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Lost & Found Sound and Voices of the Dust Bowl

Lost & Found Sound and Voices of the Dust Bowl

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Fish mongers recorded on the streets of Harlem in the 1930s. An 8-year-old girl’s impromptu news cast made on a toy recorder in a San Diego store. Lyndon Johnson talking to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover a week after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Sounds lost and found.

As The Kitchen Sisters prepare to launch their new series The Keepers, about activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors, historians and the collections they keep, they re-visit their own “accidental archive” of recordings amassed over the years.

And Voices from the Dust Bowl, produced by Peabody Award winning producer Barrett Golding for the Lost & Found Sound series.

In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people from Oklahoma and Arkansas traveled to California, fleeing the dust storms and poverty of the Depression.

In the summer of 1940, Charles Todd was hired by the Library of Congress to visit the federal camps where many of these migrants lived, to create an audio oral history of their stories. Todd carried a 50-pound Presto recorder from camp to camp that summer, interviewing the migrant workers. He made hundreds of hours of recordings on acetate and cardboard discs. Todd was there at the same time that John Steinbeck was interviewing many of the same people in these camps, for research on a new novel called “The Grapes of Wrath.” Producer Barrett Golding went though this massive, rare collection of Todd’s recordings to create this story of the Dust Bowl refugees narrated by Charles Todd.

Ep #97: Pan American Blues: The Birth of The Grand Ole Opry & “Harmonica Wizard” Deford Bailey

Ep #97: Pan American Blues: The Birth of The Grand Ole Opry & “Harmonica Wizard” Deford Bailey

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The story of the birth of the Grand Ole Opry on radio station WSM in Nashville, TN and the story of “Harmonica Wizard” DeFord Bailey, the Opry’s first African American performer.

WSM’s most popular show, the Grand Ole Opry, the longest running radio show in the US, started in 1925 as the WSM Barn Dance featuring a wealth of talent from the hills of Tennessee and all around the rural south—Uncle Dave Macon “The Dixie Dewdrop,” Roy Acuff and His Smokey Mountain Boys, Minnie Pearl and hundreds of others performed on the wildly popular Saturday night show.

Starting in 1928, the legendary “Harmonica Wizard” DeFord Bailey was on the show more often than any other person. In fact, one of DeFord’s most popular pieces, Pan American Blues, inspired the announcer to dub the show The Grand Ole Opry. DeFord suffered from polio as a child and started playing the harmonica when he was 3 years old. Four-and-a-half feet tall, always impeccably dressed in a suit, he had the uncanny ability of imitating and incorporating sounds into his harmonica playing—trains, animals, fox hunts. Because it was radio, the audience was unaware DeFord was the only African American among the all-white cast. But when he toured with the other Opry stars he could not stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants. He had to sleep in the car. Sometimes Uncle Dave Macon would haul the back seat out of his car and tell the hotel DeFord was his valet so he could sleep inside his room.

The Pan American passenger train is a through line in this story. When we were working on Lost & Found Sound, a series about the history of recorded sound, we got a letter from a listener who said that “no collection of sounds from the 20th century” would be complete without the sound of the Pan American passenger train.

Every night at 5:08 pm from August 1933 until June 1945, listeners to the 50,000 watt WSM radio station would hear the live sound of the Pan American, Louisville and Nashville’s passenger train, as it passed the station’s transmitter tower. They actually had a guy out there holding a mic recording the train every night at 5:08—avid listeners all across the south and Midwest would set their clocks by it.

So we followed up on the sound. We went to Nashville to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Foundation, where there are some real Keepers and Collectors of Sounds and stories. And as usual, stories beget stories… the sound of the Pan American train whistle and Radio station WSM led us to the story of the birth of the Grand Ole Opry, the oldest continuing running radio program… which led us to the remarkable story of the Grand Ole Opry’s first (and for many years only) African American performer, Harmonica Wizard Deford Bailey.

Episode #85: House of Night: The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People

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The story of an aging pile of forgotten reel-to-reel tapes discovered on the shelf of a tribal elder on the Fort Mojave Reservation. Recorded by an amateur ethnographer in the 1960s, these tapes of the last Creation Song singer of the tribe recount the legends and origin of the Mojave people. They are oral maps of the desert region that were instrumental in helping to save the Ward Valley from becoming a nuclear waste dump site.

