American Ballads

  February 13, 2022   Read time 2 min
American Ballads
While the left struggled to use folk music in various forms for political purposes, the genre was gaining a definite popular following and presence. There were numerous folk radio shows in New York City.
Oscar Brand launched Folk Song Festival over WNYC in 1946 on Sunday evenings (still on the air in 2006); Tom Glazer’s Ballad Box aired on ABC from 1945 to 1947; Elaine Lambert Lewis’s Folk Songs of the Seven Million aired on WNYC starting in 1944. Alan Lomax resumed his radio career with his show Your Ballad Man on the Mutual Broadcasting Network.
Rather than live performers, as he had on his prewar CBS shows, he now only played records, yet displaying his eclectic idea of folk music through including contemporary jazz and country performers. Not content to promote folk music only over the radio, he organized a biweekly series of concerts at Town Hall in New York, starting with “Blues at Midnight” in 1946, and including “Calypso at Midnight,” “Spirituals at Midnight,” and “Mountain Frolic at Midnight.”
He also produced various compilations for Decca Records, including Carl Sandburg’s Cowboy Songs and Negro Spirituals, and albums by Burl Ives, Josh White, even actress Dorothy Lamour doing her favorite Hawaiian songs.
His reissue albums Listen to Our Story—A Panorama of American Ballads and Mountain Frolic reissued recordings from the 1920s and 1930s by traditional performers Bradley Kincaid, Uncle Dave Macon, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. While not the first to reissue hillbilly singers who were still alive—his father had put together Smoky Mountain Ballads for Victor Records in 1941, which included the Carter Family, Macon, and the Monroe Brothers—he was nonetheless a pioneer in recognizing the commercial contributions of country roots performers.
Meanwhile, the Library of Congress was issuing a five-album set of his collected southern ballads, blues, and sacred songs. Indeed, Lomax hardly distinguished between commercial and amateur performers in his quest to present folk music to a broader public. “Nineteen forty-six will be remembered, among other things, as the year that American folk songs came to town,” he wrote in Vogue. And while “there may be an element of escapism in this trend,” he cautioned in The New York Times Magazine, “the causes… lie deep in our national life: first, in our longing for artistic forms that reflect our democratic and equalitarian political beliefs; and, second, in our hankering after art that mirrors the unique life of this western continent.”

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