T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharata nāṭyam.
Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.
This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).
Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.
The Atlanta bluesman William Samuel McTier, who performed and recorded as Blind Willie McTell, is known today for his iconic songs and Piedmont fingerpicking 12-string guitar playing.
When he died in 1959 he passed like a vague shadow, missed only by a few friends, family members, and some scattered blues fans, his music consigned to one of the dustier back shelves of Southern Americana. But that same year the renowned folklorist Samuel Charters published his Country blues, with passages that raised McTell to the status of blues master. In the years since he has risen from his obscurity in stunning profile, as enduring as the vibrant music he left behind.
This according to “Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta’s 12-string minstrel for all seasons” by David Fulmer (Blues access 11 [fall 1992] pp. 30–35).
Today is Blind Willie McTell’s 120th birthday! Below, his much-covered Statesboro blues.
As a small child, Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan proved able to reproduce songs after hearing them once, and she could recognize individual rāgas when she was three years old.
As word of this talented child spread, a neighbor arranged for her to study Karnatak music. She gave her first full-length concert when she was 11; the next year she performed on All India Radio, and soon she had a contract for regular broadcasts.
While she enjoyed a successful career, she never pushed for stardom—she was content to earn the respect of her colleagues and maintain an unstressful schedule as a performer and teacher. One of the pioneering career women in Karnatak music, she also demonstrated the possibility of leading a full family life at the same time.
This according to “Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan: A lifetime of music” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (Sruti 266 [November 2006] pp. 33–45).
Today would have been Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan’s 90th birthday! Below, a recording from her heyday.
Filed under Asia, Performers
Some jazz critics and fans who admired other aspects of Lionel Hampton’s musicianship criticized him for his raw blues riffing, hard backbeat, screaming and honking saxophones, and stunts like marching into the audience with his horn players or getting the audience to clap along.
“I learned all that in the Sanctified Church: the beat, the hand-clapping, marching down the aisles and into the audience” he explained in a 1987 interview.
“When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she’d take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time. They’d have a whole band in the church—guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums—and they’d be rocking. I’d be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she’d get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I’d grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me.”
This according to “Lionel Hampton, who put swing in the vibraphone, is dead at 94” by Peter Watrous (The New York times CLI/52,228 [1 September 2002] pp. 1, 35).
Today is Hampton’s 110th birthday! Below, performing Flying home, which is widely cited as a forerunner of rhythm and blues.
Writing in 1955, a colleague recalled Lily Pons’s 1931 Metropolitan Opera debut:
“If all goes well on the first night of a new career in America, ‘a new Pope has been chosen’, as an old saying goes. Lily was a success and remained one.”
“In Lucia, though her age was something on the order of 30, she looked like a teenager. It was rumored that she was only 18; she was so dainty, petite, and graceful that everyone was willing to believe it.”
“For the first time in history a French coloratura had conquered America, and the novelty of it seemed to please everyone. Lily became their favorite toy, their baby doll, replete with Jaguars, Siamese cats, or Tibetan dogs with jeweled leashes accompanying her everywhere, like the descendant of some Grand Lama.”
This according to “Coloraturas at the Metropolitan” by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, reprinted in Lily Pons: A centennial portrait (Portland: Amadeus, 1999, pp. 38–45).
Today is Pons’s 120th birthday! Above, costumed for Lakmé, with a friend; below, performing that opera’s Où va la jeune Hindoue? (popularly known as Bell song), one of Pons’s signature arias.
Throughout his performing career Paul Robeson was fashioning an activist cultural theory to help to liberate his people and, increasingly, to support the cause of persecuted people everywhere.
His decision to sing the traditional songs of cultures in addition to his own—including songs in Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian—reflected his deepening and expanding identification with oppressed humanity irrespective of color.
This according to “‘I want to be African’: Paul Robeson and the ends of nationalist theory and practice, 1914–1945” by Sterling Stuckey (Massachusetts review XVII/1 [spring 1976] pp. 81–138; reprinted in Going through the storm: The influence of African American art in history (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 187–227).
