In October 1937, a fiddler from rural Kentucky recorded the instrumental song "Bonaparte's Retreat" for John and Alan Lomax, the father-and-son music collectors dispatched from the Library of Congress to capture American songs in the deepest, most marginalized pockets of the country.
The song they recorded traveled farther than they ever imagined: to the symphonic music stage via the Aaron Copeland composition "Rodeo"; to the FM airwaves courtesy of British progressive-rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; and to film and television screens. Now it's piped in among us all in airports, coffee shops, and shopping malls.
The song, a humble fiddle tune, is so endearing it has become "the American voice," says Ron Pen, the director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled Mr. Pen's name.]
But who originally recorded it? At the time, it didn't matter, because the musicologists hunting for songs showed little interest in the performers. Unlike today, when songs are secondary to the cult of personality surrounding the performer, back then the songs were considered a higher priority because they were believed to have the power to twine together the disparate cultures of different regions. Who performed them, and why? The performer could have been anybody.
Bill Stepp, a flamboyantly dressed part-time laborer who transformed "Rodeo" into a hoedown, was relegated to obscurity until his story was resurrected and told in rich detail by Stephen Wade, a virtuoso banjoist and independent music scholar who made multiple trips to the steep hills of Kentucky to conduct detective work that took patience, indelible research skills, and unbound curiosity.
Those factors drive "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience" (University of Illinois), an 18-year project that has taken Mr. Wade deep into southern Appalachia, the Great Plains, and the Mississippi Delta. His hunt, which involved interviews with more than 200 people, produced intimate profiles of 13 singers, musicians, and groups heard on the Library of Congress field recordings made between 1934 and 1942 that today are considered the foundation of American song.
Many of the songs these individuals sang are well known today: "Another Man Done Gone," "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down," "Shortenin' Bread," and "Rock Island Line" have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Ringo Starr, Wilco, and countless others. But little is known about the people who originally recorded them for the world to hear (Alabama housekeeper Vera Hall, Delta laborer Bozie Sturdivant, Mississippi schoolgirl Ora Dell Graham, and a prison camp of convicts outside Little Rock, Ark., respectively).
"What is extraordinary about this book is it takes marginalized voices and shows us how each one has contributed to American culture, in fact, world culture. Each of these stories, each of these lives, has that kind of impact," Mr. Pen says. "It may be a scratchy field recording, but it makes a greater impact on our lives as it travels pop culture."
Wade operates with the belief that "American lives are interconnected," he says. Growing up in Chicago's Near North Side, he encountered street performers such as Casey Jones, a showman who for years performed a sidewalk chicken act, often with the fowls nesting on his head. Mr. Jones became so beloved in his hometown that, upon his death, his remains were moved from a funeral home to a church to accommodate the steady stream of visitors.
"He showed generations of bystanders that art is wherever you find it," Wade writes in the book's preface.
That experience made Wade want to learn more about the people who are hidden behind the music that has inspired him and others, and to explore how their environments played a role in the shaping of their music. "They're the creators. You have the inflection of the individual [in the recordings]," Wade says. "Every person in my book represents and epitomizes and embodies that kind of artistic power."
Each person has a story to tell, he says. When Wade set out on his quest, "I never really knew what that would be."
Wade is himself a musician, having studied banjo in Chicago under Fleming Brown, a contemporary of Pete Seeger and one of the earliest urbanites performing mountain banjo during the folk revival of the 1950s and early '60s. Wade met Brown a decade later when he was teaching at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music.
From the start, Brown encouraged Wade to listen to the Library of Congress recordings at the public library so he could hear the musicians in their natural environment, and so he could appreciate their techniques and the unadorned emotions in their performances.
When Wade listens to the recordings, he's thinking about both the personal and the historical. "I don't see how ... you can't think about the person singing it," he says.
After years of performing on his own, and getting deeper into the roots of the music, Wade combined both interests in "Banjo Dancing" and later in "On the Way Home," his two one-man shows that ran throughout the 1980s and '90s in Washington and elsewhere.
His independent research also focused on Doc Hopkins, a Kentucky native who taught Brown. Last year, Smithsonian released "Banjo Diary," an album that received a Grammy nomination for Wade's liner notes on the interplay between three generations of banjo music.
The culmination of Wade's work is "The Beautiful Music All Around Us," his current book. It combines the persistence of an investigative reporter with the loving hand of a storyteller who keeps peeling away the layers of the lives of his subjects.
Some of the revelations are remarkable: Unable to find any living relative of Sturdivant, Wade camped out in Clarksdale, Miss., and purchased ads on the local TV station and in the newspaper. A month later, a distant cousin of Sturdivant called, revealing memories that no one else had ever bothered to ask about.
The stories do not just shed light on the biographies of the cowboys, schoolchildren, coal miners, prisoners, housewives, and laborers who sang the songs. They also reveal the migrant nature of how songs travel. Through digging, Wade discovered that "Rock Island Line," now entrenched in the American songbook, originated as "a booster song" for the railroad before it morphed into a song of emancipation in the civil rights era.
"Back then, there was the idea that folk songs were shared. People understood that folk music belonged to the whole culture, and the importance of the individual was not understood back then," says Stephen Winick, a writer and editor with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington. "Stephen focused on the people because that's the gap that exists in our knowledge of these records."
Wade's work also provides valuable genealogical information for the musicians' families, Pen says. Wade traces the steps "from the Lomaxes to their families and shows them as people deserving of respect," he says. "He connected them going back several generations ... illuminating who they were.
"He was able to reanimate these [unknown musicians]. He brought them to life."
After spending almost two decades in their families' homes, sharing photographs, stories, and memories, Wade remains connected to the descendents of the people he documented.
Many of the people he met were not aware of their ancestors' musical contributions. Wade says the greatest pride he has in his book is the way it reveals that connection. "I keep learning from them," he says. "I don't think it ends."
• To read more about Wade, visit http://bit.ly/BanjoDiary. To watch a free online video documentary about him, go to http://bit.ly/CatchingMusic.
Support the arts and culture
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Below are three groups selected by UniversalGiving that support the arts and culture:
• South African Education and Environment Project serves children and youths in disadvantaged South African townships through educational programs. Project: Help provide music lessons in impoverished communities.
• Global Citizens Network promotes cross-cultural understanding through authentic immersion experiences. Project: Help rebuild a community plaza in a village in Ecuador.