Content sharing in the ’30s

It’s probably 16 inches wide, and you hold it carefully by the edges. It could be made of glass or aluminum, coated with black cellulose nitrate. If you’re lucky the coating hasn’t started flaking off yet. Alternatively it might be made of vinyl, like an LP, but bigger. It plays at 33 1/3 RPM, holds 15 minutes of recorded sound, and was a key tool in the development of syndicated radio programming in the United States. We’re talking about transcription discs.

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A cellulose nitrate over aluminum transcription disc. Note where the coating has flaked off. When that happens, that part of the recording is lost.

In the 1920s, radio stations needed a way to replicate and share programming consistently. They weren’t allowed to play commercially released records on-air because musician’s unions believed that hurt record sales. So radio content had to come from somewhere else. Live broadcast was inconsistent, time consuming, and expensive. Not every radio station could afford to have its own in-house musical groups, but all stations wanted to attract more listeners. At this time the first radio networks were beginning to form. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was created in 1926, and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was formed in 1927. As these networks made more programming and acquired more satellite stations, they needed a way to distribute programming. Larger radio stations were creating programming of their own that they wanted to share with the networks. In short, there was a huge market for pre-recorded radio programming, but distribution of content was still a major hurdle. Transcription discs were the solution.

By the 1930s, transcription disc recorders had become ubiquitous at larger radio stations. Program producers were able to pre-record a program, make copies, and distribute it to other radio stations for future broadcast. This meant that stations in networks could all get the same programs. Individual stations could also add out-of-network programming to their repertoire by purchasing them from distributors. A station could also record its own unique local program using transcription discs, and then re-use it later. As a result, small stations could avoid the expense of live programs. Bigger stations and networks could get their shows to a wider audience. This meant listeners in Boston, Kansas City, and San Francisco could hear the same program at the same time. The ability share programming is a big reason why radio contributed to the growth of popular culture across America. To paraphrase Marr Sound Archives director Chuck Haddix, “radio was like the internet” because it brought people closer through information sharing. Everybody got to hear the same radio programs and news broadcasts, giving people similar cultural and political knowledge. We take this for granted today. Imagine for a moment a conversation with someone from two or three states away. They hadn’t heard Adele’s latest song or weren’t able to listen to that Ted Talk that enthralled you. Of course the opposite would be true as well. Its 75 degrees here in Kansas City. What snow storm in Ohio? That political protest in Washington that they went to? You had no idea until weeks later. Certainly newspapers allowed content-sharing, but radio was a huge leap forward, and it’s largely thanks to the humble transcription disc. One of the big 1930s radio stations that made a lot of transcription discs was KMBC here in Kansas City. Many of these discs are now held in the Marr Sound Archives.

KMBC joined CBS in 1928 as the 16th affiliated station. In 1930 station moved to the eleventh floor of the Pickwick Hotel. Under the direction of Arthur B. Church, KMBC became a model for other stations. Church and KMBC produced a wide variety of syndicated shows which were recorded on transcription discs and then distributed. One of these programs was the Texas Rangers. Another example from the KMBC collection that highlights the importance of transcription discs is a recording of one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” The recording can be heard below. It was made by CBS at the White House on May 2, 1943. It was then presumably broadcast by all CBS network stations, including KMBC. FDR could not have reached the entire country without transcription disc technology.

Sources

Museum of Broadcast Communications. Encyclopedia of Radio. Edited by Christopher Sterling. Vol. 3. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

 

Tales from the Archives: Disc(h)ord on the Ranch

In October 2012, the Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Please enjoy this series of anecdotes recounting the unusual discoveries and amusing happenings in the course of working with this collection.

This is the fourth in a series of Tales from the Archives.

