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In 1943, Brooklyn Public Library launched its first radio program, in partnership with WNYC. “Folk Songs for the Seven Million,” written and produced by Elaine Lambert Lewis, documented folk songs and stories from around the country and collected folk traditions from everyday Brooklynites. On this episode, we pay tribute to our audio ancestor.

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Episode Transcript

Adwoa Adusei Brooklyn in the 1940s was a busy place. There were 2.5 million people living in the borough, about the same as there are today. We still had the dodgers and Ebbets field, and businesses were thriving. We had breweries, department stores and big factories like Domino Sugar in Williamsburg and Faber pencils in Greenpoint.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, at the end of 1941, the United States entered World War Two, which was a moment that changed the entire country, but especially in Brooklyn. Our Navy Yard, which sits on the east river, right near modern day Dumbo, became the busiest ship yard in the world, with 70,000 workers repairing over 5,000 ships, and also manufacturing battle ships and aircraft carriers, and supplies for the war effort.

Adwoa Adusei Here at the library, our central location at Grand Army Plaza had just been built, a project that took 29 years because of many delays. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But even with the new and impressive Central Library, our staff were busy thinking about ways they could extend library services beyond the physical walls of our buildings.

Adwoa Adusei In fact, as early as the 1920s, BPL had already begun to run services in hospitals, fire stations, prisons, factories and even steam ships docked in Brooklyn. But one woman had an idea to take her library services to an even wider audience: by broadcasting programming on the radio.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras With the dawn of the radio age in the 1920s, it had become one of the most popular and easily accessible forms of entertainment. By 1940, 80 percent of the nation’s households had radios, and 2 million of those households were right here in New York Coty. You could switch on the radio at any time of the day and hear newscasts, but also radio dramas, sports broadcasts, and music shows.

Wives of Brooklyn Dodgers players huddle around radio to listen to a Dodgers game in 1951.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Adwoa Adusei Here’s a taste of radio in the mid to late 1940s. “The Adventures of Maisie” was a movie series turned radio drama about a moxie-filled Brooklyn secretary played by the actress Ann Southern. It was produced by CBS and could have been heard on the airwaves in Brooklyn.

[Jazzy music] 

Announcer And now here’s Ann Sothern as Maisie.

Ann Sothern Yes, I’m Maisie, like the fellow said, Maisie Revier. In show business, jobs are very seldom, so to keep my stomach from seceding from the rest of me I became what you call a Jack of all trades. I’d go into any trade that had any Jack in it. Legitimate only, of course! The jobs I’ve taken to keep the wolf from the door, believe me I could write a book. I’ll never forget the time I was working as a census taker …

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, you heard that, right? What Maisie is talking about there as a fictional character is the 1940 census which would have just happened. And it happens every ten years. So it’s 2020 and the census is back! We are going to put a link to that episode of “The Adventures of Maisie” on our website so that you can hear what happens to Maisie. That episode is called “The census and the crooks.”

Adwoa Adusei Back in the 1940s, you could tune into a ton of different programs on your home radio, and one of the most popular stations was one that’s still around today: WNYC. In 1943, Brooklyn Public Library got in on the radio action and launched its first radio program called “Folk Songs for the Seven Million” in partnership with WNYC. The audio you're about to hear comes courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives.

Announcer Folk songs for the seven million people of New York City. This is one of a series of programs designed to show you the relationship between the traditions of a city like New York and those of other areas and people in the United States generally considered to be “more typically America.” These broadcasts are directed by Ms. Elaine Lambert Lewis, specialist in folk lore and member of the staff at the Brooklyn Public Library. And here is Ms. Lewis now.

Elaine Lambert Lewis Thank you, Mr. Ward. Good evening. You know, one of the great common bonds in United States history and one of the great influences on United States folk lore is the railroad …

[Harmonica music]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I’m so excited to say that today we are paying tribute to our audio ancestor. She was a folklorist and a broadcaster for Brooklyn Public Library: Elaine Lambert Lewis. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed: stories that start at the library.

