Henrietta Yurchenco (1916-2007)

Henrietta Yurchenco, photo by Peter Gold 2006

Dear Friends,

I am very sorry to report that Henrietta Yurchenco, my friend and co-creator of Down Home Radio, died on the morning of Monday Dec. 10th at the age of 91. Although she had not been feeling well for some time, her death was never-the-less sudden and shocking. She was an extraordinary person, incredibly full of life, energy and love for people and for music. Henrietta leaves behind untold numbers of friends, devoted students and people who she influenced in any number of ways. The value of her work documenting and promoting the indigenous cultures of Mexico, the United States and many other parts of the world is extraordinary.

The Down Home Radio project was not Henrietta’s first time around with radio, it was more like her fourth or fifth, and yet she approached it with all the zeal of someone a quarter her age. Henrietta started her radio career in early 1940 as a producer at WNYC here in New York. She produced a series of programs featuring American folk music and music from around the world, and was also the producer of Leadbelly’s radio program. She worked closely with Leadbelly preparing the scripts for the show and doing whatever else producers do! She arranged for Pete Seeger’s first radio appearance as well as Woody Guthrie’s first radio appearance in New York. It was not easy to find foreign ethnic bands at that time or even to get recordings, so in order to get talent for her world music radio shows she would hit the streets, casing ethnic community houses and restaurants, union halls and other places to find musicians to put on the air. Henrietta was back on the air for a short time in the late 50′s on WBAI, and then for almost all of the 1960′s on WNYC where she did a show called “Adventures in Folk Music.” On this program she did the first, or one of the first, radio interviews with Bob Dylan. Name almost any folk musician (and many “non-folk” musicians and other artists) of the last 60 years and Henrietta had them on a radio show at one time or another. That or they came to one of her famous parties, or appeared at a concert she produced or all of the above.

Over the years Henrietta worked with many other folklorists and ethnomusicologists including Alan Lomax and Charles Seeger (Pete’s father), a very important musicologist who needs to be rediscovered by people today. Henrietta often liked to repeat a quote by Charles Seeger, something she heard him say at a Society for Ethnomusicology conference in the 1970′s- “Studying the music is fine, but never forget the people.” By this she meant to remind me, other field workers and anyone else who would listen that song is a fundamentally human expression and should not be divorced from the actual lives of the people making it. She recognized that most music studied by enthnomusicologists and folklorists is produced by oppressed classes of people, minorities and indigenous tribes who live in poverty either in rural areas or in city slums, and that the condition of their lives should not be glossed over in the study of their music.

In 1941 Henrietta, her husband Boris Yurchenco and some friends took a huge road trip from New York City to Mexico City. There was a great cultural scene going on there at that time, with artists doing all kinds of things, as well as other outlandish pursuits such as the brand new possibility of field recording. Henrietta had experience in radio and knew the right people, and so she was asked by Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology to start going into the most rural areas to record. Henrietta was in the right place at the right time and seized the opportunity. She told me that when the man offered her the chance to go into the field and record she “nearly bit his hand.” She was very excited. Accompanied by photographer Augustin Maya and a native guide, Henrietta ended up lugging 300 pounds of recording equipment through the Sierra Mountains of Mexico on a mule. They slept on the ground, braved scorpions and other dangers and found people and music unknown to outsiders or thought to have been lost for hundreds of years.

Henrietta Yurchenco with Augustin Maya and Mexican Indians 1944

All of these things I’ve been describing were very outside of the bounds proscribed for women at that time. But Henrietta never gave that sort of thing any regard and advocated strongly for women’s rights in all of her work throughout the years. Henrietta’s field work among the Indian and Mestizo population of Mexico continued in earnest up through recent years. She also conducted field work in Guatemala, Columbia, Ecuador, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Johns Island South Carolina, Spain and Morocco.

In 1966 Henrietta began teaching Ethnomusicology at City College in New York. She was vigorously opposed to academic pretense and bureaucratic nonsense and gave straight talking and by all accounts very inspiring courses. I wish I could have taken those! She had workshops on how to play many different instruments and styles of music and produced many concerts at City College. Henrietta was always very politically minded and active starting way back in the 30′s, and at City College was very involved in the Anti-Vietnam-War Movement. She remained politically active, going to demonstrations, speaking out against war and oppression, singing and promoting protest and peace songs until the end of her life. She retired from City College in 1987 at the age of 70 as Professor Emerita, but the Ethnomusicology classes would always visit her at her home every semester to meet the ever friendly and inspiring matriarch.

Henrietta Yurchenco teaching at City College 1970's

I met Henrietta when she was 89. Although I knew her for a much shorter time than virtually all of her other friends, we became close, worked together a great deal, and she had a profound impact on me. I had read her autobiography “Around the World in 80 Years” while living in California, loved the book and was introduced to her by a mutual friend shortly after I moved back to New York in 2005. We hit it off immediately, and shortly there after I asked her to host Down Home Radio with me. To my delight she was way into the idea of doing an internet radio show and building something from the ground up. Henrietta had a profound influence on me in terms of my thinking about life! – but especially about culture and music in particular. Many of our conversations about the ideas behind Down Home Radio were challenging to me, and she always expressed her thoughts and positions very clearly and without reservation. We almost always came to agree, and her positions were always calculated to challenge me in ways that needed challenging. Henrietta imparted more abstract things to me as well, such as how to hear and see music in a more universal way, how to open my ears.

