The revered Karnatak vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer only acted in one film: Thukkaram (1938), in which he portrayed the 17th-century Hindu poet and saint Tukaram.
The shooting of the film ran into an unusual problem. The hero had to sport a bushy moustache, and in those days makeup materials were crude and even primitive. Moustaches and beards were stuck to the actor’s face with spirit gum, and when the gum dried the skin would burn and pull, the degree of irritation depending on the sensitivity of one’s skin.
Musiri suffered unbearable irritation, and he threatened that he would walk out if he had to endure the suffering any longer. Left with no choice, the producers permitted him to grow his own moustache. The shooting had to be stopped while Musiri waited for his lip hair to grow to the degree of bushiness required by the script.
This according to “Filmsinger in saint’s clothing: Tuka-ram” by Randor Guy (Sruti 176 [May 1999] pp. 35–38).
Today is Musiri’s 120th birthday! Above, a publicity shot for the film.
André Previn may well have been the last of the great 20th-century American musical eclectics. He had it all, making a mark on Broadway and in Hollywood, on classical concert stages and in jazz clubs, in pop songs and violin concertos.
He was not a mere dabbler: In every context, he was always plausible, and often inspired. He was also a great popularizer, a figure who, like his idol Leonard Bernstein, suggested that it was possible to know about, and even love, all kinds of music.
When a young Mr. Previn conducted symphony orchestras, he typified the verve and boyish enthusiasm of a pop star; performing lighter fare on television, he carried himself with a rarefied swagger. Even Dizzy Gillespie was a fan. “He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get,” Gillespie said.
This according to “André Previn: Hear the many facets of a musical polymath” by Zachary Woolfe, et al. (The New York times [online only] 1 March 2019).
Today would have been Previn’s 90th birthday! Above, conducting from the piano in 1965; below, performing Jule Styne’s Just in time in 1961.
Richard Thompson wrote Meet on the Ledge for Fairport Convention in 1969, while he was still a teenager, shaken by the loss of a close friend.
Already well schooled in traditional ballads, Thompson was aware—consciously or not—that sparing the details would lend a universal appeal to the song, which is at once a memorial and a source of comfort.
“I always believed in an afterlife,” he said in an interview. “Even at the age I wrote that I had that belief and that is reflected in the song in a subtle way. It can be taken in many ways, as fans continually remind me!”
“It’s only because it became kind of anthemic for some people that I revisited the song. I had to drag it out and look at it and think ‘Are there things that I can extract from this song so that I can continue to enjoy it?’ And there are. I can find things in it that still speak for me.”
And it speaks for many others as well—in 2004 Meet on the ledge was voted number 17 in BBC Radio 2’s top 100 songs.
This according to I shot a man in Reno: A history of death by murder, suicide, fire, flood, drugs, disease, and general misadventure, as related in popular song by Graeme Thomson (New York: Continuum, 2008, pp. 170–71).
Today is Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday! Above, with Fairport around the time he wrote the song; below, performing it in 2006.
Homer Rodeheaver used his gifts as a trombone player as a tool for evangelism, and is particularly associated with what is known as the third great awakening.
Rodeheaver established a legacy by influencing, inspiring, and encouraging others to use the trombone in large-scale Christian evangelism. His missionary work took him, always with his trombone, to many parts of the world, and included a supposedly successful attempt to preach from an airplane with his trombone in tow.
This according to “Homer Rodeheaver: Reverend Trombone” by Douglas Yeo (Historic Brass Society journal XXVII  pp. 57–88).
You can listen to a recording of Rodeheaver playing the trombone here.
BONUS: Rare footage of Rodeheaver with Billy Sunday; Rodeheaver starts conducting audience hymn singing with his trombone around 2:00.
The performance and reception of post-World War II Filipino American popular music provide crucial tools for composing Pinoy identities, publics, and politics.
