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Overloaded Sewers Lead To 'Toxic Waters'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you ever wonder what's in your tap water
and are a little suspicious of it, this next interview might make you even more
skeptical. Tap water is regulated by the Clean Water Act, but according to a
front page article in today's New York Times, tap water that is legal may still
The article is part of the series "Toxic Waters," reported by my guest, Charles
Duhigg. He joined us in October to talk about earlier articles in the series.
Today, we'll discuss his new article on tap water and his recent article about
why many sewer systems are out of date and overwhelmed and how that's resulting
in sewage backing up into basements and poisoning waterways.
Charles Duhigg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So, according to your investigation,
just because water is officially legal and officially safe, it isn't
necessarily safe. How much of America do you think is drinking officially safe
but in reality not-so-safe water?
Mr. CHARLES DUHIGG (Reporter, New York Times): Well, we went out and we got
millions and millions of vials from every single state in the country to test
exactly what's in the water that's being delivered to residents. And we looked
for over 300 different contaminants, and what we found was that there's
basically two types of things that are in people's water. And about 69 million
Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains things that
scientists say pose health risks.
Some of those things are regulated contaminants, itâs actually things that the
Safe Drinking Water Act, which is the nation's largest law and only law dealing
with tap water - things that Safe Drinking Water Act says have to be limited
but where scientists say those limits are too lax and things that are allowed
to get into water are dangerous, even though it's technically legal.
And then there's hundreds and hundreds of other chemicals that are completely
unregulated and which, again, scientists say are dangerous. And for those,
there's nothing to keep them out at all.
GROSS: You say there's only 91 contaminants that are regulated by the Safe
Drinking Water Act. What's left that's not regulated?
Mr. DUHIGG: Literally thousands and thousands of chemicals. There's 60,000
chemicals that are used in the United States, according to the Environmental
Protection Agency. Now, most of those are things that are used in small
amounts, or maybe they don't get into water supplies, and a lot of them have
never been tested. So they might be perfectly safe.
But some of the things that aren't regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act,
and the number one thing that people talk about is a chemical named
perchlorate, which is an additive that they put into rocket fuels. They use
this a lot when they used to store munitions, when they make fireworks, for a
whole bunch of other types of manufacturing. And military bases would store
rockets and the perchlorate would leak out.
And perchlorate's the type of thing that once it gets into the water, it
spreads very, very quickly. And scientists have done experiments to kind of
find out what perchlorate does and in a sort of roundabout way, particularly
for pregnant women, it can stop the production of iodine, which is critical for
when fetuses are developing their nervous systems. It's also very dangerous for
children because when you're growing as a child or an infant, iodine is an
important part of developing the growth process.
Perchlorate is completely unregulated, and the CDC actually just last week did
a study where they were looking to see how much perchlorate were in people's
bodies, and they couldn't find one person who didn't have perchlorate in their
Mr. DUHIGG: Yeah.
GROSS: And you say that defense officials and military contractors have tried
to downplay this and tried to prevent regulation, but it sounds like maybe
Mr. DUHIGG: For a number of years, the military and defense contractors were
adamantly opposed to any regulation of perchlorate. And the reason why, it
didn't have anything to do with drinking water, it's because if there was
regulation of perchlorate, they would have to clean up a lot of areas around
bases and a lot of manufacturing sites.
Now since then, since about 2005, the military has changed its attitude on
this. And since Lisa Jackson took over the EPA under President Obama â she's
the President Obama appointee to the EPA â they've said that they intend to
decide if they're going to regulate perchlorate by next year, and chances are
they are going to regulate it.
But yeah, for a long time, there was a very significant pushback. And we see
this happening for other chemicals, as well. The arsenic, for instance, right
now, which is the number one contaminant that you find in Superfund sites,
there's a new assessment at the EPA saying that arsenic is much more toxic than
previously thought. But there's a lot of pushback on that and, again, it has
really nothing to do with drinking water, as much as if arsenic is deemed more
toxic, then companies are going to have spend a lot more money cleaning
Superfund sites. And by the same token, if arsenic is deemed more toxic, then
they're going to change the drinking water regulations.
GROSS: Why is arsenic the most commonly found chemical at Superfund sites?
Mr. DUHIGG: In part because arsenic occurs almost everywhere and because it's
used so much in so many different types of manufacturing. It's a very, very
dangerous chemical. It's one of the most carcinogenic contaminants that you
could ever come into contact with, but it occurs naturally throughout the
Southwest, New Mexico, where I'm actually from, thereâs just large levels of
naturally occurring arsenic.
In addition, tons of industries use it. Semiconductor manufacturing, a lot of
other manufacturing plants need arsenic to clean metals. And so as a result,
there's just a lot of arsenic in the United States. But it's the type of thing
that when you drink - and we're learning more and more about this every year,
when you consume it through water, it's been linked to lung cancer, to bladder
cancer and at very, very small concentrations.
GROSS: So what is the EPA planning to do to regulate arsenic?