In the 1960s, a CBS radio engineer out of Los Angeles, drove out to the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Parker, Arizona with his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder with the idea of recording the Mojave Indians. There he met Emmett Van Fleet, an elder of the tribe and the last of the Creation Song singers. Over the course of several years, Guy Tyler made his weekend pilgrimages, and slowly and meticulously the two men recorded the 525 song cycle that recounts the legend of the creation and origin of the Mojave people, their traditions, and their oral maps that describe historical journeys, sacred sites, and directions about how to safely cross the Mojave Desert. Emmett Van Fleet left the tapes to his nephew Llewllyn Barrackman. As years went by and technology changed, the tapes were unplayed and forgotten until Phillip Klasky and the Storyscape Project worked to get the the tapes transferred and preserved.

In 1995, when action was taken to turn Ward Valley into a nuclear waste dump, traditional Mojave songs and song cycles helped save the endangered Ward Valley and Colorado River by proving the historic connection the Mojave have with this sacred land.

In 1999 The Kitchen Sisters travelled to the Mojave Reservation with writer and environmentalist Phil Klasky, to meet with LLewllyn Barrackman and other Mojave elders, birdsong singers and activists in the Ward Valley struggle.

Produced with Phillip Klasky, Director of the Storyscape Project.

Podcast Episode #78: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: No Tongue Can Tell

Podcast Episode #78: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: No Tongue Can Tell

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The Great Galveston Hurricane arrived on a Saturday, September 8, 1900 — almost without warning. Galveston, the grand dame of Texas, a vibrant port city sitting haughtily on a sand bar facing the Gulf, was reduced to a splintered wasteland. Some 6,000 people perished on the island and at least 4000-6000 on the mainland. Survivors struggled to save themselves amid the towering waves, rocking debris, and floating wreckage of their city.

As part of our Lost & Found Sound series, producer John Burnett revisits the deadliest natural disaster in US history with recorded oral histories and memoirs from the children, the lovers – the survivors of the 1900 storm.

Podcast Episode #76 – Liberace & the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband

Podcast Episode #76 – Liberace & the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband

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In 1967 thirty men left Trinidad with 97 steel drums to represent their country at the World’s Fair in Montreal. None of them had ever been off their island before. They were members of the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band, all playing “pan,” the steel drums of Calypso, hammered from the leftover oil drums of World War II.

The band took Expo ’67 by storm. And their sound and performance caught the ear of one of the most popular entertainers of the day: Liberace. The glittery piano virtuoso hired the Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band to go on the road with him for the next two years — traveling to cities large and small around the world including towns in George Wallace’s segregated south. One flamboyant rhinestoned white piano player and 30 black steel drummers from Trinidad playing Flight of the Bumblebee.

We travel to Trinidad and trace the history of the steel drum and follow the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band from the streets of Port of Spain to the Ed Sullivan Show.

Steel pan was born on the island of Trinidad in the late 1930s. It began as an outlaw instrument, hammered from milk tins, biscuit boxes, brake drums, garbage cans — and later, the oil barrels that were scattered across the oil-rich island after World War II.

When the bands first started, anything metal that could be scavenged was “tuned” and played to make a sound, a note. Pan began as the music of the island’s poor, before Trinidad’s independence from Britain. For the native Trinidadians under British rule, the beating of drums and marching in Carnival was often forbidden.

As the oil drums evolved, dozens of pan bands — some more than 100 members strong — sprang up in neighborhoods across the island. Casablanca, Destination Tokyo, Desperadoes, Tripoli… they named themselves after the American war movies and Westerns of the day. Come Carnival, the steel bands would battle one another for the championship, marching across Port of Spain waging musical war — a tradition that continues today.

When the island gained its independence in the 1960s, the foreign companies that controlled the oil resources of Trinidad worried about nationalization of their businesses. The island’s prime minister declared steel pan music an important, vital expression of the Trinidadian people. British Petroleum, Esso and other oil companies looking to sway public opinion began sponsoring neighborhood oil drum orchestras, supplying instruments, uniforms and the money to tour outside Trinidad.

In 1967, the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band (named after the World War II movie Shores of Tripoli) was sent by the government and the Esso oil company to represent Trinidad and the nation’s musical heritage at the Montreal Expo World’s Fair.

The Kitchen Sisters Present Ep #68 – Tony Schwartz 30,000 Recordings Later

The Kitchen Sisters Present Ep #68 – Tony Schwartz 30,000 Recordings Later

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Cab drivers, children’s jump rope rhymes, folk songs, dialects, controversial TV ads, interviews with blacklisted artists and writers during the McCarthy Era — Tony Schwartz was one of the great sound recordists and collectors of the 20th Century. An audio portrait of a man who spent his life exploring and influencing the world through recorded sound.

