At WYAR, an “Iconic Lead” is the first musical piece that airs after a top-of-the-hour station ID.


Iconic Leads are each chosen for a reason.


Each reason is as unique as the piece itself. Here are some of them:

AMERICA (West Side Story)

This showtune from one of the most influential musical theater productions of all time is a curious animal. For starters, it exists with three different sets of song lyrics, all of them by Stephen Sondheim, written over a span of almost sixty years.  Musically, it is a creation (by Leonard Bernstein) which can’t seem to decide quite from where it draws its inspiration – a mash-up of South American, Afro-Cuban, and distinctly Mexican influences that I’m not sure anyone from Puerto Rico would consider typical of their homeland – not that I’m an expert on Puerto Rican culture, so please set me straight if I’m wrong. 

West Side Story was written in the mid-1950’s, set in then present time New York City. America was designed to be a stand-out group song and dance number, and the vehicle by which certain characters, all of them Puerto Rican emigrees, inform the audience of their respective motivations about remaining in the city. This is where the three different lyrical versions take on an interesting evolution over time. In the original Broadway musical theater version (1957) of America, the lyrical dialog takes the form of argument about the merits of Puerto Rico itself, with the lead female character, Maria, declaring she loves Manhattan because Puerto Rico is a disease-ridden, violently inclement, poverty-stricken, and thoroughly miserable place to be.  When the major Hollywood motion picture adaptation was produced in 1961, cultural attitudes had shifted enough that Sondheim was asked to dial back the vitriol about how awful a place Puerto Rico is, and recast the lyrical emphasis as Puerto Rico having fine attributes, just  not  much of an economy. This forces young people like Maria to seek their fortunes in New York, originally the sublime land of “knobs on the doors and wall to wall floors”, but now presented as polluted, racist, and run by organized crime.  In 2020, Sondheim was again approached about further revisions for another film adaptation, and what came from that was a remarkable hodgepodge of bits and pieces of both older versions cobbled together with a few new lines. In this version, Maria herself waxes nostalgic about Puerto Rico, but with resolve to stay in New York for – in my opinion – something akin to a delusional optimism in the face of “life is all right, if you’re all white, in America.”

WYAR’s iconic lead is this movie soundtrack recording from the 2021 movie. If the lyrics seem a little bumpy and inconsistent, it’s because they have evolved, a bit awkwardly, with cultural sensitivities for almost seventy years now.  Yet, wouldn’t it be breathtaking to find yourself in a world where a group disagreement resolves with everyone stopping city traffic in a choreographed dance number in the middle of a major intersection?


There is a long tradition in Anglo-Scots-Irish folk music, as with many other cultures, of memorializing especially tragic or traumatic events in a musical ballad form, and this tradition carries with us here in America from colonial times. Indeed, the earliest original American published folk song (that isn’t church music) is Springfield Mountain, telling a sorrowful tale of the death by snakebite of a popular young man named Timothy Myrick of what is now Wilbraham, Massachusetts, August 7th, 1761. In a sense then, there is a meandering line forward from there to probably the first tragic ballad composed while watching traumatic events unfold on live television: The Ballad of Springhill.

The Ballad of Springhill, written by Peggy Seeger (Pete and Mike Seeger’s sister), tells of the true aftermath of the collapse of one of the deepest coal mines on Earth, in Springhill, Nova Scotia, on October 23, 1958. Of one hundred seventy-four men in the mine at the time of the collapse, 99 were rescued, but 74 were either killed instantly by rockfall, not found in time, or never found at all. The last survivors were extracted eight days later. Seeger has said that she wrote the song in a café watching live television updates about the tragedy, because she felt the story needed to be retold and remembered.

Wanting to represent this genre in Iconic Leads, we chose Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1965 cover of the song for several reasons: firstly, it was the cover that most popularized the song to American audiences in its own time (I sang it in elementary school); secondly, it is shorter (and perhaps more listenable) than other covers, partly because it omits several original verses. The only problem with this omission is that that there is a lyric line in this version, “Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam”, which, missing the context of one of the omitted verses, seems less meaningful. But you must agree that it still packs a very powerful message.

Personally, years ago at a social event at University, a Master of Education candidate classmate of mine told me of his father and grandfather, coal miners in Kentucky, and of the day a tunnel collapse spooked his father into literally walking out, packing the family into their station wagon, and heading north seeking a new life doing – anything but being a coal miner. “I’m a teacher,” my friend concluded, “Because when the Earth is restless, miners die”. I cherish the memory of his broad, knowing smile when I replied “Bone and blood is the price of coal.”