Mr. DUHIGG: Well, it's an interesting question, and they won't say because they
haven't decided yet themselves, and there's a lot of regulatory processes they
have to go through. So if they did say, they'd get in a lot of trouble without
going through all the steps.
But what's happened is, in 2000, there was a big push to tighten the standard
on arsenic and the EPA said that they wanted to set the standard for arsenic in
drinking water at five parts per billion, which is about equal to a drop of
arsenic in 50 drums of water. Industry, as well as water systems, started
pushing back. And the EPA eventually relented and said that they were going to
set it 10 parts per billion, double the standard that they had proposed
Since then, there's been numerous studies that have gone out and have said,
let's look at the science and really try and figure this out. And the consensus
is that at 10 parts per billion, that poses a risk of about one in 600 people
getting cancer. So if you lived in a town of, say, you know, 1,200 people,
1,800 people and everyone was drinking water at the standard, with 10 parts per
billion arsenic, over the lifetime, three of those people would get cancer just
from arsenic in their drinking water alone. Other people would obviously get
cancer from other things.
But it's very, very carcinogenic. And so the EPA has put out a draft assessment
or is - internally has a draft assessment, it hasn't been released but we got a
confidential copy of it, that would say that arsenic â recognized that arsenic
is much, much more toxic at much smaller levels.
If that standard was published, and there's a lot of industries and people
trying to prevent it from being published, but if was published, it would form
the basis for every single regulatory decision regarding arsenic, including for
drinking water. And so it's very likely that we would see the drinking water
standard for arsenic come down.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Duhigg. He's
investigative reporter for the New York Times, and we're talking about his
latest articles in his series about chemicals and other toxins in American
You write about a reservoir in Los Angeles in which bromates formed as a result
of chemicals mixing with the sunlight. Would you explain the process that
formed these bromates and what bromates are and why we need to worry about
Mr. DUHIGG: Bromates are a cancer-causing compound that â and it's kind of
interesting exactly what happened here. L.A. used to have most of its water
coming from the eastern Sierra Mountains, which was very, very pure and very,
very clean, but because of water rights and a couple of other issues, they lost
access to some of those sources. So they started using water from the San
Fernando Basin, which is in Los Angeles and has Superfund sites in it. It's a
very polluted area.
And then they started buying water from upstate California and from out of
state. And they found that the water that they were buying had chemicals in it
that weren't dangerous on their own, but when those chemicals went through the
cleaning process, they were mixed with ozone, which is a cleaning material. And
then when they went into reservoirs, they were hit by sunlight, and the
reaction of the sunlight on the ozone and these other chemicals were to form
the bromates. And bromates are, in fact, cancer-causing.
Now, the rules for the Safe Drinking Water Act are, when the water leaves your
treatment facility, you have to look for bromates. But when the water left the
treatment facility, it hadn't been exposed to sunlight yet, and so as a result,
they didn't see the bromates. And there was no rule requiring them to test the
water in the distribution pipes. And so that's why these bromates formed and
that's why they completely missed them.
GROSS: So how did they discover they were there?
Mr. DUHIGG: A local laboratory called them up one day and said, hey, look, you
know, we've been using tap water for our experiments and we analyze the tap
water before the experiment just to know what's in there, and we found all of
these bromates, which cause cancer. Are you aware of that? And the L.A. water
system said, no, we didn't know that at all.
GROSS: So what did L.A. do about it?
Mr. DUHIGG: Well, the first thing that they did is they emptied some of their
reservoirs. So they dumped about 600 million gallons of drinking water into the
ocean because it was too contaminated. But they need those reservoirs. They
were going to refill them. And so they came up with this idea to cover some of
the reservoirs with these black balls, black plastic balls, kind of like when
you go to McDonald's, the ball pits in the playground for kids, they're just
like that. And they took those and they flooded some of the reservoirs with
them and basically formed a blanket on top of the water of these black plastic
GROSS: They floated on top of the water?
Mr. DUHIGG: Yeah, yeah. I mean, in fact, we have photographs in the paper of
them putting these things in. It's just amazing. And it looks like, you know,
once you've flooded the entire thing, like there's a big black sheet on top of
the reservoir that's kind of pimply.
GROSS: Nice. Did it work?
Mr. DUHIGG: It worked. It worked. It blocks the water from the sunshine.
Unfortunately, it also drew numerous complaints from residents who lived around
This is an area of Los Angeles that I actually liked in for a little while
named Silverlake, and it's a very hip area. The homes overlook the reservoir.
It's a huge reservoir. It's beautiful. And people like it because they like to
look at the water, and when the water was covered by this â what people
described to me as looking like a big, plastic trash dump, they became very
upset. And they began complaining to Los Angeles and to the regulators and
saying, look, if the water is legal by the Safe Drinking Water Act, why are you
spending millions of dollars and ruining our view to cover it with all these
And what the city said in response was, we want your water to be safer than is
required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. We want to go beyond what's legally
mandated. But that does not appease residents who say if it's safe, it must be
legal, and if it's legal, why are you ruining my view and spending my money?
