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NOTE: All content in this weblog, except where indicated, is entirely my own, and not that of WHRB or Harvard University. See the About page for more information. /CL
The only Molly Tuttle album I had, When You’re Ready (2019), was lovely but not very country. So I’m delighted to learn (from Ken Irwin, at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival) that she’s returned to bluegrass with an all-star band, Golden Highway, and has a new album, just released, Crooked Tree. They’re going to be at the Belleville Roots series in Newburport, Friday, October 7th.
Here’s the video for the title song of the new album:
I count Molly a veteran of Hillbilly at Harvard, as she appeared live with John Mailander a few years ago. You can get all the information on the Bellevue show HERE: /CL
Come help us celebrate 50 years of the Sour Mash Boys!
Sunday, September 18, 4 PM – 8 PM at Sally O’Brien’s
It’s 50 years this month since John Lincoln Wright began a new chapter in New England Country Music history and founded the Sour Mash Boys. We want to mark this anniversary with a reunion gig, which will feature some of the original band members and some fan-favorites from among Lincoln’s many band line-ups.
Pedal steel player John Macy, fiddler Bill Henderson, drummer Dave Kinsman, and Larry Flint of the early ’70’s band will be performing, as well as Sour Mash Boys & Girls from the last half-century. Peggy McDonald, wife of the late John McDonald, will also be there to represent his contribution to Sour Mash history.
Come join us to hear some great music and raise a glass to John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys.
Sunday, September 18th, starting at 4 pm, at Sally O’Brien’s, 335 Somerville Ave., Union Square, Somerville. $10 cover.
Long-time listeners to Hillbilly at Harvard (HAH) will know how we have preserved older styles of music broadcasting, especially ‘top 40’ radio, with breaks after every song, and also our custom to begin and end the program on time, to ‘make the beep’ by banging on an old hubcap. Newer listeners might think these are just parodies of old-time radio, or just one of our ‘inane traditions’, as Ol’ Sinc called them, like playing Terry Allen’s ’Truckload of Art’ at the end of the show on the day of the Harvard-Yale game. But they have deeper roots, in the history of the program, which dates back to a time when 78-rpm records were the main fare, and only slightly more recently, when station members made a deliberate attempt to emulate professional broadcasters.
In radio and TV the clock rules, though in the modern era, it may seem different. Local and non-commercial radio often operate on flexible schedules, where one program may meld into another with little notice or fanfare, and only a rough approximation of the actual hour. But in the ‘real world’ of commercial radio and television, especially where networked stations may share programing, commercials, IDs, break-aways, and other elements, the clock reigns supreme.
A local station with no network programming, e.g. college or community stations, need pay little attention to the niceties of timing, especially when programs are staffed by one or two members attempting to manage equipment, programming, and announcements. Still, back when I was an undergraduate at WHRB, Harvard’s quasi-independent radio station, there was an unspoken but obvious effort to emulate professional broadcasting. In those days studio engineers and announcers had separate roles, in separate rooms. At WHRB the engineers were called ‘controlmen’, and had large floor-mounted turntables and rack-mounted tape recorders to manage, in addition to the broadcast board with inputs for all the audio devices and the microphones in the adjacent studio. The controlmen worked on their feet, and communicated with the announcers, usually seated behind the glass, with a ‘talk-back’ microphone, or with hand signals.
If an announcer wished to talk to the controlman, he made an audition signal with thumbs and forefingers, thus:
To start a record or tape, the announcer pointed with his forefinger. To open his mic, he pointed to the microphone. To kill the mic, he used the throat-cutting gesture. There were other signals, e.g. for ‘time left’, or ‘go to tape’. The programs were generally run by the announcers.
We had Western Union clocks in the studios and control rooms, and these clocks were tied to Naval Observatory time by a Western Union line. On the hour, the Observatory would send a signal, lighting a red bulb on the clock and sending a brief tone (a ‘beep’) down the wire. We were expected to ‘time out’ to the hour, i.e. to ‘make the beep’, which would go over the air. If it wasn’t necessary to time out, e.g. when a program continued past the hour, we would pull a two-pronged jumper from the ‘matrix’ (a circuit board with rows of 1/4” phone-plug sockets). If the announcer wanted to avoid the beep coming over the air, he would make a rude signal (an open, grasping hand) to the controlman to pull the jumper and ’castrate the beep’.
