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Folklife On the Air: A Tribute to Two “Radio Guys”

King Biscuit Time memorabilia on the walls of the Delta Cultural Center. The same sign seen at the top of the photo is also visible on the wall behind the folks in the photo within the photo! Photo by Stephen Winick.

Here at the American Folklife Center, we’ve always had an appreciation for radio. As the home of an archive with a lot of fantastic audio recordings, the “folk archive” has been ripe for use on the radio since its earliest days. John and Alan Lomax, heads of the archive back in the 1930s and 1940s, used our recordings on the radio extensively. Other radio pioneers such as Alistair Cooke similarly drew on our collections to create compelling radio shows.

Individuals on the staff, including me, also got our starts in radio. Back in the 1980s, you could hear me every weekend in New York City, playing Celtic and international folk music on WKCR. In graduate school and after, I kept my reputation as a “Radio Guy” by working off and on for various stations including WXPN, and guesting on many programs. When I came to DC to work at AFC, I brought my love of radio with me, seeking out opportunities to talk about the Center and what we do on the radio.

All this has led to me visiting with several great radio personalities to discuss our work at AFC. I’ll mention two in this post. First, I’ll discuss “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, the longtime host of King Biscuit Time on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Sonny, who passed away earlier this year, hosted the famous blues show for an incredible 66 years, from 1951 until his death. I only guested on his show once, with my AFC colleague Jennifer Cutting. Our appearance on the show occurred on February 15, 2010. In those days, the Folk Alliance International meetings were in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jennifer and I tended to tack onto our trip some foray into the surrounding area to experience Southern culture. We were especially interested in museums, libraries, and cultural centers, and in 2010 we picked the Delta Cultural Center in Helena as one of our visits. It was not an official visit for the Library, and we were on our own time…we just dropped by as tourists. For some years, KFFA had been broadcasting King Biscuit Time from the Center, so we knew there was some chance we’d get to see Sonny in action, but we certainly didn’t expect to appear on the show. Soon after we walked in, however, we were greeted by the Center’s programming director, Jack Myers, who immediately introduced us to Sonny. When he found out we worked at the archive with so much material on Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt, he immediately asked us to join him on the air.

Sonny had been a close friend of Aleck “Rice” Miller (1912-1965), known professionally as Sonny Boy Williamson. (Miller is often referred to as “Sonny Boy Williamson II” to differentiate him from the other great bluesman of the same name.)  Sonny Boy II had fronted the house band for King Biscuit Time in its early years. In fact, the company that made King Biscuit Flour also made cornmeal, whose brand name was “Sonny Boy Meal,” and whose logo was Sonny Boy II sitting on a giant ear of corn; you can see the brand name on the sign in the photo above and the kick drum in the photo below. Because of this longstanding connection, Sonny usually began his show with a Sonny Boy II song. On the occasion of our visit, he started with a number called “Wake Up Baby,” which you can hear in this licensed video on YouTube. After the song faded down, Sonny introduced Jennifer and me, and told the audience we worked at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

Sonny Payne (center) with me and Jennifer Cutting (right) on February 15, 2010, at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. Photo by Jack Myers.

The next few seconds seemed to happen at lightning speed. Sonny asked us to talk a little about our blues collections, and Jennifer (very generously) said, “well, Steve knows more about the blues than I do.” Then Sonny seemed to wheel around and caught me in an intense gaze, which all serious music fans would recognize: it’s the look reserved for hardcore discussions of music. He asked, “what DO you know about the blues, my boy?”

Suddenly, I had nothing to say, and felt downright silly. What could I possibly tell Sonny Payne about the blues?

Time slowed down from turbo-charged to excruciatingly slow. The second or two that ticked away seemed like an hour. There I was, a hot mic in front of me, creating the bane of all Radio Guys: dead air. One thing was clear: I had to say something.

“Well, there’s very little I could tell you about the blues, Mr. Payne,” I began. “But I do know something about that Sonny Boy song. Did you know that’s a version of a very old English ballad, which probably came over to America in the eighteenth century?”

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Sonny.

The passage of time straightened out and got normal again as I continued. “Yes, it’s one of the old English ballads that became very popular among African Americans. One of my mentors in the folklore field once collected a version from African American youths in Philadelphia, which was performed essentially as rap. But as you see from Sonny Boy’s take on it, it got popular as a piece of hokum blues as well.”

“Well, I’ll be,” said Sonny. “I’ve known that song for fifty years, and I never knew that!”

After that, Jennifer and I chatted amicably with Sonny about AFC’s blues holdings, from Muddy Waters and Honeyboy Edwards to the Tom Hoskins collection of Mississippi John Hurt materials.

