Sometimes as a historian you find yourself researching topics that are both very random and very specific, and that don’t always relate to your actual area of study. This is otherwise known as term paper season, which is upon us right now here at UOttawa! This will be my last one as an undergrad so I’m trying to make the most of it, expand my horizons, and even take advantage of some new digital opportunities to present research rather than the traditional twenty-page paper. My research for my course on the history of American TV and radio turned up a really interesting chapter that I wanted to share with you this week!
The National Barn Dance radio program got its start through a station called WLS in Chicago, which was famous for its agricultural news, service to Midwest farmers, and broad range of entertainment suited to their tastes. Their Saturday night programming ran from 7PM until midnight and included the Barn Dance, which was the crème de la crème of their shows and began airing in 1924. The program featured live performances which were recorded over the radio, much the same as the similar Grand Ole Opry. At the time of the outbreak of WWII in 1939, it was heard on sixty-seven NBC stations across America and had a cast of over a hundred performers, who were referred to as the Hayloft Gang.
|Some of the Hayloft Gang in 1934, including Gene Autry (left with the ten gallon hat), Radio Timeline|
Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, WLS officials began mobilizing the station’s lineup of Barn Dance talent in support of the war effort. Management allotted the Chicago Defense Committee five hundred seats in the Chicago theatre which had been home to the show since 1932, for the use of soldiers and sailors wishing to attend December 20 and 27 performances.
Throughout the war years, the NBC segment of the National Barn Dance often featured some patriotic theme. The January 24, 1942 program, for example, had the Hayloft Gang present a musical salute to the nations allied with the United States. The theme for the May 16, 1942 broadcast was a “Red, White, and Blue” party in honour of “I Am an American Day.” The December 5, 1942 program was devoted to recognition of the first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and all the musical numbers were war-related. These included a square dance number called “Soldier’s Joy” and a banjo rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
National Barn Dance shows also became staple attractions of the United Service Organizations for National Defense, Inc. (known as the USO), which was established in 1941 for the purpose of providing social, welfare, and recreational services for members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families. National Barn Dance entertainers formed various branches which travelled separately across America to entertain the troops, and some even performed in Europe. Their impressive record of performances helped to bolster the morale of thousands of appreciative fans on behalf of the USO, and also helped to popularize country music in general.
WWII was financed partly through the sale of war bonds and war stamps, and between September 1942 and the end of the war in 1945, the United States conducted seven nationwide war bond drives. Along with numerous other organizations, celebrities, and businesses, the National Barn Dance did its part to participate in those drives. For example, admission to some shows would require the purchase of a war bond. Individual performers and small groups of Barn Dance acts would also sell bonds at their personal appearances. Then, in August 1942, WLS announced that it would begin selling war bonds over the air, so that “You farm folks won’t have to take time away from the task at hand for a trip to the local War Bond headquarters to purchase your share.” All listeners had to do was send their money by mail to WLS.
The National Barn Dance also responded to the call for the collection of scrap materials to be used in the war effort. Across the Midwest, WLS listeners exchanged scrap metal, rubber, and paper for tickets to see their favourite Barn Dance performances. In Normal, Illinois, for example, the price of admission to a Barn Dance show in the summer of 1942 was 100 pounds or more of scrap metal or 50 pounds or more of rubber, and competitions were held to encourage more salvaging. By August 1944, the National Barn Dance had aided in the collection of over three million pounds of scrap metal, rubber, and wastepaper, and WLS became the first, and at that time, only radio station to receive a U.S. War Production Board Citation for salvage collection.
Finally, the National Barn Dance also played an important role in what was probably the war’s most popular home front initiative: the planting of Victory Gardens. In 1943, some forty-five WLS employees, including a number of Barn Dance performers, started operating a Victory Garden on a five-acre farm in suburban Chicago. Since most of the performers had grown up on farms, they excelled at the initiative both in reality and in its advertisement onstage. The theme of the April 15, 1944 show was “Victory Gardens,” and the cast, carrying rakes, hoes, shovels, and other tools, assembled onstage wearing overalls, straw hats, and oversized sunbonnets. The Hayloft Gang sang songs such as “Get out and Dig, Dig, Dig,” and “Plant a Little Garden in Your Own Backyard,” and the emcee insisted that Victory Gardening was “a serious business.”
|This cover of the 1945 WLS Family Album depicts a postwar scene, Radio Timeline|
By mid-1945, with the end of the war in sight, the Barn Dance programming started to turn toward postwar messages and issues. The program and its cast had performed an impressive range of initiatives in support of the war effort while maintaining their tradition of popular entertainment. The program continued for another fifteen years after the war’s end before ending its thirty-six year run in April 1960.
Thanks so much for bearing with me on yet another radio/country music theme! All information comes from “Hayloft Patriotism: The National Barn Dance During World War II” by Wayne W. Daniel, in Country Music Goes to War ed. Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson.
Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)