Crossroads have often assumed a mythic quality in American music and literature. They can represent a point of decision, as in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” or they can mark a destination or meeting site. They can even be a place of transformative power, as in the story of delta blues king Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, made his pact with the devil at a deserted Mississippi crossroads.
Terre Haute, the weekly public radio series that creator Tom Roznowski hopes to bring to Nashville, explores a somewhat more quotidian crossroads than the one that enlivens Johnson’s myth. But Roznowski’s ruminations about life in the heart of Indiana during the 1920s are neither dreary nor nostalgic. Just the opposite, they speak volumes about the development of American society in the last hundred years, including directions that it might be headed as the century draws to a close.
Located at the intersection of the Old Cumberland Road and the Dixie Bee Linenow known as U.S. Routes 40 and 41, respectivelyTerre Haute is literally situated at a major east-west/north-south crossroads. According to the 1920 Census, it was also the exact geographic center of the nation“that dot on the map,” points out Roznowski, “where as many Americans lived north as south, to the east as to the west.”
The convergence of urban and rural cultures that Terre Haute and the rest of the country faced 70 years ago was even more dramatic. “Mass communication and transportation went through two of the biggest transformations that they’ve undergone this century,” observes Roznowski, a cultural historian and singer-songwriter who splits his time between Nashville and Bloomington, Ind. Commercial radio, for example, first came to Terre Haute in 1926. Whereas the town’s 66,000 residents once learned about current events from the city’s three daily newspapers, radio gave them the option of listening passively as a voice from Chicago or beyond broadcast directly into their living rooms.
Roznowski is the first to admit that radio has greatly enriched our lives, citing epochal voices such as Orson Welles, Edward R. Murrow and Wolfman Jack as examples. But he’s quick to add that radio has also had more ambiguous implications for our relationships with each other and our immediate environment. Besides paving the way for televisiona form of prepackaged entertainment that demands little from its audiencethe advent of radio meant that people didn’t have to rely as much upon themselves for entertainment, whether that meant learning to play a musical instrument, reading a book, or perfecting the lost art of conversation.
Although Roznowski appreciates the fullness of life in Terre Haute during the mid-1920s, his reflections are far from nostalgic. To idealize Terre Haute’s past, he insists, would be to tell only part of its story and to ignore, among other things, the pervasive racism, sexism and homophobia of the time while downplaying life-saving advances like the development of the polio vaccine.
Roznowski’s balanced, open-ended way of taking up with these complex issues is part of what has made Terre Haute such a compelling listen for audiences in the Midwestern public radio markets where the series has aired since last October. Roznowski’s brief but wonderfully paced vignettespart story, part mythare further enriched by his ability to capture the details of everyday life: Ordinary images, like a meticulously stacked display of canned goods or a garage wall covered with license plates, help form the backdrop for his tales. Augmented by musical passages from Aaron Copland’s delicately majestic theme from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Roznowski breathes life into the Terre Haute of 1926 in much the same way that Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion does for Lake Wobegon.
Terre Haute’s episodes are remarkably well-produced and researched: Roznowski has looked at tens of thousands of photographs and a staggering amount of newspaper microfilm, and he has taken oral histories from as many residents of Terre Haute in the ’20s as he could find. That’s all well and good, but why should Nashvillians be interested in what happened 70 years ago in the Indiana equivalent of Our Town? That’s certainly the question that Nashville’s WPLN is wrestling with as the station contemplates bringing Roznowski’s series to Music City.
Roznowski admits that other public radio markets, especially those outside the Midwest, have been reluctant to carry a program that doesn’t deal directly with the people, places and events that have shaped their respective local histories. Then what’s so unique about Terre Haute? Nothing, insists Roznowski. It’s precisely the town’s ordinarinessits emblematic or “everytown” qualitythat has convinced him of its resonance beyond Indiana and the mid-1920s. His musings about earlier revolutions in mass communications and transportation bear him out: The implications of those developments, currently being played out as people traverse continents via Internet, have much to say about where society has been and where it might be going.
“History is an essential tool for considering today’s problems and tomorrow’s challenges,” enthuses Roznowski. Indeed, it gives us the ability to reassess our assumptions about progress, to question whether technological advantages represent actual advances, whether progress can be equated with the mere passage of time. History also gives us the option of looking with “second sight” at the cultural myths that the creations of Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra have etched on our collective imagination.
By revivifying the Terre Haute of 1926and by doing so with such equanimity and insightRoznowski helps us do exactly that. And that’s a gift that couldn’t be more instructive as we come upon the end of the century, a quintessential crossroads if ever there was one.
To obtain previous episodes of Terre Haute on audio cassette, call 1-800-662-3311.
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