“Hurry up, newsman, get on with the fight,
Or Johnny dies with me before daylight.”
That’s the unmistakable voice of blues singer Josh White, added to the cast of “Big Town,” the adventures of fighting editor Steve Wilson, for this one prison tale.
In the 1949 episode, Wilson is out to free an innocent man from Death Row, and White provides the blues equivalent of a Greek chorus, urging the editor along from another cell.
Listen to “The Prisoner’s Song” episode of “Big Town.” (Click on the title to download the mp3 file from the Old Time Radio Researchers Library (OTRRLibrary.org) if a working audio player does not appear below. The long program filename seems to cause a page-coding problem that I will try to repair after the holidays.)
Josh sings an original blues that parallels the story of the radio play; to be part of the scene, he plays a prisoner on death row.
“He’s going to the chair…” the guy in the next cell says.
“They let him have his guitar. He wanted it instead of his supper.”
As was often the case, Wilson resorts to non-journalistic techniques to free the condemned man, this time browbeating the real guilty man, facing down the armed killer — until a last bit of subterfuge gets a confession, followed by a last verse from the bluesman.
Wilson, played by Edward Pawley, also delivers the episode’s final Lifebuoy commercial, and the announcer plugs an upcoming Josh White concert in New York.
Incidentally, Josh White’s song here is not the more famous “The Prisoner’s Song,” although it also might suit the “Big Town” episode by that title.
The earlier “The Prisoner’s Song” was a huge heart-breaking hit in the early days of recorded music, for country star Vernon Dalhart a Number 1 hit for 12 weeks in 1925-26.
Since then it has been re-recorded many times. I even remember my mother singing it, sometimes just the line, “If I had the wings of an angel…” when she needed a quick escape from whatever was getting her down.
(Sections of this post appeared several years ago in my music related blog. I just realized that a version of it I thought I had published here never got past the draft stage. A reprieve, of sorts.)