Stephen Wade, Trusting in an Unsung Hero

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

Stephen Wade's show "In Sacred Trust: Celebrating the Music of Hobart Smith" comes to the Birchmere this weekend as the last stop on a too-short, three-town tour. Sadly, it will not follow in the footsteps of Wade's breakthrough work, "Banjo Dancing, or the 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song Dance Folklore Convention and Banjo Contest . . . and How I Lost," the one-man show that brought the Chicago native to Arena Stage's Vat Room in 1981 for a three-week run that turned into a decade-long marathon and eventually made Wade a Washingtonian.

In typical Wade manner, "In Sacred Trust" is a deeply researched, meticulously scripted narrative concert with two acts, a slide show, a program book and a quartet of fellow musicians exploring the legacy of Smith, a traditional Appalachian musician who never had the benefit of a commercial recording career yet proved a major influence in folk music circles. A lifelong resident of Saltville, a southwest Virginia company town named after its chief product, Smith could seemingly play almost anything in his bottomless pre-Depression repertoire on guitar, piano, fiddle or banjo. On the last two, he was a virtuoso, as attested to by none other than the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, who called Smith "a great old-time fiddler" and "the best old-time banjo picker I ever heard."

Given that last judgment, it's hardly surprising that Smith, who died in 1965 at age 67, would be a model and inspiration to Wade, whose protean banjo and traditional-music advocacy stretches four decades. "In Sacred Trust" shows how deep and personal the musical and cultural ripples of the story are for him.

"Ancestry and continuity are powerful notions," says Wade, specifically talking about music passed down through generations but hinting at an underlying principle of his own life's work as musician and musicologist.

Smith was first recorded in 1942 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress and four years later by Moe Asch of Smithsonian Folkways. That's how Smith and his sister, ballad singer Texas Gladden, became known among folk song collectors, including a young graphic artist in Chicago named Fleming Brown. Inspired by Gladden's stark murder ballad "Poor Ellen Smith," which showcased Smith's hard-driving old-time playing, Brown quickly acquired a five-string banjo at a local junk shop.

He became adept as a performer and as a teacher of traditional mountain banjo at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. One of his chief exemplars was Smith, one of his keenest students a young Wade.

In October 1963, during a busy week of concerts and workshops, Smith and Brown spent many hours in Brown's wood-paneled rec room, informally taping the Virginian's astonishingly deep and diverse repertory with dreams of producing a tablature book and perhaps an album. Smith conjured material he hadn't played in decades and reminisced freely about the musicians who had taught him.

Sadly, Smith took ill soon after and died 18 months later. Brown continued to use the nine hours of tapes as a teaching tool, and shortly before his own death in 1984, he gave them to Wade (along with the banjo Smith had played), hoping they would someday be released. By then, some of that material had made its way into "Banjo Dancing," which opened a year-long run in Chicago in 1979 before winding its way to Washington for the short booking that turned into one of the country's five longest-running shows.

According to Wade, in that show's opening number, when its narrator loses the contest, "he's doing Hobart's version of 'Soldier's Joy.' And when he gets up to dance, his last chance in the contest, it's 'Last Chance,' a tune Hobart learned from his cousin. This may mean nothing to anybody else," Wade says, "but it meant a lot to me." (Wade also included two Smith tunes he had first heard on the Brown tapes, "Pateroller" and "John Greer's Two-Step," on his first album in 1991. It would take 20 years for Brown's protege to find a home for the music on those tapes, but there would be a wonderfully poetic symmetry when he did: "In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes" was released last year on CD by Smithsonian Folkways, more than six decades after Folkways founder Asch first released "Poor Ellen Smith" as a 78.

Naturally, "Poor Ellen Smith" figures in this weekend's performances, which mark Wade's first major appearance here in 15 years. It will differ from his traditional one-man shows because Wade has enlisted some distinguished cohorts -- multi-instrumentalists Mike Craver (Red Clay Ramblers), James Leva and Zan McLeod -- to play banjo, fiddle, guitar, piano, pump organ, harmonica and mandolin.

"I love that it takes four of us to do what Hobart did by himself," Wade says. "As Fleming said of Hobart, 'This is the guy, the top player, the most virtuosic and complex.' "

Smith once joked, "I can play anything except a car bumper and a barbed-wire fence," and he was not exaggerating. Coming from a long line of fiddlers and banjo players, he was a voracious sponge, absorbing songs, styles and instrumental techniques, synthesizing black and white sources alike. He was also a master of a technique developed by black players called "double noting," picking twice the number of notes that would normally occupy the same space, an explosive sound full of hammered and pulled notes. "I played the banjo for everything that's in it," Smith once said; Wade embodies much the same aesthetic.

The Birchmere shows will not only draw on Smith's repertoire of ballads, blues, hymns, fiddle and banjo tunes (and the percussive dance steps that often underscored his playing) but will feature a slide show of letters and family photos, historic artifacts and art, and concert programs, including Smith's 1938 visit to Washington, when he and Texas Gladden were part of the National Folk Festival held across from the White House.

Wade is a master at creating compelling narratives that entertain and inform, an indefatigable researcher for whom all information is treasure (hence the 80-page, 22,000-word booklet of the Folkways CD).

One reason Wade settled in this area was the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Music, now the American Folklife Center. He had been a frequent visitor while putting together "Banjo Dancing," a resource repaid in 1997 when Rounder released "A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings." Wade compiled and extensively annotated 30 tracks from the library's "Folk Music of the United States" series.

"I'd grown up with those records at the Chicago County library," Wade recalls. "You couldn't buy them, and you couldn't take them out -- you had to listen to them there." For the Rounder collection, he retraced the routes taken by such library folklorists as John and Alan Lomax and John W. Work III, who had made the original field recordings between 1933 and 1946. Wade has been working on a companion book to be published in the University of Illinois Press series "Music in American Life."

"In Sacred Trust" has been a typically labor-intensive project, given Wade's penchant for tailoring scripts to locations, as he did when it was presented earlier this year at the Old Town School of Folk Music and last month in Saltville, where the performance was attended by many of Smith's relatives, including daughter Charlotte, son Wiley and a grandniece, Carol Schwartz. Schwartz later wrote to the Saltville Progress newspaper about the show and praised Wade and company.

"Their love and devotion to this music was evident from the first note to the last," she wrote. "Their performance was as graceful as a ballet, as tender as a child's prayer and as powerful as rolling thunder." Which might be one of the best, and most accurate, reviews Wade's life's work has ever received.

Stephen Wade and Friends Pay Tribute to Hobart Smith Appearing Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere Sounds like: Pre-bluegrass old-time music from the repertoire of the little-known Virginia musician whose banjo stylings were a major inspiration and influence in the folk revival of the '60s.

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