Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Life

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Ballad for Americans

This election season, our country seems more politically divided than ever. The race has been so ugly that it’s hard to even imagine a time when Republicans and Democrats could agree on anything at all.

In this podcast episode, we’re going back more than 75 years, to another hard-fought election. In 1940, FDR squared off against Wendell Willkie. And during the campaign, the Republican, Democrat, and even the Communist parties all managed to agree on one thing:

A song.

It was an unlikely hit: an operatic folk cantata, sung by a black man, that ran over 10 minutes. “Ballad for Americans,” with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by John LaTouche, had its radio debut on November 5, 1939. The live studio audience applauded for 20 minutes straight. (If you’re curious to hear exactly what they heard, here’s a link to the original broadcast in its entirety, produced by legendary broadcaster Norman Corwin.) So what was it about this quirky song that made it so popular?  Find out in our documentary, produced by Ben Shapiro.

Subscribe to the Radio Diaries Podcast.

 

Many artists have covered Ballad for Americans over the years. Listen to the original version, sung by Paul Robeson:


Compare that with the springy Bing Crosby version from 1940:


And for a 1960s take, here’s Odetta’s version:

Our documentary, Ballad for Americans was produced by Ben Shapiro, and edited by Deborah George, with help from Joe Richman, Sarah Kate Kramer, and Nellie Gilles. Special thanks to Rita Post, Elaine Finsilver, and all the voices in our story.

Radio Diaries is part of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best story-driven podcasts on the planet. 

Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl

Majd SelfieA few years ago, we held a contest with NPR and Cowbird to find our next Teenage Diarist. We got almost 1,000 submissions from around the world. And we found someone really special.

Majd Abdulghani is a teenager living in Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive countries for women in the world. She wants to be a scientist. Her family wants to arrange her marriage. From the age of 19 to 21, Majd has been chronicling her life with a microphone, taking us inside a society where the voices of women are rarely heard. In her audio diary, Majd documents everything from arguments with her brother about how much she should cover herself in front of men, to late night thoughts about loneliness, arranged marriages, and the possibility of true love.

 

Majd AirportClick here for Press Clips & Listener Comments
NPR’s Goats and Soda blog also published a companion story to Majd’s Diary.

Majd’s Diary was produced by Joe Richman and Sarah Kramer, with help from Nellie Gilles. Our editors are Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Thanks to Graham Smith and the team at NPR’s All Things Considered, and correspondent Deb Amos, who hand-delivered the recorder to Majd over two years ago.

And above all, thanks to Majd for sharing her story.

The Two Lives of Asa Carter

Asa Carter was a speechwriter for Alabama Governor George Wallace. He penned one of the most infamous speeches of the era… Wallace’s Segregation Now, Segregation Forever address. Forrest Carter was a Cherokee writer who grew up in Tennessee. His autobiography, The Education of Little Tree, is a beloved classic that has sold millions of copies around the world. But these two men shared a secret.

Update: We produced a new (narrated) version of this story for This American Life. Listen to it here.

Today, The Education of Little Tree is sold as an “autobiographical novel” by Forrest Carter. Readers won’t find any mention of Asa Carter in its pages.

Reporter Wayne Greenhaw, the first person to expose Carter, died in 2012.

The music that ends this piece is by banjo player Adam Hurt. Also featured in the story: Tennessee, by interviewee Ron Taylor, with lyrics by Asa Carter.

Special thanks to Douglas Newman, Laura Browder, Marco Ricci, and Michael Fix, who produced the film documentary, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter.

 

Melissa: 16 Years Later

As an 18 year old raised in the foster care system, Melissa took NPR listeners along when she gave birth to her son Issaiah. Over the past 16 years Melissa and her son have faced many challenges, from eviction notices to her son’s life-threatening medical diagnosis. In her new diary, Melissa chronicles her life as a working single mother, and reveals things about her past that her son has never known.

See more about Melissa at npr.org

Produced by Joe Richman with Sarah Kate Kramer
Edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro
Mixed by Ben Shapiro

Serving 9 to 5: Correctional Officers’ Diary

Sergeant Furman Camel reflects on his 27 years of working at Polk Youth Institution. Officer Alicia Covington remembers the day her son walked through the gate as an inmate. Listen to these and more diaries from officers who work behind bars at the Polk Youth Institution.

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