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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. 

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