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21 October 2013

1942 America Speaks (The City Wears a Slouch Hat)

My dear Mrs. Cage,

I have tried to get you on the telephone but you were not in when I called, hence this note.  We listened to the Cage-Patchen program on Sunday afternoon.  To my regret there were interruptions during the duration, but I did manage to get a definite reaction.  At first I was confused, but as the broadcast progressed I began to see light, and toward the end I grasped a superb climax.  Am I right in this interpretation?  A man who finds himself in a sordid, trivial, noisy, meaningless world, rejects it.  He moves among events (happenings, I should say) and personalities, with which he has no affinity, realizing their unreason, and finally their impotence.  This realization gives him the power to negate their malign purposes.  But there must be somewhere, he argues, a scene free from the sordid, trivial, mean purposelessness.  He senses the ideal world as a real world through the aspiring and assertive measures of poetry.  He longs for the ocean (symbol of eternity).  He finds himself on a rock (reality), with the ocean surging about him in rhythmic measures.  He is not isolated, for a fellow being who is also responsive to eternity and reality stands with him on the rock. The reality both voice is universal love.  The sound effects became more comprehensible to me as the drama progressed, and the final cosmic (rather, celestial) surge of the ocean in its true being as the symbol of eternity, was indeed superb.  I should love to hear it again, but I would insist on being in the room alone with the radio.  Mrs. Webster was impressed by the magnificent musical quality in the ocean surge, but I do not think she "got" the production in its entirety.  Perhaps I was wide of the mark in my interpretation, but at least the production conveyed a message to me.  The ocean surge was, to me, the apotheosis of interpretative music.  Tell your son so, please.  

Love to the Cages from Ruth Lord Jenkins (June 2nd, 1942)
In late 1941, the Columbia Broadcasting System commissioned John Cage to compose a radio play with sound effects on a text by the poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972).  The resulting The City Wears a Slouch Hat, an experimental program for the popular series known as the "Columbia Workshop,"was given its one and only broadcast over the CBS network on May 31, 1942, from 2:00 to 2:30 p.m., a Sunday afternoon.  Directed by Les Mitchell, its actors were Les Tremayne, Madelon Grayson, Forrest Lewis, Jonathan Hole, Frank Dane, and John Larkin. The percussion ensemble, conducted by Cage, included Cilia Amidon, Xenia Cage, Ruth Hartman, Stuart Lloyd, and Claire Oppenheim.  

While this broadcast didn't prove to be Cage's ticket to fame and fortune, it didn't go unnoticed.  Letters poured into both the Chicago and New York CBS stations, some extolling the work's virtues, some suggesting the collaborators be committed to an asylum, and some expressing genuine confusion. The one at the top of this blog, a deep, psychological read, was addressed to Cage's mother (then residing at 305 North Mountain Avenue, Upper Montclair, New Jersey), an obvious friend of the family.  Another (just below) was from a fellow radio drama writer, "Jack," clearly inspired by the broadcast and expressing his desire to break free of what he found to be the stifling conventions of the medium:

Dear Sirs:

Congratulations on today's workshop experiment.  The whole scope, the entire conception of THE CITY IN THE SLOUCH HAT is a revolutionary stride in the drama of radio.  I believe that the play (if I may call it that) indicated something, an intangible "something" of our radio future.  True, it will take some education to make the radio audience appreciate this type of drama.  Maxwell Anderson has attempted to accomplish this with varying degrees of success on the American stage.  Kaupmann and Carl Capek have toyed with it in the European drama.  But in the world of radio no one has had the nerve to inject expressionism and impressionism on the vast American listening audience.

Your production will give heart to many radio writers and production managers all over the country. We all have the urge to try something "different."  We all want to delve into fantasy.  I know of some NBC officials who are just aching to produce some shows similar to today's program.  Some of us in the smaller stations...others freelancing...all are anxious to develop these new trends.  But most of us are afraid.  The vast majority of radio writers tend to follow the same norm, day after day...constantly alert to the sensitivity of their listeners' tender ears...always aware of the fact that they might insult them...perhaps offend them.  If we have reached that stage in radio...then it is time to stop all ingenuity. However, you fellows have created something startling...something banging. It's good and healthy.  And it will give us some very definite ideas.  I would like to know just what the response to this program was.  Whether it followed a criticism such as mine, or whether it was derogatory in nature.

