Willie Nelson releases “Red Headed Stranger”

The following content is sponsored by Legacy Recordings.

On May 1, 1975, Willie Nelson releases “Red Headed Stranger,” a concept album that would become the country music maverick’s first smash hit.

Born and raised in Texas, Nelson made his way to the country mecca of Nashville, Tennessee by 1960. He quickly earned a reputation writing songs for other artists—including “Crazy,” which became a huge hit for Patsy Cline in 1961—and went on to record more than a dozen albums of his own.

In the early ‘70s, frustrated by the smooth, heavily orchestrated Nashville sound, Nelson moved to Austin, Texas. Amid the city’s growing hippie music scene, Nelson felt free to be his offbeat, bandanna-wearing self. He released “Shotgun Willie,” considered one of his best albums, in 1973, followed by “Phases and Stages.”

But like his previous albums, neither of them sold that well, and when his record company, Atlantic, closed its country branch, Nelson was left without a label. Fortunately, his agent managed to negotiate a contract with Columbia that gave Nelson complete artistic control (a rare thing in the music business).

In January 1975, while driving home from a ski trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Nelson’s then-wife, Connie, reminded him of “Red Headed Stranger,” a ‘50s ballad written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz about a grief-stricken cowboy that Nelson had played on the radio during his years working as a DJ. By the time they got back to Texas, he had spun the story of the song into the concept for his next album.

Combining Nelson’s songs with other songwriters’ work, “Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of the Stranger, a man with long red hair and blue eyes (like Nelson himself). After catching his wife cheating on him with another man, he kills them both, then goes on the run.

Nelson recorded the album in a small studio in Garland, Texas with a trusted group of musicians, including his sister and longtime collaborator, Bobbie. It took about a week and cost just $4,000 in studio costs. The sound was so spare—mostly just piano, guitar and drums—that executives at CBS Records (Columbia’s parent company) didn’t want to put the album out, saying it sounded like a rough demo and people wouldn’t want to buy it.

In fact, “Red Headed Stranger” hit number 1 on the country charts, and eventually went multi-platinum. The first single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (written by Fred Rose) gave Nelson his first number 1 country hit, and his first Grammy Award, for Best Country Vocal Performance. In 2003, Rolling Stone put “Red Headed Stranger” at No. 183 on its list of the top 500 greatest albums, while Country Music Television (CMT) went even further, calling it the greatest country album of all time. 

Check out “Red Headed Stranger” from our sponsor, Legacy Recordings.


Today in History – April 29

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, often said to be America’s greatest composer, bandleader, and recording artist, was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. Nicknamed “Duke” as a youngster, Ellington turned down a visual arts scholarship to focus his life on music. With a background in classical, popular, ragtime, and stride music, Ellington emerged as arguably the greatest single talent in the history of jazz.

Portrait of Duke Ellington, Paramount Theater, New York…,William P. Gottlieb, photographer, ca Sept. 1946. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Duke Ellington is seen here reflected in his dressing room mirror in a picture taken by William Gottlieb for an article in the September 23, 1946, issue of Down Beat magazine. The caption read, “…Duke Ellington with his mirror reflecting his always present piano, his conservative ties, his 20 suits, his 15 shirts, his suede shoes and his smiling self.” Ellington enjoyed being the sophisticated gentleman and would tell the band, “Let’s not pout, gentlemen. It makes bad notes.”

Duke Ellington taught himself James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” by slowing down a piano roll and copying each note. When Johnson appeared in Washington, pals pushed Ellington to play for Johnson and the two became friends. Later in New York, both men played Harlem rent parties.

Portrait of James Price Johnson, New York, N.Y.(?). William P. Gottlieb, photographer, ca. May 1946. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Ellington moved to New York in 1923 with his band, The Washingtonians. They played a variety of venues and over the years made some sixty recordings. Their first big break came in 1927 after Joe “King” Oliver turned down an engagement at the Cotton Club and The Washingtonians played instead.

During an era of strict segregation, the Club prided itself on presenting black performers to white audiences. Paradoxically, however, it refused to seat African Americans—making exceptions for only a few famous individuals such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson or Ethel Waters. Nevertheless, frequent live radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club, where the band played from 1927 through 1931, meant that listeners all across the nation became familiar with the Ellington sound.

Beginning with their run at the Cotton Club, and over the next forty-plus years, Ellington and his band (later called the Duke Ellington Orchestra) maintained an incredibly busy schedule at home and abroad. No venue was too small or too grand. The orchestra often played two shows a day for weeks and then added in a recording session. Despite a slump during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ellington and his remarkably stable orchestra performed at this rigorous pace into the early 1970s.

