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Samuel Johnson once observed, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." But when one is uncertain about one's impending doom - as we were during the cold war - after a while the focus begins to soften and dissipate into a miasma of foreboding and general ennui. It's hard now to call up those feeling of dread. At the time, they hung on endlessly, like a low-grade fever. Now new fears have supplanted them. But its effect on our culture lingers, defining how we got to where we are today. Mad magazine and the sick humor of the 50s were the direct result of it. The Swinging Sixties were a direct result of that. Next up: Viet Nam, the hippies and the counter culture. Laugh-In, turn on, strike out. Generation X asks Y? And frankly, my dear Abbott, I don't give a damn (third base!)
Now that whole Nuke era is vividly brought back to life, thanks to a collection of rare recording released by the Bear Family. Called "Atomic Platters, Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security", this massive undertaking offers pop tunes, novelty records, rockabilly rave ups, public service announcements and spoken word diatribes that proves once and for all the value of cultural ephemera. We spoke with one of the curators of this massive set, Bill Geenhart, whose Conelrad website (a name appropriated from our government's now out-of-date warning system) was the inspiration for this collection.
BILL GEERHART: Conelrad is a website dedicated to atomic pop culture and cold war pop culture. It was founded 6 years ago by myself and my partner Ken Sitz who does the art design. I do practically all the writing. Basically it's a receptacle for all the neglected pop culture from the from the cold war era.
GEO: You've appropriated the name "Conelrad" from an old federal emergency warning system. What exactly was "Conelrad"?
BILL GEERHART: CONELRAD was an acronym for CONtrol of ELectomagnetic RADiation and it was the first Emergency Broadcast System used in the United States. It served two purposes, the first being to provide people with emergency information in the event of an attack. The second intended purpose of CONELRAD was to thwart Russian bombers from using radio signals to navigate to targets. The theory was that if all regular broadcast stations went off the air and CONELRAD alternated between two frequencies (640 and 1240), the enemy wouldn't be able to fix on a target. The whole concept was outdated very quickly. CONELRAD was replaced in 1963 by the Emergency Broadcast System and in 1994 the EBS was replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS).
GEO: You seem to be more interested in it as cultural ephemera, as oppose to some sort of political position.
BILL GEERHART: Right. Our site for the most part is a-political. We're more interested in preserving these bits of ephemera as opposed to touting some sort of political agenda or ideology.
GEO: How old are you?
BILL GEERHART: I'm 40.
GEO: So you missed the worst of it.
BILL GEERHART: I was there for the golden revival during the Reagan Era, so I was ended up just as scared as anyone else.
GEO: But you didn't participate in "duck and cover." I'm old enough to have actually done the deadly dance. It's hard to remember how much that fear permeated the culture back then. My mother asked once when I was five what I wanted for Christmas and I said, "world peace," which kind of put a damper on the holidays for my parents because all they had only gotten me was a tricycle.
BILL GEERHART: My generation remembers when we had world peace for about five minutes in 1989 - when the Berlin wall fell.
GEO: I never thought I would see that happen. So tell me about this box set.
BILL GEERHART: Well, about 2 years ago we were contacted by Richard Weise of Bear Family Records who asked us to participate in the production of the definitive box set of cold war music. Now Bear Records is the gold standard in the music industry when it comes to reissues. I donï¿½t know if we would have done this with anyone but them. Of course we were really excited and gradually we went from agreeing to write the liner notes to actually co-producing it. Richard gave us free reign to put any song we wanted on the box set. He really is the Willy Wonka of re-issue. Two years later the result is a 5-cd and 1-dvd box set with a massive 292-page book.
GEO: This is a full-size hard cover coffee table book that looks fabulous I must say, full of endless rare illustrations and insightful notes on every song.
BILL GEERHART: The 4 cds have 109 music tracks on it (the final cd is spoken word recording) and we cover every type of cold war music: atomic, space race, red scare, uranium mining songs, in every style imaginable. I would say it is 50% country music. The rest is made up of rock and roll, jazz, blues, gospel, novelty music, rockabilly - even calypso. Weï¿½re just so pleased that it all came together the way it did.
GEO: Why do you think there is such a prevalence of country music dealing with this topic?
BILL GEERHART: Well, if you look back at the folk form of country, it's a story-telling form. And the country singers were the first artists to react to the bomb and put their feelings on record. Fred Kirby, who arguably wrote the first atomic song entitled "Atomic Power" said in an interview that he wrote it the day after Hiroshima. And just a couple of weeks later he was performing it on his radio show. It reminds me of what happened 60 years later, when country artists were once again at the forefront, doing 9/11 songs. People like Toby Keith quickly responded with his"Courtesy of the Red White and Blue" Alan Jackson doing "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?" It's just in the nature of country music to address the topic of the day.
GEO : What is the most recent tune included in this set?
BILL GEERHART: That would be "The Commies Are Coming" from 1969 by Tommy James. It sounds just like it was recorded in the 1950s, with its very patriotic, very vitriolic lyrics. And no, it's not the same Tommy James who had all the pop hits in the 60s, it's someone else of whom there is almost no information, I'm afraid. Most of the tracks on the box set are from a period spanning 1946 to 1966.