GROSS: But that gets right to the crux of the article that you just wrote,
which is, if it's legal, it's not necessarily safe.
Mr. DUHIGG: Right, but most people in the U.S. don't know that and with good
reason. You know, we've said for years that the United States has the cleanest
drinking water in the world. And in many parts of the U.S., that's true, and
for a long time that was true, particularly when you look at â you know, other
nations still deal with people getting microbial diseases because of human
waste in their drinking water on a regular basis.
The U.S. for a long time dealt with most of those problems and eradicated them,
and it was an amazing public health victory. But we have not updated the Safe
Drinking Water Act since â we haven't added one chemical since 2000 to the Safe
Drinking Water Act. There are some standards that were set in the 1970s and the
1980s that we now know, science tells us those chemicals are much more
dangerous in smaller concentrations, but the act itself hasn't been updated to
reflect that. And so you can't really say that America has the safest drinking
water in the world anymore because we just don't know a lot of what's in our
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. We're talking about
his series "Toxic Waters." His front page article today is about how legal tap
water may still pose health risks because the law regulating it is so out of
date. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Charles Duhigg, and he's investigative reporter for the New
York Times. We're talking about his latest articles in his series about
chemicals and other toxins in American waters.
You wrote an article recently about sewer systems in America, particularly ones
in major cities where the sewer system infrastructure is kind of old and it's a
little bit gross.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You profiled one water pollution control plant where much of Brooklyn's
sewage is treated. And I'd like you to describe what happens there when there's
Mr. DUHIGG: Sure, and this is actually â this is where my sewer goes. I
actually live in the service area of this plant.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUHIGG: And it's this huge plant and it's beautiful. It's right on the edge
of Brooklyn, right on the water. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the
New York has an old sewer system. And like a lot of cities that have old sewer
systems, the sewer system was designed with one thing in mind originally, which
was take human waste and get it away from people because if you live near your
waste, cholera epidemics break out and other diseases. So they built this
amazingly complicated â and for its time, this was the 1840s and 1850s â for
its time, amazingly sophisticated system of underground pipes that use gravity
to take sewage away from people and dump it into the ocean.
Fast forward a century, and you're living in a new nation, a nation that
doesn't worry so much about taking waste away from people but also worries
about all types of other pollution that gets into those pipes, including
rainwater. Because when it rains in New York, in particular, we have so many
streets and so many low points that if you just let the water pool up, traffic
can't go through, subways shut down, et cetera.
So there was a decision made to take all the rainwater and put it into the same
underground pipes that the sewage was running through. The problem is that when
it rains too much, essentially those pipes become overwhelmed and the plants
that are at the end of the pipes that are supposed to treat all of the sewage
to make it safe before it's dumped into the ocean, those plants become
overwhelmed. And at some point, they just have to lower the gates and the water
starts coming out of the pipes through these unregulated points, these escape
valves that have been built into the system.
They're called sewer overflows, and it begins dumping sewage and anything else
that you flushed down the toilet or threw into a grate, it begins dumping that
directly into the ocean and sometimes into streets and basements without
treating it first.
GROSS: How does it get into streets and basements?
Mr. DUHIGG: Basically because the system becomes overloaded. I mean, it's kind
of like if you â imagine the pipes in your own house. If everyone was to flush
their toilet at the same time, there's just not enough capacity in the pipe.
The pipe isn't big enough to take all of that, and so some of it's going to
have to jettison up somewhere. And for most people, if you have a lowered, a
sunk basement or something like that, you probably have some type of little
portal in the bottom of it where overflows can come up.
The same thing is true of a lot of the manholes on some streets or other
places. If you overload the system, there's just too much pressure, the water
has to go somewhere, and it will find the easiest escape point, which is
usually the weakest link in the system, whether that be a rusty pipe in your
walls or a drain in your basement or a manhole on the street.
GROSS: This is such a great illustration of why infrastructure is so important
and why we have to deal with the old infrastructures in a lot of America's
cities. How many cities would you say have the kind of sewer system that you're
describing, that doesn't handle the capacity of the users anymore?
Mr. DUHIGG: Well, there's 770 sewer systems, about 770 sewer systems, that have
combined storm water and sewage, so that whenever it rains, or very frequently
when it rains, you see overflows. And in New York for instance, it overflows
about every other time it rains. For the rest of the country, they don't
necessarily have combined systems, but they might very well have systems that
simply have not kept up with the growth of the population.
So you see this a lot, for instance, in these fast-growing cities like, you
know, in Arizona and some parts of Nevada, where they installed the sewer
system assuming that they were going to have 10,000 people living in a
particular area, and now we have 50,000 people living there. And when you're
developing and growing neighborhoods, there's a tension. Are you going to spend
some money ripping up pipes underground and closing down streets for three days
so that you can replace the sewage system, or you going to spend all that money
on planting trees and building parks and brand new schools?
