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Paul Coates -- Confidential File, January 30, 1959

January 30, 2009 |  2:00 pm


Crackdown Hits Death Ballads

Paul_coates_2 Stop that dancing up there. And sit down a minute. I want to talk to you.

I suppose you know that most of this town's top disc jockeys have -- either by choice or station edict -- banned a new release called "The Ballad of Barbara Graham."

If you didn't know, I'm telling you now. The record's subject matter, they say, is too hot. Too controversial.

It's such a sizzling "political" issue that in the space of a week, KFWB has jerked it off the air, KDAY has gone out of its way to inform listeners that the record is banned, and KMPC program director Bob Forward has warned his disc jockey staff by memo:

"There are several new recordings on the market which appear to be out-and-out propaganda against capital punishment.

1959_0130_cover "The decision as to whether to be for or against capital punishment is one that will be made by station management and will be plainly stated in an editorial campaign.

"I am referring specifically to 'The Ballad of Barbara Graham' and 'The Last Mile.' Please do not play these or any other similar records without first discussing it with me personally."

Now, hold on a minute, boys. I've heard this ballad about Barbara Graham. But the only controversy I can work up with myself is whether it's music.

But that's something I could question about a lot of the stuff passed off as "hit" material.

The Graham piece- if you'll excuse my close scrutiny- has a melody which sounds suspiciously like the tune I used to sing "Sweet Rosy O'Grady" to, years ago.

I quote, in B-flat:

1959_0130_runover "Poor Bar-bar-a Gra-ham was wild and couldn't be tied.

"But could she com-mit mur-der? And should she real-ly have died!"

That's about as controversial as the lyrics get. And the only question they seem to bring up, somewhat belatedly, is whether Mrs. Graham was guilty.

And now, it's my turn to raise an issue.

Who let Tom Dooley in? According to his defense attorneys, the Kingston Trio, the poor boy is going to be strung up tomorrow at dawn for a crime of passion. Any decent criminal attorney in the land could almost guarantee to get him off on second-degree murder, at the worst.

It's clearly and issue involving capital punishment.

Vocalist Avoids Arguments

Out of idle curiosity, I telephoned the vocalist and co-writer of the Barbara Graham ballad last night to find out what kind of a fanatic this town's disc jockeys were barring from the turntables.

The young man's name was Val Norman, and he admitted that the idea for the song came to him after he'd seen the movie.

"It had commercial possibilities," he told me.

"Do you have any views on capital punishment?" I asked.

1959_0129_plane He hesitated, then answered, "Well, I have some personal opinions. But I'd rather not get involved. Religion, subjects like that- I just don't get into arguments."

Still, I'm bothered. Not so much for Mr. Norman.

But because of what looks like the beginning of a trend.

It just so happens that Chuy Reyes and I have been collaborating in our spare time on a jumpy little tune called "The Cahan Decision Cha-Cha."

But I guess we better forget the whole thing. Some disc jockey is bound to call it too controversial.