Musical Detective Work

Folklorist Stephen Wade tracked down dozens of American field-music pioneers for his new book

September 20, 2012

Stephen Wade’s new book led him on a search for the musicians behind old field recordings, including these students in Brandon, Miss., in 1939.

It’s not often that folklorists get mistaken for crazed killers, but when Stephen Wade visited a small Mississippi town to research his new book, “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience,” he was met with some wild suspicions.

Searching in Brandon, Miss., for two sisters who in 1939 made a field recording of a song called “Sea Lion Woman,” “I went into a clothing store and talked to the proprietor,” he recalls. “He knew all along who I was asking about, but he told me later that he didn’t know if I was an ax murderer. After a couple of weeks of hassling him, I convinced him that I wasn’t.”

Wade, a music scholar and a student of the banjo, was investigating local musicians who made field recordings in the 1930s and early 1940s. Set to tape by such folklorists as John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, the recordings were archived and anthologized by the Library of Congress.

It took Wade nearly 15 years to research and write “The Beautiful Music All Around Us,” which was published this month — around the same time as his most recent album, “Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition.”

The songs he writes about in the book and also performs on his own record — what he refers to as “heritages in sound” — have proved immensely influential throughout the 20th century. “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” a tune recorded by a Kentucky fiddler named Bill Stepp in 1937, informed Aaron Copland’s ballet “Rodeo” in 1942. “Rock Island Line” has been recorded by scores of country and folk artists — including, most famously, Johnny Cash — but Wade discovered it was penned by an Arkansas engine-wiper named Clarence Wilson in the late 1920s.

Tracking down these unheralded musicians wasn’t easy. Often, Wade had barely more than a name or a city or a voice on tape to guide him.

“Administrative papers weren’t enough,” Wade says. “[The documents] are not alive, and there aren’t very many of them, to tell you the truth. I just needed to go back to these places and find these people.”

Seeking help, Wade took out ads in local papers, spoke at churches and went on public-access television shows. Though most of the original musicians were long dead, he managed to locate their children or grandchildren, cousins or relatives, friends or fellow churchgoers, whose recollections lend the book emotional as well as scholarly heft.

“This book was not based on theory,” he says. “Experience had to guide it. It’s all part of the scholarship that you owe an audience.”

Backstory: The CD that comes packaged with “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” features two field recordings by a 12-year-old Mississippi girl named Ora Dell Graham. She sang a handful of kids’ songs for folklorist John A. Lomax in 1940, including the spry “Pullin’ the Skiff.” She died in a car accident 12 years later, but her few performances continue to inspire musicians 70 years on. “She had such vitality,” Stephen Wade says. “You can hear that in the recordings, and she’s the only person I used two tracks from. I just love her power and musicality.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 11 a.m., free (signing only); 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
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Stephen M. Deusner | September 20, 2012