In the 1970s and the 1980s, Congress saw that there was a real problem with
sewer systems. So they gave away about $60 billion to cities to help them
upgrade their sewer systems. But that was 20 or 25 years ago now, and there's
been a lot of population growth since then. And so these problems are starting
to re-emerge, and it's just not popular to do infrastructure projects,
particularly infrastructure projects that doesn't build anything new.
A politician would love to put their name on a bridge. And building a bridge
means that all of a sudden, some previously unaccessible area is now
accessible. There's not a lot of politicians who want their name on a sewer
system. And the truth of the matter is, if the sewer system works right, nobody
notices. Nobody ever says, I flushed the toilet today and it worked perfectly.
You just take it for granted.
GROSS: Do you have any stories about cities that actually improved their water
or sewer infrastructure and turned it around?
Mr. DUHIGG: Well, what Philadelphia is doing is really interesting. So
Philadelphia has set aside over $1.6 billion to try and remake basically how
the city absorbs rainwater. Philadelphia was having a big problem with these
sewer overflows that we were talking about. And so they've taken this huge pot
of money and they're going to plant thousands to trees with it, and they're
going to start investing in what's known as green development. Because the real
issue with rainwater is, as cities have become more paved over, the rainwater
doesn't get absorbed by the land and that's why it runs into the sewer system.
The answer is to stop paving things quite as much.
For instance, take parking garages. In New York City now, we have a regulation
that if you build a new parking garage, you have to build on top of it
essentially a lawn or a green space with the idea being that all that land will
absorb the rainwater and it won't run off.
Philadelphia has taken this to a whole ânother level where theyâve basically
said they're going to come in and they're going to build tons and tons of green
spaces on top of parking lots and other areas to absorb the rainwater so it
doesn't get into the sewer system.
And the interesting thing about this is, you know, usually people appreciate
everyone planting trees. But a lot of the green development, if you build a
lawn on top of a parking garage, no one ever sees it. So it's not the type of
thing where people are applauding you for building that lawn because they're
not even aware that it's there. But Philadelphia has taken a real commitment to
trying to make sure that what they are building will absorb rainwater so it
doesn't get into the sewer system and it doesn't overflow quite as much.
GROSS: Charles Duhigg will be back in the second half of the show. His front
page article in today's New York Times is headlined "That Tap Water is Legal
but Maybe Unhealthy." It's part of his series, "Toxic Waters." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with New York Times reporter Charles
Duhigg. He's writing a front page series called "Toxic Waters." Today's article
is about how tap water that is legal may still cause health hazards because the
law regulating tap water is so out of date. This series is based in part on
hundreds of thousands of water pollution records obtained through the Freedom
of Information Act.
When we left off, we were talking about a recent article in his series about
why many American sewer systems are out of date and overwhelmed, resulting in
sewage backing up into basements and poisoning waterways.
GROSS: I was hoping that you'd have a chance to go into one of the sewers as
part of your research and then you could tell me all about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: But apparently they wouldnât let you in.
Mr. DUHIGG: Yeah.
GROSS: So whatâs the story?
Mr. DUHIGG: I was hoping that too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUHIGG: We spent a lot of time trying to get inside a sewer. In fact, at
one point I said, you know, this might be the type of thing we need to sue you
over because this is a huge part of New York City's infrastructure. I donât
understand why you won't let me into a sewer system with my photographer. And
what they said, and this makes - I think hopefully folks will agree that this
makes sense and I didnât back down unnecessarily from suing to get into a
sewer, is they said, look, a sewer system's really, really dangerous.
And it turns out that, you know, there's all this water that's moving really,
really quickly and a lot of it is producing gases, and the water contains
really, really bad stuff. So eventually what they said is, we can send a
photographer into the sewer system but only if we put him through like a four-
day training course about what to do if youâre in an enclosed place, and like
you pass out or there's a collapse. And we would have to â we'd have to pay for
an emergency standby team on the surface that would be able to go in and
retrieve him if he became overcame by gases and passed out.
At that point we were looking like $15,000 worth of cost just to get a guy to
take a picture of what would essentially look like a big pipe. So we decided
not to do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUHIGG: They did also tell me, though, this is really interesting because I
figure, you know, it's New York, it's filled with people who will do almost
anything at any moment of the day. I figured that people would be pulling up
those manhole covers and going down in the sewer system all the time. And so I
asked them, you know, how frequently does this happen?
And they said that - I think it's within the last five years they've had one
incident where two high schoolers got a manhole cover up, climbed down and that
they detected their presence within like five minutes and minutes later had
someone out there pulling them up out of the hole.
So I asked them how they knew so well that these guys were climbing in and they
wouldnât tell me, because they said they have a lot of protections that are
designed basically to protect New York from terrorist incidents that might
occur through the sewers.
Mr. DUHIGG: But for security reasons they won't describe them to me.
