By Stephen Wade’74
University of Illinois Press
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, Ill., 2012
Between 1934 and 1942, Library of Congress field recordings captured the sounds of largely unknown musicians and singers where they lived and made their music—in their kitchens and hotel rooms, prisons, churches, and school auditoriums, and on the porches of houses from Southern Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the Great Plains.
In 1994, musician and writer Stephen Wade’74 set out to produce and release a CD collection drawn from these recordings, which were housed in the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture. What he found was scant biographical information on most of the performers and their work, and an aching curiosity to know more about the context of these one-of-a-kind recordings.
This well-researched, engagingly written book addresses that gap by matching the rich backstories of 13 selected musicians, singers, and groups with the vivid details of their lives and music. By talking to the performers’ family members and neighbors, Wade recreates the scenes and situations from which this traditional folk music sprang. A 13-track CD of the recordings is packaged with the book. A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings, Wade’s earlier annotated CD project (that gave rise to this book) is also still available.
In addition to being an expert on roots music, Wade is a revered banjo player and aficionado of the instrument, best known for his long-running stage performances of Banjo Dancing and On the Way Home. Since 1996, he’s been an occasional commentator on folksongs and traditional tunes for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His debut CD for Smithsonian Folkways, Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition, was released in September.