Trombonist Lawrence Brown joined the band in 1932 and stayed for nineteen years. Drummer Sonny Greer was with the band from its beginning in Washington, D.C. Willie Smith held a chemistry degree from Fisk and played alto sax with Ellington in the early 1950s. In 1929, Ellington hired trombonist Juan Tizol, who added a Latin influence. Mary Lou Williams, one of the great ladies of jazz, occasionally arranged for Ellington and sat in for him at piano when he was hospitalized. Ray Nance played both the violin and trumpet, earning the nickname “Floorshow” for his performance style. Johnny Hodges, known for his genius on the saxophone, was with Ellington for nearly forty years. Al Sears played exciting solos on the tenor sax for approximately five years. There were many others as well, including Paul Gonsalves who was with Ellington for twenty-four years and caused a near riot with his twenty-seven-chorus solo at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

Ellington, according to Alvin Ailey, “collected around him a group of superbly gifted musicians who were like his Stradivarius.” A few are pictured here.

Portrait of Sonny Greer, Aquarium, New York, N.Y.. William P. Gottlieb, photographer, ca. Nov 1946. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division
Portrait of Willie Smith and Juan Tizol, New York, N.Y. William P. Gottlieb, photographer, ca. 1946 to 1948. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division
Portrait of Ray Nance, Aquarium, New York, N.Y. William P. Gottlieb, photographer, ca. Nov. 1946. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division
Portrait of Johnny Hodges and Al Sears, Aquarium, New York, N.Y. William P. Gottlieb, photographer, ca. Nov. 1946. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s closest collaborator, joined the band in 1939; they composed together constantly until Strayhorn’s death in 1967. Their association is one of the most important in the history of American music. Gordon Parks said, “They were like Clark Kent and Superman…they didn’t talk about the music, one would just leave it for the other one, and he would pick up as if he had been writing the whole thing himself.” This practice has made it difficult to distinguish clear authorship in much of the “Ellington” work.

Portrait of Billy Strayhorn, New York, N.Y. between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Over the years Ellington worked musically with many people who became his friends and admirers: Florenz Zigfield, Irving Berlin, Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane, Will Marion Cook, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Max Roach, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Charles Mingus, Frank Sinatra, Maurice Chevalier, and Bing Crosby among others.

Ellington’s musical versatility was astounding and not limited to a traditional jazz format. He also wrote oratorios, suites, concertos, and even opera, as well as for the Broadway stage, movies, television, nightclubs, and more. Ellington, frequently working with Billy Strayhorn, created over 1,500 pieces of music — nearly 6,000, if brief musical interludes are included. His shows, performance, and theater pieces include Jump for Joy, “Man with Four Sides,” and “My People” (for the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago). His classical music includes “The Liberian Suite” (commissioned for the centenary of Liberia), background music for Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, and versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.

Ellington also wrote for and performed in a number of films: Black and Tan Fantasy, Cabin in the Sky, and Assault on a Queen. In 1950, Ellington was featured in three film shorts: Salute to Duke Ellington; Symphony in Swing; and Date with Duke, which combined live action and animated puppets performing the Ellington/Strayhorn piece, “Perfume Suite.” Ellington and Strayhorn also composed the score for the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder.

In his seventies, Ellington continued to tackle new musical challenges. He accepted a commission from the American Ballet Theatre to develop The River, a ballet choreographed by Alvin Ailey, as well as a commission from the New York Public Broadcasting Service station, WNET, to complete a comic opera.

Ellington received sixteen honorary doctorates from U.S. universities and numerous citations. His image has been portrayed on postage stamps and medals, schools and bridges, and babies have been named in his honor. Ellington was knighted, and received the French Legion of Honor, the Ethiopian Emperor’s Star, the Order of Lenin from the Soviet Union, the Spingarn Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Portrait of Duke Ellington, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

The best known of Ellington’s later works were his three Sacred Concerts, which drew on both classical European and African-American forms and styles. The first was performed in 1965 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; the second premiered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York; and the third in 1973 at Westminster Abbey, London. Asked why it took so long to write the last of his concerts Ellington said, “You can jive with secular music, but you can’t jive with the Almighty.” When Duke Ellington died in 1974 over 12,000 mourners said goodbye to “the piano player,” as he called himself; “…our Shakespeare, Goethe, and Cezanne,” according to Rob Gibson, the Lincoln Center’s Director of Jazz.

The Rosary External.” Georgia B. Welles, composer; Robert Cameron Rogers, words; Philadelphia: Eclipse, 1903. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal
At four-years-old, Edward Ellington listened to his mother play a popular piano tune, “The Rosary,” and tears came to his eyes because, “It was so pretty. So pretty.” He started to study piano at seven and told his next door neighbor, “One of these days I’m going to be famous.”


Today in History – April 28

James Henry Neel Reed, known as Henry Reed, was born on April 28, 1884, in the Appalachian Mountains of Monroe County, West Virginia. Reed was a master fiddler, banjoist, and harmonica player whose amazing repertoire consisted of hundreds of tunes, as well as multiple performance styles. His music conveyed tradition while setting new directions, and became a touchstone for academic research into the history of U.S. fiddle music.

Henry Reed was the narrow neck in the hourglass of tradition,
through which tunes were guided
back out into the wider currents of circulation.

Alan Jabbour

Josh and Henry Reed, ca. 1903. Henry Reed, age 19, plays banjo and his older brother Josh plays fiddle. Photograph from the collection of James Reed, reproduced with permission. Carl Fleischhauer, photographer, 1975. Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection. American Folklife Center

Henry Reed learned the overwhelming majority of his tunes by ear and retained them by memory. He learned from elderly musicians such as Quince Dillion, who was born around 1810 and served as a fifer in the Mexican War and the Civil War. As a youngster, Reed learned to read music, played alto horn in a local band, and picked up a few additional tunes from sheet music. Though he never played professionally, he played occasionally for local dances and in countless home music sessions. Musical talent ran in his family; several of Reed’s children accompanied him.

Henry Reed playing the fiddle, accompanied by Bobbie Thompson of the Hollow Rock String Band on guitar, at the Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest… Katherine B. Olson, photographer; Summer 1967. Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection. American Folklife Center

Reed’s musical influence broadened significantly after 1966 when Karen and Alan Jabbour, graduate students at Duke University, began to audio tape his fiddling. Although he originally recorded Henry Reed for academic purposes, Alan Jabbour, an accomplished fiddler himself, also introduced members of the Hollow Rock String Band to the tapes. Tunes such as “Over the Waterfall,” “Kitchen Girl,” and “George Booker” soon became core elements of the band’s repertoire, and Reed’s name was credited. Since the band was at the epicenter of an old-time instrumental music revival that emerged in the Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina area in the late 1960s, Reed’s music was passed from musician to musician through Jabbour’s audiotapes as well as at fiddlers’ conventions, festivals, and jam sessions. At the age of eighty-three, Reed began to enjoy wider recognition for a lifetime’s labor of love.

The titles of Henry Reed’s fiddle tunes are redolent of the old Appalachian frontier. Tunes such as “Cabin Creek” and “Shooting Creek” commemorate the arterial network of Appalachian rivers and creeks. “Forked Deer,” “Ducks in the Pond,” and “Hell Among the Yearlings” evoke the woods and countryside. “Santa Ana’s Retreat” and “British Field March” conjure up episodes in American military history.

Henry Reed playing the fiddle in his living room, Glen Lyn, Virginia, ca. 1967. Karen Singer Jabbour, photographer. Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection. American Folklife Center

The many recordings of Henry Reed along with Alan Jabbour’s transcriptions exemplify a complex syncopated bowing style used by fiddlers from Virginia to Texas. This style of fiddling, an important feature of American musical culture in the twentieth century, appears to have evolved in the Upper South and spread with westward migration.  The style’s syncopated patterns reveal an African-American influence that first appeared during the early 1800s, when perhaps half the fiddlers in the Upper South were African American. Syncopated patterns have influenced the shape of American music ever since—from the minstrel stage of the 1840s through ragtime, blues, jazz, country music, and rock-and-roll. “Georgia Camp Meeting,” for example, was intended originally for the “cake walk,” a popular dance of the ragtime era.

The melodic style of many of Reed’s tunes such as “Shady Grove,” “Cluck Old Hen,” or “Betty Likens” also suggests the influence of Native American music from the Eastern Woodlands and Plains. In contrast to the typical European tonal pattern, these tunes begin in a high pitch and cascade downward.

Henry Reed’s music descends directly from the early fiddlers of the Upper South, both black and white, who achieved a dramatic cultural synthesis of European, African and, possibly, Native American musical forms and patterns. Together these musicians helped to create and shape the character of what some claim is America’s greatest cultural contribution to the world: American music. Fiddler Henry Reed, who died on February 8, 1968, embodied that music’s varied vitality and ensured its continuance.


