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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: A (Part 2 – Atkins, Charles)

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This blog is about filling the alphabet with names of American composers, and American composers and musicians who are visually impaired or blind. At this point the idea is to have two composers listed for each letter of the alphabet, knowing that some letters will have more options than others, or that for some letters it might be challenging to come up with a name. The last blog entry was posted as a guest blog on John Adams (Part 1). Today I would like to recognize the blind blues musician and composer Charles Atkins.

Charles Atkins is an active musician who performs mainly blues, soul, and R&B with his band and other groups. Born in 1944, he began singing at the age of four. He focused on piano and vocals when he attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine and spent his middle school years studying at the New York Institute for the Blind. There he started playing in musical bands. Charles Atkins holds an Associate of Arts degree from Daytona Beach Community College, Daytona Beach, and completed a Bachelor of Music Education degree at Florida State University in Tallahassee. In 2002, he received the Florida Folk Heritage Award. He teaches Blues Lab at Florida State University’s College of Music. Atkins is a registered patron with the NLS.

One of the things that caught my attention was that Atkins created a musical scale that corresponds to alphabetical letters. He has called it a Cosmetic Music Scale and suggests that anyone can transform words into a musical melody using this system. How does it work? The scale goes from A-Z, letter A turns into musical C, letter B into musical C#, and each following letter is one semitone higher than the previous one. So when you spell a word and match each letter to its corresponding musical note and stay within the range of one octave, you have followed the basic rules for the Cosmetic Music Scale to create a melody for a word. For example, the name Craig turns into the sequence of the following notes: d, f, c, g sharp, f sharp. Are you wondering if any other composer used this Cosmetic Music Scale? The answer is yes: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has done exactly that. She applied the Cosmetic Music Scale in a movement for string quartet and included the spelling of Charles’ name.

For patrons who are interested in learning the blues, here is a selection of the materials we have:

Learn To Play

Bill Irwin. How to play the blues : for piano, organ, keyboard (DBM03013)

David Bennett Cohen. Blues/rock piano (DBM00450)

Bill Brown. Acoustic Delta Blues (DBM 02230)

Alan Small, Blues piano (BRM 28599)

Alan Small, Blues piano (BRM 27944)

Alan Small, Blues and how (BRM 27945)

Alan Small, Blues, Boogie, and Jazz (BRM 28650)

About Blues

Elijah Wald. The blues : a very short introduction (2010/2017) (DB 85838)

James H. Cone. The spirituals and the blues : an interpretation (1992/2017) (DB 34985)

Francis Davis. The history of the blues : the roots, the music, the people; from Charley Patton to Robert Cray. (1996/2011) (DB 41418)

Selected sources

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