Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oldtime Songs as Oldtime Radio Drama

Ever wish one of your favorite old songs could go on for a half hour? Or want to know the story-behind-the-story of a ballad?

While I've been using this blog for intermittent posts about folk, blues and old-time stringband music, in my other incarnation over at http://jheroes.com ("Newspaper Heroes on the Air") I write about the portrayal of journalists in the radio dramatic series of the thirty-some years before television killed radio drama as a major element in American popular culture.

Here's a crossover: One of the radio dramatic programs that sometimes had journalist characters in its plots also had a "folk song revival" theme in a group of 1950s episodes based on traditional ballads and blues. Posting a journalism-related episode of "Suspense" to jheroes reminded me that a few of its tales of death and disaster came from old songs.

"Suspense" was a highly rated and expertly produced series for 20 years, specializing in tension,  adventure and murder, from "Othello" to "Frankenstein" and "Leinengen vs. the Ants." As a result, the Old Time Radio Researchers Group has a substantial collection of episodes (more than 900 of them!), which it shares with the public through the Internet Archive (archive.org).

Below are direct links to the folk-song episodes I've noticed, produced and directed by Elliott Lewis, with scripts by several writers, according to radio historian J. David Goldin's listings ... Click to download the MP3s or open them in your browser.
The Wreck of the Old 97 (March 17, 1952)
Frankie and Johnny (May 5, 1952)
Frankie and Johnny (Feb. 3, 1957)
Tom Dooley (March 30, 1953)
Tom Dooley (Dec. 7, 1958)

While it's not folksong-based, music fans also might be intrigued by the vaudeville title "Never Follow a Banjo Act," with Ethel Merman.

I'm particularly fascinated by the fact that "Suspense" put its dramatization of "Tom Dooley" on the radio long before The Kingston Trio's arrangement of the song became a national hit. A version of the song had been recorded as early as 1929 (by Grayson and Whitter), but re-entered the "folk song revival" consciousness when collected by folklorists Frank & Anne Warner from Frank Proffitt in North Carolina in 1938, then published in John & Alan Lomax's book Folksong U.S.A. in 1947.  It was recorded by Warner in 1952 (and eventually by Proffitt on Folk Legacy Records in 1962).

The Suspense radioplay based on the song was rebroadcast in 1958, using that year's Kingston Trio hit recording.  According to J. David Goldin's "RadioGoldindex" of "Suspense" episode information, Harry Stanton was the vocalist on the 1952 broadcasts of both "Tom Dooley" and "Old 97."

Louise Louis was vocalist on "Barbara Allen." Big band singing stars who crossed over to film and television were also part of the casts: Dinah Shore played the lead and sang the song in "Frankie and Johnny" and Rosemary Clooney was listed among the cast for "Saint James Infirmary." Margaret Whiting was Frankie in the 1957 broadcast.

According to Goldin's logs, Stanton (although not featured) was also among the cast members for a different radio series' musical drama, the Lux Radio production of "Dixie," an hour-long, thoroughly  fictionalized and whitewashed dramatization of the life of minstrel banjo pioneer Dan Emmett. Based on the movie by the same name and broadcast Dec. 20, 1943, the radioplay has the film's star Bing Crosby in the lead. You can almost smell the blackface burnt cork in one of Hollywood's regrettable acts of nostalgia for the days of on-stage racism and a romanticized 1800s Southland.

Instead of admitting that imitating black musicians was the inspiration for white minstrels' "blacking up," the story has the absurd excuse of Emmett and another performer originally using blackface makeup to cover up black eyes and bruises from a fight. (Crosby vs. Barry Sullivan as "Mr. Bones.") Their act is mostly joke-telling with "Amos and Andy" accents. Minstrel-style music is barely heard amidst the Crosby crooning. And, no, Dan Emmett didn't write the Crosby classic "Sunday, Monday or Always" that opens the program. In fact, some researchers believe the title song "Dixie"  actually came to Emmett from the Snowdens, a black family in Ohio.

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