It was 1947 when Tony first stepped out of his apartment in midtown Manhattan with his microphone to capture the sound of his neighborhood. He was a pioneer recordist, experimenting with microphones and jury-rigging tape recorders to make them portable (some of these recordings were first published by Folkways Records). His work creating advertising and political TV and radio commercials is legendary.

The Kitchen Sisters visited Tony in his midtown basement studio in 1999. He had just finished teaching a media class at Harvard by telephone — Tony was agoraphobic and hardly ever ventured beyond his postal zone. He was there in his studio surrounded by reel to reel tape recorders, mixing consoles, framed photographs and awards — and row upon row of audio tapes in carefully labeled boxes.

Tony passed away in 2008. His collection now resides in the Library of congress — 90.5 linear feet, 230 boxes, 76,345 items — some 30,000 folk songs, poems, conversations, stories and dialects from his surrounding neighborhood and 46 countries around the world.

Episode #65: Sam Phillips, Sun Records and the Acoustics of Life

Episode #65: Sam Phillips, Sun Records and the Acoustics of Life

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Recording sound pioneer Sam Phillips — the father of Sun Records, the man who discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash…, the creator of WHER, The First All Girl Radio Station in the World — talks about his journey, his adventures and “the acoustics of life.” With stories from his son Knox Phillips, his wife Becky, his biographer Peter Guralnick, and one of his first artists, Ike Turner.

Hear recordings from the archive of interviews we did with Sam beginning in 1998—personal stories told by the man himself and his family and friends.

Interest in Sam Phillips is running high right now –not that it was ever running low. There’s a new TV series out and there’s Peter Guralnick’s epic biography “Sam Phillips The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll.” And there’s a film in the works based on the book — one of the producers is Mick Jagger and Leonardo DiCaprio is playing Sam. Sam has had a monumental impact on the world of music and sound. And he’s had a monumental impact on The Kitchen Sisters.

Giving Tuesday / So Many Untold Stories to Tell

Giving Tuesday / So Many Untold Stories to Tell

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Dear Friends,

On #GivingTuesday, we’d like to give you a story.

Some fifty years ago, Guy Tyler, an amateur ethnographer from Los Angeles drove out to the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Parker, Arizona with his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and began recording Emmett Van Fleet, the last of the Mojave Creation Song Singers. Over the course of several years, Tyler spent his weekends and holidays meticulously recording the 525 song cycle that recounts the legend of the creation and origin of the Mojave people. Lost for decades, these recordings became the key for the Mojave to be able to map the boundaries of their tribal lands and fight the building of a nuclear waste site on their sacred sites.

With Standing Rock in our hearts and the events of 2016 on our minds, we are committed now more than ever to telling stories from the margins, stories from voices that might otherwise not be heard.

Listen to “House of Night: The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People”

Your support keeps the stories turning. Thank you so much for giving.

Our best,

Davia & Nikki
The Kitchen Sisters

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Fugitive Waves: New Orleans—Cowboys, Indians, Broncos & Boudin

Fugitive Waves: New Orleans—Cowboys, Indians, Broncos & Boudin

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Davia and Mardi Gras Indian

New Orleans stories from The Kitchen Sisters—including the world of unexpected, down home convict cooking at The Angola Prison Rodeo, an event that draws some seventy thousand people annually to this agricultural prison in a remote corner of the state. Tootie Montana, the legendary chief of chiefs of the Mardi Gras Indians tells of the African American Indian tradition of masking and parading. And stories of Tennessee Williams, the classic soul food Two Sisters cafe, the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter, and an eloquent ode to the Mint Julep.

Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins

Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins

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In 1948, Bill Hawkins became Cleveland’s first black disc jockey. He had a jiving, rhyming style. People gathered on the street to watch him broadcast from a glass booth at the front of his record store. His popularity grew rapidly. Over the next decade Hawkins was heard on up to four different stations on the same day. He had plenty of imitators and influenced a whole generation of DJs. Hawkins also had something else – a son he never knew.

William Allen Taylor didn’t find out Hawkins was his father until he graduated from college. The two met once when Taylor was a teenager. At the time, Hawkins never hinted at who he was. And Taylor had no idea that he had met his father. Hawkins died before his son every got to know him.

There are no known tapes of Hawkins. Taylor became an actor and playwright. He lives in San Francisco. But he’s always wished he had a recording of his father’s radio program or even just a snippet of his voice.