Caravan of decorated cars bring joy to high school seniors

Boca Raton, Fla. (AP) — Some South Florida high school principals and staff members wanted to bring some cheer to their graduating seniors who’ve been stuck at home since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. So they set up on Saturday in caravans of decorated cars to visit each student.

With schools closed for the remainder of the year, these students will miss out on the traditional cap and gown graduation. Their proms, awards nights and other end of the year festivities were also canceled.

That’s why staff members at Spanish River High in Boca Raton, Cardinal Gibbons High in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton Christian School started brainstorming to come up with ways to give the seniors a psychological lift, the South Florida SunSentinel reported.

“We wanted to make some sort of connection, other than through Zoom,” said Tom Mahon, Cardinal Gibbons president and also the parent of a senior, Kelly.

Mahon and the staff split up into six teams over the weekend to deliver signs to 290 seniors. Upon arrival at each home, they “made a big racket” with their car horns, he told the newspaper.

In Fort Lauderdale, Gibbons senior Tyler Greep said he was working a puzzle with him mom when he heard honking horns outside.

“I saw my principal get out of the car with his mask and a sign,” Greep said. “None of us knew about it. I thought: Whoa, this is awesome.”

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Today in History – April 27

On April 27, 1822, military leader and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio. A quiet, unassuming, and keenly intelligent man, Grant rose to national prominence as the commanding officer of the Union army during the Civil War. Though trained as a soldier at West Point, Grant never aspired to a military career. Of his early cadet years he wrote: “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect.”1

I shall on all subjects have a policy to recommend, but none to enforce against the will of the people. Laws are to govern all alike—those opposed as well as those who favor them. I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.

Ulysses S. Grant, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1869.

President Ulysses S. Grant… ca. 1869-1885. Prints & Photographs Division

Yet, he did indeed graduate from West Point in 1843 and went on to learn the practical lessons of warfare during the Mexican War, a conflict he personally opposed but fought with great bravery. When the two-year crisis concluded in 1848, Grant returned to garrison duty and wed his longtime fiancée Julia Dent, the sister of a West Point classmate. Four years into the marriage, the young couple was separated once again by duty when Grant and his regiment were transferred to the Pacific Northwest. Longing for his family and bored with his routine tasks, Grant began drinking—a habit that would haunt him for years to come. A promotion did not alleviate Grant’s woes, and in 1854 the thirty-two-year-old captain resigned his commission.

In the spring of 1861, after suffering failed farming and business ventures in Missouri and Illinois, Grant returned to the army as a colonel of the Twenty-first Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Within months, he was promoted to brigadier general and placed in charge of 20,000 Union troops. Largely through the successive victories of the troops under his command, Grant rose steadily in rank. After the Union’s November 1863 victory at Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln asked Congress to revive the rank of lieutenant general to honor Grant; only George Washington and Winfield Scott had previously held the esteemed rank. Grant received his commission in March 1864, just more than a year before Confederate leader Robert E. Lee surrendered to him at Appomattox, Virginia.

Just as Grant had drifted into the military, he drifted into politics. Riding the success of his Civil War triumphs, the Republican Party drafted him as candidate for president in 1868. He won that year’s election by a large electoral vote and repeated his success four years later. Inexperienced in politics, Grant selected his Cabinet without consultation, choosing several inappropriate members who would involve his administration in a series of scandals. While Grant remained uncorrupted, popular sentiment was that he failed as president.

Grant’s post-White House years were a mixture of glory and disappointment. Upon leaving office, Grant, Julia, and their youngest son departed for a worldwide tour, during which Grant was heralded as the victor of the Civil War. Years later, in 1884, the family was reduced to poverty as the result of another failed business venture. That same year, Grant was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer.

Gen. U.S. Grant Writing His Memoirs, Mount McGregor, June 27, 1885. Howe, N.Y., June 27, 1885. Prints & Photographs Division

Racing against the clock and enduring severe pain, Grant penned his personal memoirs, which he hoped would provide his family with some financial security. Published by Grant’s friend and admirer Mark Twain, the two-volume work enjoyed immediate success, eventually earning the Grant family over $400,000. Grant completed the text just days before his death on July 23, 1885, at Mount McGregor, New York. Grant’s memoir, The Life and Personal Memories of General U.S. Grant External, is widely considered the finest military autobiography ever written.