Today is Robeson’s 120th birthday! Above, the singer, actor, and activist in 1942; below, singing Go down Moses, a classic African American spiritual—a genre that Robeson considered one of the finest examples of black artistic expression.
Although 19th-century Parisian salon music was usually described in feminine terms (not including genius), the roles it played in social and political discourse preclude its disparagement as trivial; the genre should be approached as a social category rather than a formal one. The contrast between María Malibrán’s unconventional public life and her semi-private works is best understood in this context.
Malibrán published four song anthologies as well as many individual songs, which were not, however, composed to show off her virtuosity. These works illuminate how in salon music the authorship of singer and composer recedes behind an unspecific poetic I. Malibrán’s true voice is situated between her virtuosity as singer and her comparatively restrained compositions.
This according to “Voiceless songs: Maria Malibran as composer” by Mary Ann Smart, an essay included in Authorschaft—Genie—Geschlecht: Musikalische Schaffensprozesse von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart (Köln: Böhlau, 2013, pp. 137–58).
Today is Malibrán’s 210th birthday! Below, her L’Écossais.
Christa Ludwig has been called “the Earth Mother of all singers”, and the designation is fitting in every possible way—the arresting beauty of the sound itself, the reassuring strength of her technique, and the intense expressiveness of her singing, wed to a disarming simplicity and directness that sets her apart from some of her famous contemporaries. That lack of pretentiousness is a hallmark of her offstage personality as well, for which she is adored by fans and colleagues alike.
As a teacher, Ludwig sets exactly the right tone by asserting herself firmly as the person in charge, yet with an inviting warmth and charm. She is not shy about bestowing compliments when warranted, but she is an exacting teacher, not reluctant to cut off a singer after two or three notes to correct an errant rendition.
In short, Christa Ludwig is everything that a professional singer should be, and the fact that she was able to sing for so long with such excellence is perhaps the highest tribute of all.
This according to “The listener’s gallery” by Gregory Berg (Journal of singing LXV/1 [September–October 2008] pp. 119–24).
Today is Ludwig’s 90th birthday! Above, in 2015; below, singing Mahler’s Urlicht.
Ranking among America’s most influential and versatile musical figures, Allen Toussaint excelled as a songwriter, arranger, session pianist, and producer. His influence extends across the popular music landscape; though he is most often associated with the music of his native New Orleans, he enjoyed success in R&B, jazz, country, blues, and pop. His piano playing blended the wealth of Crescent City styles, barrelhouse blues, marching band references, jazzy intervals, and sweeping octave leaps.
By the late 1950s Toussaint was already cranking out hits and frequently doubling as keyboard player and/or producer. In the 1960s two of his instrumentals became huge pop standards—Java for Al Hirt and Whipped cream for Herb Alpert. Glen Campbell’s version of his Southern nights was nominated for the Country Music Association Song of the Year award in 1977, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
This according to “Toussaint, Allen” by Ron Wynn (Encyclopedia of the blues II  pp. 1005–396); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today would have been Toussaint’s 80th birthday! Above, receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2013; below, his classic Yes we can can.
Ruth Brown’s recordings—including, just for starters, 5-10-15 hours, (Mama) He treats your daughter mean, and Oh what a dream—have come to define for generations of music lovers the epitome of 1950s-era R&B: elegant and swinging, yet with a sassy sexiness that proclaimed the freedom-seeking spirit of a new generation.
Generations of vocalists, extending into the present day, have cited her as a major musical role model. And they weren’t all women: Little Richard patterned his squeal on his hit Lucille after Brown’s squeal on (Mama) He treats your daughter mean three years earlier.
This according to “Ruth Brown” by David Whiteis (Living blues XXXVII/1:188 [February 2007] pp. 69–71).
Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2005; below, Little Richard’s muse in 1955.