Bound For Glory celebrates 50 years on the airwaves

By Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Bound for Glory radio host Phil Shapiro (right) and Carrie Shore performed at a Bound for Glory live show earlier this year.
Bound for Glory radio host Phil Shapiro (right) and Carrie Shore performed at a Bound for Glory live show earlier this year.
WVBR’s Bound for Glory is North America’s longest-running live folk concert broadcast and starts its 50th year this fall. That’s the sort of milestone that deserves a party, and according to host Phil Shapiro, there will indeed be one. The 50-year celebration kicks off at Anabel Taylor Hall on Aug. 28 with music, talk, and lots of cake. The live show will feature Mark Rust, a songwriter and performer from Woodstock.

Shapiro started hosting Bound for Glory back in 1967, when he came to Cornell University for grad school. “First thing I did,” he said, “was make a beeline for the radio station.” Back then WVBR’s programming leaned heavily toward classical music. Shapiro, who had hosted a folk radio program at his previous college, wanted to continue that tradition in Ithaca. The director was ambivalent, but after Shapiro knocked on his door a few times, he asked Phil to do a Sunday night show.

“The first couple years I did live music from the studios,” Shapiro recalled, “plus three festivals broadcast from Anabel Taylor Hall.” In 1969, the program director challenged him to broadcast live from Anabel Taylor Hall every Sunday. Since then, Shapiro has hosted 32 live shows a year, each consisting of three 30-minute sets. Between sets he plays from albums, giving musicians a break and audience members a chance to stretch their legs.

“We get performers from all over the world,” Shapiro said. Bound for Glory is well known throughout the folk world, he explained. Performers on tour try to schedule a stop when they’re in the Ithaca area. This fall’s schedule reflects that with a mix of national and regional performers. “Our saving grace is that the show is on Sunday night – most people are performing on Friday and Saturday nights.”

The other 20 weeks, he features albums from the studio, a wide range of selections from the diverse world of folk music.

With close to 2,500 shows under his belt, including nearly 1,600 live performances, Shapiro is hard-pressed to choose a favorite memory. There are so many, he said, “But I’ve been reflecting on the show lately and remembering one time when Utah Phillips was on the show. He told us about where he was coming from in a way he didn’t usually reveal himself.” Shapiro described that evening as incredibly magic.

Later, he learned that Ani DiFranco was driving the NY thruway that night and heard part of that show. “That’s what inspired her to make albums of Utah Phillips’ music,” said Shapiro.

Another favorite was Mike Seeger, Pete’s half-brother. “He’s a wonderful performer and one of the reasons why old-timey music is so popular today,” Shapiro said. He often plays music by Phillips and Seeger during the albums from the studio broadcasts.

Producing Bound for Glory takes a large crew, and Shapiro started listing names: Terry Kelleher, chief engineer (“he’s a musician himself,” Shapiro said); Jim Harper, president of Friends of Bound for Glory (they have a public Facebook group); Levana Taylor – “there’s about 20 volunteers who help get this show on the air,” Shapiro said. “I couldn’t do it without them.”

The payback, for both volunteers and musicians, is in the experience. Bound for Glory isn’t just a coffeehouse with musicians playing in the background. Performers share stories as well as music, and the people who show up are there to listen to what the songwriters and folk musicians have to sing and say.

For the performers, it’s a “ratifying” experience, said Shapiro. He uses the word in its broadest sense: validating, confirming, giving a stamp of approval. “We have wonderful live audiences,” Shapiro said. “There’s communication between the performer and the audience, and between members of the audience. People tend to sing along – even to songs they don’t know.”

Ratifying indeed.

As a performer himself, Shapiro can attest to the joy of having an audience sing along. This is part of what makes Bound for Glory the experience it is.

“It’s sharing,” he said. “When other people sing with you, it helps pass this [folk] music on from one generation to the next.”

“It’s rebellious.” In this digital age, when most people are getting their entertainment from the TV or computer, there’s little in those media that encourage live music, Shapiro explained. So listening to live music goes against the norm. “And it’s definitely rebellious to sing along!”

“It’s a community builder.” Shapiro’s observations that singing together helps strengthen community bonds is backed up by research; last year Oxford University released a study showing that singing builds group cohesion and interpersonal connections faster than other activities.

“That – community building – is a big part of what I’m doing,” Shapiro said. “Both at Anabel Taylor and as a performer.”

Bound for Glory shows are on Sunday nights from 8 to 11 in Anabel Taylor Hall on the Cornell campus. Live sets are at 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30 and admission is free and open to everyone in the area. If you can’t make the live show you can tune in to WVBR (93.5 FM and 105.5) or listen online.

Find out more about Bound for Glory and upcoming concerts at boundforglory.org