From the late 1939 through the 1950s, Alan Lomax wrote, produced, and hosted radio shows and series for CBS, the Office of War Information, the Mutual Broadcasting Network, the BBC, and RAI Italy. His 1939–41 folk song programs for children and adults on CBS, American Folk Songs, Back Where I Come From and Wellsprings of Music, were notable in commercial radio in featuring a live interracial cast singing together.
Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lomax called upon colleagues and friends from across the country to capture immediate “man-in-the-street” reactions to the bombing, which were broadcast on the ground-breaking show, People Speak to the President. He was one of the first, if not the first American broadcaster to employ this now common technique. Some sixty years later, following the tragedy of 9/11, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress sent out a similar appeal, commemorated in a special exhibit, now online.
During World War II, as an employee of the Office of War Information, Lomax collaborated with the BBC on Douglas Geoffrey Bridson’s program, Transatlantic Call: People to People, which featured man on the street interviews on both sides of the Atlantic from diverse regions of Britain and the US. The brilliant broadcaster Norman Corwin was originally picked to handle the American end of the program but withdrew after three programs due to sickness. In his memoir, Prospero and Ariel: The Rise and Fall of Radio (London: Victor Golancz, 1971), Bridson writes that CBS was at first hard put to find Corwin’s replacement but found him in Alan Lomax, “one of the few people in America who had spent his life recording actuality speakers (or rather singers) all over the States. . . . In the first of his Transatlantic Call productions, American actuality came alive: he spoke the same language and sang the same songs as Americans everywhere. More to the point, he was able to help them to speak that language into a microphone and to get the full flavor of their characters across. The shows that he handled came over with the same American impress as the prose of Thomas Wolfe or the poetry of Whitman . . . . I never knew any American who more fully embodied the virtues — and the more engaging vices — of all his countrymen” (Bridson, 1971, pp. 101–102).
In 1944, Bridson conceived of a series of ballad operas with folk music, “much in the eighteenth-century tradition of John Gay and Henry Carey,” as a way to promote cultural and interracial friendship between the peoples of Britain and the United States. They were broadcast by the BBC Home Service (union disputes prevented their being heard stateside). The first of these, The Man Who Went to War, was written by Langston Hughes and starred Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, and Ethel Waters. Alan Lomax helped select the music. Bridson described this as one of the most popular programs he ever had on the air, “being heard by millions on its first broadcast alone” (Bridson, 1971, p. 111). Sadly, the glass masters for the program were accidentally broken before they could be preserved on tape. Lomax also chose the music for and performed in two subsequent folk song ballad opera broadcasts scripted by his wife, Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold: The Martins and the Coys and The Chisholm Trail.
During the nineteen-fifties Lomax worked extensively for the BBC, familiarizing British audiences with the folk music of America, Ireland, Britain, Spain, Italy and other parts of the world. He was heard on the BBC once more in 1966 when he and Guy Carawan did two shows — The Folk Song Army and Songs of Protest — for Bridson’s series America Since the Bomb.
The Alan Lomax Archive Collection at the Library of Congress and the ACE archive contain scripts, playlists, and correspondence connected with many of these radio shows (as well as of television shows produced for Grenada TV that aired in 1956). A number of them were also recorded on audio tape and are being made available for streaming in the catalog of this website.
American Folk Songs, 1939–40. Written and directed by Alan Lomax, a 26-week survey on the CBS American School of the Air defining all types of English language folk songs, featuring Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, the Golden Gate Quartet, Burl Ives, Aunt Molly Jackson, and field recordings of square dancing, French-Canadian, and lumberjack songs.
Wellsprings of Music, 1940. A continuation of the American Folk Songs series, written and directed by Alan Lomax, also ran for 26 weeks on the CBS radio network. It was broadcast twice weekly during the day and was heard in public schools. One of its programs, co-authored with Woody Guthrie, won an award as the best Music Education Program of its years, and the two series led directly to MENC: The National Association for Music Education adopting American folk songs as a main emphasis in its public school teaching materials. CBS then decided on a prime-time network show featuring folk songs.
Back Where I Come From, 1940–41. Written and co-produced with Nicholas Ray, later famous as director the movie Rebel Without A Cause, broadcast in prime time, coast-to-coast. An entertainment program featuring Woody Guthrie, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger as permanent members. Burl Ives and the Golden Gate Quartet became CBS staff artists and performed in numerous programs over the following years.
People Speak to the President, December, 1941.Man-in-the-street interviews following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Transatlantic Call: People to People, 1943. This BBC/CBS co-production was an exchange series of interviews between ordinary people talking about their lives and war work in many regions of the United States and Britain. Reporters Robert Trout and Edward R. Murrow were also involved in this series. Included was an August 15, 1943, broadcast (Episode 28) from the 27th Intertribal Indian Ceremony from Gallup, New Mexico.
The Man Who Went to War, 1944. A “ballad opera” by Langston Hughes with folk music chosen by Alan Lomax. It starred Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, William Vesey, Josh White, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.
The Chisholm Trail, 1944. A folk ballad opera with cowboy songs, broadcast over the BBC home service.
The Martins and the Coys, 1944. Broadcast over the BBC home service, this was a wartime adaptation of the legend of feuding mountain families, who here set aside their differences to fight in World War II. With Appalachian folk songs, narration, and character acting by Woody Guthrie, Lily Mae Ledford, Wade Mainer, Burl Ives, Hally Wood, and Pete Seeger, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Sonny Terry, and Lomax himself, among others. It was issued for the first time in 2000 by Rounder (CD 11661-1819-2).
Let’s Go to Town, 1944. Broadcast on Armed Forces Radio.
The Land Is Bright, 1944. Broadcast on CBS.
Bound for Glory, 1945. Broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, with Woody Guthrie.
Hootenanny of the Air, 1947. Broadcast on CBS, with Sidney Bechet, the Coleman Brothers, Cisco Houston, Ronnie Gilbert, Woody Guthrie, Brownie MacGhee, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger, and Hally Wood.
Radio shows made after the war:
Your Ballad Man, 1948–1949. A folk music disc-jockey program on the Mutual Broadcasting System designed to acquaint audiences with the many kinds of regional American folk music and how they illuminate American history. The show also featured jazz and pop versions of folk songs, folk versions of pop songs, and contemporary commercial blues and country recordings. Flamenco, klezmer, and Indonesian gamelan were also included, reflecting Lomax’s deepening interest in international and ethnic folk music.
In 1950, Lomax worked with social scientists at Columbia University to spread the word about the new penicillin drugs for syphilis and gonorrhea via singing “infomercials” featuring Woody Guthrie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Merle Travis, and the Dixieaires.
For the BBC, Lomax wrote and hosted many single network shows and series on United States and world song traditions, including:
The Folk Music of Britain, 1950.
Stone of Tory, 1950. A full-scale ballad opera, broadcast from Dublin, featuring Irish rural singers and a cast from the Abbey Theatre.
Over the Sea to Skye, 1951. A ballad opera on the flight of Prince Charlie through the Highlands, with Ewan MacColl and a cast of Scots and Hebridean folk singers.
Patterns in American Folk Songs, 1951.
The Art of the Negro, 1951.
Scottish Folk Songs: The Gaelic West, 1951.
The Hammer and the Loom, n.d.
Songs of the Orinoco Indian, 1953.
The Folk Music of Spain,1953–54. A series made with the cooperation of the BBC.
The Folk Music of Italy, 1955. A series based on a survey of the provincial folk music of Italy made 1954–55 with the cooperation of the BBC and the Academia Santa Cecilia; collected, narrated, and produced by Alan Lomax.
Music Round the World, c. 1956. A show of international folk music in conjunction with UNESCO.
Reminiscences of a Folk Song Collector, 1956. Six BBC programs including programs on music of Italy and Spain.
A Ballad Hunter Looks at Britain, 1957. Eight programs.
Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year, 1957. Broadcast on Christmas Day before the before the Queen’s annual speech, a program of Christmas carols with narration broadcast on live hookup from all over Britain, Ireland, and Scotland. Also included Calypso from the Caribbean and West African “High Life” music from London’s immigrant communities. Cast included Shirley Collins, Seamus Ennis, Peter Kennedy, A. L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Flora MacNeil, and Peggy Seeger. This was issued in 2000 as Rounder CD 1850.
The Folk Army and Songs of Protest, 1966. With Guy Carawan. Episodes of Douglas Geoffrey Bridson’s BBC series, America Since the Bomb.
Black Encyclopedia of the Air
In 1968–69, Lomax and a group of black and white historians and anthropologists at Columbia University created the Black Identity Project. Based on the work of historian John Hendrik Clarke, founder of the African Heritage Studies Association, the Black Identity Project aimed to acquaint younger radio audiences with black history and heritage. The resulting Black Encyclopedia of the Air, designed to be aired over black radio networks, consisted of 30 “one-minute-plus” educational spots, narrated by well-known radio personality Jack Walker (board chairman of the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers). Alan Lomax, assisted by Raoul Abdul, Arnold Hartley and other leading anthropologists and musicians, contributed scripts utilizing his Cantometrics research. Topics covered included the roots of Ray Charles in African orchestral style; horn bands of Africa and the New World; the role of women and African female warriors; African male choruses and “overlap” singing; a black history of American pop music; black Islam; and the founding of Chicago by a Haitian settler ¾ to name a few. Teaching sheets and lists for further reading were provided with the series. The ACE archive has scripts and other papers connected with the Black Encyclopedia of the Air. Audio taped spots will be available for sampling on the Discussions and Interviews section of our catalog.
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