Radio and the Blue Ridge

Posted by | March 30, 2015

Wilson150Please welcome guest author Joseph Wilson. The folklorist is a 2001 NEA National Heritage Fellow, most well known for his work since 1976 as the Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the oldest organization in the nation devoted to the presentation of folk arts. From this position, Wilson has had a profound influence on folk and traditional arts programming in this country. His mark can be also be seen in the shaping of national institutions such as the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, the Arts America program of the United States Information Agency (now in the Department of State), the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has organized or given programming direction to nearly 40 folk festivals, including the National Folk Festival that is produced annually by his organization. He has organized 21 national tours by musicians, dancers, and storytellers. The following excerpt is from the forthcoming book The Joe Wilson Reader, from University of Tennessee Press’s Charles K. Wolfe Music Series, edited by Fred Bartenstein.


When we got the first radio that had a speaker, we’d set it out here on the porch, and people would come listen to it with us. Sometimes the yard was full. Not long after we got it, an old man from over in Beaver Dams was here listening to the first big boxing match. When the fight heated up and Dempsey began pounding that Frenchman, the old man got real nervous and said ‘Tip, if you don’t turn that dang thing off, he’s a-going to kill that feller.’

Tipton Madron
Trade, TN
December 25, 1961[1]

It seemed like magic, this box that could grab voices from the wind and reproduce them on headphones or speakers. Here were the words, songs and tunes of people who stood hundreds of miles away, words heard instantly as they were spoken — the modulations of voice perfectly audible, the intake of breath heard as if inches away. It was magic, a form of transporting, ancient witchcraft made science; the future had arrived. Nowadays, it is common to equate early radio with early television in assessing impact. This is an error. Nothing like radio had happened before. Radio came before sound films and ignited what was called a craze. That is an apt term because one has to go back to the ancient manias in Europe to find anything with the intensity of excitement that radio generated.[2]

Radio was made possible by the superheterodyne, the so-called ‘tuning circuit’ invented during World War I by Edwin Armstrong. That new development brought startling clarity to voices carried by radio. Before the superheterodyne (the etymological components of which roughly translate as super=above [the sonic], hetero=other, dyne=force) radio had primarily been a medium for wireless telegraphy—messages sent point-to-point in code, the wireless companies decoding and delivering them by messenger boys. Hundreds of amateur radio fans owned receiving and sending equipment before this invention, but the idea of ‘broadcasting’ was unthinkable before the superheterodyne. Point-to-point messages might be overheard, but they were individual communications, not news, not entertainment.

Boyle's Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ.  Jack Dempsey posing in ring in boxing position.  Copyright 1921, FC Quimby; Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ. Jack Dempsey posing in ring in boxing position. Copyright 1921, FC Quimby; Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Change came with amazing rapidity. The first event that could be called a broadcast happened on July 2, 1921, the heavyweight boxing championship match between Jack Dempsey and French challenger Georges Carpentier. An estimated 300,000 people heard a blow-by-blow description of this fight, the largest audience that had ever simultaneously heard a single speaker.[3]

Corporations began building radio stations as part of their advertising and public relations gambits. Some selected call letters that reflected their business. Chicago radio station WLS was owned by Sears, and its call letters were an acronym for ‘World’s Largest Store.’ Nashville’s WSM was owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, and its call letters reflected the company slogan: ‘We Shield Millions.’[4]

The number of Americans owning a radio soared: a handful in early 1921, 100,000 in 1922, and 500,000 in 1923. There was one station in 1920, 30 in 1922, and 556 in 1923.[5]

The technology of popular entertainment may greatly accelerate the presentation of older forms and even ‘use them up’ (for example, the use of older films by television.) Among older forms taken up by early radio was blackface comedy. This was a popular form that presented racist caricatures derived from the minstrel stage. Such presentations began around 1840, developed into an internationally popular form, and continued to television in the early 1960s, when the early civil rights movement finally pushed it into obscurity.[6]

Though the form was old, tired, and as unrelentingly racist on radio as it was at its nineteenth-century beginnings, such radio presentations as ‘Amos and Andy’ became hugely popular.

