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Kenneth Black (The Songfellows)
Born:  July 2, 1916
Died:  December 17, 2001
WHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic
KWDM Des Moines, IA
WHO Des Moines, IA

About The Artist

Harry Kenneth Black - Portrait - Military Uniform Kenneth Black was a member of the famed Songfellows group on the old WHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic out of Des Moines, IA.

He was born in 1916 to parents Curtis and Mabel Black in Decatur, IL. His father did paper hanging and house painting.

Ken turned a hobby, music, into a life long profession. He discovered his love of music when he was in junior high school and sang in the school's chorus.

He came from a musical family - one of his brothers was a minister, Rev. Robert Curtis Black (B: March 4, 1913 — D: July 14, 1989), and played the piano. Ken played the banjo. His family formed a singing quartet which consisted of Ken, his dad, Curtis Black (B: June 8, 1890 — D: February 10, 1972), an uncle and his brother.

In 1935, the Beaverdale article states he was directing the choir at the First Baptist Church in Decatur. His career found him going to Des Moines in 1937 where he was hired to sing with "The Songfellows" quartet. It kept him busy. The group peformed 15 shows a week, each lasting 15 minutes. The Songfellows' fans were all over the midwest.

As fans did back then they would write their favorites at the radio stations. The Songfellows got some very nice fan letters from a couple of elderly sisters in Griggsville, IL. On one occasion, Ken and his wife, Wink, were on a trip to Illinois and decided to stop and see the two 'ardent fans.' It turned into a friendship that lasted through the remaining years of the sisters.

As you might expect, World War II interrupted their lives. Ken served his country in the U. S. Air Force; he went to radio and radar school. He was stationed in England with the Eighth Air Force.

When the war was over, Ken rejoined The Songfellows and remained with WHO until 1957. The job came to an end as it did for many doing live radio. The new technology medium called television reduced the demand for 'live' radio performers. Ken and his fellow Songfellows were left with no choice but to find another job. Ken became the program director for a young FM radio station - KWDM-FM. He wrote 'advertising music' or as some might say, 'jingles.'

The Songfellows - McCormick Deering - WHO - Des Moines, IA
The Song Fellows - Rural Radio Magazine - Dec 1938 - Bill Austin - Carl Fessler - Stu Steelman - Dick Neher - Ken Black

Promo Ad - Chevrolet Harmony Time - WHO - Des Moines, IA - Marjorie King - Juanita Waner - Harriet Porter - Bill Austin - Stuart Steelman - Kenneth Black - Harris White - Keith Booth - December 1948
Promo Ad - Nutrena Feeds - WHO - Des Moines, IA - The Songfellows - Stuart Steelman - Harris White - Kenneth Black - Keith Booth - Bill Austin - 1949

While singing with The Songfellows on the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic, they were sometimes a part of Lem Turner's jokes and parodies on the show. For a time, they were sponsored by the McCormick-Deering Dealers and published a book of Lem Turner's humor. In that book we found an example of how a routine might go:

Lem: What are you Harvester Songfellows goin' to sing for us tonight? Y'know, I shore to like to hear you boys sing.
Songfellow: Gee. Thanks, Lem.
Lem: Y'know I used to sing with the Unfinished Symphony.
Songfellow: You did?
Lem: Yeah — I finished it!

Perhaps it was a sign of times to come. In November 1956, readers learned from a Mailbag column that The Songfellows were "...appearing only on commercially sponsored show." Around that time they were on each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 12:45pm. They also appeared on the Barn Dance show on Saturdays at 7:30pm.

The end of the run for The Songfellows on WHO came in late 1957. A newspaper columnist noted in December 1957 that they were no longer on the air after some 20 years.

Ken's later life took him into various musical endeavors. He was a member of the musicians union his entire career. He played bass fiddle with various orchestras for dances. He was a director of a Barbershop Chorus for several years. He was a featured soloist at many Des Moines area churches. He took on the role of director for two shows at the Des Moines Playhouse.

WHO Des Moines Picture Book 4th Edition - The Songfellows - Bill Austin - Carl Fessler - Stu Steelman - Dick Neher - Ken Black
TWHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic - 1942-1943 - The Songfellows - Ken Black - Stuart Steelman - Dick Neher - Harris White

Promo Ad - Harvester Dealer Presents - WHO - Des Moines, IA - The Songfellows - Bill Austin - 1953
Promo Ad - Nutrena Feeds - The Songfellows - Stuart Steelman - Harris White - Kenneth Black - Keith Booth - Bill Austin - September 1949

Later jobs took him away from the music - selling cameras at a Younkers store, then he worked at The Book Store in Locust Mall in Des Moines for 17 years until it came time to retire.

While Ken and his wife Wink had retired from their jobs, they were not idle, taking on many roles in their community such as the Des Moines Playhouse.

Ken was a 20 year member of the Des Moines Concert Singers and sang regularly at the Central Presbyterian Church where he also directed the youth choir for 14 years.

Ken shared his favorite memory with Sophie Vlassis in that magazine article. It was the first time he sang on the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic show at the KRNT Theatre in front of an audience of 4,200.

Ken met his wife known as "Wink" and started dating her in 1932 while they were both in high school. Some six years later, they were married in Decatur, IL, where Ken was born. Wink was born near Champaign, IL. They lived in the same home in Decatur since 1951.

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to thank Megan Hayes for providing information and photos of her grand uncle (Harry) Kenneth Black.
  • Ken Black: Beaverdale's Music Man; Sophie Vlassis; Unknown Beaverdale Magazine; Copy courtesy of Megan Hayes, grand niece of Kenneth Black.
  • Tidbits From Evelyn; December 19, 1957; The ALgona Upper Des Moines; Algona, IA
  • The Mailbag; November 18, 1956; The Des Moines Register; Des Moines, IA
  • Obituary: Harry K. Black; December 20, 2001; The Herald and Review; Decatur, IL

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