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I Hear America Singing BBC Radio Programme by Alistair Cooke July 21, 2019

Posted by wallofsound in Music History, Music in the media.

I Hear America Singing RT 770 1July1938 p7


This is an article that supported the BBC National Programme radio weekly broadcast of ‘I HEAR AMERICA SINGING’ a 12- part exploration of US folk music.

‘I HEAR AMERICA SINGING’ A Radio Album of Recorded American Folk Song

National Programme Daventry

No. 1 – Introduction Tuesday 5 July 1938 21.30

Compiled and presented by Alistair Cooke

This series will consist of twelve programmes by Alistair Cooke , the plan of which is to sketch the history of the United States through its songs and singers. He explains the series and how he gathered the material for it in an article on page 7.

After leaving Cambridge he spent two years in America and returned to England to give broadcast talks on the cinema. He gave them for the record period of three years, in addition to arranging such popular programmes as ‘ American Half-Hours ‘, ‘ The American Negro ‘ and an anthology of hobo songs.

Cooke went back to America to broadcast over there, and now he has come over again for three months to give this series.

No. 2 – The Melting Pot’ (Songs people brought with them since 1775) Tuesday 1 2 July 1938 21.30

No. 3 – ‘The Lone Prairie ‘ (Cowboy Songs, Border Ballads, etc.) Tuesday 19 July 1938 21.30

No. 4 – ‘Pie in the Sky’ The Negro at Work Tuesday 26 July 1938 21.30

Alistair Cooke is to play to listeners another selection from the records loaned to him by John Lomax , curator of the Library of Congress in Washington—records that have never been played outside the Library and his home. They were made by Lomax himself, who recorded the voices of people who had never seen a town. He thus collected numbers of songs that had never been put on paper.

No. 5, ‘Go West, Young Man’ Prairie Songs and the Great Trek Tuesday 2 August 1938 21.30

No. 6 – ‘The Railroad’ Tuesday 9 August 1938 21.30

No. 7 – The Big Brutal City Tuesday 16 August 1938 22.05

No. 8 – ‘Sociability’ Compiled and presented by Alistair Cooke and Marianne Helweg Tuesday 23 August 1938 22.05

No. 9 – ‘Road to Heaven and Hell’ Tuesday 30 August 1938 22.05

No. 10 – ‘Hard Times’ Tuesday 6 September 1938 22.05

As listeners to the previous programmes in this fascinating series know, Alistair Cooke is sketching the history of the United States through its songs and singers. This evening the theme will be Depression-principally the depression that has brought about such a change in America since 1929, though (as he will remind listeners) Americans have come through depressions successfully before.

No. 11 – ‘Songs of Five Wars’ Tuesday 13 September 19382 22.05

No. 12 – ‘American Memory’ Tuesday 20 September1938 22.05




‘I hear America singing’ said Walt Whitman. So does Alistair Cooke, who here describes the material for his new series of American Half-Hours, which begins on Tuesday evening.

If you go into any gramophone shop in the East (of the United States) and ask to see what songs they have listed in their catalogues under the heading ‘American Folk Song’, the assistant will look at you suspiciously for a moment, then smile as he would at a stray lunatic. He will go away and come back with one of three records: amassed band playing ‘Marching through Georgia’ or a harmonica solo of ‘Casey Jones’ or almost any Negro spiritual sung by a cultivated baritone to the accompaniment of a grand piano.

If you make a habit of visiting that shop and keep pestering the assistants for more, they will come to look on you as a psychiatric patient allowed out on parole. Happily for your own self-respect, it will not be necessary to embarrass them for long, because you will soon exhaust their meagre stock of the songs you are looking for.

It would be impossible to give the sketchiest idea of the beauty and variety, the grief and irony of American folk song from the resources of the regular commercial recording companies. To their shame they are still culturally in the position of those earnest matrons of the 1920’s, hankering after any book or painting or song that comes from Europe, however good or bad, false or genuine it may be.

Ignorant of their Wealth

This kind of American was made to pause and think again last year when there appeared in Manhattan three sleek and secretive Frenchmen who could hardly disguise their excitement as they bought up original Marins and Ryders, several specimens of eighteenth-century American painting, and a whole flock of moderns who have had a hard time making a living in the United States but who, these French buyers declared when they were safely back home, would be hailed as classic painters of our time thirty years from now.

There are more people anywhere interested in painting than in folk song. And so there are more Americans who know how good the best contemporary American painting can be. But you have to go a long way and track down specific addresses to find Americans who know and are eager about their wealth of folk song.

There is a contradiction here and many readers will already have spotted it. If the stuff is so hard to find, can it truly be called folk song? I would like to reassure you that I asked myself that question first. For I was not looking for the odd, the highbrow, the precious. As far as I am concerned with them, folk songs are the songs the folks’ sing.

Ask anybody in a town or city who are the folks and he will answer, ‘Why, the people next door, the people across the street. That is not an accurate answer because he is not trying to give you a definition which would be true of his country. It is true of where he lives.

Now gramophone shops and recording studios exist in big cities. Ninety-nine records in every hundred are made by somebody who came to the city studio, did his act, and then went back home. So gramophone companies have naturally recorded music that is near at hand, music that is written down, played by musicians who live and work in towns.

In the United States, any printed list of ‘the most popular songs of the day’ would be a list of songs known to city-dwellers, the songs composed on Broadway and fed to the populace (but the metropolitan populace) through the pipe-lines of movies, radio, musical shows, dance bands.

The Real Songmakers

But there are millions of Americans who do not go to the movies or own radio. By definition these are the people who have to make their own songs. By occupation and temperament they are the people who are inveterate makers and singers of song. They are the men and women who work on great plains, the cowboys who to each other sing bawdy songs a hundred years old and who keep their shifting herds quiet with lullabies.

They are the inhabitants of the mountains who sing about local infidelities, about the mountain animals; the inhabitants of ‘the back country’ all over the continent.

They are most of all the sweating Negroes through the South and Deep South who know no heaven here and must dwell on the prospect of ‘Pie in the Sky’: the Negroes in farm prison-camps. on plantations, lumber camps, railroads, chain gangs, the men who more than any other men in America have made great and agonised music.

The recording companies have persuaded odd cowboys and sailors to sing into the microphone. The radio companies have persuaded vaudeville entertainers who either knew a lot of old songs or thought they did or faked the songs. Our programmes during the next twelve weeks have, however, been made possible chiefly by the loving labour of one man. His name is John Lomax and for a quarter of a century he has roamed the continent and, being gentleman from the South-West, he has made friends with groups of people who would have knifed ‘a furriner’.

He bought himself a recording outfit and he took a microphone to people who never had seen a town. He got them to sing songs pious and profane, songs of love and work, of loneliness and sickness. He caught chain gangs at work and has fixed on aluminium the tremendous grim rhythms of their songs.

During this decade, Lomax collected hundreds of songs that were never put on paper, hundreds too that were never sung when white men were around, the secret sagas of Negro hopes and fears. He took them to Harvard’s great English-teacher, George Lyman Kittredge, who appointed him to a fellowship ‘to investigate the folk songs of America’.

Together they appealed to the public from coast to coast for old tunes and remembered lyrics. Lomax compiled hundreds of variations of single songs that men and women all over the place could recall from their childhood or from their daily labour.

America’s Other Heroes

Today that collection of records is deposited with the Library of Congress in Washington and John Lomax is their curator. They have not before been lent or played outside the library and the Lomax home. With a generosity that is as foresighted as his research, Mr. Lomax was eager that I should borrow what I wanted.

I hope to fill in between the playing of the songs a sort of history of popular American idealism. American heroes are not only states. men and soldiers. They have been, as I hope will appear, single streets of a town, some Negro girl, some rascal in 1 New Orleans honky-tonk who played the blues at an old piano for two days on end and died young from pushing his music harder than it would go. They are a war and a bandit. A handful of corn and a hill. A steamboat and a stray calf.



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