GROSS: Right. There's so much urban folklore about sewers and probably the most
famous is that there's alligators in the New York City sewers.
Mr. DUHIGG: Right.
GROSS: I donât think you learned anything about alligators, but you did report
in your article that there have been times when the system has been kind of
overwhelmed by pickles or chicken heads?
Mr. DUHIGG: Right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Can you explain?
Mr. DUHIGG: Well, it turns out that whatever you dump into grates, it's going
to go through the sewer system. So I guess at one point there was a local
pickle company in New York that had a huge amount of stock that went bad, and
so they just dumped it all into the street to go through the grate. So the
plant becomes inundated with all these pickles coming through. Like thousands
and thousands of pickles for hours at a time.
Same thing with chicken heads. Apparently someone was collecting chicken heads
and they decided to get rid of their collection. But the interesting thing
about New York sewage system, and this is true of a lot of places, is that it's
gravity driven, so we have almost no pumps whatsoever in New York. Everything
is designed so that it just goes slightly downhill enough that it all moves
In fact, a lot of water can move from the Village, which is in the south of
Manhattan all the way up to like 136th Street just by gravity, so it's moving
north. And because the system is designed like that, anything that gets into it
will move. So there are these huge, huge pieces of lumber that will come
through the sewage plant sometimes that they have to fish out because they have
screens that sort of are designed to block this stuff.
But the force of the water is enough that it can move essentially anything, and
they have these, this constantly moving screen system where they're sort of
like picking up stuff and pulling it up. A lot of it is like rags and, you
know, pieces of paper.
Everyone's always walking by because they look for money in there, like all the
workers in the plants. A lot of times theyâll see turtles because kids flush
their turtles down the toilet. And there's one guy at the plant who's like the
turtle guy and he takes them and he nurses them back to health and then gives
them to pet stores. Basically, if you can flush it or you can dump it, it's
gone through one of those plants and someone's seen it at some point.
GROSS: So when youâre at home now and you turn on the tap and drink some water
or you flush the toilet, do you see a different world than you used to see?
Mr. DUHIGG: A little bit. Yeah. And it's important for people to realize that
when we talk about pollutants in the water, most of the things that we're
talking about are dangerous over long exposures. So I get a lot of emails and
calls from readers who say, you know, I'm really worried about drinking any tap
water now. And you donât - my answer is that you donât have to be worried about
a glass of water.
And in fact, you donât even have to be worried about a month's glass of water.
But all of us drink water over our entire lifetime and it's exposure to these
chemicals and these pollutants over a lifetime that's really, really dangerous.
And the dangers are things like cancers, things that are slow developing and
GROSS: So you say, like, donât worry about having a drink of water or a month.
But we're not in it for a drink or a month. I mean, you know, we drink tap
water all of our lives, so I mean there's no way of avoiding that, so there's,
Mr. DUHIGG: What to do?
GROSS: What are you going to do? Yeah.
Mr. DUHIGG: Youâre exactly right. And that's the issue. That's why we're
writing about this, is because there are very few things in our lives that we
get exposed to every single day on a regular basis. And in fact if you talk to
the EPA, what they say is there's basically only two, maybe three things: the
air that you breathe and the water that you drink.
Even food - food comes from so many different places and it can be shipped all
over the world, so there's no consistency in the food you eat. But the water
you drink and the air you breathe, that's coming from a consistent source for
most of your life if you live in one place.
And so the issue is, what's the right thing to do right now? The number on
right thing to do is to buy a filter for your own home water. This is what
experts tell me. Even if you live in a place with great water, there are these
things called chlorination byproducts in it and that's just part of cleaning
the water. You add chlorine, which is good. It kills all the microbes, but
there are byproducts of that and a certain number of people are going to get
cancer from those byproducts.
The EPA has said this is a risk that as a nation we're willing to take. We kill
the microbes, but there's byproducts. Some people will get cancer. Such is
life. If you get a filter, you can get rid of most of those byproducts. So
everyone should be filtering their water.
But then the other question is, because the filter doesnât remove everything
and because it's a hassle and because we shouldnât have to filter our water,
what should you do? And the answer is you should learn a lot about your own
water. There's 54,000 water systems in the United States. So essentially youâre
drinking a different glass of water for every single water system, and you
should learn about you water system.
If you go - if you call up your water system or you go online, you can get
what's called the consumer confidence report, which is a report that every
water system has to put out every year that lists what's in the water. And
because water is such a local issue, because these systems are in some cases so
small, sometimes all it takes is one or two residents saying, look, we care
about X and we want you to care about it more to see real change within the
So if people are worried about their water, they should be learning what's in
their water and they should be contacting their local politicians and saying,
look, I want you to know that if you decide to spend money - tax money on
improving the water treatment, I support that. I'm not going to vote against
you for doing it. And in places where that's happened, youâve just seen huge,
huge improvements in the water quality.
GROSS: Well, Charles Duhigg, thank you again for all the good news.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I really appreciate your reporting and your sharing it with us. Thank
you very, very much.