Grant’s Tomb & Riverside Drive, New York City. Haines Photo Co, c1909. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Like Lincoln before him, Ulysses S. Grant was mourned by the nation. Walt Whitman memorialized him with a poem and the city of New York offered its public parks for the placement of his tomb. At the request of the Grant family, the Civil War hero was laid to rest in Riverside Park overlooking the Hudson River. His massive tomb took six years to build and was funded by over 90,000 donors. It was formally dedicated on April 27, 1897, what would have been Grant’s seventy-fifth birthday.


Today in History – April 26

Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s foremost landscape architect of the nineteenth century, was born on April 26, 1822. Son of a well-to-do Hartford, Connecticut, merchant, Olmsted spent much of his childhood enjoying rural New England scenery. Weakened eyesight due to illness forced him to abandon plans to attend Yale University. Instead, young Olmsted studied engineering and scientific farming, eventually putting his agricultural and managerial theories into practice on a Staten Island farm his father purchased for him.

“A park is a work of art…”

Frederick Law Olmsted, “Address to Prospect Park Scientific Association” (May 1868).1

Frederick Law Olmsted/engraved by T. Johnson; from a photograph by James Notman. Illus. in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, New York: The Century Co., Oct. 1893. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

A tour of England and the Continent inspired Olmsted’s Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England of 1852, and a new career in journalism. That year, the founding editor of the New-York Daily Times (soon renamed the New York Times), Henry J. Raymond, engaged Olmsted to report on conditions in the slaveholding states. His articles were subsequently published as A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas external (1857), A Journey in the Back Country external (1860), and in a two-volume compilation of material from all three books, The Cotton Kingdom external(1861). Olmsted’s keen observations created the most complete contemporary portrait of the American South on the eve of the Civil War, wherein he concluded that slavery harmed the whole of Southern society.

By the late 1850s, a publishing house Olmsted joined had gone bankrupt, disappointing his hopes for a literary life. Encouraged to apply for the superintendency of New York City’s nascent Central Park, Olmsted embarked on a new career that tapped his managerial skills and his knowledge of engineering and horticulture while providing an opportunity to recreate the beautiful landscapes he had seen at home and abroad.

Olmsted was engaged in clearing Central Park’s 770-acre Manhattan site when architect Calvert Vaux suggested collaborating on a plan for the park’s design competition. Their winning “Greensward” plan (1858) allowed New Yorkers to experience the beauty and benefits of the countryside without leaving the island city.

Central Park, the Drive. [New York]: Currier & Ives, 1862. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division
The Mall, Central Park. B.J. Falk, c1902. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Creating such a pastoral landscape required shifting nearly 5 million cubic yards of earth and stone, blasting rock with 260 tons of gunpowder, and planting 270,000 trees and shrubs. First opened to visitors in 1859, when it was as yet very much under construction, Central Park today still offers vistas across the Sheep Meadow, strolling along wooded paths, climbing The Ramble, and people-watching on the terraces and promenades Olmsted and Vaux provided. The Greensward plan included innovative transverse roads that allowed cross-town traffic to pass through the park on lanes constructed below grade. Ample but distinct pedestrian paths and carriage roads likewise allowed visitors to move through the landscape without fear of collision.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Olmsted requested a leave of absence from his work as architect-in-chief of Central Park to serve as chief executive officer of the newly formed U.S. Sanitary Commission. Responsible for assembling medical supplies and resources and directing them into combat areas, the Sanitary Commission was essential to transforming the military from a small professional force to a large and geographically dispersed volunteer army. Olmsted worked tirelessly to develop an organizational framework that would meet the needs of the soldier in the field. Despite the frustrations that eventually impelled him to resign, he considered his two years with the Sanitary Commission his most significant public service.

In 1863, Olmsted’s renowned administrative abilities brought an opportunity to manage California’s vast Mariposa Estate gold mines, formerly owned by John C. Frémont. Olmsted did not confine his activities to the Mariposa mines, however. When he was appointed one of the first commissioners for the land that eventually became Yosemite National Park, his task was to protect, rather than create, an exquisite natural setting. In his Draft of Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite and Big Tree Grove, Olmsted developed the idea that democratic governments are morally responsible for preserving extraordinary landscapes for the benefit of the people. Later, his Special Report of New York State Survey on the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls (1880) played an important role in convincing New York legislators to purchase and hold Niagara Falls as a public reserve.

