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Alistair Cooke: Radio and TV Icon, Hidden Folklorist

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This article about the broadcaster, journalist, and writer Alistair Cooke is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. An earlier version of the article appeared in Folklife Center News, Volume 27, Number 1-2, Winter/ Spring 2005. This version of the article was published in 2018 and updated in 2022.

A young Alistair Cooke interviews an African American woman
This photo of Alistair Cooke and an unknown woman was provided to AFC in 2005 for use with this article by Alistair Cooke’s secretary with the approval of his son, the late John Byrne Cooke. We use it by courtesy of John Byrne Cooke. At the time, with Cooke recently deceased, they could tell me only that they believed the photo showed Cooke doing folklore fieldwork, interviewing a woman about folksongs for his BBC radio show I Hear America Singing. 

The English-born journalist, broadcaster, and critic Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) left a remarkable legacy in the worlds of journalism, television, and especially radio. Cooke’s Letter from America, a BBC radio feature that ran as a virtually unbroken weekly series from 1946 until 2004, holds the record as the longest – running spoken word radio program ever presented by a single host: for fifty-eight years and almost three thousand fifteen-minute episodes, Cooke spoke to the world about American life. That’s about 750 hours, or one full month, of round-the-clock talking. (You can hear over 1400 episodes at this link, on the BBC website!) And that’s only one show among the many that Cooke presented during his sixty-year career as a journalist and critic. The sheer number and length of extant recordings of his voice is matched by few presenters in the history of broadcasting.

For this reason among others, it’s interesting that a very early interview with Cooke, which we believe to be the first recording of his voice ever made, is right here in the AFC archive. The twelve-inch aluminum audiodisc documents an interview conducted on January 14, 1934, during Cooke’s first trip to America. It’s also interesting that some of Cooke’s earliest radio work, dating to the 1930s, presented American folk music drawn from the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, which is now our very own AFC archive. In fact, his work with the archive, and his sustained interest in folklore and folklife throughout his career, make him a prime candidate to consider a hidden folklorist.

Head and Shoulders portrait of Alistair Cooke
This photo of Alistair Cooke at about the time of his interview with Miles Hanley was provided to AFC in 2005 for use with this article by Alistair Cooke’s secretary with the approval of his son, the late John Byrne Cooke. We use it by courtesy of John Byrne Cooke.

Alistair Cooke first came to the United States in 1932 to study drama on a two-year Commonwealth Fund Fellowship that took him to both Yale and Harvard universities. At Harvard, Cooke enrolled in a course on the English language in America taught by Miles L. Hanley, who was at that time the associate editor of the Linguistic Atlas of New England. Hanley was a pioneering fieldworker in dialect studies, and had developed a system for recording informants in the field, using several automobile batteries as a power source. With a disc-cutting machine in the back of his car, he traveled through New England, making recordings of many informants. Later, other fieldworkers followed Hanley’s practice, resulting in the recordings in AFC’s American Dialect Society collection (AFC 1984/011), which also includes Hanley’s interview of his student, Alistair Cooke.

On that day in 1934, Hanley interviewed Cooke about both drama and speech. During the interview, Cooke talked about his acquaintances in the world of American drama, many of them Englishmen working on Broadway or in Hollywood, such as Leslie Howard, Noel Coward, and especially Charlie Chaplin. He also praised what he called the “greater purity and consistency” of American vs. British speech.

The interview is all the more remarkable in that it is only one of several points of connection between Cooke’s career and the AFC’s archive. Because of his genuine love of folklore, Cooke visited the Library of Congress many times, particularly what was then the Archive of Folk Song. In 1936, while back in England, Cooke produced a very successful half-hour program of American hobo songs for the BBC, entitled New York City to the Golden Gate. After emigrating to the United States in 1937, he began pursuing his dream of a longer and more detailed program tracing the origins of American folksong. He discovered fairly quickly that there were few extant commercial recordings. He therefore journeyed to Washington from his home in New York and approached Alan Lomax, then Assistant-in-Charge of the Archive of Folk Song, for help. Lomax, always happy to promote folk music on the radio, helped him identify songs to use from the archive’s holdings. From these songs and a few others, along with his expert narration, Cooke stitched together I Hear America Singing, a series of thirteen half-hour programs. The series got excellent reviews in most British media outlets, with the Times of London sounding particularly enthusiastic, and suggesting that the show be expanded to an hour.

