Oct

28

Few artists have captivated audiences with equal enchantment in coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, have sung for prisoners and for presidents, have come to be known by first name only and to speak for millions at the same time, becoming the voice of a movement that shaped the course of history. But singer, songwriter, and activist Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930—December 2, 2008), better-known simply as Odetta and widely celebrated as the “voice of the civil rights movement,” did just that.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. revered her as the “queen of American folk music.” The New York Times anointed her a “mother goddess” of folk and blues. The Washington Post called her a “matriarch for a generation of folk singers.” Reconstructionist Maya Angelou proclaimed that “if only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.”

Odetta’s influenced fueled a remarkable creative lineage that stretches across Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Tracy Chapman, Nick Cave, Jewel, and Nellie McKay. In Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Dylan cites her 1956 album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues — the same record that inspired young Janis Joplin to become a singer — as a key turning point in his musical career:

The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta… . I heard a record of hers in a record store… . Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.

So monumental was Odetta’s cultural impact that her life was even adapted in a children’s book.

Above all, however, Odetta considered herself a “musical historian” who brought back to life — to new, more dimensional life, thanks to her remarkable vocal range of soprano-to-baritone — the forgotten songs of chain gangs, cowboys, and the working poor, which she herself excavated from the archives of the Library of Congress. She saw in that music a way to deconstruct the conceits of culture, something she articulated beautifully in a 1965 New York Times interview:

In folk music, complex emotions are spoken about with such simplicity that it’s the highest form of art to me. You can unclutter things.

Aug

19

As if to be a successful woman before the the feminist revolution and a person of color before the civil rights movement weren’t hard enough in and of themselves, Margaret Bonds (March 3, 1913—April 26, 1972) was both. But despite the era’s cultural odds stacked against her success, she went on to become an exceptional pianist and composer and endures as a beacon in a creative field to this day dominated by white men.

Born to a church-organist mother, Bonds began learning to play the piano at age five. By the time she was thirteen, she was already learning composition; at sixteen, she enrolled at Chicago’s Northwestern University to formally study the art that had already become her calling, and four years later, shortly after being awarded the prestigious Wanamaker Prize for her composition “Sea Horse,” which won her nation-wide acclaim, Bonds earned a scholarship to complete a graduate study at the university — all feats of extraordinary magnitude given the circumstances and cultural norms of the times.

In 1933, barely twenty, Bonds performed a concertino at the Chicago World’s Fair. Later that year, she became African American to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1936, Bonds met poet Langston Hughes and so commenced a great friendship and lifelong collaboration as Bonds set much of Hughes’s work to music. Their creative relationship is said to have sparked Hughes’s 1954 children’s book about jazz.

Bonds moved to New York City in 1939 with the intention of studying at Juilliard, where she enrolled two years later with the help of a scholarship from Roy Harris. Over the decades that followed, Bonds continued to hone her mastery of composition and to amass honors. In 1967, the mayor of Chicago declared January 31 Margaret Bonds Day.

In the liner notes to the solo piano compilation of William Chapman Nyaho, Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent, fellow reconstructionist Maya Angelou captures the extent and enormity of Bonds’s talent, including the fact that she committed most of her piano music to memory:

As a highly successful composer, Bonds wrote for a variety of genres including orchestral and choral music, chamber music, art songs and popular songs. Her arrangements of Negro spirituals were sung by legendary sopranos such as Leontyne Price. It is interesting to note, however, that there is little of her piano music in print due to the fact that as an accomplished concert pianist and improviser, most of her piano music was committed to memory and not written down.

Bonds moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and spent her last five years there. A month after her death, the the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra performed her final major work, Credo, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and with text by W. E. B. Dubois.

May

20

Few artists have done more to reconstruct the course of contemporary culture than Patti Smith (b. December 30 1946). Celebrated as the “Godmother of Punk,” her musical influence reverberates across acclaimed artists from Garbage to Morrissey to Madonna, and Michael Stipe famously cited her as the core inspiration for founding R.E.M. As a poet and visual artist, she has explored with lyrical poignancy issues of irrepressible urgency, ranging from foreign policy to mortality.

Among Smith’s greatest feats it the systematic demolition of the the perilous and artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture. In 1978, her song “Because the Night” from the groundbreaking album Horses reached #13 on the Billboard 100 chart; in 2010, her remarkable memoir Just Kids earned her the National Book Award. William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud have inspired much of her music, which has moved generations of hearts and bodies across dance floors and mosh pits. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture; in 2006, she brought down the house at CBGB’s with an extraordinary 3½-hour masterpiece of a performance. The following year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Allen Ginsberg once bought her a sandwich in the East Village after mistaking her for “a very pretty boy.”

In the decades between Horses (1975) and Banga (2012), Smith recorded nine other studio albums, delivered countless poetry readings, and authored a number of books, including the breathtaking The Coral Sea, which chronicles her grief over the loss of her onetime lover, lifelong friend, and comrade-in-artistic-arms Robert Mapplethorpe.

In Just Kids, which documents how Smith found her creative voice during her early life with Mapplethorpe when both were aspiring artists in New York City, she articulates the singular duality of her muse:

It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.

Apr

01

One of the most innovative and influential vocalists in modern history, Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), better-known as Billie Holiday and famously nicknamed Lady Day, shaped the evolution of jazz and pop music. With her distinctive vocal delivery, inspired by jazz instrumentation, and her innovative manipulation of tempo and phrasing, she ushered in a new era of singing, popularizing jazz and enthralling wider and wider audiences.

Yet Holiday’s life was a far cry from following a smooth upward trajectory into stardom.

Raised by a single mother and raped by her neighbor at the age of eleven, she spent her early teens running errands at a brothel in exchange for the chance to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records. Shortly after her mother became a prostitute in Harlem, so did Eleanora. She was barely fourteen. But in the darkness of those early years, she somehow found the light that would guide her life. It was in Harlem that she first began singing at night clubs, taking her stage pseudonym from the names of actress Billie Dove and musician Clarence Halliday, the man she’d grown up considering her father. In November of 1933, at the age of 18, Holiday made her recording debut after the influential jazz producer and civil rights activist John Hammond found himself mesmerized by her voice at Covan’s club on West 132nd Street.

It took more than half a decade for Holiday to reach mainstream success, which she did in 1939 with her rendition of “Strange Fruit” — the highly political song based on a poem about a lynching written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol. Holiday first performed it with great trepidation, partly in fear of political retaliation and partly because it reminded her of the injustice surrounding the death of her father, who she believed had been denied vital lung treatment due to racial bigotry.

Despite blossoming into critical acclaim, however, Holiday’s personal life was a whirlwind of turmoil. Openly bisexual, she bounced between numerous affairs with men and women, most notoriously with the glamorous Broadway actress Tallulah Bankhead. By the early 1940s, she was at the height of her career and was earning $1,000 per week, but had spiraled into addiction and was spending nearly all her income on drugs. Over the decade that followed, despite having become commercially successful, her drug use, drinking, and tumultuous relationships with abusive men gradually but steadily eroded both her health and her ability to ability to defend her professional standing as she was being progressively defrauded of her earnings.

Still, her talent and her passion for singing were never questioned. In 1958, Frank Sinatra called her “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” The following year, Holiday’s addiction finally claimed her and she died of heart failure caused by alcoholism-induced liver cirrhosis. Though she only had $0.70 in the bank at the time of her death, her imprint on music history remains priceless and inextinguishable. In 1973, Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, reminding us that talent and tragedy may go hand in hand but the height of the human spirit transcends the tragic.