This letter is as unusual as your program.  This is the first note I have ever written concerning a program...such as your program was the first I ever heard.  However, I believe it was Ted Husing who once wrote that every letter he received was a "first letter".  That's a bit cynical.  There are some of us who are going to see and be aware of some mighty big changes in radio production.  New trends are going to drama is going to creep out of its present apparent infancy and do some really artistic things.

Thank you once again for a chance to see into the future of radio.

Sincerely, Jack

And there was even one from a young experimental composer, none other than the 25-year old Robert Erickson, by far the longest and most thoughtful of the lot:

May 31, '42

Dear Mr. Cage,

I heard your radio show this afternoon, & although I can't say I accept the whole thing unreservedly, it was so stimulating & and so provocative that I felt I should write you a letter.  I particularly enjoyed the last part of the drama -- the sea episode.  I think that there you succeeded in giving that sensation of utter power which the sea has & you made something which was impossible to render with words alone.

However, in some of the early episodes it seemed to me that the sound was more sound effect than anything else.  It was in these episodes that the drawback in your art made itself felt.  Namely: although your "music" has the power to evoke it lacks the power to bind ideas together, which amounts to saying that you cannot build form.  I am saying this only on this one hearing & I may well be wrong.   Or some of your other compositions may show stronger formal characteristics.

Anyway, this afternoon's music was primarily evocative, whether by design or accident.  More than that, it was almost wholly literary, the sea, city sounds, etc.  That is all well & good -- much better than the bloated Wagnerian stuff that Hollywood puts behind its "dramas".  But when you say you are "building a structure in sound," that is where my doubts come in.

First I must say I am not prejudiced against dissonant sound or percussion or new forms.  I am an atonal composer & as such I had to get rid of my prejudices long ago.  I am also aware of the truth in the statement of the learned astronomer -- "A system must be built of materials, but the material is of no consequence."  In art, however, the materials which can express the greatest range of feeling in the best way are the best materials.  I think your materials are limiting you.

You have many instruments which have a strong attack, but few or none which can sustain a sound. You seem to have difficulties with long crescendos.  Your music is mostly "harmonic" (if we may use the term) & lacks the subtlety that can be gotten with polyphony.  I am sure that polyphonic rhythm is possible, but I heard none of it today, & was disappointed.  It seems to me that in building forms in sound you must give rhythms the job of melody & that necessarily the form must be polyphonic in character.  Otherwise no matter what you do you will have impressionism, & a poor variety of it at that.

Another thing that interests me about your work is that you in a way are starting afresh at the path of musical beginning.  Why, I wonder.  I suppose it is a reaction against 19th century romanticism & the breakdown of diatonicism.  But why react so far that you will no longer employ the tones we are provided with, along with people able to produce those tones?  Certainly you can't believe that the resources of our instruments are unable to be expanded!  Look what Schoenberg did in Pierrot Lunaire, & with precious few instruments too.

After all, don't you think that we are all building structures in sound?  You get a certain effect from using bells, gongs, cans, etc., but don't you think a composer can duplicate the total effect with existing orchestral instruments?  And with more control, too, over nuance.

Now the sounds.  A whistle is a good sound, but it will always be a whistle.  That is, it will have extra-musical ideas attached to its sound.  The same for a bell & so on.  The fact that these are natural sounds make it difficult to weave them into anything which can sound more than impressionistic.

I may be wrong.  The article you wrote for the last issue of Modern Music is so good that I think you are trying to be more than an impressionist.  I'd like to hear more of your stuff before giving an opinion.  My above remarks are merely impressions.

I liked the Patchen libretto very much in spots & perhaps it was the libretto's disjointed character which made the music seem to lack form.  Certain episodes were trivial, the hold-up, the waterfront scene; but the meeting with the woman & of course the sea were brilliant.  I certainly hope Columbia will give you more work to do.  Today's show had a certain artistic integrity which has been all too absent from many of these experimental plays.

I'd like to hear from you about some of these questions as they interest me very much.


Robert Erickson
General Delivery
Douglas, Michigan

While you can listen to the original broadcast here

courtesy of the media archives at the John Cage Trust, two recordings are commercially available: the original broadcast, released on the label of the Malibu-based Cortical Foundation, Organ of Corti, founded in 1992 by the inimitable Gary Todd,* and a new realization, released in 1997 on Mode Records, featuring Essential Music and a stellar ensemble of actors headed up by the late Paul Schmidt as the "Voice." 