The Times, of course, has a long memory. When Cooke died they ran an unsigned obituary, calling him “the best known broadcaster of his age, [and] also the most accomplished practitioner, at least in a studio in front of the microphone.” They also commented on I Hear America Singing. Although they got some details wrong (calling it a jazz program!), they correctly noted that Cooke had “mysteriously managed to borrow” records from the Library of Congress, wondering how such a feat was possible.

So, just how DID Cooke manage to borrow our records, when no other broadcasters had yet managed to do so? It turns out not to be such a mystery after all: he was impressive, persuasive, and charming. Cooke began by writing to Alan Lomax on May 17, 1938, proposing the series and asking for an in-person meeting the following week. At the meeting, Lomax later wrote to his boss Harold Spivacke, “Mr. Cooke astonished me by his grasp of the field of American popular music.”

Letter on BBC letterhead
This letter from Alistair Cooke to Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, went on for more than another page, convincing the Librarian to loan him recordings. Both Alan Lomax and Music Division Chief Alan Spivacke wrote memos supporting the plan.

After getting Lomax’s approval and advice, Cooke wrote an eloquent and persuasive letter to the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, a copy of which is held in the AFC archive’s British Broadcasting Corporation correspondence file. Cooke wrote:

When I first became interested in American folk songs, I had no idea so little had been done in recording, and how desperately hard it is for an amateur to get within earshot of the music he is interested in and excited about…. I found that the Library, and only the Library, has recorded a score or more of the songs which can make my series possible.

Cooke was able to persuade Putnam to grant the BBC one-time rights by promising to return to the Library not only the originals, but also all copies of the Archive’s recordings. I Hear America Singing was therefore broadcast live, only once, and was to our knowledge neither commercially released nor even preserved in recorded form. Many of the recordings from the Library of Congress had never been heard before by anyone outside the Library.

Although Cooke was by then living in America, the plan was for him to return to England, carrying the records with him, and broadcast the show from there. In those days this was the only way to have a truly live, real-time broadcast heard by British audiences. Cooke was not very good at advance planning, however, and according to his biography by Nick Clarke, he bought a ticket on the liner Manhattan, which was scheduled to arrive in England only a few hours before the first episode was supposed to air!

Page from Radio Times
This Radio Times article from July 1, 1938, used publicity materials sent from New York to London by Cooke on the Queen Mary, mere days before he himself left New York to broadcast I Hear America Singing from London. The use of what appears to be a different picture from the same photoshoot confirms that the negative sent to me by Cooke’s secretary and reproduced above was indeed associated with this landmark program.

The uncertainty of this plan was too much for the BBC; executives feared a few hours’ delay as customs officials puzzled over Cooke’s crate of one-of-a-kind recordings could cause the first program to miss its time slot. They managed to procure Cooke a ticket on the Georgic two days earlier, and also arranged for publicity materials to come on a faster ship, so they could publicize the show ahead of time.

Cooke’s casual approach continued after he reached England. Nick Clarke includes an amusing account of the program by Charles Chilton, who was Cooke’s engineer on the show. Chilton wrote:

Alistair used to turn up at about 6:00 when most people were going home. It was only then that he started writing the script, with me playing the discs in between. When we went to the studio at 9:30, he wouldn’t necessarily have finished the script, and while one record was playing he’d be searching in a book for some reference or other. Then, when it was time to speak, he’d say “As John Lomax Says…” and he’d read a section straight from the book.

Despite what might have appeared to be a cavalier attitude, Cooke (as the world soon learned) had an unerring instinct for great radio. Critics commented on his spontaneous manner on the air, and his refreshing use of language, much of which came from the truly unscripted nature of the show. The American magazine Variety even suggested that the show should be rebroadcast in America. Sadly, in accordance with both general BBC practice at the time, and Cooke’s deal with the Library of Congress, the program was not recorded.

I Hear America Singing was the earliest exposure most British people had to traditional American folk music, and its impact was widely felt. On October 5, 1938, Felix Greene of the BBC wrote to thank Harold Spivacke, noting:

On behalf of the British Broadcasting Corporation I would like to thank you most warmly for the help your division of the Library of Congress gave to us in connection with an important series of programs on American songs and ballads. This series, compiled by Mr. Alistair Cooke and broadcast to British listeners, attracted an immensely wide audience of listeners, and is considered by us to be one of the most successful series that we have ever transmitted. The broadcasting of such a series would have been quite impossible if it had not been for the help your Division gave us and particularly for the copies you allowed us to make of some of the valuable collection of recordings that your Library possesses. I wish it could be said that the governments of all countries had been as far-sighted as yours has been to record and preserve for permanent use the native songs and ballads which form the basis of the real culture of the people.

