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Ballad for Americans

Our country is so politically polarized these days, it’s hard to remember a time when Republicans and Democrats could agree on anything at all.

In today’s episode, we’re going back almost 80 years, to another extremely polarized moment in American history. It was 1940, and the U.S. was deeply divided about engaging in World War II. Franklin Roosevelt was running for his third term, facing a Republican challenger, Wendell Wilkie. But that election season, the Republican Party, The Democrats, and even the Communist Party 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. 

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