Mr. DUHIGG: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times. His front page
article today about tap water and his recent article about outdated sewer
systems are part of his series "Toxic Waters."
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A Cross-Cultural Collaboration, Revisited
TERRY GROSS, host:
After a lifetime of performing and studying traditional music from Ireland and
Iris-American folk songs, Mick Moloney has become fascinated by the Irish
songwriters from the vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley era.
His new CD features several Tin Pan Alley collaborations between Irish and
Jewish songwriters. It's called "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews." It's
his second CD of Irish-American songs from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. He's
recorded and produced over 50 albums and is a professor of Irish studies and
music at NYU.
Let's start with the title track, "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews,"
written in 1912 by William Jerome, who was Irish, and Jean Schwartz, who was
Jewish. Moloney sings on the track is accompanied by Vince Giordano and the
(Soundbite of song, "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews")
Professor MICK MOLONEY (New York University): (Singing) I just returned from
Europe, I've seen London and Paris and I'm glad to get back home to Yankee
land. In fact, the little USA looks better now to me. It's the real place where
the real folks understand.
But still I often sit and think what would this country do if it hadn't been
like Rosenstein and Hughes? We surely have a kingdom, maybe no democracy if it
wasnât for the Irish and the Jews.
What would this great Yankee nation really, really ever do, if it wasnât for a
Levy(ph), a Monaham(ph) or Donohue(ph)? Where would we get our policemen? Why
Uncle Sam would have the blues without the Pat's and Isadore's they'd be no big
department stores if it wasnât for the Irish and the Jews.
GROSS: Mick Moloney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Was the pairing between Irish
and Jewish songwriters different than any other pairing in Tin Pan Alley?
Prof. MOLONEY: I think it was, because first of all, the Irish had dominated
American popular music really for the whole of the 19th century. You think of
major figures like Thomas Moore. You think of Dan Amos, who wrote "Dixie." You
think of Stephen Foster, who would've been Scotch-Irish. You think of Patrick
Sarsfield Gilmore, who wrote "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." You think of
Victor Herbert, who introduced operetta to America. The list goes on and on.
And I think the Irish would've come from a performing arts culture, where music
and dance and storytelling were always highly valued.
And suddenly you have a new immigration from a very similar culture, a culture
that - where itâs very vocal, it's very much involved in the arts, it's a
Diaspora. Like the Irish, they're not going back to where they came from for
perhaps different reasons, and they take to the stage right away. And then in
the 1890s you see people like Al Dubin arriving in Philadelphia. He's only
three at the time and he won't go to school. He wants to be a songwriter.
You see people like Harry Gumbinsky arriving in Cincinnati. He won't go to
school either. He's getting in trouble with his parents, he's Jewish, and he
changes his name to Harry Von Tilzer. He wants to be a songwriter. And music
was dÃ©classÃ©. It was on the fringes and both the Irish and the Jews at various
times were on the fringes of society. And I think the entertainment world, the
sports world perhaps in another way, has been a place for people who can't get
on so easily in other aspects of life that they tend to gravitate towards
those, so I think it was a very good mix.
GROSS: You mentioned Al Dubin and he's, you know, a Jewish lyricist who worked
a lot with Harry Warren in the 20s and 30s. And he wrote lyrics for like Busby
Berkeley musicals, lyrics for songs like: "Lullaby of Broadway," "42nd Street,"
"I Only Have Eyes For You," "We're in the Money." But he also writes this like
Irish song that you have featured on your CD. It's called "Twas Only an
Irishman's Dream." And the lyric includes, oh, the shamrocks are blooming on
Broadway. Every girl is an Irish Colleen.
Prof. MOLONEY: Yeah.
GROSS: And so funny to think of this like Jewish songwriter writing from the
point of view of an Irish-American who's like dreaming that everything in
Manhattan is really Irish. On one level itâs really phony, because he's writing
from a point of view that he doesnât have. He's not Irish-American. He's
Jewish-American. His story is so different. On the other hand, that doesnât
mean that the song would mean any less to the people who hear it.
Prof. MOLONEY: Well, when I discovered it first, I thought it was complete
absolute nonsense. You know, growing up in Ireland and growing in the rain and
digging potatoes, all these Tin Pan Alley songs, they had no connection with
any kind of reality that I would've known in Ireland growing up. But you know,
my attitude to all that changed.
In 1995 I was part of a team of a lot of Irish academics, historians, poets,
writers and musicians who traveled across America commemorating the 150th
anniversary of the Great Irish Famine. And I was in places that I hadn't been
before: Peoria, Illinois, Moline, Des Moines, to mention but many. And after
the talk, people in their 80s came up to me in shock and said now we know for
the first time why our grandparents never talked about Ireland.
