Let’s go back in time to December 12, 1940 and turn our radio dial to 830 AM WNYC. It’s 6 p.m. in New York and blues singer Lead Belly has his weekly half-hour show (Folk Songs of America) where he sings songs and invites on a guest each week. On this episode he welcomes folk singer “The Dustiest Dustbowler of them all”——as the announcer calls him——Woody Guthrie, who, like the host, delivers three songs with some in between song patter.
This recording sat in the WNYC archives until being dusted off for a rebroadcast in 2007 as part of the Down Home Radio Show. The first year of the Down Home Radio Show coincided with the last year in the life of Professor Henrietta Yurchenco (1916-2007), who was a well known folk and world music radio personality, as well as an ethnomusicologist. One of her earliest radio jobs was producing this very episode for Lead Belly's Folk Songs of America, when she was only 24. She later went on to work with other stars in the business such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
The 1940 episode was unearthed for a show on outlaw songs, both blues and folk songs that glamorize people that the law saw as common criminals, but the people loved regardless. Lead Belly sings “Frankie and Albert” and Guthrie sings “John Hardy” and “Jesse James.”
Also on the show, Guthrie introduces his own “Ballad of Tom Joad” with a story about watching The Grapes of Wrath movie (1940) three times and then writing his own version. Lead Belly ends the show with “Boll Weevil,” which, being about a much hated insect, is kind of an outlaw ballad of sorts.
The only shame is not hearing the two together, and it’s not known whether they were in the same studio at the time.
Finally the announcer adds that if you like the show, drop a line to Lead Belly courtesy of WNYC and they’ll send you all the lyrics. I wonder if anybody still has a copy of that?
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.