*Gary is no longer at the helm of the Cortical Foundation, as he suffered a near fatal accident more than a decade ago and never fully recovered. At approximately 5 am on Sept. 9, 2001, Gary fell from the third-story balcony of a friend's home.  Rushed to UCLA Medical Center, he underwent brain surgery for eight and a half hours, after which he remained in a coma for a considerable period of time.  Since 2006 he has lived in Minnesota near his sister, and is currently resident in an assisted living facility in the small town of Crookston, where he was born. He is well cared for, although still longs to return to Los Angeles.  His good friend Michael Intriere speaks with him frequently, and in 2011 visited him and showed him the recently-completed documentary of Hermann Nitsch created by Daniela Ambrosoli.  (Shortly before his accident, Gary had put the finishing touches on the sound edit for the 52-CD box set of the live recording he had made of Nitsch's Six-Day Play.)  Click here for a short video clip of Gary's response to the film, which is both heartbreaking and inspiring. While it is unlikely that Gary will ever return to his former life, he remains avidly interested in contemporary music and welcomes communication from admirers and friends (especially audio CDs!).  Mail can be addressed to him at:

Gary Todd Sylvester
820 Eickoff Blvd.
Crookston, MN   56716  

I can't resist including below a random sampling of other letters to CBS, all dated within days of the initial airing, all transcribed verbatim, and all housed in the amazing "John Cage Correspondence Collection" at Northwestern University's Music Library in Evanston, Illinois. Endless thanks to its fearless leader, D.J. Hoek. Enjoy!

sound of color
the bass beat
walk in air
the sound of Growth

compliments to the Columbia Workshop for its admirable presentation of "Slouched Hat" and for the John Cage SOUNDS.

maybe not the greatest show but a big step forward to "real radio" presentation.

yours very truly, Henry

On May 30 or 31st you broadcast Kenneth Patchen's 'City - a Slouch Hat' with incidental music by John Cage.  This was, for many of us, a pleasant relief from the usual hearts and flowers accompaniment, and an interesting experiment both in story and music.  I hope you will be able to give your listeners more of Mr. Cage's percussion music without the addition of voice.

Also, a propos of interesting experimental music over the radio -- in Chicago at the moment is another musician from California: Harry Partch, who has written music based on a 43-tone scale and especially played on instruments of own, such as a viola resembling somewhat a viola da gamba, and using for the most part cello strings and played with cello bow.  For this instrument he has set many Chinese poems to music.  Several other instruments, a chromatic organ, a chromolodian which was perfected in Chicago early this year, the kithara, an adaptation of the Greek lyre, and what he calls an adapted guitar for which he has written some fascinating songs, "Bitter Music," "Barstow," etc., some taken from hitch-hikers' inscriptions from California highway railings.  These songs, with the accompaniment of Partch's instruments and more of John Cage's percussion music would be a relief to hear for all music lovers, and I hope you will be able to include them in your future programs over the radio.

In case you do not know the address of Mr. Partch nor heard this music, he can be reached at 1620 Bankers Bldg., c/o R.W. Lotz 105 W. Adams and I shall tell him I have written you because of the sincere admiration I have for his musical knowledge and his talent.

Cordially yours, Sibyl

What in the world are you trying to do, make nervous wrecks out of people?  I always liked the "Columbia Workshops."  I have tried to hear it out, but with all the noise, banging and slamming, I am almost driven crazy, so had to turn it off.

Please keep up your good old work with it, it is enough noise and nerve-wracking things going on without adding to it, it is the most non-sensible thing I ever heard over a radio, banging, slamming, hammering, or was something wrong at the station, it has me so nervous I can't even write.

Thanks a lot for passed good programs.

A constant appreciable listener

I enjoyed your play immensely until that damned noise started, couldn't more like it be put on with the noise in its place, and periods of peace prevail.

Yours truly, Josey

Your production of The City Wears a Slouch Hat has given me more pleasure and dramatic excitement than any radio performance I have ever heard.

The well-knit intensity, the life-like thought stream, and the symphonic impact of the sound, reveal superior direction and intelligent rehearsal of real material.

I should like very much to know if the script or program notes have been published, and if recordings were made -- as they certainly should be.



I'm glad to see the "Columbia Workshop" in the groove again!  "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" (of May 31st) is the best and most unusual production since the Norman Cousin series.