GEO: The sound quality for the most part is excellent. Were you able to locate many of the original master tapes?
BILL GEERHART: I'd say only about 25% come from master tapes. The rest is from a variety of sources, mostly the best copies of the records we could find, which were then cleaned up a bit.
GEO: One of the most interesting performers included in the set is Janet Greene.
BILL GEERHART: Janet Greene was supposed to be the right wing's answer to Joan Baez. We were lucky enough to get to talk to her just in time for the box set. I must say, it was quite difficult locating her. It seems a relative of hers read our web site and wrote to us which led us to her ex-husband and he led us to another relative who give us her phone number. Hers is a fascinating story. She was played Cinderella for a time on a TV kids show in Columbus, Ohio starting in 1954. Her husband became enthralled with this zealot named Dr Fred C. Schwarz who had formed the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade after emigrating from Australia. In fact, she and her husband moved to Long Beach, California to be more involved with Schwarzï's cause. Schwarz approached her to sing anticommunist songs during his programs, which she later recorded and appeared on the flip side of one of his many spoken word lps of his lectures. He asked her, "They have Joan Baez, who do we have?" Oddly enough, many years later she revealed in our interview with her that she was actually a big fan of Joan Baez and had seen her in concert.
GEO So she liked Joan Baez's style but not her content.
Bill Geerhart: Right.
GEO : You've also rescued the Goldwaters from their deserved obscurity.
BILL GEERHART: That's another example of a reader of our website dropping a dime to help us to locate a lost cult figure in American music. Ken Crook, who now works in radio in Arizona under a different name, was the leader of the Goldwaters. They were put together by these two brothers, Mark and Buford Bates, who were Goldwater supporters in Nashville, Tennessee. So, in a way, they were kind of like a political version of the pre-fab four, The Monkees. The Goldwaters would go around to all the Barry Goldwater rallies and sing their own version of famous folk songs, only now with awful lyrics that poked fun at Kennedy and Johnson and other liberal political figures of the day. Once, they even shared the stage with Janet Greene at a rally.
GEO : Now that's a show I would have like to have seen. On the other end of the political spectrum is Tom Lehrer.
BILL GEERHART: Tom Lehrer is kind of the official satirist of the cold war and as you know, he put out three great albums. He's been a mathematics professor at MIT all the while he was writing his bitingly satiric songs. He took a self-produced album and sold something like 300,000 copies out of his home. That is really stunning.
GEO: Another important lefty singer that is included is Carson Robinson. [Please se endnote]
BILL GEERHART: Carson Robinson is an interesting case. He had been recording since the 1920s, tunes like "Will Someone Please Tell Me Who To Vote For?" In the early fifties he recorded a tune "I'm No Communist" which seems to be a reaction to the second round of the House on Un-American Activities Committee's witch hunts that began in 1951. "I'm No Communist" is both a red-scare song and an anti-government song. "The government is trying to tax the working man to death." It basically suggests the government should leave the poor working stiffs alone and get on with determining "who's a low-down Red," sending a mixed message in a way.
GEO: You even have a song by Doris Day. She seems to have gotten the vapors from all the atomic paranoia going around back in 1949 when she sang a love song about a Geiger counter.
BILL GEERHART: Yeah, "T ic, Tic, Tic". That's from a movie she did called "My Dream is Yours."
GEO: I was surprised to learn from your book that it was Two Ton Baker, who recorded what is probably everybody's favorite song from the era, "Duck and Cover." This is the man who had an earlier hit called "I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch"
BILL GEERHART: He was a local TV celebrity in Chicago in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Duck and Cover is also known as "Bert the Turtle" and was the creation of two commercial jingle writers, Leo Carr and Leon Corday in collaboration with the film's executive producer, Leo Langlois. Carr and Corday also wrote another famous jingle, "See the USA in your Chevrolet"
GEO: It's easy to make fun of these naive tunes, but then you have to remember in the early Fifties an nuclear attack was survivable The bombs weren't so big and there wasn't nearly as many of them. Though I must say that even then whether the government's advice to dig a big hole and sit in it was a viable means of surviving a nuclear blast is debatable.
BILL GEERHART: That's why we chose to focus on the first half of the cold war: It's really the genuine reaction to the bomb. The second half of the cold war the songs tend to get just so ironic and winking and nodding, for example, REM's "The End Of The World As We Know It." We just found the naive songs so much more genuine and interesting to listen to. It's like when you watch the old civil defense films. We've included some on the DVD that comes with the box set. In one, the main character witnesses an attack, then dusts himself off and puts on his charred fedora. It's such an amazingly naive notion of how someone would react to an atomic bomb attack.
GEO: Hollywood was beginning to come to terms with the atomic bomb at that time in its own fashion, with films like Godzilla, Them and Beginning of the End.
BILL GEERHART: The irradiated insect sub-genre with its giant grasshoppers and ants reveal a lot. But so do many other films, like Roger Corman's "The Day the World Ended" from 1956, where you have this collection of survivors who are battling radioactive mutants. I think that's what a lot of Americans expected would happen.
