Hay now: How WLS cultivated an American classic
Tue Sep 13 2011
From the dawn of radio until World War II, Chicago was the country music capital of America — thanks to a landmark show that originated on WLS and is all but forgotten today.
The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance, a one-hour public television documentary premiering this week, brings to light an amazing chapter in broadcasting and Chicago history. Written, produced and directed by Stephen Parry and narrated by Garrison Keillor, it airs at 8pm Thursday on WTTW-Channel 11.
Combing rare performance footage, home movies, photos and audio clips with interviews of musicians, historians and fans, Parry’s film traces the history of The National Barn Dance, a musical variety show that aired for 36 years on WLS — from April 19, 1924 (just four years after radio began) until April 30, 1960 (one day before WLS switched to Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll).
Sears-Roebuck Agricultural Foundation founded the station (bestowing the call letters WLS for “World’s Largest Store”) and launched the weekly showcase of folk, hillbilly and old-time music to secure the loyalty of farm families. The show’s program director said he hoped it “would remind you folks of the fun and fellowship of the barn warmings, the husking bees and the square dances in our farm communities of yesteryear and even today.”
By the time Prairie Farmer, the nation’s oldest farm newspaper, acquired WLS in 1928 and was granted a license for a 50,000-watt clear-channel transmitter two years later, The National Barn Dance was reaching millions — “from the Rockies to the Alleghenies to the Gulf Coast.” Its regular cast of performers came to be known as The Hayloft Gang.
Through the dark days of the Depression, the show brought four hours of relief every Saturday night to rural America. “Listening to the Barn Dance got us through those tough times,” a fan recalls in the film. “They lifted our spirits. They brought us happiness and joy.” During World War II, the show boosted morale both stateside and across the Armed Forces Radio Network.
Country music as we know it emerged from The National Barn Dance and the many shows it inspired, including The Grand Ole Opry. It also launched the careers of such stars as Gene Autry, Patsy Montana, George Gobel, Pat Buttram and Andy Williams, among many others. After the show ran its course on WLS in 1960, a scaled-down version of the Barn Dance aired for another 10 years on WGN, but it was never the same.
Through Keillor, Parry sums up the show’s unique role in shaping American music and popular culture: “For farm families and small-town folk unsure of the future, for ethnic immigrants looking for acceptance into the mainstream, for city-dwellers searching for the nostalgia and simplicity of rural life, The National Barn Dance served as a touchstone, creating a sense of a radio family that stretched from coast to coast.”
A footnote: On November 5, The National Barn Dance will be inducted in the Radio Hall of Fame at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications.