Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oldtime Songs as Oldtime Radio Drama

While I've been using this blog for intermittent posts about folk, blues and old-time stringband music, in my other incarnation over at ("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 (
Below are direct links to the folk-song episodes I've noticed... Click to download the MP3s or open them in your browser.
The Wreck of the Old 97 (March17, 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. (The story was rebroadcast in 1958, using their recording.) According to J. David Goldin's "RadioGoldindex" of "Suspense" episode information, Harry Stanton was the vocalist on 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.
Stanton was also among the cast members for another radio series' musical drama, the Lux Radio production of "Dixie," a Dec. 20, 1943, dramatization of the life of minstrel banjo pioneer Dan Emmet, based on the movie by the same name, with Bing Crosby in the lead. You can almost smell the blackface grease paint.