And you know, the penny dropped right away that these people were trauma
victims, that were refugees and, you know, my friends and colleagues tell me
that that's the same kind of survivor guilt among Holocaust victims, there
would have been that perhaps among the Irish. What youâre going to tell your
children that you guarded your food supply when you watched your neighbors die
or the members of your family dies? That you were the lucky ones who came to
America? And suddenly I realized why Tin Pan Alley these images - which were
invented images of kind of an imagined wholeness - why they were attracted to
people? It was good stuff. It was really good stuff. There was nothing bad
about it. And Iâm sure people realized that, you know, this was kind of a -
this was a fantasy world. But, you know, we need good things to think about and
good things to tell our children and our grandchildren. So, I think that they
were (unintelligible) for a market, that they were expert craftsman. They knew
how to construct songs, the melodies are beautiful. The lyrics are clever. And
"It Was Only an Irishmanâs Dream,â I think is one of the great songs of Tin Pan
Alley and one of Al Dubinâs greatest.
GROSS: Mick, a lot of people thought George M. Cohan was Jewish, the great
Irish Tin Pan Alley songwriter, who wrote âOver Thereâ and âYour Grand Old
Flagâ and was played by James Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." So, a lot of
people thought he was Jewish, you say, because his name was Cohan and that was
connected to Cohen.
Prof. MOLONEY: Well, again it was a strategic move from the family that
Keohane, his grandparents, had come from County Cork to Massachusetts in the
years before the famine. And they had a son Jeremiah Cohan(ph). And he is the
one who changed the spelling from K-E-O-H-A-N-E to C-O-H-A-N. And it was that
great deliberate ambiguity - they were vaudevillians in the 1890s. And this was
the era in which Jewish immigrants started coming to the music business in a
serious way. And Jerry(ph) had a look of what was happening. He said, I think
itâs better to change the name â the spelling of the name. And George M. Cohan
broke off from the family and he started to write his own material and hit New
York at 1904 with âLittle Johnny Jonesâ and the New York stage was never the
same again after that.
GROSS: The song that you featured on your CD thatâs by George M. Cohan is a â
itâs a war song and itâs called âWhen You Come Back.â And itâs a song thatâs to
be sung to men going off to fight in World War I. And, you know, Cohan wrote
several really patriotic songs like âOver Thereâ and âYou're A Grand Old Flag.â
Tell us about this song and why you chose it for the CD.
Prof. MOLONEY: Well, first of all itâs a great song. It is beautifully
constructed. Cohan was a master of first lines of songs: From Frisco Bay, To
old Broadway, today all over the USA. Thatâs a fantastic first line for a song.
Iâve never been a big fan of jingoistic songs but, you know, looking at it as a
piece of art, itâs beautifully constructed in the tradition of âOver There,â
which actually he handed to Nora Bayes to record. He knew she was such a
starlet. She was the one who picked Billy Murray, another great singer of the
time, recorded a lot of other Cohan songs like âYou're A Grand Old Flagâ and
âAll Of That.â
I was amazed with the First World War with the number of songs written on the
war. There were over 30,000 songs written and copyrighted in America in the war
years. I was astonished to find that out. I didnât particularly want to sing a
jingoistic song, but I ended with three songs on the album from the First World
War because it was the heart of Tin Pan Alley. And I tried to balance it with
other songs I recorded. But look upon it as a piece of great art rather than
say support the actual sentiments, although the sentiment of somebody marching
off to war and trying to do their best and the bravery of their sacrifice and
the hope that they will come back, thatâs a theme that we can all identify
GROSS: Well, letâs hear it. This is Mick Moloney singing from his new CD, âIf
It Wasnât for the Irish and the Jews.â And featured behind him is the band
Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.
(Soundbite of song, âWhen You Come Back And You Will Come Backâ)
Prof. MOLONEY: (singing) From Frisco Bay to old Broadway, today all over the
U.S.A., we know weâre fighting the foe, but we all stand steady and ready to
go. We know no fear, we know no tear and all we hear is the Yankee cheer. I
heard a girlie say to her boy as he march to way. When you come back and you
will come back youâll hear the Yankee cry at-a boy, Jack. And when you return,
remember to raise some little thing that you got from the king. And drop be a
line from German de do Yankee Doodle Do. When you come back and you will come
back thereâs a whole world waiting for you. Itâs rum tum tum, the fights and
drum. So, march you awayâ¦
GROSS: Music from Mick Moloneyâs new CD âIf It Wasnât For the Irish and the
Jews: Irish American songs from Vaudeville and early Tin Pan Alley."
We will talk more with Mick Moloney after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Mick Moloney and his new CD is called, âIf It Wasnât for the
Irish and the Jews.â And itâs about Irish-American songwriters during the
vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley eras. But itâs also about collaborations between
Irish and Jewish songwriters and singers during that period.
Growing up in Ireland as you did, did you know many Jewish people?
Prof. MOLONEY: I knew very few Jewish people. I met them later on I went to
college in Dublin. But I was very conscious growing up in Limerick, a very
shameful episode in our city, and Frank McCourt and myself talked about this
quite a bit. We were at the only city in Ireland ever to have a pogram against
the Jews. And we kicked out the Jews â the Jewish population. It was all
sparked off by historical series of sermons of one very anti-Semitic priest.
