ROGER ON THE RADIO:
BEST OF “CRAZY WORDS, CRAZY TUNE”
“Music and popular culture of the 1920s and ‘30s in all genres and from around the world”
Since 2013, I’ve hosted this weekly program on WRFI Community Radio in the Finger Lakes of New York state. I have always adored the old recordings of jazz, vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood material. Gradually I expanded the show’s repertoire with blues, rural American music (what was originally branded “hillbilly” music, then “country & western”), and more of the international music styles from the glorious era of 78rpm records—what historian Michael Denning calls the “Noise Uprising” of a “world musical revolution” captured on shellac in the interwar years. Some of the special programs listed below (all available for listening on-demand) go quite deep into the territory of cultural history and documentary. All are very enjoyable listening! Most of these programs are posted to my Mixcloud page. You can also listen to archives and, on Fridays 12-2pm eastern, a live stream.
1. 1945 Documentary Special
August 7, 2020
This episode commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings—and the momentous news that came in between those two events, of the Russian invasion of Manchuria that marked the Soviet Union’s eleventh-hour entrance into the Pacific war. I tried to imagine what it might have been like to live through those summer-of-’45 days in the U.S., and when I found a trove of radio samples from the time, a genuine documentary came together.
2. 1933 banking special
March 17, 2023
When Silicon Valley Bank failed in March 2023, and White House officials reassured the public the nation’s banking system was sound, some media commentators were reminded of the panicky start to FDR’s presidency nine decades earlier. Those last few days of February and first few days of March were the precise moment when the Great Depression hit bottom. Nobody mentioned, however, what was taking place in Germany during those very same days: the Reichstag fire and its despotic aftermath. This episode tells both stories in detail, along with some music from the same moment in history.
3. Williams & Walker Black History special (with Godfrey L. Simmons)
August 3, 2015
Bert Williams deserves to be called the first African American entertainment celebrity, but before he headlined the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1910s, he was part of a song-and-dance team with the dapper George Walker. Williams and Walker were pioneers of Broadway and the recording industry in the 19-aughts. My co-host, actor and director Godfrey Simmons (longtime host of “The Griot Hour” on WRFI), and I explore the legacy and discography of “The Two Real Coons.”
4. Rebetika and Greek Music with Gail Holst-Warhaft
April 22, 2022
Rebetika is the hashish-fueled, Ottoman-influenced music of the Greek underworld that flourished between the two world wars. Author and scholar Gail Holst-Warhaft wrote Road to Rembetika, the first full English-language book on the genre, and a book on the Nisiotika music of the Aegean islands. In addition to this rich introduction to the music and its cultural context, I used additional interview material to create the one-hour When Humanists Attack!! episode entitled “Greece with Gail.”
5. 1920: Broadway Syncopates
December 11, 2020
The year 1920 marked a turning point for musical theater on Broadway—a decisive shift away from the European operetta style toward the rhythmic foundations of jazz. This transformation, brought to pulsing life in the work of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin, set the Broadway stage for what we now call the “American popular songbook” of show tunes. This lively special forms an audio companion to an in-depth article I wrote for The Syncopated Times making this case.
March 12, 2021
It was easy to fill two hours during Women’s History Month with perfomances by great females of show business, like Valaida Snow, Mary Lou Williams, Lydia Mendoza, Memphis Minnie, Edith Lorand, Hazel Scott, the Brox Sisters, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Slightly more challenging was to talk about them all while making sure no man’s name passed my lips. Except my own. Just me and all these famous dames!
7. Rag-a-Jazz with Colin Hancock
September 25, 2020
Colin Hancock is an absolute phenomenon in the traditional jazz scene. I’ve been fortunate enough to follow his career extensively since he founded The Original Cornell Syncopators as an undergrad at Big Red. He won his first Grammy nomination in 2020 for the liner notes to the Archeophone Records compilation The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business. Gus who? Listen and learn!
June 19, 2020
Juneteenth commemorates events that took place more than 150 years ago. A long time ago, no doubt, but when I got to thinking of it as three half-centuries, it led me to a number of insights about the process of historical and social change—and the dynamic role of music and entertainment in that process. I got to express that thought process in full, with lavish musical illustration, in this episode.
9. Blues from the Everglades with Robert Gibbons
July 15, 2022
Poet Robert Anthony Gibbons is simply scintillating company—as you know if you’ve watched any of his work on When Humanists Attack!! He and I got to some pretty interesting places when he joined me in the WRFI studio one summer day. And rest assured, in the words of his muse, Langston Hughes: “It’s not without laughter.”
10. reefer, man!
April 2, 2021
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act into law on March 31, 2021. Responding to—okay, celebrating—the news from Albany, I devoted a great deal of that week’s Crazy Words to the topic of gage, tea, muggles, and this flower’s impact on the life of the nation. In particular, I focused on how one man, Harry Anslinger, working in the 1930s, was almost singlehandedly responsible for shaping public attitudes and public policy toward the weed for many decades—even though hemp is, literally, more American than apple pie. Truly a fascinating story: “reefer madness” indeed.
11. Golden Dreams (Zlote Sny) – Ukraine special
February 25, 2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine gave me an excuse to play clips from Tom Lehrer, the Marx Brothers, and William L. Shirer, as well as a ton of Ukrainian (and Ukrainian-American) music. Suddenly it appeared to be a matter of national security to be able to distinguish a polka from a kolomyka. I’m still not sure I was wrong about that.
12. Josh White biography
April 20, 2015
Josh White was the first blues artist to make his name singing protest songs—Jim Crow blues. He rose to fame in New York in the early 1940s in the same leftist circles as Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie, after making his first records in the 1930s under the names “Pinewood Tom” and “Josh White, the singing Christian.” This episode tells the full life story of this controversial, consequential figure.
13. Swing It, 1933!
October 1, 2021
This show is a detailed discographical guide to jazz and blues recorded in 1933. The year was notable for several reasons, and I focused on two of them. One was the impact of the Depression, which had rendered some of the major labels essentially bankrupt. Another was the entrance into the field of John Hammond, a wealthy young man who would swiftly become one of the most influential behind the scenes players in the music business. I happen to be obsessed with Hammond, so I was on a roll for this episode.