Ms. Martha E. Blackman

  • Born: January 1, 1927
  • Died: November 17, 2021
  • Location: Palo Alto, California

Smart Cremation

Tribute & Message From The Family


Renowned musician and viola da gamba specialist, Martha Elizabeth Blackman passed away on Wednesday, November 17, 2021, after a period of declining health. The daughter of Ethel Gentry Blackman and Alfred Watson Blackman, Martha was born on January 1, 1927, in Dallas, Texas. In her infancy she and her sister Mary Anne were kidnapped by her father and taken to Los Angeles where her father earned a living working in the orange groves. During this time, she was raised by a much loved and caring nanny, "Aunt Mattie" Wallace. After a short time in Los Angeles the family moved to Reno and then to Las Vegas, which was little more than a crossroads during the Depression.

After a few years, when Martha's father remarried, her nanny was dismissed. Aunt Mattie became concerned for the safety of the children formerly in her care and contacted Martha's biological mother who subsequently drove across the country with her partner Marje Hugo. The children were kidnapped once again and taken to Memphis in 1932, where Ethel was employed as the women's basketball coach at West Tennessee State Normal School (now University of Memphis).

Martha's mother provided her with a piano that she "practiced all day" according to her sister. Martha's school band director Gaston Taylor helped her become interested in the cello, and at age 15 she joined the Memphis Sinfonietta, precursor of the Memphis Symphony. Upon graduating from high school, she attended Southwestern (Rhodes College), Peabody, and American Conservatory of Music where she earned a BM, and then attended Northwestern, earning a MM. Throughout her youth, Martha was employed by many organizations (Amro Music Store, Goldsmiths Department Store, Peabody Hotel, various pubs, etc.) to perform all genres on piano, accordion, cello, and virtually any instrument she was requested to play.

After playing professionally with Nashville Symphony and New Orleans Philharmonic, Martha won a Fulbright Award and moved to Europe to study viola da gamba, and then returned to the United States to begin studies for a diploma at Juilliard in New York. She began playing gamba with New York Pro Musica and then became a faculty member of the music department at Yale University. When offered a position at Stanford University she moved to California where she lived for the remainder of her life.

Martha played a foundational role bringing the Early Music movement to the United States. Her research and her teaching provided the foundation for others who followed. She was truly one of the original pioneers and a feisty warrior representing women in the field of music, breaking many glass ceilings that remained barriers during her time. With very little support and a very troubled family background, she relentlessly fought her way forward. Though often misunderstood by some, she had many loyal students that she loved very dearly. She had a big heart and much love for people everywhere and somehow found a way to forgive those who had thrown obstacles in her path. She leaves to cherish her memory her niece Nancy Ditto and husband Adam Alter, great nephew Basil Alter, and great niece Rosemary Alter, several cousins and their children, and her many beloved students and friends. Please remember her battle cry "Onward!!!" as you pursue your goals. Her advice would be to never, ever give up.

For those wishing to send a memorial, please consider Peninsula Bible Church, 3505 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306, c/o Jim Cornett, and United Negro College Fund, ATTN: Denise Scott, Direct Response Programs, 1805 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001, or any charity of your choice that supports music students in need. A memorial service will be arranged at a later date.