In addition to this very public involvement, Cooke took part in the accomplishments of the Library of Congress folksong archive behind the scenes. For example, he contributed to one of the archive’s most important early recording sessions, a long and detailed oral history of jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. During his trips to Washington to consult with Lomax about I Hear America Singing, Cooke made Morton’s acquaintance by strolling into a bar called the Music Box on U Street, where Morton was playing. Cooke, a blues and jazz fan since his university days, was thrilled to meet one of his idols. He later recalled the evening on one of his recordings:

He was playing a sour piano in a really smelly café, the sort of place where they never serve a meal. Just a neon sign with two bulbs missing and a cab driver leaning up against a glass of beer. It was like meeting the President in a shoe-shine parlor.

According to a talk given here by Alan Lomax’s biographer, John Szwed, it was at Cooke’s suggestion that Lomax dropped by the Music Box to visit with Jelly Roll Morton. This led to Morton’s historic series of recording sessions at the Library of Congress, at which Lomax recorded Morton’s repertoire of blues, jazz, and folksongs. The nine hours of speech and song recorded by Lomax over a month of sessions constitute the first extended oral history of music, and one of the first extended oral histories of any kind recorded in audio form. Cooke, through his interactions with the Library of Congress folksong archive in the 1930, thus played an important role in the development of both oral history and roots music biography–two important activities of folklorists to this day.

Tinted portrait of Jelly Roll Morton playing the piano, along with a record and hand-written music score
This collection of artifacts relating to Ferdinand Joseph “Jelly Roll” Morton (1885–1941) includes “Frog-i-More Rag,” a 78 rpm Paramount recording; a hand-colored photograph of Morton; and a music manuscript, ca. 1908. They are in the collections of the Music Division, and can be seen in the online exhibit American Treasures of the Library of Congress.

Alistair Cooke’s dealings with the archive were not always so successful. A plan for Cooke to borrow recording equipment for a 1941–42 BBC documentary tour of the United States seems not to have borne fruit. The plan is sketched out in letters among Cooke, Lomax, and Spivacke. The use of expensive equipment was more difficult to arrange than the use of recordings, and the letters reveal a complex process of negotiations once again involving the Librarian of Congress, at that time Archibald MacLeish. No detailed account of what the trip was to entail seems to have survived at the Library, but it’s likely that the BBC’s plan was something along the lines of the Library’s Radio Research Project, and that Cooke would gather Americans’ stories, including their opinions about the war.

The fact that the BBC was part of the British government, which was already at war, while the Library was part of the American government, which was still officially neutral, made the negotiations more sensitive. Cooke, a newly naturalized American citizen, did not know how forthcoming he could be regarding his plans. In a handwritten letter to Harold Spivacke, held in the Library’s Music Division, he explained:

I didn’t think it was proper for me to give an exhaustive account of what is, after all, a British government project to anybody until the first formal negotiations were over between Mr. Lindsay Wellington [North American director of the BBC] and Dr. MacLeish.

Handwritten list of recordings
This list of recordings requested by Alistair Cooke for his BBC radio show I Hear America Singing is in Cooke’s own handwriting. It dates to June 1938.

The surviving correspondence suggests that Lomax and Spivacke both supported Cooke’s plan, but the time turned out to be inauspicious: Cooke’s initial telegram, sent in October 1941, requested the equipment for a week in late 1941 and then again from January 15, 1942, until the end of March. Up until December 5, 1941, when Cooke was sent a telegram from the Library informing him that the equipment was spoken for until January 15, it looked as though the plan would be feasible. But there the paper trail goes cold, and we have no record of Cooke receiving the equipment.

In all likelihood, the loan was cancelled due to World War II. When the last telegram was sent to Cooke on December 5, neither Cooke nor the Library could have known that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor two days later. After the attack, the Library changed its plans and began to gather the “Man on the Street” interviews documented in our online exhibit After the Day of Infamy. Cooke was setting out on his trip just as Lomax and the Library were recording the “Dear Mr. President” interviews. It’s pretty certain that the equipment requested by Cooke was used in the Library’s project instead. Nonetheless, the entry of the United States into the war made Cooke’s trip all the more relevant, and he went ahead with it. According to his biography by Nick Clarke, he documented the trip primarily in notebooks.

The relationship of cordial respect between the Library and Cooke continued until Cooke’s death; during the Library’s 1999–2000 exhibition John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations, a printed version of one Letter from America, “Beer in Tins and Other Matters,” was displayed prominently at the Library. The letter can now be viewed at this link, in the online version of that exhibition on the Library of Congress Website.