Beginning in 1925 as a serialized story of various black stereotypes performed by white actors, the show was syndicated to scores of radio stations. ‘Amos and Andy’ became so popular that restaurants had to put the show on speakers to keep customers when it was on the air.

Nothing could compete with it, and the country almost shut down during its weekly broadcast. President Coolidge made plain that he was not to be disturbed during the time it was on the air. That most of the nation listened was a claim so often made that it must be given some credence. The audience grew until the mid-1930s—unprecedented popularity, escapism on a grand, even national, scale.[7]

Amos ‘n’ Andy was the story of two black characters—the modest, pragmatic Amos and the blustery, self-confident Andy— created by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Collection: National Radio Hall Of Fame

Amos ‘n’ Andy was the story of two black characters—the modest, pragmatic Amos and the blustery, self-confident Andy— created by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Collection: National Radio Hall Of Fame


Blackface comedy was not the only older form of entertainment form adopted by radio. Sopranos and other classical vocalists, violinists and orchestras, pianists, and poetry reading were heard. At first, virtually all performance was live. Early radio avoided recordings, seeing the recording industry as competition; likewise, some recording companies did not allow the use of their recordings on radio.

At first, stations were on the air for limited periods. As it became evident that people would listen all day, however, stations scrambled to find programming to fill the hours. Exactly when and where older, rural forms of music took to the air is disputed, but it had certainly happened by 1922. Atlanta’s WSB put Fiddlin’ John Carson on the radio that year, and other fiddlers and singers of traditional American musical forms were soon heard on stations across the country.[8]

Consumers of the arts are often interested in the context in which the arts arise, and this is especially true of folk arts. The intensity of a typical sports fan’s interest in where an important athlete was reared cannot compare with the importance the devotee of fiddle music places on the background of a great fiddler. If, as with folk art, the art arises in a community and reflects it, the audience craves to know that community.

This was as true of early radio fans as of other audiences, and the producers made much of the origins of the performers of older music forms. An interest in the ‘other world’ qualities of the Southern Appalachians had been growing for more than a half-century before radio became a craze. This interest seems to have had origins in the North at the time of the Civil War, when major portions of the mountain South opposed the Confederacy and sent many thousands of ‘Mountain Yankee’ troops into Union armies. President Lincoln praised these loyal citizens, and after the war this national interest was fed by the fundraising appeals of home missionaries and local-color writers.



[1] Tipton “Tip” Madron, interview with the author, Christmas Day 1961. “Uncle Tip” had the first radio, automobile, bathroom, electricity, telephone, and refrigerator in Trade, TN, a community 11 miles from the Blue Ridge summit, as the crow flies.

[2] Tom Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (New York: Harper-Collins, 1993). This is by far the best analysis and the best narrative I have read that is concerned with early radio, its makers, and its amazing effects.

[3] H. L. Mencken, ‘Dempsey vs. Carpentier,’ New York World and Baltimore Sun, July 3, 1921. Mencken initially ignored the broadcast, but took note of it later when this piece was reprinted in such collections as ‘A Mencken Chrestomathy’ (New York: Knopf, 1949).

[4] Bill C. Malone, ‘Country Music, USA’ 2nd ed. (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1985). First published in 1968, this is a good introduction to country music and how it evolved from folk musics, although even the second edition incorporates a number of small errors involving names and locations.

[5] Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air.’

[6] There are several books concerned with the history of the minstrel business. The best known is Robert C. Toll’s ‘Blacking Up’ (New York: Oxford, 1974). But Toll is a fan, and his work is as much apology as analysis. Nathan provides a great deal about the massive business and how it grew, but relatively little about where it came from and why. The role of free northern blacks in creating material and models for the form has been ignored until recently. Howard and Judy Sacks’ book about Ohio’s Snowden family, ‘Way Up North in Dixie,’ (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 1993), will help fill this gap.

[7] Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air.’

[8] ‘Atlanta Journal,’ September 10, 1922. WSB is called a ‘radiophone,’ and there is an individual photo of Carson along with a band photograph. This is reproduced in Gene Wiggins’ ‘Fiddling Georgia Crazy,’ (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1987). This excellent biography is another good offering in the ‘Music in American Life’ series of the University of Illinois.


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