A photo of Elaine Lambert Lewis announcing
her high school graduation, as printed in 
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1931.

[Harmonica music continues]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Elaine Lambert Lewis was born in Brooklyn in 1914. She grew up in Park Slope and studied folklore in college and graduate school. She worked at BPL for six years in the 1940s, and during that time, according to an article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she collected data on 5,000 folk songs and recorded 300 of them.

Adwoa Adusei We were pretty excited when we first came across Lewis, and it was an archivist who brought her to our attention.

Andy Lanset She hasn’t had a lot of notice up til now I think in part because she was a woman at a time when the medium was very much dominated by men.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Andy Lanset, director of the New York Public Radio Archives.

Andy Lanset She did all the recording herself, as far as I could tell all on her own equipment. So, unfortunately, a lot of the shows didn’t survive.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Because the show wasn’t produced by WNYC, but rather by a member of Brooklyn Public Library’s staff, Elaine Lambert Lewis would have been creating the program in any way she could. She probably used a home recording kit which would be very different from the digital recorders and microphones Adwoa and I are using today. As Lewis read her scripts and recorded her guests and musicians, a phonograph would have been registering the vibration of the sounds into grooves on a vinyl disc.

Adwoa Adusei Let’s listen to a bit more of the episode we have from NYC Municipal Archives. This episode was made by Elaine Lambert Lewis in 1944.

Singing Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me. Let the Midnight Special shine a ever lovin' light on me ...

Elaine Lambert Lewis In a song like the Midnight Special, the train stands for the convict’s only connection with the outside world and their singing is a form of wishful thinking. But the railroad is not only a creature of night and longing. It has its vigorous workaday aspect. At daybreak, it rushes into the open country … 

[Singing continues]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Many of the weekly episodes of “Folk Songs for the Seven Million” followed similar formats. Lewis played long sections of recorded folk songs, then described the stories around the song’s creation and the cultures that gave rise to it. Her later scripts were more heavily scripted, with actors reading different parts in short radio plays to describe the context of each folk song. 

Adwoa Adusei On her show, Elaine Lambert Lewis made a point to collect stories and songs from everyday Brooklynites. She wrote into The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s “Old Timers” section to ask readers to send their memories of different folk songs and “customs of years ago, including children’s games and rhymes that used to be played on Brooklyn streets and such.” 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras There’s this one funny exchange between Lewis and anonymous contributors to The Eagle’s “Old Timers” column in 1944. Lewis is clearly frustrated that one particular writer won’t give her his address so that she can ask her follow-up questions that she’s got about “tunes to songs like ‘The Bowery Grenadiers’ and more details on ‘Touch the Elbows’ …"

Adwoa Adusei We couldn’t figure out if she ever got those questions answered, but over the years, Elaine Lambert Lewis had many Brooklynites contact her about songs or traditions that they remembered or passed around by word of mouth — folk traditions, in other words.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And those folk songs and stories might appear on her radio program. According to Andy Lanset, “Folk Songs for the Seven Million” was a pretty unique radio program for its time.

Andy Lanset A lot of WNYC’s air, certainly from '43 well through '45, was taken up with the war effort and the homefront efforts, victory gardens and rationing and all that sort of thing. So this was one of the few shows that wasn’t in that venue and kind of gave the listeners more of a cultural outlook on things having to do with folklore and folk music in New York City at the time. 

A woman records for a WNYC program at Central Library in the late 1940s. 
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Adwoa Adusei And it was a good time to be in the business of folk music! In the 1930s and '40s there was a renewed interest in songs passed down orally from generation to generation. These songs often came from rural America. Musicians like Lead Belly, Woodie Guthrie and Peete Seeger all came to in New York City in the late '30s and early '40s and Greenwich Village became a center for folk music recording and collaboration. Lewis even had many popular folk musicians on her show.

