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The Radio Research Project Manuscript Collection is Now Online

A man sits at a large microphone holdin a record.

Alan Lomax acted as a radio host at various times during his career. Here he is in a publicity photo during his time as host and writer of “On Top of Old Smokey” for the Mutual Broadcasting radio network, 1948. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center.

The January 1941 launch of the Radio Research Project marked the initial foray of the Library of Congress into broadcast media. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and supported by Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, the project created numerous and diverse radio programs primarily relating to American history and folklore, and utilized groundbreaking recording and production techniques. As the United States had just entered World War II, some of the programs addressed the war effort. The project staff of Philip Cohen, Joseph Liss, Alan Lomax, Arthur Miller, and Jerome Wiesner wrote and produced the Hidden History series (twenty-six programs, 1941), the Report to the Nation series (two programs, 1941), the Books and the News series (six programs, 1941), The Ballad Hunter series (ten programs, 1941), the documentary series Americans Talk Back (six programs, 1941), “December 9, 1941” (1941), the Regional Series (seven programs, 1942), “Dear Mr. President” (1942), and “Lincoln Speaks to the People and to the Soldiers” (1942). The program  continued until February 1942.

The Radio Research Project Manuscript Collection presents the manuscripts from this project, including scripts and drafts for scripts. While the presentation does not include recordings of the broadcasts, examples of recordings used as source material for the radio programs can be found among the materials put online as part of other digital collections. Two recordings of complete programs are available. Following are some guides to connecting available recordings with the scripts in the collection

The scripts and drafts for “Dear Mr. President” drew material from recordings made by various people in response to the United States entrance into World War II. The field recordings are part of the online presentation, After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the-Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor.  This collection includes the full recordings made by participants, as well as the broadcast version of the program. The script drafts in the Radio Research Project Manuscript Collection show that the writers knew that there was more than enough material for more programs based on the collection and it appears that they had plans for more, though only one was produced. So we can see more about what the writers planned from the scripts that were not used. For example, one interesting script includes a statement by Francisco Enos Sr. about his community’s response to the war and a fragment of a song. He identifies himself as a Papago Indian (that is, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation) and the recording of Enos can be heard here in After the Day of Infamy (starting at 45 seconds). The scripts in the collection show an effort by the writers to be more inclusive of various cultural groups than is shown in the single broadcast that was produced.

We can also hear the first recording of a very interesting song which was performed by a chorus in the broadcast.  “The Martins and the Coys”  was performed by Pete Seeger (listen to side b) for the “Dear Mr. President” interview collection project. The song is a parody of a song with the same title by Al Cameron and Ted Weems, published in 1936. Since Pete Seeger often performed for politically controversial causes, and since his father had a succession of government jobs with the Resettlement Administration and the Federal Music Project, Pete sometimes performed under the name Peter Bowers, and that is how he is credited on AFC’s recording.

My colleague Stephen Winick has provided some further background on this song. The new lyrics were written by Millard Lampell for the Almanac Singers, a group that included both Lampell and Seeger. They were published in the song folio Songs of the Almanac Singers in 1942, with the name “Martins” changed to “Hatfields.” Lampell’s idea of having the two feuding families from the Cameron and Weems song come together to fight Hitler inspired Alan and Elizabeth Lomax to produce the ballad opera The Martins and the Coys, and Lampell’s song served as the opera’s finale. The ballad opera was recorded in New York in 1944 for the BBC’s Home Service, with Pete again performing the lead vocal and banjo, Woody Guthrie on guitar, and Sonny Terry on harmonica. In preparation for the May 1944 BBC sessions, Alan Lomax also included the song in a set of sessions he organized for Moses Asch of Folkways Records in March 1944. Seeger, Lomax, Tom Glazer and Burl Ives provided vocals on this version, with Seeger playing banjo, Ives playing guitar, and Sonny Terry on harmonica. It was credited to “The Union Boys.” It was among a set of anti-Hitler songs being made ready for release by Folkways when Hitler was defeated, causing Asch to cancel the release. However, it has since been released by Smithsonian Folkways, and you can hear it in a licensed YouTube video at this link.

Here is the full broadcast of the “Dear Mr. President” program including the song “The Martins and the Coys.”

Head and shoulders portrait of a man wearling a hat.

Captain Pearl R. Nye, Library of Congress.

A show based on field recordings of Captain Pearl Nye, “Hidden History, The Erie Canal,” was written to give the listener the experience of being a passenger on a canal boat (find the script at the link).  The recordings that the program drew from can be found in the online presentation, Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal. The song “Take a Trip on the Canal if You Want to Have Fun,” available in three parts, was made to order for this radio play, as it described funny things about the canal boats, the people that worked on them, and the experiences a passenger might have. Segments of the song were used at intervals to move the action along.

The Ballad Hunter series featured recordings of folksongs made by John and Ruby Lomax and was produced between 1941 and 1942. The scripts and materials for the series can be found in the collection here. The scripts do not always say precisely which recording was used, but sometimes only include a note of the singer or song presented. The recordings were used as the basis for The Ballad Hunter LP record albums published in 1942. These recordings are out of print, but the liner notes, which do include song titles and names of singers are available as PDFs at these links: Parts 1 and 2, Parts 3 and 4, Parts 5 and 6, parts 7 and 8, and Parts 9 and 10. Some of the songs listed can be found online, such as Arthur Bell singing “John Henry”, E. A. Briggs singing “Jesse James”, Pearl Nye singing his canal version of “The Dark Eyed Sailor” (called the “Dark Eyed Canaler” on the Ballad Hunter radio script), and Pearl Nye singing “Barbara Allen.”

A portrait of a man sitting at a typewriter

Arthur Miller, half-length portrait, seated at typewriter, facing left, left hand under chin. Photographer unknown. Taken between 1945 and 1960. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

One other recording of a complete program from the project is currently available online. Playwright Arthur Miller was one of the fieldworkers and writers for the project. But at 26, Miller was then a struggling writer working for the WPA Federal Theater Project in New York before joining the project. In October 1941 he traveled to Wilmigton, North Carolina, with sound engineer John Langenegger to do interviews with workers and their families in a new shipyard. Miller used this material to create a program:  “This is History: Wilmington, North Carolina, 1941.” Miller’s drafts for the script can be found in the collection: draft 1 and draft 2. In a post in Folklife Today, “Arthur Miller: A View From the Field,” Matthew Barton gives a history of Miller’s participation in the Radio Research Project and includes a recording of the full radio broadcast of the Wilmington program.

The Radio Research Project Collection documents an interesting adventure of the Library of Congress into radio broadcasting during a time when World War II was uppermost in the minds of the American people. It includes a wide assortment of scripts for information programs, radio plays, and programs that mixed entertainment with education. More than that, as can be seen by the above examples, it complements material in other collections online and so provides interesting opportunities for exploring across digital collections.



Historic AFC Liner Note Booklets

Lomax, Alan: some radio programs hosted by Alan Lomax not part of the Radio Research Project have been put online by the Association for Cultural Equity at this link.

Lomax, John and Ruby: more songs by Arthur Bell and E. A. Briggs may be found in  Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip


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