After all the Workshop was originally intended for the purpose of new radio techniques, and of late you had been slipping away from that purpose.

Why not keep the "Workshop" in Chicago?

Sincerely, Gordon

I have just finished listening to your program on WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C. (E.W.T.) today, on Columbia's Workshop, entitled "City Walks in a Slouch Hat."

Unfortunately I tuned in after the program started and couldn't quite figure out what it was all about. There were four soldiers in my room listening to it and it certainly had our attention for quite some time.  It created a topic of quite a conversation, and after much to-do we still cannot decide what the point was.  What's the dope?  Who was the "Voice" supposed to represent?

Please reply at your earliest possible convenience, and lift us out of the darkness.

Yours very truly, F.J.

The Country Wears Baggy Pants
(Dedicated to the Columbia Workshop)

Exodus!  Expand expectant exhortation!
Formality forlorn gelitinates a gem,
Marauds his erudition.  Admiration
Opinionates beliefs of me -- and them.

Ah, sweet Opacity, whose opaline omniscience
Triangulates my timorous oration,
Come, Come!  Transmute to me thy bright translucence
To adulate the drama of the nation.

Then nevermore administer addendum
Not let malicious tongue give admonition.
Shanghai them off to Argentine to end 'em
And praise it evermore with sweet contrition.


I don't get it!

Would you be so kind as to forward the name of the Asylum from which today's Workshop originated?  I failed to get the address at the conclusion.  And may I ask just how difficult it is to secure the employment of the inmates to write and produce your show.  No doubt, the patients enjoyed today's program, however I would like to know if they worked in straight-jackets or padded cells.

Incomprehensively yours, Paul (Announcer on Duty!)

P.S.  The views and opinions expressed verbatim do not necessarily represent the above letter-head (KOMA, Oklahoma City's CBS Station).

By accident I tuned into your program this afternoon and found it impossible to turn off the radio until the production was ended.

It is my regret that I missed the first part of the program and am interested in knowing what it contained.

Would you please inform me of any possibility of my seeing the script?

Sincerely, Ruth

As one of the many regular listeners to your Columbia Workshop Programs, I want to take this opportunity to both praise and criticize.  Praise for the high quality of all past performances, with the exception of "The City Wears a Slouch Hat."

Your whole staff slipped up on this one.  Perhaps it was the past performances of the brilliant author that fooled you.

To me (and I am sure there were thousands of others who felt the same way I did), "Slouch Hat" had a slight odor...not of flowers either.

First of all, if one is to criticize, one should be fair enough to point out the strong parts as well as the weak spots --- Well, here goes!

The strong part was really not a part, but actually a voice -- the voice of the interrogator.  He did a swell job with nothing but his voice -- for the words were meaningless; --- meaningless even to so-called intellectuals.  Certainly the level of language and the sound effects were not aimed to reach the "average" radio listener.  If the writer intended the program only for the eccentric -- long-haired group....I believe that they also must have been bored by the long-drawn-out sound effects.

Another thing: I think your Sound Effects man should really go out and make a listening study at 42nd Street and Times Square of the City noises -- or in the factory district if he likes.  He will not hear any noises like those constantly mingled with the speakers' voices.  I really am sincere about this criticism.  I don't mean to be funny.  I just thought of what a splendid job your staff have been doing and no doubt will continue to do....But for the sake of your vast audience, please give more time to rehearsals and honest critics before you pawn off any more monotonous plays on us like "Slouch Hat".

Sincerely, Larry

You are to be congratulated on the splendid performance of "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" this last Sunday.  I enjoyed it immensely as did also a group of my friends who listened.

It was an imaginative, beautiful, and exciting piece of surrealism.  The music and sound effects were a great help in creating and sustaining the mood throughout the play.  The acting was excellent, and the director did a most difficult thing well.

I hope there will soon be another play of the same caliber to listen to.  I shall look forward to it.

Sincerely yours, Ruth

Thank you for producing "The City Wears A Slouch Hat".  Such programs require courageous producers.  The production was at once both beautiful and moving as well as hopeful and encouraging to anyone sensitive to forces in the world today which question, hope, neighborly love and personal freedom.

The musical sound effect was arresting.  Why not produce more programs like this one?