She often liked to repeat a saying she had heard from an ethnomusicological informant in Mexico, “la ley es una cosa y la vida es un otra,” – “the law is one thing and life is another.” Henrietta used music, particularly the texts of songs, to find out about the real customs and thoughts of people, not empty assertions about the law as defined by government officials and the clergy. She was very adamant about that. Henrietta believed that the mechanisms governing people’s real lives, as reflected in their songs, had to do with a system of “sexual politics” and the interaction between the roles of men and women in a society.

I have not even begun here to list her works. For more information on her books as well as her many fascinating articles, criticism (she wrote for the American Record Guide, Sing Out! and many other publications) fieldwork, radio appearances and other endeavors visit her website at www.HenriettaYurchenco.com . There you will also find a more complete chronology of her extraordinary and eventful life.

Best regards-

Eli Smith
New York City
Dec. 16th, 2007

Henrietta and I recorded a lot of radio shows, quite a few of which have yet to be aired. Look out for those in the coming months. Here are links to several of the shows we did which document key aspects of her research:

Pre-Columbian Indian Music of Mexico and Guatemala

Mexico: Indian and Mestizo Music of Michoacan

Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie: Live on WNYC 1940

Songs of the Sephardic Jewish Women of Morrocco


Henrietta’s books are:

Around the World in 80 Years: A Musical Odyssey” MRI 2003 – Her autobiography

In Their Own Voices: Women in the Judeo-Hispanic Song and Story”- You can read this right on her website! And hear all the field recordings!

Hablamos! Puerto Ricans Speak.” Praeger, 1971.

A Mighty Hard Road: The Woody Guthrie Story.” McGraw-Hill, 1970. – Henrietta wrote the first biography of Woody Guthrie- It’s great!

A Fiesta of Songs from Latin America and Spain.” Putnam’s Sons, 1966.
Henrietta released records and CDs of her field recordings on many record labels, including:

Folkways, Nonesuch, Global Village and Rounder. For a complete list see her website.

Some of my picks are: The Real Mexico In Music and Song on Nonesuch, and any of her stuff on Folkways which you can download at Smithsonian Global Sound

Here are links to some of her articles you can read online:

Mean Mama Blues: Bessie Smith and the Vaudeville Era“. Music, Gender, and Culture, Berlin, 1990

In Defense of Bob Dylan.” Sounds and Fury, 1965; reprinted in The New Sound (Scholastics), New York, 1966, reprinted in Bob Dylan, Four Decades of Commentary, 1998.

Skinhead Serenade: The Songs of Neo-Nazis“.

Here is a link to the obituary from the New York Times

Below is the mission statement she wrote last year for Down Home Radio, it summarizes many of her main points very succinctly.

Henrietta says:

Through folk and popular music, Down Home Radio will bring to its listeners a true understanding of the peoples of the Americas (North and South America, and the Caribbean) in all their national, regional, and tribal diversity. We will feature the music of native Americans and the music that has evolved from the British Isles, Iberian and African sources as they have changed and interacted with each other through the centuries
to the present.

At Down Home, we believe that music is a mirror that reflects the fundamental principles of societies. Through melody, rhythm and words, songs reveal the ways ordinary people think and feel about the most intimate details of their own personal lives, their history, laws and customs which define their identity as well as their role in the world around them. Unfortunately both radio and television have paid scant attention to the importance of folk and popular music as a social and political document. Our airways are deluged in their coverage of pop standards, which in the last few decades has been sorely lacking in innovation, and out of touch with reality. Fortunately, Down Home Radio has at its disposal huge collections of recorded music available for broadcast, hidden musical treasures with provocative texts that will surely inspire and stimulate the listener.

From the United States we plan to explore in depth the many forms of music created on American soil from the early 19th century to the present. Principally of African and British origins they interacted with each other to produce a unique, varied and vigorous musical culture: examples: 19th century minstrel theater, spirituals, work songs, and blues in all their manifestations (vocal, instrumental, regional, individual) country music, hip-hop, rock, children’s game songs, songs about women, and those dealing with American industrialization from the middle of the 19th century to the present enlivened with appropriate commentary on their political, social and historical meaning.

The programs on Latin America and the Caribbean will air music popular in their respective countries but almost unknown in the United States. Spanish radio and TV in the United States present almost exclusively pop standards, and a nod to the Tango from Argentina, Norteño and Mariachi from Mexico, and Salsa from Puerto Rico. Down Home Radio will present music in all its ethnic and historical variety: native American, music of Spanish-Portuguese-British-French origin, and resulting new musical forms created in profusion throughout the area. Examples: 1. Dance music: milonga, cumbia, habanera, samba, danzon, plena, etc. 2. Native American prehispanic colonial and contemporary music. 3. Instrumental styles: ensembles and solo guitar, fiddle and harp 4. Distinguished soloists such as: Soledad Bravo,Victor Jara, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, Mercedes Sosa, The Parra Family of Chile, Judith Reyes, etc. 5. Historical ballads and songs of protest and social issues: La Nova Trova, the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, historical ballads . 6. La Trova: the romantic tradition, a Medieval Spanish heritage alive and well throughout the Iberian world.

Down Home Radio is conceived as a trail blazer: to present folk and popular music as a time honored cultural expression endowed with wisdom, wit, humor, and a vivid sense of humanity, its joys, trials and tribulations.

-Henrietta Yurchenco, NYC Fall 2006