Andy Lanset Susan Reed, Tom Glazer, Richard Dyer-Bennet, but perhaps most notable was Lead Belly, Huddie Ledbetter, who she was actually pretty close with. He had been on the station previously, but she really helped to promote him in the time that she was there, certainly, and get the word out about his music and his work and performances.

Adwoa Adusei And the song we played a clip from earlier, "Midnight Special," was performed by Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Quartet. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Though folk music is often associated with rural communities, technically, anything that is created by a particular culture and passed along orally is considered folk music or, in the case of stories, folk lore.

Adwoa Adusei Elaine Lambert Lewis was a pioneer in her field of urban folk lore. We found a couple of articles crediting her as someone who legitimized the idea that cities have their own unique localized folk traditions, too, and that folk music can belong to city dwellers, and was not the purview of country people and banjo melodies.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But Elaine Lambert Lewis did eventually move out of her beloved Brooklyn, because she met and married an Irish man named Jim O’Beirne. It’s kind of cute actually: they met at a library. She was reading a book that she was looking for. O’Beirne then became a collaborator. He worked with Lewis on writing some of the scripts and voicing many of them for her program. And he appeared regularly on "Folk Songs for the Seven Million." In 1953, Lewis and O’Beirne moved to Ireland with their children, and she ended up writing a book about her time in Ireland under a different name. In that book, called “Himself and I,” Lewis writes about being drawn to the idea of the country because “something about Brooklyn, where I was born and bred, inclines one to world brotherhood. Old-stock city folk, who were never west of the Hudson or east of Jones Beach, can get quite maudlin about the banks of the Wabash and the Isle of Capree. In my childhood we wouldn’t have known a plow if it bit us, and yet we sighed heavily for the good old days down on the farm.”

Adwoa Adusei I think it's pretty clear that we're pretty biased in favor of a Lewis biopic by now: Can you imagine that library meet-cute scene? But what I do think are as equally cinematic are her literary credits in addition to being a pioneer woman of the airwaves. Lewis went on to publish a few other books about folklore. One about the influence of Middle Eastern stories on Western folklore, and another about the assumptions men make about women found throughout the history of literature, which was an early feminist text according to some.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Lewis was a pioneering person in so many ways, and left her mark on Brooklyn Public Library. She coordinated two other radio programs during her time there. One was called “Poets Are People,” which featured famous poets reading their own work and another called “Library Time,” which was scripted conversations to promote various reading materials found at BPL.

Brooklyn-born author, William Rose Benét, reads from his book, Day of Deliverance 
in front of a WNYC microphone, possibly for the 1940s BPL radio program "Poets Are People."
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Adwoa Adusei But perhaps her most significant contribution to Brooklyn and the library, was the fact that she was so dedicated to involving the people of Brooklyn in her projects. She gave their stories value and importance. To Elaine Lambert Lewis, a half-remembered song, or a story passed between kids playing in Brooklyn streets were just as worthwhile additions to the archives as letters between famous men or books created by big publishing companies. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This idea that ordinary Brooklynites were contributing to the culture, it was her passion and it was about creating and saving the stories of those people of Brooklyn, which is a tradition we hope we are carrying on with Borrowed.

Announcer “Folk Songs for the Seven Million," presented by Brooklyn Public Library in cooperation with your own city station is heard every Thursday at 5:45. You are urged to write in regarding any old time songs, stories, customs or sayings which you know or about which you’d like more information. Just drop a card to Ms. Elaine Lambert Lewis, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, New York.

Adwoa Adusei And, we wanted to mention one of the projects we have been working on over the past few weeks: we’ve launched an oral history project with Our Streets, Our Stories, the local oral history archive at Brooklyn Public Library. This new project is a call for Brooklynites to share stories about how they’ve been responding to and surviving the Covid pandemic. Krissa, our producer Virginia and myself, along with an amazing team of BPL staff and volunteers from outside of the library, have been conducting oral history interviews with people from all over the borough. We’re saving stories from doctors, families quarantining at home, essential workers, teachers, new mothers and so much more.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, in the spirit of Elaine Lamber Lewis: we want to hear your stories, Brooklyn. You can reach out to us to suggest yourself or a community member who would be perfect for an interview by emailing ososproject [at] bklynlibrary [dot] org. We cannot wait to bring you those stories in our next episode.

