When the James E. Strates Carnival staked its tents near downtown Washington, DC, in the spring of 1941, Library of Congress archivist Charles Harrell was there to meet it. He was part of the Library’s Radio Research Project, a small group dedicated to recording Americans “speaking without script, discussing their problems, telling eloquently the story of their regions, the story of their own experience — their songs — their folklore.” The carnival, basically in the Library’s backyard, was a perfect opportunity.

The Strates carnivals are still in existence — it is now the only remaining carnival company that travels the country by railroad — but the show itself has changed a great deal over the past six decades. Fortune tellers and weight guessers, burlesque dancers and two-headed babies, Harrell’s recordings capture the sounds of an era long gone.

Recorded in Washington, D.C. Premiered September 3, 2002 on Morning Edition.

Baby Betty, one of the carnival’s attractions.

This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.