The Beautiful Music All Around Us by Stephen Wade

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Beautiful Music All Around Us

by Stephen Wade
University of Illinois Press

Stephen Wade’s buoyant and wonderful The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, a book and compact disc set, is a rich amalgam of historical analyses, contemporary explorations, personal recollection, archival audio recordings, and powerful ideas about the social values of traditional music. Just as powerful music defies easy categorization, so does Wade’s book. It’s not an ethnography or ethnomusicology or folklore text, though it would be of great use in the study of any of those fields. Wade’s easy familiarity with a broad range of topics, including social history, the politics of culture during the Great Depression, and the history of American traditional music, mark him as a scholarly authority, yet he manages to convey an extraordinary breadth of knowledge here in a nearly conversational tone. The book reads like an ongoing personal epiphany that he is eager to share, and that is its greatest strength.

Wade builds his book around thirteen archival recordings that first appeared as a collection on the 1997 Rounder Records recording he curated titled A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. Each of the songs, originally recorded for the Library of Congress between 1934 and 1942, is included on a CD tucked in the back cover of the book so readers can listen along as they read.

The recordings are representative of the LOC’s effort, spearheaded by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, to document and preserve the musical traditions found throughout the nation. Lomax’s great contribution was to illustrate how traditional music and related forms of vernacular creativity formed a counterpoint to democracy.  As with the Federal Writer’s Project, another Depression-era government arts program, the quest to document folk styles of the American people was rooted in a respect for the efforts of common people and the cultures they created and embraced. The range of music is broad, from African American spirituals to cowboy songs to children’s play songs, old blues, and country fiddle hoedowns. The musicians recorded were not famous, and in most cases their appearance on these recordings is their only moment of public acclaim.

Wade devotes a chapter of the book to each recording and provides a dynamic and entertaining exploration of each song, blending journalistic and academic inquiry with a deep personal passion. He illuminates both context and content and conveys a global sense of each performance and the performers involved. Throughout the book, Wade weaves his own impressions with those of other musicians, academics, and writers and illuminates the path that each of these songs has traveled from before the seminal recording sessions until the present time. At the conclusion of each chapter we see the fine detail that has often been obscured—the incredible twists and turns that typify the dance of music across time and culture. Time after time, we read of the peripatetic nature of the musical informants, discovered at some revival meeting or railroad work camp, shocked but delighted at a stranger’s interest in preserving their music. Wade displays an investigative journalist’s eye for detail in researching long-ago recording sessions. His description of a washboard player, “Wearing sewing thimbles on his fingers, he tapped, clocked, and hammered this clattering array of stove-top resonators and corrugated surfaces,” is nearly as vibrant as the music itself.

In his passion for the recordings and the musicians Wade’s fandom occasionally tilts the proceedings into an excessive enthusiasm obsessed with detail. A multiparagraph digression into the origins of the term skiffle (a musical style involving homemade instruments blending rural and urban influences) from the word scuffle may be offputting to those with a more academic interest in the recordings—but wholly understandable to those who share his passion for the music itself and musicians who played it. Wade’s blend of astute observation and insightful commentary provide an intellectual framework that is very nearly as pleasurable to behold as the music itself is to hear.

Wade was born in 1953 and grew up in Chicago, where he developed a passion for traditional music and folklore that grew into a career as a musician, theater artist, record producer, essayist, and documentarian. In the late 1970s he discovered that an audience reluctant to pay two dollars to hear his banjo music and stories in a folk club would be thrilled to pay ten times that amount for the privilege of sitting in a theater seat to listen to the same banjo music and stories. Wade’s initial theatrical presentation, Banjo Dancing, ran for more than a year in Chicago and more than a decade in Washington, DC.

As an urban student of the banjo, Wade was mentored by a teacher who steered him to the Depression-era field recordings commissioned by the Library of Congress. On these government-sponsored recordings he heard a broad assortment of musicians and singers in whom reposed the greatness of the American folk tradition. These obscure and faceless musicians, recorded by audio technicians who schlepped cumbersome equipment as they roamed like gold miners in search of hidden veins of musical genius, sparked a journey for Wade that has not yet ended. From these collecting journeys come the recordings that are on the CD that accompanies the book.

The constant subtext, as Wade recounts his own wandering from prison farm to tiny village to dusty archive in search of facts, descendants, and contextual information, is that without those few moments when these singers and musicians sat before the Library of Congress microphones, the fragile crystals of their genius would have been lost forever. As Wade reprises the journey of Alan Lomax and the others who made the recordings, we learn about the life and times of the urbane Texas cowboy Jess Morris; Ora Dell Graham, a playful girl from Mississippi; Bozie Sturdivant, rough-voiced and passionate in his faith; and ten others whose stories are as powerful and as compelling as their voices. It’s a fairly diverse bunch, heavy on rural voices black and white, with lots of fiddles and banjos.

In an era marked by incredibly rapid technological evolution, there is something very powerful about the unadorned low-fi recordings at the heart of Wade’s inquiry. They were never intended to entertain, although once one’s ears have adapted to the timbre of the antique recording process, they are undeniably compelling. The bandwidth of these field recordings is narrow, resulting in a somewhat tinny yet incredibly lively timbre. Since the recordings were made on site and not in professional studios, there are extraneous sounds—birds singing, doors slamming, people talking—that lend a quality of excitement and veracity.

Though the sound is fundamentally different from what we’ve become used to when listening to recorded music, one is rapidly drawn in. The strange beauty of these performances washes over the listener, and soon the technology is of no significance whatsoever. One is magically transported into the presence of these ghosts who are full of art and magic. Bozie Sturdivant’s recording of “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” is particularly powerful, and Christine and Katherine Shipp’s zesty “Sea Lion Woman” is barely a minute in length but as strong as an ox and playful as a sprite. W. H. Stepp’s thrilling fiddling of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is every bit as exuberant as Copland’s Rodeo, which lifts this theme note for note. In many cases one can hear in these rustic renditions the future progression of more standard popular musical styles—Luther Strong’s fiddling on “Glory in the Meetinghouse” clearly sets the stage for Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge,” and Texas Gladden’s “One Morning in May” is as foundational to American country music as anything the Carter family ever recorded.

But these recordings are also revelatory texts with much more to tell us than meets the ear. Stephen Wade gently but insistently teases out the meaning from each song. Here he sums up his tale of Texas fiddler Jess Morris and his song “Goodbye Old Paint”: “It begins in a heritage of British song imported to the Appalachians and spread beyond, to reach a trail-herding former slave on his way to Wyoming. Barely an adult himself, he sang it to young Jess, who later refined it on his fiddle beneath a dugout’s makeshift roof.” Wade goes on to describe a life of music that cuts a dazzling arc through time, social class, and geography, and ends with this: “The piece of art Jess wanted us to remember him by was born of a creative process as irrepressible as his own indomitable spirit. In that beloved song he left behind, he gave not only of himself, but something of America too, and its promise.” The writing here may veer a bit toward the sentimental, but this enthusiasm is genuine, going a long way to justify the passion Wade exudes.

Folk art is too often hidden in the shadows of fine art and high culture, yet in many ways it provides a better way of understanding who we are and what we come from. Wade’s articulation of the importance of these songs and the circumstances of their preservation puts this music at the heart of our shared American experience. Indeed there is beautiful music all around us, and we can be grateful to Stephen Wade for pointing it out and helping us to hear it.