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“Non-extant” Recording of Langston Hughes Ballad Opera Found

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Roberta Freund Schwartz, associate professor of musicology, recently made an unexpected discovery: a recording of a radio ballad opera, written by Langston Hughes for the BBC in 1944, which has long been considered to not exist.

The Man Who Went to War was a 1944 collaboration between D.G. Bridson, the Overseas Feature Editor of the BBC and Hughes. The production starred Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, and Ethel Waters, three of the most respected African American actors and musicians of their day, as well as blues and folk musicians Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, William Vesey, and Josh White. The production, which Bridson described as one of the most popular ever broadcast on the British network, was thought to have been forever lost until Schwartz found a reference to a recording at the Library of Congress

“I was looking for a copy of the script, which has never been published. I typed the name into the WorldCat database, and there it was. I asked a colleague who is an archivist at the Recorded Sound Archives of the Library of Congress to do some digging, and he found two tapes labeled The Man Who Went to War.” Schwartz made a trip to Washington D. C. and, based on known information about the program, aurally verified that they were the long-lost ballad opera. “Every archival researcher dreams of discovering lost materials, but finding something that officially doesn’t exist is particularly exciting.”

The program was recorded at the CBS studios in New York City and the discs were sent to London for broadcast, but the BBC’s copy was damaged shortly after broadcast and eventually destroyed. Folklorist Alan Lomax, who helped select the music for the production, found the CBS master copy some years later and sent it to the BBC for their archives, but the fragile acetate and glass discs—a common replacement for shellac during World War II—were shattered during transit. It was believed that these were the only two copies.

When the additional copy was made and how the recording ended up in the Library of Congress remains a mystery. Sound archivists Matt Barton and Bryan Cornell have not been able to locate the actual discs; only the 1968 work order to have them transferred to tape.

Christy Miller, a Ph.D. student in musicology who will be writing her dissertation on radio ballad operas, plans to conduct the first in-depth study the work for her document.

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