On HAH we preserved the tradition of ‘Making the Beep’ long after the Western Union clocks disappeared from our studio walls. We also preserved the AM-radio ‘top 40’ style of popular-music programming, with breaks between every record. I think it was in the mid ’60s, about the time when WBCN-FM abandoned its classical format and Pete Wolf began playing rock-’n’-roll overnight, that music shows began playing ‘sets’, segueing songs together without breaks—yes, before then, it was unusual enough to play songs back-to-back that we had the term ’segue’ for it, and an announcer signal, as well (two fingers together) to request one. Today, ‘sets’ are standard practice. They make life easier when one person is responsible for the whole program and not following a strict playlist. But at HAH we’ve always thought it made a lot more sense to let listeners know what they heard and what was next. Also, it was a lot more fun to talk about the music, the artists, and keep listeners apprised of all the concerts, shows, and festivals going on.
We even used to break and take a few minutes for the Hillbilly News at Noon—back when we had an AP ticker to pull news from. Of course we would ‘make the beep’ before the HAH News at Noon, as well as at the beginning and end of every show. By then there was no Western Union clock, and its hourly beep. So we made our own: for a while I used a resonant lid from an electric frying pan, which I brought from home. Then it was a great-sounding Oldsmobile hubcap. Actually, we had two of them, which we stashed behind a curtain in Studio B at our old digs at 45 Quincy Street, in the basement of Sanders Theater. But sadly the Olds hubcaps disappeared after an overzealous comper cleaned up the studio (‘compers’ are undergraduates trying out for WHRB membership, and were expected to participate in ‘monster’ clean-ups). The standard became a vintage Rambler hubcap, which I hope is still in the HAH library.
Of course we could ‘make the beep’ at whatever time we chose, though we endeavored to announce “The time at the tone” right on the hour, unless we were running late for one reason or another. We always asked permission of the following DJ to run over, which was always granted—except when we had to end on time for the football pregame show, or (in more recent years), the Metropolitan Opera. That is called a ‘hard break’ in radio today. I remember one time when we thought the Met was going to start at the usual time, but it was earlier, and David Elliott came running in, frantically yelling “Stop!” We were innocently yapping away, so of course we stopped, real hard.
Usually we were better at keeping time. There are easy ways to end the show on time. If you listen to news or talk radio, you’ll hear music fading in, and announcers, anchors, hosts winding up their current gab fests in time for a logged commercial or program break. That’s called ‘bumper music’, and if you’re good, like the late Rush Limbaugh, it’ll time out and end with a bang right when it should. If you’re not as finessed, it’ll just fade or disappear when the new signal appears.
In my undergraduate days, most programs had themes—musical themes, to open and close. They served two purposes: to identify the program, and to separate it from others, to serve as bookends. Usually we talked over the themes, to introduce the program or say goodbye (“You’ve been listening to. . .”). Are many DJs using headphones these days? If you want to talk over music, you need headphones. We have two themes on HAH, both from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s classic album, Foggy Mountain Jamboree (1957): ‘Foggy Mountain Special’, to open, and ‘Randy Lynn Rag’ to close. Ol’ Sinc was famous for his breathless recitation of the Country Calendar over the closing theme (hat tip to Harvard Gazette writer Beth Potier for ‘breathless’).
Closing themes serve another purpose: to time out and make the beep. The easy way to do this is just to end your last song a couple of minutes before your scheduled close, play the theme, and if it’s too long, just fade it down. The more elegant way is to ‘dead-roll’ the theme during your last selection, then fade it up and have it end right on time. That’s the way we’ve always done it on HAH. ‘Randy Lynn Rag’ is 2:00 minutes long. So if you want to end at 12:59:50 PM, leaving 10 seconds for the station ID and the beep at 1:00 PM, then you start the theme at 12:57:50, dead-rolling if your last song is still playing. If you didn’t plan right and your last song is too long, then you might be reduced to ‘cross-fading’, fading down the song as you fade up the theme. You end on time.