Prospect Park, N.Y. [Between 1860-1930]. Stereograph Cards. Prints & Photographs Division
Sheep in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. c1903. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

After two years in California, Olmsted returned to New York, Central Park, and his partnership with Calvert Vaux. Together they designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park; the nation’s first comprehensive, integrated park system in Buffalo, N.Y.; and the Chicago suburb of Riverside, Illinois—a venture into urban planning. Although Olmsted officially dissolved his business partnership with Vaux in 1872, the two often collaborated on projects thereafter. Establishing his own landscape-design firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1882, Olmsted went on to design an astonishing range of projects, including parks and park systems in Detroit, Rochester, Louisville, and Boston; campuses for Stanford University and New Jersey’s Lawrenceville School; the suburb of Druid Hills near Atlanta; the grounds of the United States Capitol; the site for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893; and—in a final undertaking—the setting for the nation’s first major effort in scientific forestry, at Biltmore estate near Asheville, North Carolina.

1874 Plan for the U.S. Capitol Grounds by Frederick Law Olmsted. USCapitol Flickr Photostream external. Architect of the Capitol

In 1874 Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to plan and oversee the renovation of the U.S. Capitol grounds. He had marble terraces constructed on the north, west, and south sides of the building to cause it to “gain greatly in the supreme qualities of stability, endurance, and repose.” He developed an architectural treasure known as the Summer House to give visitors a meditative place to rest; planted more than seven thousand trees and shrubs along with other vegetation; and laid curved footpaths and roads across the grounds. He also employed ornamental iron trellises, low stone walls, and light stands for functional and decorative purposes. Olmsted retired from supervising the terrace project in 1885 but continued until 1889 to direct work on the grounds.

After a working life that continued into his seventies, Olmsted began to suffer from what may have been Alzheimer’s disease and was eventually confined to McLean Asylum outside Boston, whose grounds he had designed. The founder of professional landscape architecture in the United States and one of its most brilliant, visionary, and democratically-committed practitioners, Frederick Law Olmsted died on August 23, 1903.


Today in History – April 25

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. She was one of the leading jazz singers of all time. In her lifetime, she won thirteen Grammys—two from the first Grammy Awards in 1958 (best jazz individual and best female pop vocal performer). Her recordings have sold more than 40 million albums.

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, January 19, 1940. Van Vechten, Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Fitzgerald’s career began on Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She soon went on to sing with the Chick Webb orchestra and made her first recordings in 1935. After Webb’s death in 1939, she led the band for about three years before launching out on her own.

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s her career was managed by jazz impresario Norman Granz. During this time Fitzgerald recorded a series of nineteen albums and her inimitable style became nationally recognized. Granz also arranged for her to tour extensively and to work closely with the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Fitzgerald’s mastery of “scat,” in which the singer improvises nonsense syllables to imitate a musical instrument, is heard throughout her recordings. Although the history of scatting may date back to West Africa, trumpeter Louis Armstrong made it popular in the U.S. When he accompanied blues singer Bessie Smith, for example, Armstrong used his coronet to sound out vocalizations; conversely, Fitzgerald likened her voice to a musical instrument, a saxophone. Through recordings, concerts, and television appearances, both figures brought scat to a broad public audience.

Fitzgerald recorded hundreds of songs composed by great American lyricists such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rogers. She performed with many great musical talents of her day including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Dizzy Gillespie.


Today in History – April 24

Today, the Library of Congress celebrates its birthday. On April 24, 1800, President John Adams approved the appropriation of $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of congress.”

The books, the first purchased for the Library of Congress, were ordered from London and arrived in 1801. The collection of 740 volumes and three maps was stored in the U.S. Capitol, the Library’s first home. On January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson approved the first legislation that defined the role and functions of the new institution.

The Library of Congress, Washington. c1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

The Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress. The Library’s mission is to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people, and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. As of 2018, the vast holdings of the Library number over 168 million items.

Construction of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. April 19, 1893. Levin C. Handy, photographer, April 19, 1893. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, was responsible for transforming the Library into an institution of national significance in the Jeffersonian spirit. Appointed by Abraham Lincoln, Spofford centralized the registration and deposit of copyright activities through the Copyright Law of 1870. This law had a direct effect on vastly increasing the Library’s collections as it extended copyright protection to “…a painting, drawing, statue, statuary, model or design for a work of the fine arts, a photograph of the same…” and stipulated that two copies of every published work in the U.S.—books, pamphlets, maps, prints, photographs, and pieces of music registered for copyright—be deposited at the Library. He also linked the legislative and national functions of the Library—first in practice, next by law—through his reorganization of the institution, which was approved by Congress in 1897.