Filipino musicians like the Bay Area turntablist DJ group Invisibl Skratch Piklz bear the burden of racialized performers in the U.S. and defy conventions on musical ownership, challenging dominant U.S. imperialist tropes of Filipinos as primitive, childlike, derivative, and mimetic.
On many fronts, Filipino musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers work within and against the legacies of the U.S./Philippine imperial encounter, and in so doing, move beyond preoccupations with authenticity and offer new ways to reimagine tropical places.
This according to Tropical renditions: Making musical scenes in Filipino America by Christine Bacareza Balance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
Above and below, Invisibl Skratch Piklz in action.
In 1991 the celebrated singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso discussed the legacy of Carmen Miranda:
“She was a typical girl from Rio, born in Portugal, who, using a blatantly vulgar though elegant stylization of the characteristic baiana—Bahian dress—conquered the world and became the highest-paid woman in the United States. Carmen conquered white America as no other South American had done or ever would. She was the only representative of South America who was universally readable, and it is exactly because of this quality that self-parody became her inescapable prison.”
“Nevertheless, in 1967 Carmen Miranda reappeared as a central figure in our aesthetic concerns. A movement that came to be known as Tropicalismo appropriated her as one of its principal signs, capitalizing on the discomfort that her name and the evocation of her gestures could create. We had discovered that she was both our caricature and our X-ray, and we began to take notice of her destiny.”
“In Carmen’s day it was enough to make a percussive din that was recognizably Latin and Negroid. By bringing the musicians from Bando da Lua with her to the United States, however, she represented less the adulteration alleged by her critics than a pioneering role in a history that is still unfolding. It is the history of the relationship between a very rich music from a very poor country and musicians and audiences from the rest of the world.”
Quoted from “Caricature and conqueror, pride and shame” by Caetano Veloso (The New York times 20 October 1991).
Today is Miranda’s 110th birthday! Above, in 1941; below, performing in A date with Judy (yes, that’s 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in the audience).
Related article: Tropicália and Bahia
The jazz singer Jeanne Lee engaged in acts of reclamation of her identity, itself part of a greater project undertaken by creative black women.
Jazz standards with lyrics, written overwhelmingly by men, often reveal male constructions of female identity, even if sometimes seemingly from the narrative position of a woman. They therefore form a culturally important and influential way in which women have been defined by others, usually by men. Lee’s acts of redefinition—the ways in which she altered the ontologies of womanhood presented in standards—opened a possibility of subverting these externally imposed identities in subtle or overt ways.
This according to “This ain’t a hate thing: Jeanne Lee and the subversion of the jazz standard” by Eric Lewis (Jazz & culture I  pp. 49–76).
Today would have been Lee’s 80th birthday! Above, Lee in 1984; below, singing “All about Ronnie” in 1963.
The DJs and laptop performers of electronic dance music (EDM) use preexistent elements such as vinyl records and digital samples to create fluid, dynamic performances. These performances are also largely improvised, evolving in response to the demands of a particular situation through interaction with a dancing audience.
In performance, musicians make numerous spontaneous decisions about variables such as which sounds they will play, when they will play them, and how they will be combined with other sounds. Yet the elements that constitute these improvisations are also fixed in certain fundamental ways: Performances are fashioned from patterns or tracks recorded beforehand, and, in the case of DJ sets, these elements are also physical objects (vinyl records).
This according to Playing with something that runs: Technology, improvisation, and composition in DJ and laptop performance by Mark J. Butler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Above and below, “The Wizard” Jeff Mills, who provides a case study in the book.
BONUS: Mr. Mills performs in 2016.
Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples.
The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history—it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theater, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India.
An analysis of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography, and current performance practice illuminates new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.
This according to India’s kathak dance in historical perspective by Margaret E. Walker (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Above, Birju Maharaj, one of the consummate kathak performers of our time; below, in a rare seated performance, Maharaj depicts the sensuous world of a young woman as monsoon season approaches.
BONUS: The finale of a performance that includes some of Maharaj’s star students.
When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.
This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.
This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).
Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.