Every few years I go down to the headquarters of National Public Radio in Washington, DC to check in on one of Dodge’s longest-standing relationships. The benefits of our grants to NPR certainly go both ways – frequently when I am far from New Jersey, I’ll say I work at “The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation,” and people will pause as if to search their memory banks, then say knowingly, “NPR!”
During my visit this past Friday, I stopped by NPR’s music department and got an update on their “50 Great Voices” project; you may have heard the promos for it in recent months. In October, NPR announced they would launch a year-long exploration of “50 of the great voices in recorded history,” beginning this month. But which voices?
What a great question. It reminds me of a book I had years ago called “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History” (originally published in 1978, and revised in 2000), which fed many interesting dinner conversations. Who’s #1 and why? Who’s on the list and who’s missing? What is influence anyway, and who has the most of it over time – a politician? A scientist? A poet? The 50 Great Voices idea invites the same questioning, weighing of artists in different genres, and championing of favorites.
If you check the NPR website now, you’ll see pictures of the 127 semi-finalists and brief audio clips of their voices. The fifty finalists HAVE been chosen and will be announced soon. It’s fun now, though, to scroll through the whole list and see who’s made it this far.
Yes, it’s not surprising to find Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald on the list, nor Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, or Aretha Franklin. Caruso’s there, and so is Janis Joplin. But so are a lot of less famous names.
I went looking for Solomon Burke. I had heard him in concert at BB King’s Blues Club and still think it was the most amazing vocal performance I’ve ever encountered.
Yes!! There he was.
Then I thought, “I wonder if Eva Cassidy made the list. That would be too good to be true.” Her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in my opinion, leaves all others in the dust, including the revered original version.
Yes!! There she was.
OK, let me see if I can go three for three on personal sentimental favorites. What about Brian Stokes Mitchell?
No! He was robbed! But of course that is where the fun of this project lies. Who’s #1 on your list of great voices? And who belongs in the Top 50 that’s not there?
When I asked my music host at NPR, Amy Schriefer, about the patterns of the voting in the US and around the world, she told me something that made this project far more than a parlor game to me. She said there was a massive, apparently well-organized, outpouring of support from Iran for the living artist Mohammed Reza Shajarian. Over at Morning Edition or All Things Considered, they were talking about nuclear threats and proposed boycotts of Iran. Here on the music floor, Iranians were voting for a Great Voice.
I was reminded of the most moving “review” I ever received of my one-man show as Mark Twain, which I took around the world in 1982. In New Delhi, after I had completed an evening performance with a long reading from Huckleberry Finn, an Indian woman approached me with tears in her eyes and said, “This is our only hope for peace in the world.”
Yes – the arts, the humanities, music, the people who bring the arts into all our lives – they may save us yet.