Disc(h)ord on the Ranch

The KMBC Texas Rangers

The KMBC Texas Rangers “Gentlemen in the White Hats.” Credit: Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, Marr Sound Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

It seemed like everyone on the project team had discovered some new interest when working with the collection. One student became so engrossed in the developing drama on the show Vic and Sade, she hoarded all the discs to herself. For me, it was the Western swing group, The KMBC Texas Rangers. The unedited cuts of this musical octet perfectly demonstrate the unique chemistry the group had. It was hard not to be captivated by them, with names like: Clarence “Idaho” Hartman (bass fiddle), Gomer “Tenderfoot” Cool (fiddle), Joe “Monty” Strand (accordion), Herbie “Arizona” Kratoska (guitar and banjo), Fran “Irish” Mahaney (tenor), Rod “Dave” May (tenor), Robert “Captain Bob” Crawford (baritone), and Edward “Tucson” or “Tookie” Cronenbold (bass).

Garbed in Western wear, topped with classic white hats, their versatile musical repertoire included hymns, cowboy songs, novelty, and western swing. When I guest lectured for the Conservatory (UMKC), I ended with the Texas Rangers’ rendition of “Hand me down my walking cane” which inevitably got stuck in everyone’s head. It’s entertaining and hopefully served as a distraction from the terrible guest lecture they just sat through.

Tex Owens

Image above: Tex Owens, the original Texas Ranger? Image courtesy of Orlene “Kit” Johnson and Irene “Kay” Dierks.

As we soon discovered, the Texas Rangers weren’t without their own drama. In their early radio programs, they were often fronted by special guest, Tex Owens. Owens, who played guitar and sang with the group on occasion, was never officially a member, but somehow left his mark in history as “The Original Texas Ranger.” There seemed to be a great deal of tension between Tex and the boys which reached its climax when Texas Governor, James V. Allred, commissioned the musical group The Texas Rangers, along with Tex Owens, as honorary members of the state’s famed law enforcement group. The honor bestowed upon the Rangers prompted them to compose an interoffice memo expressing their disappointment that Tex would be honored alongside them considering he had not been a member. The memo also included some disagreements between the group and Tex. You can read more about this controversy, see the original memo, and learn of the outcome from a blog post written by one of the project students: Tex Owens: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

Find out more about the Church-KMBC collection.

Phenomenon: Traveling back in time to the 1930’s

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65 episodes of Ted Malone’s radio serial Phenomenon are available to researchers at the Marr Sound Archives via the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Malone’s personal collection of photos, manuscripts, and correspondences is held in LaBudde Special Collections.

“Wanted: a human life. Will pay $1,000.00.”

This is the ad that sends the hero of Phenomenon (story by Ted Malone and offered by Arthur B. Church’s company Midland Broadcasting Company) on the beginning of his many adventures through time.

Time travel is a concept that has been in the public since H. G. Wells first wrote The Time Machine in 1895 and it has been a staple of science-fiction ever since. While today we are constantly hit with the idea (Dr. Who, Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, Interstellar), it was still a fresh concept in the early half of the 20th century. Phenomenon ends up being something between a science-fiction series and a 1930’s time capsule. Buck Rodgers had just made his appearance a few years before, so science-fiction was on the minds of the young and inspired their imaginations

The modern setting for most of the story takes place in the office of Dr. Light, the inventor of the anachrophone. This is the device that allows the hero of the story, Jerry Powers, to travel back in time by harnessing radio waves. Throughout the show Jerry travels to several locations and historical time periods almost always finding himself in the middle of some major event of that time.

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Queen Cleopatra (pictured) appears in episodes 5-7 of Phenomenon, an original KMBC Radio production. Photo Courtesy the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection at LaBudde Special Collections.

Some examples include Cleopatra’s Egypt, the Salem Witch Trials, the Boston Tea Party, and the building of Solomon’s Temple. Jerry has all the makings of the typical hero. He’s bold, witty, overly confident, and always manages to find his way out of a tight spot. It’s where some of the other characters are involved that you begin to remember you’re listening to a 1930’s radio program.

Dr. Light’s daughter Katherine and their Chinese servant Charlie Wong very much get the stereotypical treatments of the time. Katherine is highly naïve and often treated as a second-class citizen. She is barely in the show for five minutes before you realize her duties are to do chores, flirt with Jerry, and be corrected. She is also very often told by Jerry when she is interrupting his and another male character’s conversation.