Adwoa Adusei This is a big shout out to Virginia and the Brooklyn Collection team, who have been coordinating this initiative. And it wouldn’t be a Borrowed episode without a BookMatch segment. Virginia spoke with Jess Harwick, who put together a folklore book list.

Virginia Marshall Thanks so much for joining us, Jess. I hear you've put together a list of folk lore books for us to read. So I'd love if you could tell me about a few of your favorites.

Jess Harwick Okay, great. The first one, the one that made me immediately want to do this list, is in the catalog as In the Night Garden. It's by Catherynne Valente. She actually worked with a musician in writing this book. Valente would write a story and then this musician would write the song inspired by the story. And they kind of wen back and forth and did that to put this collection together. 

Virginia Marshall Is there an accompanying song to go with this book? How does that work?

Jess Harwick There are two albums. You can find them on Spotify or Bandcamp. The artist is S. J. Tucker. You don't need to listen in order to read the book. But you can listen simultaneously or go back and forth.

Virginia Marshall That's amazing. I think Elaine Lambert Lewis would have loved this.

Jess Harwick That's what I thought, reading about her. I was like, "oh, this is her project except written in the 21st century."

Virginia Marshall Cool. And what was another one you wanted to tell us about? 

Jess Harwick So another one is The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager, which is a really strange, very slim book. It's only about 150 pages. And it follows the path of Halley's comet as it passes by earth. So, it's broken up into vignettes that take place every year that the commet did or will pass by earth. Each of these vignettes has a tie-in to Hansel and Gretel, starting with the original folk lore of Hansel and Gretel, the brother and sister that they believe inspired the story, through the Grimm brothers first collecting the folk lore and putting them together, then Gutenberg printing them. It was one of the first stories that he printed. Through the AIDS crisis and then kind of moves into this futuristic imagination, continuing to follow the path of this story and of this book through these widely-spaced vignettes. So it's a very strange book, but it's kind of a meta-look at what folk lore and fairy tales do, and how stories endure. Who gets to tell them and who needs to hear them.

Virginia Marshall Great. And then I hear you've got one more that you wanted to tell us about. 

Jess Harwick So for this last pick, I'm going to go to China and talk about The Ghost Bride. So this is about a woman who, when she dreams at night, is drawn into the Chinese afterlife. And kind of the story draws on Chinese mythology and Chinese folk lore, to bring together all of these really interesting traditions. And as someone not completely familiar with the culture, I thought it was really informative and really interesting to explore a different culture and learn something about that. And then also the story is really beautiful and really captivating. A nice little escape there.

Virginia Marshall Sounds definitley like something we need right now. So, thank you so much, Jess. And listeners can find all of these books and more that Jess has selected for this episode on our website. And most of them are ebooks, right Jess? 

Jess Harwick They're all ebooks. I made sure to include all of the ebook links but if you prefer print books and have access to that, they all are also available in print. But the list on our website is all ebooks.

Virginia Marshall Awesome, so listeners can actually just check them out right from home. Thank you so much, this was great.

Jess Harwick You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

Adwoa Adusei Those titles are a great way to celebrate Elaine Lambert Lewis’s legacy. And I also wanted to mention that although we no longer have a folk lore division at Brooklyn Public Library, we do have a pretty impressive ongoing local oral history archive that you can listen to at any time. Since 2014, staff at BPL have been collecting memories from everyday Brooklynites about how their neighborhoods have changed, saving the modern folk stories of Brooklyn. That archive is called Our Streets, Our Stories and we’ll put a link to it on our web page.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Krissa Corbett Cavouras and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed will be back in a few weeks. as they used to say on the good old-fashioned radio: stay tuned.

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