In the old days it was fairly rare to combine the roles of announcer and controlman; in the late ‘50s in the Dudley Gulch basement location (under Dudley Hall, where Holyoke Center stands now), there was a small control room overlooking the large Studio B, called BC (B Control) and that was set up for ‘one-manning’, used mainly during Orgy® Period. My first time on the air was a nervous half-hour in BC by myself, called ‘Old Timey Music Time’ that eventually became a two-hour bluegrass and old-time show called ’Saturday Morning Jamboree’, which I hosted with Cousin Mike Eisenstadt; being two-man it moved to Studio A with a controlman in Central Control (CC).
Commercial music radio quickly favored single disk jockeys who became ‘personalities’, a development made easier with ‘carts’ (tape cartridges with individual songs and commercials, which were quick to insert and self-cueing) and strict playlists. WHRB through all its moves (to Claverly Hall, then Memorial Hall, then the current Pennypacker Hall) maintained the two-room studio-control-room architecture, even though ‘one-manning’ became the rule (and the term disappeared). We never had cart machines. Our main on-air studios at Memorial Hall and even our current Pennypacker location were laid out for a controlman standing, or on a stool, not for a DJ in a comfortable chair. That actually worked well for HAH, as Sinc and I worked together on two mics, in and out of the studio, and had frequent guests.
In these latter days, when HAH is reduced to two hours, and I’m recording them at home, I’m not ‘making the beep’. I can’t be certain when the show will begin and end. But I’m still maintaining ‘top 40’ programming, and some semblance of the old days. If you’ve heard any of the Archival shows I produced last year, you will have gotten a feel for the way it was when both Sinc and I were hosting, and we had a steady stream of guests contributing music and comaraderie. HAH may have originated when we strived to emulate professional radio, but continued for decades as a vital part of the grown-up country music community in the Boston area. We made it fun at the same time, as our hubcap beeps demonstrated. They were a tradition, but not an inane one.
Here’s Ol’ Sinc squeezing in the Country Calendar over the closing theme, picked at random from November 11th, 1987, ending on time for Harvard Football:
PS You can still buy those ‘self-winding’ Western Union clocks from a company called Surplus Sales of Nebraska. No time signal from the Naval Observatory, though. /CL
No idea what happened. Power failure at transmitter?
UPDATE: Broadcast air back at 1:08 PM. I was told it was a “network error” at One Financial Center (where the transmitter is). I have no further details. Web listeners had no interruption. At some point these two hours will get re-used. Not sure I should re-run them both next week. /CL
Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. After we got back from our southern trip, I settled down to recording ‘Home-Brewed’ HAH hours for our current two-hour shows, amidst various family activities, so not much to report. I’m told they don’t sound too bad for a makeshift home studio. Debating now whether to upgrade equipment. Let me know what you think.
This past week we drove up to Lake Winnipesaukee where we mooch-docked our Escape 21 trailer at friend Sheila A’s house on Winter Harbor, and played tourist. Investigated the Clark House Museum and the Libby Museum of Natural History in Wolfeboro, and drove around the lake to Weir’s Beach to catch one of the twice-daily Mail-Boat cruises, this one on the Sophie C.:
As I type this. Kevin got it on the air in good time this morning, and it actually sounds better than it did here on my iMac—I expect the FM compression actually helps balance the levels. Listening to Michael Cleveland now playing Arthur Smith‘s ‘Fiddler’s Dream’—my goodness, that boy can fiddle!
These home-brewed shows are not dated, so I can re-used them as needed. The disadvantage is that I can’t program favorites for particular occasions. This is Memorial Day weekend, so let me remind you with Radney Foster‘s moving ‘Angel Flight’. This Youtube video has some good images of the flights as well. Remember those we lost in the service of the United States, the Brave and the Free:
Just in case you missed my earlier note, HAH is pre-empted by two Orgies®, someone named Billy Bragg this Saturday (May 7th), and part of a mammoth Schubert Orgy® next Saturday (the 14th). After that I presume we’ll be back to two hours, 9–11 AM.
Apologies again for the erratic program last week, with the surprise ending midway through. Hope you all realized it was a false alarm. We were in Charleston, SC, hitching up to leave for North Carolina, and now Powhatan, VA, where daughter Sarah and family live. Back to New England next week.
We had a couple of real Summery days here, with storms predicted tonight and tomorrow. Got this quick shot of a Summer Tanager high up in a far tree: