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Josephine Baker Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93000).

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Baker, Josephine (03 June 1906–12 April 1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a musician, and Carrie Macdonald. Her parents parted when Josephine was still an infant, and her mother married Arthur Martin, which has led to some confusion about her maiden name. Very little is known about her childhood, except that she was a witness to the East St. Louis riot in 1917. This event was often a feature of her talks in the 1950s and 1960s about racism and the fight for equality, which fostered the oft-repeated assertion that the family was resident in East St. Louis. Before the age of eighteen Josephine had been married twice, first to Willie Wells and then to William Baker, to whom she was married in Camden, New Jersey, in September 1921....

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Denver, John (31 December 1943–12 October 1997), singer, songwriter, and environmental activist, was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., in Roswell, New Mexico, the son of Henry John “Dutch” Deutschendorf, an air force pilot, and Erma Swope Deutschendorf. Dutch Deutschendorf's military career forced the family to move often, and John grew up a shy, self-conscious loner with few friends. He began taking guitar lessons when he was eleven, and in high school he used his natural talent for playing and singing to gain popularity. From 1961 to 1964 he studied architecture at Texas Tech University, but he quit school in his junior year and moved to Los Angeles, where he hoped to devote himself full time to a music career. Taking the name “John Denver,” he began playing at small folk clubs in the area with some success. He became a member of the “Backporch Majority,” which played on the back porch of Ledbetter's, a club owned by Randy Sparks of the New Christy Minstrels, a popular folk group. But folk music was in transition at this time, as electric guitars and drums were more often being used, much to the dismay of traditionalists....

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Fay, Amy Muller (21 May 1844–28 February 1928), pianist and musical activist, was born in Bayou Goula, Louisiana, the child of Charlotte Emily Hopkins and Charles Fay, both descended from prominent New England families. (She was christened Amelia but was known as Amy.) Her father, an Episcopalian minister, was the son of a leading judge, while her mother, the daughter of the first Episcopal bishop of Vermont, was herself a woman of great intellect. Amy grew up in St. Albans, Vermont, where her father opened a private school. She received her first musical instruction from her mother. After her mother’s death when Amy was twelve, she continued her music study with her older sisters, except for the summer of 1861, when she studied for a few weeks with Jan Pychowski at the normal school in Geneseo, New York....

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Scott E. Gac

Hutchinson Family Singers, musicians and reformers, comprised Adoniram Judson Joseph (14 Mar. 1817–11 Jan. 1859), John Wallace (4 Jan. 1821–29 Oct. 1908), Asa Burnham (14 Mar. 1823–25 Nov. 1884), Abigail Jemima (29 Aug. 1829–23 Nov. 1892), and sometimes ...

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The Hutchinson Family Singers. Left to right: Judson, Abby, John, and Asa Hutchinson. From the sheet music of their signature song, "The Old Granite State," published in 1843. Courtesy of George Fullerton.

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Paul Robeson As Othello. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1944. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111185).

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Robeson, Paul (09 April 1898–23 January 1976), actor, singer, and civil rights activist, was born Paul Leroy Robeson in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of William Drew Robeson, a Protestant minister, and Maria Louisa Bustill, a schoolteacher. Robeson’s mother died when he was six years old, and he grew up under the influence of a perfectionist father, a former runaway slave who fought in the Union army. During his senior year at the Somerville, New Jersey, high school, he achieved the highest score in a statewide scholarship examination to attend Rutgers College (later Rutgers University). The lone black at Rutgers as a freshman in 1915 and only the third African American to attend the institution, Robeson was an outstanding student and athlete. A varsity debater, he won class prizes for oratory all four years, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, was one of four seniors chosen for membership in the Cap and Skull honorary society, and was named class valedictorian. The 6′ 3″, 215-pound Robeson earned twelve varsity letters in four sports (baseball, basketball, football, and track) and was twice named football All-America (1917 and 1918). According to former Yale coach ...

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Rose, Billy (06 September 1899–10 February 1966), songwriter, show business impresario, and philanthropist, was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, the son of David Rosenberg, a button salesman, and Fannie Wernick. He was born William Samuel Rosenberg, according to most biographical sources, though one source states he adopted that name in school after being born Samuel Wolf Rosenberg. He grew up in the Bronx and attended public schools there, winning junior high school medals for sprinting and English. Medals and honors were important as proofs of stature and worth to Rose, who never grew taller than five feet three inches. In the High School of Commerce, he became an outstanding student of the Gregg system of shorthand, winning first a citywide competition (1917) and then a national competition (1918). In 1918 he left high school shortly before graduation to become head of the stenographic department of the War Industries Board, headed by ...

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Seeger, Pete (03 May 1919–27 January 2014), folk singer and activist, was born Peter Seeger in New York City, the son of Charles Seeger, a musicologist and composer born in Mexico and trained at Harvard, and Constance de Clyver Edson, a concert violinist, born in Tunisia and trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music. Charles, hired to establish the music department at the University of California, Berkeley, lost his job as a result of his pacifism during World War I, and that led the family to return to New York. Pete endured a lonely childhood, complicated by his parents’ divorce when he was eight. By that time he was already at boarding school, so he only really spent time with his parents, who lived on opposite sides of Central Park, when he was home on vacation. While a student at Avon Old Farms, an exclusive private high school in Connecticut, he began playing a four-string banjo, and later, when his father took him to the Ninth Annual Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, he discovered the more versatile five-string banjo. He also loved the folk music he heard, and on his return to Washington, D.C., where his father now lived with his second wife, the musicologist and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, he began to listen to recordings he found at the Library of Congress....

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Simone, Nina (21 February 1933–21 April 2003), African American jazz singer, pianist, songwriter, and civil rights activist, was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of eight children of John Divine Waymon, a barber and owner of a dry-cleaning business, and Mary Kate Irvin, a housekeeper and minister. Eunice was an accomplished musician at a young age who began playing piano for St. Luke's Christian Methodist Episcopal Church when she was six years old. Mary Kate encouraged Eunice's musical pursuits but discouraged her taking part in nonreligious music, including blues, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley....

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Nina Simone. Photograph, 1982.

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Warren, Josiah (c. 1798–14 April 1874), social reformer, inventor, musician, and America's first philosophical anarchist, was born in Boston. The names of his parents are not known, although accounts indicate that he was a distant relative to James Warren, husband of Mercy Otis Warren...