GEO: It's almost romantic fantasy, a modern retelling of Swiss Family Robinson.
BILL GEERHART: The government-sanctioned view as expressed in its many education shorts was basically, "sit in your fall out shelter for 14 days then go out and start repopulating the earth."
GEO: That innocent view of the survivability of atomic attack comes to end, I think, right after the Cuban Missile Crises when we really can face to face with the very real prospect of annihilation. By the mid 60s it was pretty clear the if there was a nuclear exchange, the planet would end up nothing more than a smoking cinder.
BILL GEERHART: The film "Dr Strangelove" captures that later sentiment perfectly. We have a recording done to tie in with the film by The Dr Strangelove and the Fallouts that really captures the spirit of that film, called "Love That Bomb." The film was so popular that the culture clearly had become much more nihilistic. It was a turning point, exacerbated by the later escalation in Vietnam which was a major factor in distracting the government from pushing its civil defense agenda more forcefully.
GEO: The last time there was a serious examination of the issue was around the time that Ronald Reagan was dreaming of a "Star Wars" solution to the problem. We were going to cover America in a protective bubble and live happily ever after. Then more enlightened minds looked at the science and realized it was all smoke and mirrors. Around that time - 1984, appropriately enough- TV tackled the issue with some very powerful programming. ABC ran a dramatization of what a nuclear war would do to a typical American city.
BILL GEERHART: Yes, The Day After was overly praised, in my opinion. Itï¿½s similar to many overwrought TV movies with familiar actors. Testament (1984) doesnï¿½t have the special effects that The Day After has, but it makes its point with a lot more emotional honesty. It is about a California town that slowly dies off from fallout after an attack.
GEO: The BBC did the best of the bunch with their devastating "Threads." It follows a family through the next ten years after a nuclear attack. By the end no one is left alive.
BILL GEERHART: Threads and Testament would make for a suicidal double feature. Pass the buttered cyanide.
GEO: Even today when the nuclear club keeps getting larger and larger we seemed to have lost any interest in the issue, really. Maybe we've just been on that knife-edge too long.
BILL GEERHART: I think the effects of an atomic detonation have been minimized in the popular media recently and this has contributed to the attitude that you mention. For example, Ben Affleck basically shrugs off the a-bomb explosion in The Sum of All Fears. I think his hair gets mussed or his shirt gets ripped. And then you have the atomic explosions in 24 and The Peacemaker. I think these representations of the Bomb contribute to the notion that the bomb is no longer see as the ï¿½endï¿½ as it was portrayed in the sixties. People have just learned to live with the bomb, to paraphrase Dr Strangelove. Unfortunately.
On November 12, 2009 a reader sent this interesting observation. Here is our exchange: Dear Mr. Stewart, I recently read your interview with Bill Geerhart regarding the CD compilation "Atomic Platters." For the most part, I enjoyed the interview. However, I found one comment you made perplexing. In the interview, you refer to Carson Robison as "another lefty singer." For the life of me I can't understand how you consider Mr. Robison a lefty. Any of his songs which touch upon a political theme including "I'm No Communist" are strictly stand-up-for-America-and-the-government-should-leave-us-alone fare. The same message that we hear in his songs then are no different from what we hear from Toby Keith or Alan Jackson today. In his answer (and on his website), Bill Geerhart completely misinterpretsthe message written by Wiseman and sung by Robison. The song doesn't somuch applaud the House Committee On Un-American Affairs as it criticizes those persons who, when called before it, lack the courage to proclaim a Pro-American and Anti-Communist point of view. Thank you for taking the time to hear me out on this small point. Sincerely, Alan S. Halliday -----My response----- To: Alan Halliday Subject: Re: Interview with Bill Geerhart Thanks for your comment and for visiting the website. You refer to your comment as a ?small point?; on that I must disagree. Though I myself would consider being categorized as a lefty a positive descriptor, many may not and Robinson may not have thought so either, I really can?t say ? and clearly shouldn?t have. I assume I was recalling his "Bum Song? and other of that ilk supporting the New Deal and thus cavalierly and perhaps inaccurately pigeon-holed him as a lefty. The truth is all I know about him comes from Wikipedia and a handful of 78s I have. Someone needs to do a comprehensive release of the guy's material. Of course, I can offer nothing about Geerhart's comments excepting to wonder if I would have the fortitude to take on HUAC if I had been placed in that situation. I like to think I would, but would I? I hope never to have to find out. Do I have your permission to amend your letter to the interview, either with or without you name? Check out the show proper sometime on Shokus Internet Radio every night at 9 PM Eastern Time and let me know what I think. ---And it ends––– Thank you for your rapid response to my email. In retrospect, you're right, I shouldn't have and perhaps one should never categorize a political viewpoint or position as a small point. Please feel free to amend my letter to the interview and I'll leave whether or not you use my name up to your discretion. Thanks again for your consideration of my viewpoint and your speedy reply. I look forward to hearing your broadcast. Copyright George Stewart
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