[audio: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/katherine.mp3|titles=Katherine’s Entrance|artists=Phenomenon Program No. 2]

Charlie Wong’s character is nothing short of a racial slur with his fast, hard to understand, and often childish sounding speech. Both remind you of the time in which the show was produced and unfortunately this continues into the introductions when sometimes the announcer will refer to electricity as a maid (or even a slave) who washes, cleans, and cooks for you.

[audio: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Phen_Lincoln_03.mp3|titles=Phenomenon Introduction|artists=Phenomenon Program No. 49]

It is important to point out that the main drive behind Phenomenon was to sell electricity to the public, a fact that the Midland Broadcasting Company made no attempt to diminish stating, “It entertains, it educates, it sells every member of the American family” right on the second page of their booklet about the program. This sentiment continues within the program itself almost every time the announcer begins each show often stating how much electricity can and is doing for the home. A more focused look on this aspect is found in Christina Tomlinson’s entry, “Phenomenon: Electrifying history, but not advertisers” on the Labudde Special Collections Blog.

The unfortunate result is that it’s hard to look past these and see the show for what it is at its core. They need to be taken with a grain of salt, however, and seen for what they are: a product of their time. It’s important to step back and try to look past them and listen with the ears of a 1930’s listener. Most of those things were common place and, though unfortunate, wouldn’t have distracted from the show and the program does offer some magical moments; my personal favorites were the pair of episodes that had Jerry Powers walking and talking with Abraham Lincoln through camps during the civil war (episodes 49-50). Phenomenon is not the Doctor and his companions traveling through time and space and righting wrongs but to people of the first half of the 20th century it was most likely an exciting experience and possibly sparked the imaginations of many as science-fiction has continually done.

[audio: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Phen_Lincoln_01.mp3|titles=A story from Abraham Lincoln|artists=Phenomenon Program No. 50]

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Tales from the Archives: Happy Hollow is a Real Place

In October 2012, the Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Please enjoy this series of anecdotes recounting the unusual discoveries and amusing happenings in the course of working with this collection.

This is the third in a series of Tales from the Archives.

Happy Hollow is a Real Place

Happy Hollow cast

Happy Hollow cast and others, including Brookings Montgomery, outside entrance to Pickwick Hotel at the start of troupe’s European and African tour. Credit: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

Rural programming was pretty common in the 1930s and ‘40s, and KMBC had its own in the town of Happy Hollow which gave listeners a peek into the daily lives of Aunt Lucindy, Uncle Ezra, Harry Checkervest, George Washington White (their own blackface character), and other town folk, along with musical interludes by the Humdinger Quartet.The program’s creator, Ted Malone, would have a long and successful career in radio broadcasting, mostly known for his storytelling and poetry reading, and as we later discovered by going through his fan mail,  he was very popular with the housewives…in an uncomfortable way.

Listeners engrossed in the goings-on of Happy Hollow could find out more by subscribing to the newsletter Happy Hollow Bugle. We came upon the newsletter when I sent my most enthusiastic student upstairs to Special Collections to see if he could find out more about the program, specifically, what radio actors were cast in the various roles. My instructions were simple: Look over the finding aid and pull whatever seems like it might contain some information about the show. I figured this wouldn’t take long since there didn’t appear to be much in the Church-KMBC Collection finding aid. About ten minutes in, I received a phone call from my very excited student telling me that one of the Special Collections staff pulled a newsletter called Happy Hollow Bugle from the Ted Malone Collection, and that there was all kinds of helpful information in it. Relieved that he had found something useful, I instructed him to gather up the relevant data for identifying the characters in the show.

Over an hour passed by, and just as I was beginning to wonder what was going on, he walked in. I saw him from a distance, all wide-eyed, headed straight toward me clutching a pencil and papers in his left hand, and I thought, “This is it. He’s going to tell me how he hit the jackpot of details on this show, and I might even be able to establish some names in the authority file.” He had spent an hour and a half in the archives, after all. But instead, he approached and exclaimed, “Happy Hollow is a real place!” As I was laughing (hard), he proceeded to tell me about the legal troubles that Uncle Ezra had found himself in, how some of the townsfolk had traveled to Africa, and other documented occurrences that had convinced him of its realness.

Tried and tried as I might to crush his new-found beliefs so suddenly (e.g., “So there’s just a guy in town who likes to walk around in blackface?”), he remained convinced and I remained amused. The good news: we were able to identify some of the actors. In fairness to my student, the cast of Happy Hollow and other KMBC stars did tour Europe and Africa. Kudos to KMBC for blending fiction and reality in their marketing so effortlessly. They had at least one person convinced 80 years later!

Find out more about the Church-KMBC collection.

Tales from the Archives: The Stampers Under the Stairs

In October 2012, the Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Please enjoy this series of anecdotes recounting the unusual discoveries and amusing happenings in the course of working with this collection.

This is the second in a series of Tales from the Archives.

The Stampers Under the Stairs (Not Surprisingly, Full of Spiders)

Disc stampers in crates

Stampers in original crates. Spiders, too. Credit: Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, Marr Sound Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Shortly after I had hired the project students, I received that news that we all dread hearing. It goes something like, “Oh, by the way, we found a bunch more stuff that belongs to that collection you’re cataloging for that grant.” Ours was more like: “Oh, by the way, we found a bunch of metal stampers at the bottom of a stairwell. I think there’s about 1,000 of them, and they all belong to the KMBC collection.” Actually, it was exactly like that (and there were 1,400 of them). But since I’m always up for a challenge, I came up with a workflow, drew up some guidelines, and unleashed one of my deadliest students. She was a quick-witted graduate Public History major armed with a vast knowledge of home health remedies, construction cleanup experience, and a nice Southern accent with a “no bull” attitude who drank her French press coffee black. She was perfect for the job.

I often walked into the dusty space she was working in to check on her. I felt bad for subjecting her to all the dust and forcing her to handle the heavy stampers, but she didn’t complain much about it. She had accepted the job and planned on doing it right. As it turns out though, some complaint was warranted. About two weeks in, I received a call from the head of the sound archive informing me that they had sent the student back upstairs and she was forbidden to re-enter the space until it had been bug bombed. I was confused. What had happened? Apparently, when asked how things were going, the student casually mentioned the brown recluses crawling out of the crates. That generated an appropriate response of alarm and concern for the safety and health of the student and the archives staff. Her response: “I was just killin’ ‘em with two by fours. I had planned to keep killin’ ‘em.” Like I said. Deadly.

Find out more about the Church-KMBC collection.

The Faces of Radio: Behind the KMBC Microphone

In 1935, KMBC was blooming into a Kansas City media empire under the direction of Arthur B. Church. Though a few years before the advent of the Brush Creek Follies–a program that would become one of KMBC’s staple programs–the station was already proving to be a fruitful grounds for talent of all varieties.

Listeners of KMBC mostly knew the voices of the radio talents: the wisdom of Uncle Ezra and the folksy organ-backed tales of Ted Malone; the radio-drama, Life on the Red Horse Ranch, and the songs of Herb Kratoska and Tex Williams. But in 1935 the station produced a film reel to give the public a chance to view the faces behind their favorite programs.

The reel, “Microphone Personalities: Camera Flashes of Program Features that have clicked with millions of Columbia Network Listeners” was a feature designed to sell KMBC programs to other networks. And it appears in the Marr Sound Archives from the Arthur B Church video collection.

Uncle Ezra Butternut of the Happy Hollow program is one of the first personalities to face the camera. He claims to be no actor, just a man with some opinions, and that much is evident from his odd stares into the lens. Similarly, Ted Malone and his organist are backlit silhouettes, not facing the camera for their demonstration.

The musicians, however, seem to have an easier time with the visual medium. Tex Williams appears decked out in cowboy regalia, custom made chaps with “TEX” applique-d on the leg. Herb Kratoska’s easy-going jazz guitar and vocalizations bring more energy, but eye contact still seems to be an issue. If there’s a fourth wall here, no one knows about it.

A young Paul Henning–before he took up the typewriter and moved to Cali-for-ni-ay–sings a saccharine song into the camera, calm and easy, but seeing this makes me glad he pursued television writing instead.

The most natural performances come from the cast of Life on the Red Horse Ranch. Unlike old Uncle Ezra, these are actors, and adapting to the visual medium much better. Even a glimpse at the sound-effect man, turning a wheel to make the prairie wind, rattling metal sheets and shutting small doors is a treat to watch. Following their brief radio-play the band closes with a hoe-down number of banjo, stand-up bass, and accordion solos.

KMBC became most widely known for it’s “country” themed programming that started with the hillbilly antics of Happy Hollow and evolved into Brush Creek Follies, which ran for 20 years. Other very popular programs were western and cowboy-oriented programs like Life on the Red Horse Ranch and The Texas Rangers program. KMBC oversaw national distribution for many of these shows, which led to great success for Arthur B. Church and is a vital facet of the station’s legacy.

Tales from the Archives: The untimely death of KMBC producer, Fran Heyser

In October 2012, the Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. I served as the project cataloger, managed three students, and coordinated with sound archives staff on the preservation and digital reformatting of the recordings. When asked to write a special feature article for the Music Library Association Newsletter, an informal publication of MLA, I pondered what I should focus on. First, I thought it might be sensible to highlight some unique items in the collection or maybe talk a little about the project, but then I realized that I don’t normally make any sense, and when I do, it puts everyone to sleep. Instead, I decided to focus on a series of anecdotes recounting the unusual discoveries and amusing happenings in the course of working with this collection.

This is the first in a series of Tales from the Archives.

The untimely death of KMBC producer, Fran Heyser

Clipping of report on Heyser's murder

Clipping of report on Heyser’s murder. In other important news, the local stamp club is meeting!

Just over two years ago, I found myself driving by the Pickwick Hotel at 10th and McGee Streets in downtown Kansas City. I wish I could say that I did this to satiate some intellectual curiosity to see the building in which former president Harry S. Truman wrote his autobiographical Pickwick Papers; or that I did it to fulfill a romantic notion that I should see that place which once housed the penthouse headquarters of radio station KMBC, the station whose collection I had been cataloging for the past several months. It was for neither of those reasons I ventured out on that inconspicuous evening.

The truth is hard to admit. In the midst of working with the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, I had run across KMBC program producer and sometimes announcer, Fran Heyser, and as any good cataloger is wont to do, I set about establishing his name in the LC/NACO Name Authority File (basically, a huge registry of names). When I discovered in horror that he had been beaten to death with a metal table lamp at the Pickwick, I had the irresistible urge to investigate. I recently learned that this abandoned hotel is slated for redevelopment as apartments for “young urbanites.” Imagine them moving in with their reclaimed wood coffee tables and vegan faux leather couches (Hey, wait. I have these things…), having no idea their new apartment could be haunted by the ghost of Fran Heyser. I would totally watch that episode of Paranormal Witness on SyFy.

KMBC producer, Fran Heyser

KMBC producer, Fran Heyser

What didn’t occur to me when writing this short anecdote was that the living relatives of Fran might see the article and contact me. All praise the glory of the Interwebs! [which also terrifies me] So when I received an email from the niece of Fran Heyser who had been directed to my article by her cousin, I have to admit to being a bit nervous to open the email. After all, I had told the story of her uncle’s murder in such a casual and darkly humorous way (debate on whether any of the three readers found it humorous). But much to my relief, she had contacted me to inquire about additional information concerning her uncle, who she had only known through the stories that her grandmother and mother had shared. When I sent her a digital copy of his autographed photograph (shown here) and links to every audio recording that we had involving her uncle in some way, she expressed gratitude and even excitement, as she immediately recognized her uncle in the photograph. It was a relief that in my rare act of public service (it’s best that I’m kept behind heavy wooden doors) and in our Archives’ effort to preserve and provide access to the unique and valuable materials we hold, we had managed to provide family members a renewed interest and connection to the artifacts documenting the activities of a relative whose death was truly tragic.

Find out more about the Church-KMBC collection.

Contributed by Sandy Rodriguez, Special Collections Metadata Librarian

Black History Month: Zora Neale Hurston on American School of the Air

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Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The American School of the Air was an educational radio program aired on CBS during the 1930s and 40s. The long-running show tackled American history, science, music and literature under the heading of daily subjects such as “Frontiers of Democracy,” “Science Frontiers,” “This Living World,” and “Gateways to Music” and broadcasts were often used as a supplement to classroom education across the nation.

On December 8, 1938 the umbrella title was “American Literature of the Twentieth Century” and the guest was author, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. In this very rare episode of American School of the Air, Hurston tells African-American folk tales from her collection entitled Mules and Men. These may be the only audio recordings in existence of her reading these particular works.

Among the folktales heard here are “Why There Are Negroes and Other Races,” “How God Made Butterflies,” a series of animal tales as well as tales of exaggeration as heard below:

[audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Zora-Neale-Hurston-tells-an-exaggera.mp3|titles=Zora Neale Hurston tells a tale of exaggeration.]

Perhaps best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston was active during the Harlem Renaissance alongside such contemporaries as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. She received widespread criticism for her heavy use of dialect in her writing. Critics felt she was perpetuating a longstanding tradition of racially charged stereotypes of African-American men, women, and children in literature and popular culture.  She was also praised, however, for her use of idiomatic speech and her dedication to preserving and handing down the grand tradition of African-American folklore and oral history.

Hurston’s work as an anthropologist led her to back to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, where she recorded oral histories and gathered ethnographic research on music and folklore dating back to the days of American slavery. She gives a brief history and explanation of “negro folktales” and their contribution to American culture at the begnning of the episode.

[audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Zora-Neale-Hurston-explains-folk-tal.mp3|titles=Zora Neale Hurston provides a brief explanation of negro folk tales and their origins.]

The Marr Sound Archives holds approximately 162 episodes of The American School of the Air within the J. David Goldin collection, all of which are all searchable in the library catalog and RadioGoldindex and are available upon request.

Lonesome Gal: Virtual Seduction in the Golden Age of Radio

lonesomeheaderWe often take our modern technological communications for granted these days. One could be plugged into the virtual network 24/7 and never fully realize the capacity for human connection that these means afford us. Whereas the digital age has now completely saturated popular culture, the golden age of radio relied simply upon the power of the human voice to connect with its audience.

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Lonesome Gal photo courtesy otrcat.com.

Take radio personality Jean King as one example of how to effectively reach listeners and consumers alike. She developed a cult following beginning in the late 1940s as Lonesome Gal, the virtual girlfriend to everyman. Listeners of WING in Dayton, Ohio would tune in for 15 minutes each week just to get some special attention from their Lonesome Gal. Every episode played out as if she were speaking directly to each individual in her audience, to whom she referred to as baby, sweetie, angel, dreamboat, and muffin, among other cute pet names.

Episodes often began with the introduction, “Sweetie, no matter what anybody says, I love you better than anybody in the whole world,” as the organ plays her theme song and she proceeds to coo endlessly about your charming mannerisms and depth of character.

[audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Lonesome-Gal-Theme.mp3|titles=Lonesome Gal Opening Theme]

King’s vocal delivery has been described as warm, sexy, sultry, and, if I may add, mildly hypnotic and vaguely unsettling. In retrospect, her monologues may seem relatively tame, but under the traditional values and post-war mores of the time, King’s implicit sexuality was about as racy as it got. She earned a pack of rabid followers over her time on the air which led her to keep her identity a secret until 1953. For public appearances, she would even wear a mask to conceal her face, adding to the mystery that surrounded the Lonesome Gal character.

[audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Lonesome-Gal-Clip-1-of-2.mp3|titles=Lonesome Gal shows off her jealous side…]

These days, the lonely and alienated are more like demographics that need to be manipulated for profit rather than comforted and encouraged. While this was also true of Lonesome Gal, who seduced her predominantly male audience into purchasing beer and tobacco, King was able to tap the psyches of her devoted followers and provide the illusion that they were the center of the universe. When the program was picked up by over 50 other stations, she even went so far as to adapt her scripts to match the markets for which she performed, adding an intimate and unique level of involvement for her audience.

The Marr Sound Archives contains only two Lonesome Gal transcription discs in its holdings. One of them is composed entirely of holiday greetings and musings from your virtual girlfriend in Dayton, Ohio. Listen below as she assigns your chores for this weekend, just like a real girlfriend!

[audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Lonesome-Gal-Clip-2-of-2.mp3|titles=Deck the halls with boughs of holly.|artists=Lonesome Gal]

lonesomediscFor more history and analysis, consult Mary Desjardins and Mark Williams’ essay entitled, “Are you lonesome tonight?”: Gendered Address in The Lonesome Gal and The Continental” from the book Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture, available in the EBL (E-Book Library) Database, or find more sound clips in The Internet Archive.

Venereal Disease and Country Music

2013-08-05_VD_Goldin_RoyAcuffFor the seventh time, folk singer and songwriter Tom Glazer picks up his guitar, sees the red recording light go on, and sings at the microphone in all sincerity:

Don’t take a chance go see a doctor
Don’t take a chance go get examined
Don’t take a chance go see a doctor now.

Glazer was taking part in an experiment by the Public Health Service, began in the late 1940s, called “VD Radio Project” (the “VD” was a nicer way of saying venereal disease).  He wrote and performed this little song to introduce seven short announcements about venereal disease and the importance of getting seen by a doctor.

VD Radio Project’s goal was to educate the public and dispel taboos about syphilis, gonorrhea, and other venereal diseases. Other than the seven short recordings done by Glazer, the rest of the series consisted of fifteen minute episodes. Some were straight radio dramas, and some were real life stories and voices from those affected by venereal diseases. But the episodes of “VD Radio Project” that had the most impact used a powerful weapon–popular musicians like Tom Glazer, Woody Guthrie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams.

These episodes were typical radio dramas in one sense but were also partly told in verse and sung in ballad. The guest stars functioned as sort of narrators and sort of troubadours. These mixtures of music and drama Erik Barnouw, creator of the series, called “hillbilly operas.” The songs were sometimes reactions to situations, but also were used to move the plot forward. Alan Lomax, a pioneer in collecting and preserving American folk music, was key in creating this style of radio musical drama.

One episode written by Lomax, Looking for Lester, integrated Roy Acuff and His Smokey Mountain Boys into a drama based on a true story. The episode is about Lester, who falls in love with Ann, but sleeps with another girl and contracts syphilis. Or as Roy Acuff put it: “Old Lester was fit to be tied, went to the bar and got fried,” and then, “went on a spree that was a dilly, with a filly named Millie!”

Lester returns to Ann, and the young couple marry.

Sound your “G” chord boys and I’ll tell Lester’s story.

A chord is strummed on a steel string guitar and Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain Boys play this tune:

Is there anything nicer in the whole round world my honey
Is there anything nicer in the whole round world My babe.
Is there anything nicer in the whole round world
When a girl loves a boy and a boy loves a girl.
Honey o baby mine.

Lester and Anne got married in May my honey
Lester and Anne got married in May my babe
Lester and Anne got married in May
Life was happy and life was gay
Honey o baby mine.

But, alas, everything is not so happy. Ann gets pregnant and during a checkup with her doctor she finds out that she has syphilis. Lester leaves in anger and shame. Roy Acuff gives the drama a touch of reality by informing the audience that this is about someone he really knows who might be listening. He begs his friend to come back to his wife and their child, and tells him that syphilis can be cured.

J. David Goldin calls this radio play, “Good radio!” And I agree. Especially since it and the other “hillbilly operas” treaded new ground artistically for radio. They combined the popularity of musical celebrities, original song writing and singing, radio drama, real life experiences, elements of radio opera, and medical advice all to an altruistic end.

These musical episodes of “VD Radio Project” are getting attention today for the stars that were in them. The episode with Hank Williams has understandably been given much attention. A researcher in New Hampshire, Fred Bals, is currently writing a book about the series and plans to do research at Marr. We say, “good luck!” to Fred, and hopefully, lots more books will come out of the J. David Goldin Collection!

Troy Cummings, guest contributor