Grace Note: ‘The Midnight Special’ at 60


Chicago:  Jack Brickhouse, Baseball Hall of Fame Announcer 5/20/13
Chicago: Jack Brickhouse, Baseball Hall of Fame Announcer 5/20/13

          ‘Folk Music & Farce; Show Tunes & Satire; Madness & Escape’:  That’s ‘The Midnight Special’ which has run on WFMT in Chicago for 60 years this month.

           Happy anniversary to the show, to its three generations of presenters and staffers, and especially to Chicago’s Fine Arts station, WFMT, for keeping this wonderful program on the air.

           You can catch a two hour national version on various stations.  But, I highly recommend the three-hour Chicago edition which streams live on WFMT from 9 to midnight on Saturdays and I record using

           Rich Warren, its host for 30 years, is just plain good company.  He’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable about what he plays, whether from the ‘50s or the day’s mail.  But he never talks too much.

           The Chicago version feels more like what Vin Scelsa calls ‘old-time, free-form FM radio’ which isn’t old (arriving with sex and drugs in the late ‘60s) and at its best (Scelsa’s ‘Idiot’s Delight’ was and is) bespoke the free-form of high art – in short, not at all.  But we know – and treasure – to what Scelsa alludes and Warren embodies.

           The Chicago program highlights local artists, many of whom I didn’t know – but should – and artists appearing in ChicagoLand.  It’s more intimate than the syndicated show which has its own charms.

           ‘The Midnight Special’ was first produced by Mike Nichols, the Mike Nichols who quickly left for Elaine May, New York and Hollywood.  So, farce, satire and madness came at its beginning.  The comedy is well-chosen from more than 60 years of British and American recordings.  Yes, Bill Cosby’s ‘Noah’ is still side-splitting.  So are Lou & Peter Berryman on ‘Mr. & Mrs. Noah’.

          But it’s the folk music and, often, the show tunes that have made me a devoted listener for 10 years.

           One should expect someone who’s been programming folk music for 40+ years to have discerning taste.  Warren surpasses that expectation.  He can put together sets as well as anyone I’ve listened to.  He never rambles between sets.   And, he’s not afraid to program what others won’t, such as the brilliant fourteen-minute title cut from Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest’ (2012)

           What’s not to be expected is his enthusiasm for new or unjustly obscure artists.  Lucy Ward (a remarkable young English singer), Krista Detor (‘flat out brilliant’ understated one reviewer of this Bloomington poet and performer), and Laura Veirs (a powerful writer now in Oregon) are among my discoveries, thanks to ‘Midnight Special’.

           So thanks, Rich.  Thanks, WFMT.  ‘Long may you run!’