The Story of the V.D. Radio Project: Part 1
Recorded in 1961 in an apartment just off the campus of the University of Minnesota, many of the songs collectively known as the “Minnesota Hotel Tape” were regularly included on early Bob Dylan bootlegs, including that legendary bootleg, Great White Wonder. I heard most of the Minnesota Tape songs on the first Dylan bootleg I owned, 1972’s Blind Boy Grunt, and was immediately weirded out by four tunes on the B-side of the vinyl record; VD Blues, VD Waltz, VD City, and VD Gunner’s Blues.
Ranging from a less-than-a-minute scrap to a fully-realized song, the subject of each of the VD quartet was venereal disease. Now usually called STDs, venereal diseases syphilis and gonorrhea were both commonly referred to as “VD” — or the even more euphemistic “social disease” — into the 1990s.
Well, I heard folks tellin’ them VD blues ain’t bad,
Well, I heard folks tellin’ them VD blues ain’t bad,
These VD blues are the worst I ever had. ~ VD Blues
VD songs? Where had they come from? Were they a goof by Dylan? After all, on the same tape, he rhymes “purple” with “nipple” during his version of “Cocaine,” giggling all the while. But the VD quartet sounded like something else. Dylan’s performance is straightforward, with an undercurrent of “these were lost, and only I have found them.”
Which turned out to be true.
Birth of the V.D. Radio Project
In 1949 when Woody Guthrie wrote the VD quartet, over 3,000,000 Americans were estimated to have syphilis, with over a million people of those unaware they had contracted it because of syphilis’ subtle symptoms in the initial stages of the disease. The problem was more a societal than medical issue, as it had been discovered in 1943 that early treatment with penicillin was highly effective against both syphilis and gonorrhea. The issue was education and communication, especially in rural areas of the U.S. South where syphilis was rampant and social diseases not discussed.
On June 9, 1949, Surgeon General Leonard A. Scheele announced the launch of a national drive against venereal disease, coordinated by the United States Public Health Service. The New York Daily News reported the campaign would include, “Juke box hillbilly songs about syphilis… as well as radio soap operas about the trials and tribulations of wives whose mates haven’t been too moral.”
A photocopy of the Daily News story is included in the Woody Guthrie archives, and probably came from Guthrie’s friend, Alan Lomax. Lomax had been asked by Columbia University to develop a series of musical radio programs — “hillbilly operas” — featuring popular musicians who could sing about VD and its symptoms frankly, and advocate that audience members who suspected they had the disease get treatment.
Erik Barnouw, lead producer of what became “The V.D. Radio Project,” had turned to Lomax for help in reaching the southern states where syphilis rates were the highest. “What you need as your spokesman is some of the singers from Nashville, like Roy Acuff and Woody Guthrie,” Lomax told him, and went on to recruit both Acuff and Guthrie, as well as many of the biggest stars in country and gospel music, including Hank Williams, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Merle Travis.
In 1950, Guthrie would star in a 14-minute radio drama written by Lomax as part of the V.D. Radio Project, “The Lonesome Traveler starring Woody Guthrie as Rusty, the Traveler” as a “wandering musician who helped tell others of the dangers of syphilis and how they can get help,” which pretty much sums up the theme of all 20-odd shows produced during the project’s lifespan.
Bob Dylan Discovers the VD Quartet
Guthrie had written V.D.-related songs earlier in his career. “VD Gunner Blues,” included on Dylan’s Minnesota Hotel Tapes, dates to 1945, but the V.D. Radio Project apparently sparked a creative burst on the subject.The Daily News article appeared on June 10, 1949. Guthrie penned the other three songs of Dylan’s VD quartet (“VD Blues,” “VD Waltz,” and “VD City”) as well as four more in a two-week span after the newspaper story appeared. All nine of Guthrie’s VD songs are on a recording he made sometime at his home in Coney Island in 1949, probably intended as a pitch to the U.S. Public Health Service… and that’s where Bob Dylan comes into the story.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is commonly thought as the conduit between Guthrie and Dylan when it comes to obscure Guthrie songs, and is quoted in Robert Shelton’s Dylan biography as saying, “I suppose I taught Bobby a few of those old VD songs by Woody that nobody wanted the young kids to know…” But Dylan directly contradicts Elliot’s claim.
“The Izzy Young Notebooks,” published in 1968, features Young’s reconstructions of several discussions, including a conversation specifically about the VD songs. Dylan notes, “Jack hasn’t taught me any songs. Jack doesn’t know that many songs. He’s had a lot of chances. I went out to the Gleason’s in New Jersey and stayed out there for a while in East Orange. They have a lot of [Woody] Guthrie tapes — his VD songs. Learned a bunch of those, sung them to Woody.”
The ”Gleason’s” Dylan refers to are folk enthusiasts Bob Gleason and his wife, Sidsel, who began visiting Guthrie at the Greystone Park State Hospital in 1959 after Huntington’s disease forced his hospitalization. The Gleason’s eventually started bringing Guthrie to their home almost every weekend. The word quickly spread through the New York folk community that Woody was in East Orange, NJ, on Sundays and liked receiving visitors, and the Gleason home became both a center of impromptu folk gatherings as well as a crash pad for young musicians.
A 19-year-old Bob Dylan lived with the Gleason’s for several weeks after he came to New York, listening to the tapes Guthrie had given to Bob Gleason for safe-keeping, including the tape of the VD recordings. That tape is now residing in the Woody Guthrie Archive as Reel #13. Most of the VD songs Guthrie wrote over the years as well as the “Lonesome Traveler” radio drama can be heard publicly on the comprehensive Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot collection.
And appropriately, that collection also includes a 78 RPM Record with Dylan’s version of “VD City” from the Minnesota Hotel Tape backing Guthrie’s home recording of “The Biggest Thing Man has Ever Done.”