Sincerely, David

We were so impressed with the original & imaginative qualities of the workshop presentation "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" that we decided to write to you with the hope that we will be given the opportunity of hearing more of John Cage's radio music and scripts by outstanding young American poets & writers.  We believe that this is the most successful attempt toward producing an organic work in the field of radio and that this direction, if followed, will result in an intrinsic art expression.

We would like very much to hear this program repeated and many of our friends who heard it and those who missed it have expressed the same desire.

Sincerely, Gretchen and Alexander

This is the first fan letter I've felt moved to write to the "Workshop" in several years.  It is about the Patchen play which was broadcast last Sunday: THE CITY WEARS A SLOUCH HAT.  The play is a work of genius.  Cage's music was most impressive and perfectly wedded to the Patchen drama.  Is it possible that you will produce other works by this inspired combination?

Sincerely, Arthur

Attention: The Powers That Be

Such is the power of radio.  Having just heard your program, "The City Wears a Slouch Hat," I cannot resist the urge to flay you through every studio in the building for that perpetration in the name of Drama and the Workshop.

In many years of listening with real pleasure to Workshop offerings, my intelligence and discrimination have never been offended by a story so lacking in coherence, continuity, sense or entertainment.

How you could present, under the same aegis, "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" and such plays as the series of "26 by Corwin," "Patrick and the Devil," the story of "Christmas in the Underworld," etc., I can't begin to comprehend.  Believe me, the descent from Corwin to Patchen is like unto the plight of the fallen angels.

Nothing could surpass this piece for weakness of conception, hodgepodge of themes, rambling uncertainty of destination, and plain undramatic development.  And my shock at hearing the poor-read out-of-context poetry, almost had me wondering if my radio were switching frequencies again.

Please, for the sake of my peace of mind, and your reputation, write me a letter explaining the purpose, the message, the dramatic value, or any other virtue of this story, still fogged in mystery. Until you do, my conviction of your eminence in radio drama will be in danger of crumbling, utterly.

Yours very sincerely, Harry

Just what kind of a story did you have on the radio yesterday afternoon?  I listened to the end because I was curious, but got no satisfaction.  And those noises!

If I knew what "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" was meant to imply I might continue to listen to Columbia Workshop in the future.

Very truly yours, Adeline

Just a word congratulating you and Kenneth Patchen on "The City Wears a Slouch Hat."  It was meaty, solid, and very, very interesting.

A suggestion: How about some more of John Donne?  Certainly today's "Death, be not proud" was outstanding.

A mere listener applauds, H.E.G.

Just what was that half hour of noise on CBS Sunday - 3 to 3:30?

What did it all mean?  What is the point of doing a play that means absolutely nothing at all?  Is it the desire to do something "different"?  Then by all means let's get back to the old plot stuff.  At least we can follow that kind of stuff.

Mr. Patchen, as his books of poetry provide, is up to some dark mysterious mischief.  Some call it metaphysics, some call it philosophic, some say it is profound.  The truth is, it is bunk, pure and simple and unadulterated.

Because only bunk has no meaning.

A listener

I should like to add my congratulations and appreciation to the many you will receive on the stirring, exciting and beautiful "The City Wears a Slouch Hat."  I heard the John Cage program at the University of Chicago, but radio is his medium.  The walking in the stars and the ocean sequences were thrilling.


The Workshop's presentation of last Sunday, "The City Wears a Slouch Hat," was depressing. There is nothing new about the school of non sequitur in art, which proclaims that art needs neither form nor meaning.  Gertrude Stein, Schoenberg, & Dali have accustomed us to it.  But I am sorry to see the Columbia Broadcasting System joining those ranks.

Sincerely yours, E.A.

Your program "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" heard Sunday at 3 P.M. was perfectly wacky.  The author should be treated to a visit to a psychiatrist.

"Mr. & Mrs. Average Intelligent Listener"

Still breathless.  How's chances of hearing it again?

Herb and Margaret

Forced myself to hear "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" thru to its conclusion.  My wife locked herself in the bathroom.  You should be ashamed to waste good broadcast time, and some people's time, with such prattle, in this day and age.  I trust the author is soon locked up in some nice safe "Sanitarium."

A usually appreciative listener, and one who must work in a City.

Sunday, May 31.  Columbia Workshop.  3:30 P.M.  Just finished listening to your play for today.  Of all the Rot & Noise I've heard on the radio, this last half hour about a city that wears a slouch hat is positively the noisiest & worst I've ever heard!


Laura Kuhn