In this early publicity photo, which hangs on the wall of the Delta Cultural Center, you can see sacks of King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Meal, the show’s sponsors, in front of Sonny Boy Williamson II and host Hugh Smith, Sonny Payne’s predecessor. Williamson has a harmonica in each hand. The other musicians in this photo are Joe Willie Wilkins on guitar (left), Pintetop Perkins on piano, James “Peck” Curtis on drums, and Houston Stackhouse on guitar (right). The kick drum and sign from this photo, as well as the photo itself, are on display in the Delta Cultural Center, and are visible in the photos above. This is a photo by Stephen Winick of the poster-sized publicity photo on the wall.

Of course, I really lucked out that Sonny happened to play “Wake Up, Baby” that day. If he had played one of Sonny Boy II’s other hits, I would have been in trouble. For example, if he’d played “Somebody Help Me,” I’d have needed somebody to help me, and if he’d played “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” I wouldn’t have started to talking. (You get the idea!)

But luckily he played ”Wake Up, Baby,” and I recognized it as a version of the old ballad that Francis James Child called “Our Goodman” and gave the number 274. It’s an internationally distributed song, with versions in Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary, France, Italy, and elsewhere. In English, it’s one of the most widespread of the classic old ballads cataloged by Child, with over 450 versions indexed by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s Roud Index. Since this turned out to be my only chance to meet and talk with Sonny, I’m very glad the conversation took a memorable and folkloric turn–but of course, I wish Sonny were still around for a return visit.

Coincidentally, “Our Goodman” also has a connection to another “Radio Guy” that I’ve been privileged to associate with for AFC. That’s Bob Edwards, the distinguished host of programs on NPR, PRI, and Sirius XM. Bob hosted All Things Considered for several years in the 1970s before becoming the founding host of Morning Edition in 1979. In 2004, he moved to XM satellite radio with the intention of hosting a long-form interview program. In the course of interviewing Stetson Kennedy, Bob met and befriended Peggy Bulger, AFC’s former director, who recently spoke at AFC about her own book on Stetson’s life and times. Their discussions eventually led to a segment on the The Bob Edwards Show called “Treasures from the American Folklife Center Archive,” in which staff members from AFC (most often, Nancy Groce and me) appeared on the show to discuss great audio from our collections. Working with Bob’s great producers Dan Bloom, Andy Danyo Kubis, and Chad Campbell, we’d choose a theme (such as “Praise,” “Weather,” or “Animals”), pick some fun audio selections that dealt with the theme somehow, script it loosely, and let Bob interview us about the collections. Over the course of 8 years (2007-2014), AFC staff and collections were featured on 47 individual episodes, of which I appeared on 36. Some of these were re-edits that aired on Bob Edwards Weekend on Public Radio International; when mine aired that way, for an audience of millions, I usually got calls or emails from friends across the country, saying “hey, I heard you on the radio!”

In June 2014, Nancy and I recorded an episode on the topic of “Home.” We didn’t know at the time that it was to be our last show with Bob. It aired on July 4th, a good day for Americans to think about home and all it means. But not every song about “home” is high-minded or patriotic, and among our gems on that last Bob Edwards segment was a version of “Our Goodman,” which is, after all, about coming home night after night. This version was played by J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers for Alan Lomax in North Carolina in 1959.  Hear it in the player below! (Find more information about the recording, including the Mountaineers’ personnel, here.)

Bob Edwards with his duck decoy at his last board meeting, at least for the moment. May 10, 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick.

In August 2014, Sirius XM made the announcement that The Bob Edwards Show would be discontinued as of September. The show was pretty much fully booked between the announcement and the last episode, so there wasn’t an opportunity to do a segment on the topic of farewells. Still, by then the next chapter of Bob’s connection to the Center had begun. Bob was appointed to the AFC Board of Trustees in 2012, and we were delighted to have him. Sometimes, we capitalized on his amazing radio voice by having him read our enabling legislation to open board meetings.  We even made a recording for the web, which you can hear in the player at the bottom of this post!

On May 10 of this year, Bob’s term on the AFC Board of Trustees came to a close. When a member rotates off the board, the other members typically follow a tradition of presenting the departing member with a duck decoy. In this case they presented a small canvasback carved and painted by Leonard Burcham of Havre de Grace, Maryland.

The staff of AFC will certainly miss having Bob on the board as much as we miss our segments on The Bob Edwards Show. We hope we’ll have the opportunity to work with Bob again soon!

Finally, in case you’re worried, rest assured that I haven’t forgotten Radio Women.  I’m planning a separate blog post with some tributes to them soon–stay tuned, as we Radio People say!

Hear Bob Edwards read our enabling legislation below:

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