American Folklore in London

  February 13, 2022   Read time 2 min
American Folklore in London
American music, including folk songs, came to Britain also through the broadcasts over BBC of U.S.-made records, and also programs from the Armed Forces Network (AFN), beginning in 1943.
The following year the BBC, AFN, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company formed the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme (AEFP), which aired American swing bands and other pop music to a military as well as civilian audience. Moreover, American troops brought their own records, which furtherspread their music throughout Britain. The BBC also aired a few traditional singers, such as Harry Cox, to help promote patriotism. “War, nostalgia, and nationalism, together with a contingency plan to counter-balance American cultural influences, all created a potent melting pot into which folk music was propelled,” Michael Brocken has argued. Still, the links between folk music in Britain and the United States were clearly visible by war’s end, and would only grow during the following decades.
Similar forces were at work in the United States. The war stimulated numerous antifascist, pro-war songs by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other activist folk musicians. The members of the Almanac Singers struggled to keep performing into 1942, but soon became scattered. Pete Seeger joined the Army, Woody Guthrie entered the Merchant Marine, and others contributed their part to the war effort. In 1943, however, Seeger, Butch and Bess Hawes, and Tom Glazer recorded six Spanish Civil War songs for the Stinson/Asch label. The next year Seeger joined Glazer, Burl Ives, Cisco Houston, Guthrie, and Josh White, under the name Union Boys, to record the pro-war, pro-labor union album Songs for Victory. Alan Lomax managed to produce two patriotic radio shows with folk dialog and songs in 1944.
The Martins and the Coys, using a hillbilly theme, featured the stellar lineup of actor Will Geer, Ives, Sonny Terry, Cisco Houston, Seeger, and country performers the Coon Creek Girls and Wade Mainer. The Chisholm Trail, with a western motif, included a similar cast. Oddly, both shows were financed and recorded for the BBC, since no domestic network would air the programs. Seeger, Guthrie, and many others also brought their music overseas making a strong connection with soldiers from throughout the country. By war’s end folk music was poised to begin a rejuvenated life in a world free from fascism and, hopefully, war and poverty.
Grassroots folk musicians continued to perform for family and community through the war years. Others took their instruments, from the very portable harmonica to much more, as they traveled the world for war work, but would not leave their cherished music behind. Probably none were as well prepared as Woody Guthrie, however. His Merchant Marine colleague, Jim Longhi, described a scrawny Woody as they boarded their first ship in the spring of 1943: “We could barely see him under the load: a seabag over his shoulder, a guitar strapped to his back, a violin case, a mandolin case, a stack of at least ten books, and portable typewriter, all tied together by a length of clothesline and somehow wrapped around him.”

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