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Ballad for Americans

Robeson during CBS bcast
Paul Robeson singing Ballad for Americans on CBS Radio on November 5, 1939.

Political campaigns are carefully crafted right down to the last detail – including the songs played at campaign stops and conventions. But sometimes the song choices become controversial.  Ronald Reagan and Chris Christie both got blowback for using Bruce Springsteen anthems. Barack Obama was chastised for using the Sam and Dave hit, “Hold on I’m Coming.”

But there was an election season back in 1940 when one song reached across party lines and was embraced by everyone.  It was an unlikely hit: an operatic folk cantata 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,
“Ballad for Americans,” produced by Ben Shapiro.


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. This week’s episode is sponsored by The Great Courses.

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