And it was a shameful episode in my home city and I always had it at the back
of my mind that Iâd like to do something to celebrate Irish-Jewish cooperation.
And when I stumbled across Tin Pan Alley and then all the things that came
after Tin Pan Alley like the Kellyâs(ph) and the Cohans and Abieâs Irish Rose,
it seemed just right. On a purely personal level, it made me feel good to be
able to do something like that.
GROSS: Were you alive when the incident that you described happened?
Prof. MOLONEY: Oh, no. It was in the early 20th century, but it was something
that we â itâs a dark past of Limerickâs past and it's something that most
people would have preferred to forget about. And it was a very small population
anyway and it was a long time ago. But itâs still part of our history.
GROSS: Was that something that was talked about when you were growing up or
something that you had to discover as a folk historian?
Prof. MOLONEY: I discovered it later on. It was not talked about at all.
GROSS: Right. Mick, you were telling me that you actually performed at Frank
McCourtâs memorial service and, you know, McCourt was best known for his
memoirs about growing up and - his memoir about growing up in Ireland and then
his memoir about being a teacher in New York. You and he were friends. And you
were telling me that you actually performed the title track from your new CD,
âIf It Wasnât for The Irish and the Jews.â Why that song?
Prof. MOLONEY: Well, because Ellen McCourt, who was directing the whole
GROSS: This is his wife?
Prof. MOLONEY: â¦she, yeah, Ellen McCourt is Frankâs wife, and Iâve been great
friends with Frank over the years - both come from Limerick. She asked me as a
favorite to sing that song, and also "Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphyâs
Chowderâ because it's such a terrible song but we both loved it. The song is
really, really about bad. It deserves to be honored, it's so ridiculous. But
particularly to sing âIf It Wasnât for The Irish and the Jewsâ because both
Frank and myself were both very conscious of that unfortunate part of our
native city of Limerick and in a sense, itâs kind of not only remedial, but it
- Frankâs â some of his best friends in New York and some of mine have been
And you just like to set the record straight, thatâs just a small number of
people at another time and place. But itâs kind of like, you know, turning the
circle, as it were.
GROSS: Mick, Iâm going to ask you to perform an excerpt of one of the songs on
your CD called, âThe Old Bog Road.â And I think this is a really good example
of the, you know, Iâm in New York, but Iâm yearning for my home in Ireland kind
of song. And itâs not a song Iâve heard before. So, tell us the story behind
this one and why you chose it.
Prof. MOLONEY: Yeah, itâs a song I heard, in fact, far too many times before.
Every bad tenor in my native Limerick, when he got drunk, felt obliged to sing
it and inflict it on the whole population. So, I hated the song with a passion.
I always thought it was a Tin Pan Alley song from Broadway and in a sense it
was because it was written by a woman called Teresa Brayton who was a poet, and
she was married in - her maiden name was Boyle. She was married and living in
Broadway and had a real strong sense of being detached from home and meeting
people who never had gone home and couldnât go home.
And she wrote it and the music was put on later. But my great mentor, Frank
Harte, sang it with a mournful style, not melodramatic at all. And I suddenly
realized the beauty of the song and all my resistance went away. And it goesâ¦
(Soundbite of song, âThe Old Bog Roadâ)
Prof. MOLONEY: (Singing) My feet are here on Broadway. This blessed harvest
morn. But oh, the ache thatâs in my heart for the spot where I was born. My
weary hands are blistered through work in cold and heat. But oh, to swing a
scythe today through fields of Irish wheat. Had I the chance to wander back, or
own a kingâs abode. Iâd sooner see the hawthorn tree by the Old Bog Road.
GROSS: And growing up in Ireland did this song make no sense to you because
look, were you thinking exactly what are you yearning for?
Prof. MOLONEY: Well, it made sense on one level because almost everybody I knew
in Ireland had immigrants in England or America, so the idea of being away from
home, of being in an exile as we called it, culturally, that made sense. But it
was kind of schmaltzy, you know. And when youâre young youâre not nostalgic,
generally speaking. You want to get on the things and I was more interested in
listening to the Beatles and the rock and â and the Rolling Stones than I was
listening to âThe Old Bog Road.â Then when I came to America, my attitude to
the song changed, and the more years I spent here, the more I can empathize
with those people who never could go home.
GROSS: That song, âThe Old Bog Roadâ is featured on Mick Moloneyâs new CD, âIf
It Wasnât for the Irish and the Jews.â Well, Mick Moloney, itâs been great to
talk with you again. Thank you so much.
Prof. MOLONEY: Itâs a pleasure.
GROSS: Mick Moloney is a professor of Irish Studies and Music at NYU. His new
CD again is called, âIf It Wasnât for the Irish and the Jews,â Irish-American
songs from vaudeville and early Tin Pan Alley.
Iâm Terry Gross.
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