Helen May Butler’s career provides a welcome counternarrative to the men’s professional bands—such as John Philip Sousa’s—that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Butler had the professional and musical clout to attract the top female talent needed to form a first-rate professional ensemble. Her Ladies’ Military Band rose to prominence during a time when being a professional woman required sacrifice, in terms of both family life and customary female identity. Butler’s perseverance and tenacity in creating an accomplished ensemble of women in a male-dominated field is an important and inspirational addition to the history of both U.S. concert bands and the women’s movement of her time.
This according to “Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band: Being professional during the golden age of bands” by Brian D. Meyers, an essay included in Women’s bands in America: Performing music and gender (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, pp. 15–49).
Today is Butler’s 150th birthday! Below, an undated photograph of her Ladies’ Brass Band, which toured between 1901 and 1912 (click to enlarge).
Benga, a Kenyan dance music, first emerged within the Luo community during the late 1960s. The genre has provided many Kenyans with a malleable platform that connects with the traditional ethnic poetic and musical sensibilities that have been resilient in both rural and urban Luo life.
Despite criticism that it was unpolished and parochial, benga’s development shows a clear movement towards sophistication and compositional experimentation. Ultimately benga musicians succeeded in creating a style distinct from its regional counterparts using traditional Luo melodic rhythmic structures and accompaniment cycles.
This according to “Continuities and innovation in Luo song style: Creating the benga beat in Kenya 1960 to 1995” by Ian Eagleson (African music IX/4  pp. 91–122).
Above and below, Okatch Biggy, a pioneer of 1990s benga.
The young Scottish traditional singer Jean Redpath shared a New York apartment with Bob Dylan in the early 1960s; she went on to make more than 40 recordings, not least the astonishing project she embarked upon with the American composer Serge Hovey, to record all of the songs composed and collected by Robert Burns.
Hovey arranged 323 Burns songs for her, matching them to their original melodies, often with imaginative contemporary orchestral arrangements. Redpath recorded seven albums of these arrangements, which were critically acclaimed, and went on to make other Burns albums as well.
This according to “Jean Redpath, MBE” by Jim Gilchrist (The Scotsman, 23 August 2014).
Today would have been Redpath’s 80th birthday! Above, a portrait by Alexander Fraser commissioned by the Glenrothes Burns Club; below, Redpath’s recording of Burns’s Green grow the rashes.
In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its fast-moving lines.
Late that year she recorded a deeply bop-inflected version of How high the moon that was based on one of her offhand improvisations. The producer Milt Gabier recalled “We taped it in my office on a little tape machine. We had the arrangement written from that, then she came in and did it.”
Adorned with sly musical references to Charlie Parker, Ella’s playful rendition begins with a straight version of the song before doubling the tempo and switching the lyrics: “How high the moon is the name of this song/How high the moon, though the words may be wrong.” A superb scat improvisation follows that is wholly colored by bop.
This according to Ella Fitzgerald: A biography of the first lady of jazz by Stuart Nicholson (London: Routledge, 2014 [updated edition]).
Today is Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday! Above, Ella and Dizzy in 1947, the year of the recording; below, the recording itself.
In an interview, Iggy Pop described the influence of John Coltrane’s music on his career.
“The first time I heard Coltrane the cut was A love supreme, and that’s an extremely simple three-note bass line that repeats without variance throughout the duration of a very long piece.”
“I was a novice unfamiliar with that sort of jazz, and I heard him run through the gamut of emotions on his horn, from tender to angry to bluesy to just…insane, to where it actually sounded offensive to me—until later.”
“I liked the way he was dancing over, above, under, within, and without this rock solid motif that didn’t change, and that three-note motif established a trance world where he could do all those things. It seemed timely, spiritual, and earthy all at the same time.”
“What I heard John Coltrane do with his horn I tried to do physically.”
Quoted in “Iggy Pop” by Kristine McKenna, in Talk to her: Interviews (Seattle, Fantagraphics, 2004, pp. 174–82).
Today is Iggy Pop’s 70th birthday! Below, live in 1986.
Although Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was celebrated as one of 1993’s top records by Spin and the New York times, to some it was an abomination: a mockery of The Rolling Stones’s most revered album, Exile on Main Street, and a rare glimpse into the psyche of a shrewd, independent, strong young woman. For these crimes she was run out of her hometown of Chicago, enduring a flame war perpetrated by writers who accused her of being boring, inauthentic, and even a poor musician.
With Exile in Guyville, Phair spoke for all the young women who loved the world of indie rock but felt deeply unwelcome there. Like all great works of art, Exile was a harbinger of the shape of things to come: Phair may have undermined the male ego, but she also unleashed a new female one.
This according to Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Today is Liz Phair’s 50th birthday! Above, a screenshot from the official video for Never said, the album’s major airplay hit; below, the full video.
When Jane Evrard founded the Orchestre féminin de Paris in 1930 she became one of the first professional women conductors in France. The group was among the most active and well-received ensembles in the French capital from its inaugural concert until World War II.
At a time when female instrumentalists were seldom able to join professional orchestras, the all-woman ensemble provided an important performance platform for talented women string players. The group was distinguished both by the quality of its performance and by its eclectic and innovative repertoire, specializing both in reviving Baroque compositions and in promoting contemporary music.
Looking back on her career, Evrard recalled her bemusement over the mild furor caused by the appearance of a woman at the head of an orchestra: “The great critic Vuillermoz found curious and significant the conquest of feminism represented by the taking of possession of a conductor’s baton. And he compared my orchestra to a battalion composed exclusively of Amazons which I led into combat!”
This according to “On the conductor’s podium: Jane Evrard and the Orchestre Féminin de Paris” by Laura Hamer (The musical times CLII/1916 [autumn 2011] pp. 81–100). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Below, Evrard and the orchestra perform a pair of dance pieces by Lully.
Merle Haggard’s best songs are powerful vignettes portraying damaged souls who manage to summon the inner strength to resist life’s worst onslaughts. That Haggard himself lived through many of the traumas he sang about is evident from his music, giving it a rare emotional quality.
Born near Bakersfield, California, to a family of Oklahomans who had just made the westward trek, Haggard’s early childhood home was a converted boxcar. His father died of a stroke when Merle was 9. Many of his songs recall the troubles of those early years.
Haggard quit school in the eighth grade and hopped on a freight train when he was 14, roaming the Southwest for several years and filling the void left by his father’s death with a life of petty crime and time in reform schools. This was also when he began dabbling in music. At 20, Haggard—now an alcoholic, married, and a father—attempted to break into a restaurant. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in San Quentin.
Paroled in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield and, while digging ditches for his brother, began performing country music on the side. He scored a regional hit in 1963, landing him his first major record contract. In 1966 he topped the country charts for the first of what would be many times.
This according to “Merle Haggard” by Greg Bower (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 269); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today would have been Haggard’s 80th birthday! Above, the singer-songwriter in 1967; below, performing the semi-autobiographical Mama tried in 1986.
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.