Outside his dealings with the Library, Cooke remained a lifelong aficionado of folk music and of folklife more generally. In Letter from America he often quoted the lyrics of hymns, ballads, and blues. He produced programs on such folklife topics as Foodways in American life“urban legends” about famous people; jokes and anecdotes about current events; American regional celebrations of Christmas, May Day, and the Fourth of July; the culture of American labor, including Labor Day Parades; mythic representations of the American West; and conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. All of these topics have also been studied by folklorists. He even occasionally mentioned his work in linguistics with Miles Hanley, and the differences between British and American speech.

Cooke passed his love of folk music and blues on to his son, the late John Byrne Cooke (1940-2017), who became a professional bluegrass musician (with the Charles River Valley Boys), Janis Joplin’s road manager, and a well-known photographer of the folk and rock music scenes in the 1960s.

Alistair Cooke was also held in great esteem by Congress itself, which he covered as a journalist from the 1930s on. He received the highest recognition possible from Congress in 1974, when he was asked to address the assembled body on the occasion of its two hundredth anniversary. Up to that time, the only foreign-born people to have made such an address were the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill. Cooke kept the mood light. He told Congress:

Standing here now I feel as if I were just coming awake from some nightmare, in which I see myself before you unprepared and naked, as one often does in dreams, looking around this awesome assembly and blurting out ‘I accept your nomination for the Presidency of the United States!’

Head and shoulders portrait of Alistair Cooke
This photo of Alistair Cooke in the 1930s was provided to AFC in 2005 for use with this article by Alistair Cooke’s secretary with the approval of his son, the late John Byrne Cooke. We use it by courtesy of John Byrne Cooke.

Of course, Cooke was primarily known as a journalist and media personality. Throughout his career, he served as a BBC commentator on American affairs. A recognition of his prodigious talents as an essayist and broadcaster led to the creation of American Letter (later retitled Letter from America) in 1946. On the BBC World Service, Letter from America eventually reached audiences in over fifty countries. In the era before global cable networks, Cooke’s musings were thus one of the primary means by which English-speakers in Africa, Asia, Australia, Latin America, and Europe understood American politics and culture. He also served as the chief American correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.

Cooke’s appeal soon made him a star on television as well. The cultural program Omnibus, of which he was the host, was a Sunday afternoon staple on American TV for nine years during the 1950s, and remains one of the few shows ever to make the rounds of all three major networks. His NBC historical series America: A Personal History later ran on both PBS and the BBC, one of the few American commercial programs to do so. In 1971 Cooke began hosting the PBS anthology program Masterpiece Theatre, reversing his usual role to present British culture to American audiences. He would continue as host for twenty-two years, and this facet of Cooke’s career is the one primarily remembered by Americans. Seated in a comfortable leather wing chair, Cooke looked the epitome of the English dramaturge as he deftly contextualized dramatic renderings of Jane Austen and Henry James, as well as enthralling and delightful serials such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Jeeves and Wooster. Through his radio and television work, he became one of the world’s most familiar voices.

Listen to Alistair Cooke’s first recorded interview below.  It sounds as though Cooke had the only microphone, so it’s hard to hear the questions asked by Miles Hanley.  But in many cases Cooke realized this would be a problem, and included a form of the question in his answer—showing the early instincts of a great radio interviewer!


Comments (6)

  1. This is an excellent and very useful overview of Alastair Cooke’s many contributions to folk music scholarship. Contains a great deal of information I wasn’t previously aware of, especially in the area of his relationship with the Library of Congress.

  2. Very interesting to learn about Cooke’s connections to the AFC so early on! Thanks!

  3. Well, having pootled around the internet for a few years nothing should surprise me except that Alistair Cooke turns up in surprising places! I still listen, now and again, to his ‘Letters’ recordings but it was a pleasure to come across this article after the initial pleasure of coming across the LOC website. Marvellous.

  4. Alistair Cooke, my favourite mentor besides my maternal grandfather, does not disappoint with these recordings.
    He is truly missed and I am sure I will meet him when I too get to that great Masterpiece Theatre in the sky! Thank you LOC for archiving this and to Mr Cooke’s son, John Byrne Cooke, who was Janis Joplin’s manager for sharing this with the world!

  5. Is there a way to obtain a copy of the series of programs Cooke did on PBS on the History of the English language? I would very much like to listen to it again.

    • I believe you may mean “The Story of English.” Cooke was one of the recurring guests, and the host was Robert MacNeil. I don’t know of anyplace where it’s available, but it’s always worth checking YouTube for licensed copies of old programs.

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