The Lonesome Train: Millard Lampell and the Ballad Opera

Curator's Note

One of the most fascinating “lost” aspects of US radio history can be found where folk music, radical politics, and the radio feature converge. The ballad opera was one variant of the radio feature, a textual form largely forgotten in the US, though it persists as a highly-regarded tradition in other countries: basically a dramatized documentary, with music playing a key role. Current shows like This American Life and Radiolab owe much to the feature tradition. The ballad opera emerged in 1939 with Norman Corwin’s version of Earl Robinson’s verse cantata “Ballad for Americans” performed by Paul Robeson. Corwin had been working in the feature genre for some time, but it was when Robinson met Millard Lampell in 1942 that the ballad opera joined with the folk tradition to produce The Lonesome Train. Lampell was a singer-songwriter and a founding member of The Almanac Singers, along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Woody Guthrie. Advocating progressive politics through folk song, the group toured the country’s political hot spots, recording two albums in 1941. Lampell left the group in 1942 and collaborated with Robinson to write the lyrics for a folk-style ballad commemorating the progression of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train across the country. Edited, directed, and with the introduction revised by Norman Corwin, it aired on the series Columbia Presents Corwin on March 21, 1944, sung by Burl Ives with banjo by Pete Seeger. “A lonesome train on a lonesome track Seven coaches painted black… A slow train, a quiet train Carrying Lincoln home again….” As Tim Crook argues, the program “became culturally resonant in 1945 on the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the Decca recording of the show became a sort of ‘media requiem’, played over and over again on US radio stations” (Crook, RadioDoc Review, 1:1). The Wisconsin Historical Society holds Millard Lampell’s papers, as described in an exhibit by Danny Kimball ( Artists such as Alan Lomax (The Martins and the Coys) and the BBC's Charles Parker (The Ballad of John Axon) would carry on the tradition.

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