Jean Shepherd and the Dayak Curse

shep2On April 6, 1966, Jean Shepherd began his radio show by warning listeners that they were about to take part in an experiment of great scientific import in conjunction with a major university. It would be a potentially dangerous experiment, so if any listeners wanted out, they should switch to another radio station immediately.

As soon as his theme song was over, he played a recording of a flute. It sounded like a field recording. You could hear crickets chirping in the background. Once the music ended, Shep told his listeners this was an ancient, mystical flute played by the Dayak tribe of Borneo. This flute was intended to be used only in battle, as it had magical properties that would kill any male under the age of 18. Since the flute’s effects took 72 hours to fully take hold, he encouraged any teenage listeners to send their name to WOR on an index card with the word CURSES written on it, so that the university conducting this experiment could monitor their health.

It’s easy to say, in our more sophisticated age, that this was obviously a hoax. People were considerably more gullible back in 1966, particularly in regard to any sort of media. As you listen to this show, notice that Shep (who was not above laughing at his own jokes) does not crack in the least. He delivers all the details soberly and in as straightfaced a manner as he can. I can only imagine what kind of panic Shep’s “experiment” could have caused, or how many complaints it must have drawn to his radio station. Broadcasters don’t do things like this now, and they certainly didn’t do them in 1966.

Shep performed variations on the Dayak Curse “experiment” several times before and after this one, but the example from 1966 is by far the best version and the best recording. It’s also one of the best examples of exactly what he used to do on the radio. And though Shep rarely took calls on the air, he did so in this show to talk to young listeners, who invariably tell him they “feel kinda funny” in adorably thick Queens/Bronx accents.

If you stick with the whole show, you’ll hear Shep use a few news items on sea monsters, drunk sailors, and car-hating elephants, topped by ad copy for a tranquilizer disguised as a proto-feminist tract, all to comment on what he called The Human Comedy. You’ll also hear what radio commercials sounded like in 1966 for The New York Times (extremely pretentious) and Miller High Life (extremely brassy).

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