Lobos’s choro no. 10 (Rasga o coração) is a choral-symphonic tour de force that expresses the composer’s ardent nationalism through some of the most progressive compositional techniques of the mid-1920s.
The work’s opening imparts impressions of Brazil’s sonorous natural riches with indigenous melodies and birdsongs, providing an extended prelude to the choral section. The mixed chorus functions at the same level of value and distinction as that of the orchestral architecture, singing vocables meant to evoke aboriginal languages. With the appearance of the Rasga o coração melody, according to the composer, “the Brazilian heart becomes one with the Brazilian land.”
This according to Heitor Villa-Lobos: The search for Brazil’s musical soul by Gerard Béhague (Austin: University of Texas, 1994, pp. 87–96).
Today is Villa-Lobos’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1922; below, a performance by Orquestra Sinfônica Municipal de Campinas.
Despite living in a racially stratified 1930s U.S., Mildred Bailey never sought to hide the fact that she was born into the Coeur d’Alene tribe of Idaho. Rather, it was a source of personal pride that she readily shared with her associates.
Cast within a jazz narrative that left no room for Native Americans, the public image of Bailey as a “white” jazz singer mattered for many reasons—not least, because she exerted considerable influence within the jazz and pop world, pioneering the vocal swing style that countless singers sought to emulate.
Bailey pointed to the Coeur d’Alene songs of her youth as a major factor in shaping her style:
“I don’t know whether this music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable background and training. It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that made it squeak; it removes the boom from the contralto voice, this Indian singing does, because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover an awful range.”
This according to “American Indian jazz: Mildred Bailey and the origins of America’s most musical art form” by Chad Hamill, an essay included in Indigenous pop: Native American music from jazz to hip hop (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016, pp. 33–46).
Today is Bailey’s 110th birthday! Below, Thanks for the memory from 1938.
In a 2008 interview, Ralph Stanley recalled his participation in the soundtrack of the film O brother, where art thou?, which brought him a level of international recognition that he had never dreamed of—particularly for his haunting rendition of the traditional Appalachian spiritual O Death.
“T-Bone Burnett had several auditions for that song. He wanted it in the Dock Boggs style. So I got my banjo and learned it the way he did it…I went down with my banjo to Nashville and I said, “T-Bone, let me sing it the way I want to sing it,” and I laid my banjo down and sung it a cappella. After two or three verses, he stopped me and said, “That’s it.”
Quoted in “Old-time man” by Don Harrison (Virginia living June 2008, pp. 54–57).
Today would have been Ralph Stanley’s 90th birthday! Below, a performance from later in his career. (Can anyone tell us the place and date? We wonder if it’s his performance for the 2006 National Medal of Arts ceremony.)
While Kurt Cobain openly disdained certain elements of his audience, he liked the idea of bending their minds to his left-leaning convictions.
“I wanted to fool people at first” he said in an interview. “I wanted people to think that we were no different than Guns n’ Roses. Because that way they would listen to the music first, accept us, and then maybe start listening to a few things that we had to say.” When he began letting loose with carefully aimed condemnations of racism, sexism, and homophobia, he was pleased to discover that high schools had become divided between Nirvana kids and Guns n’ Roses kids.
This according to “Generation exit” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker 25 April 1994, pp. 102–06).
Today would have been Cobain’s 50th birthday! Below, performing in 1992.
Eubie Blake enjoyed a rewarding career in the 1910s and 1920s with his lifelong friend and lyricist Noble Sissle, both as the duo Sissle and Blake, the most successful black act of their time, and as songwriters for landmark musicals—most notably Shuffle along (1921), which included their most enduring number, I’m just wild about Harry.
Blake continued to compose songs for revues through the 1930s and 1940s, although none of his ventures reached the level of success that he experienced in the 1920s. But the ragtime revival of the 1950s kindled new interest in his talents, and he began playing and composing ragtime pieces.
In 1969 Columbia issued a two-LP set, The 86 years of Eubie Blake, featuring both his ragtime and his show music (along with a reunion with Sissle), which helped to renew interest in his work. During the last decades of his life Blake had his own record label, and his songs returned to Broadway in the anthology revue Eubie! (1978), which ran for 439 performances. The show’s namesake attended several times and performed a few songs on opening night.
This according to “Eubie Blake” by David A. Jasen, an article in Tin Pan Alley: An encyclopedia of the golden age of American song (New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 47–48); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Blake’s 130th birthday! Below, performing in 1972.
The operetta Das Dreimäderlhaus (1916) was based on Schwammerl (Mushroom, one of Schubert’s nicknames), a novel about Franz Schubert by Rudolf Hans Bartsch; the music incorporated numerous melodies by the composer. U.S. and U.K. adaptations followed: Blossom time (1921) and Lilac time (1922), respectively.
Unsurprisingly, the work was excoriated by critics, scholars, and performers for its defilement of Schubert’s melodies, spurious plot lines, and superficial, misleading, and sentimentalized portrayal of the composer’s character. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau derided it as “Schubert steeped in kitsch”, while Maurice J.E. Brown declared that “the popularity of this pastiche has done Schubert more harm than good.”
Audiences, however, adored it; the operetta passed its 1000th Berlin performance in 1918, and its 1100th Viennese one in 1927.
This according to “Of mushrooms and lilac blossom” by Richard Morris (The Schubertian 27 [December 1999] pp. 6–14; 28 [March 2000] pp. 15–18).
Today is Schubert’s 220th birthday! Above, a poster for the 1958 film version starring Karlheinz Böhm; below, excerpts from a 2016 production by Bühne Baden.
BONUS: Selections from Sigmund Romberg’s score for Blossom time; the show’s publicity breathlessly promised, among other attractions, “32 Schubert themes in eight bars.”