Stephen Wade’s “The Beautiful Music All Around Us”

Reviewed by Marcia Allen, Technical Services & Collections Manager
In the early 1930s, the Library of Congress initiated a project that was destined to continue until 1942.  Staff traveled through the South, as well as the Great Plains, making field recordings of traditional songs and original compositions.  The selected musicians were not famous performers; in fact, most were ordinary singers who simply enjoyed tinkering with their instruments and setting words to chords.  The recordings themselves were made in churches, in homes, and on porches, so background noise and distortion run throughout.  The result is an astounding expression of feeling that remains a historic American treasure.
Author Stephen Wade sought to discover the backgrounds of some of those musicians.  “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” is the result of decades of interviews with those who knew the original musicians, as well as a careful scrutiny of public records.  He learned that some of those original musicians never recorded beyond that Library of Congress project, while others went on to other public performances.  He uncovered a wealth of material about the lives of the artists, and so wrote this wonderful book, a compilation of brief biographies of thirteen of the performers.
The book opens with the story of Bill Stepp.  Born in 1875, the illegitimate son of a half-Indian mother and local landowner, Bill spent the first few years of his life living in a cave along a Kentucky River.  He was later taken in as a foster child and became fascinated with a step-uncle’s fiddle playing.  A natural talent for playing led Bill to local performances at dances and at weddings.
Why is Bill included in the book?  Because of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” a fiddle tune that Bill embellished and made his own.  Bill was recorded playing his now-famous tune at the request of Library of Congress staff in 1937.   Bill’s version became a part of Aaron Copeland’s famous score for the ballet “Rodeo” in l942, and it was more recently incorporated for the recent beef growers’ television commercial soundtrack.
Another chapter recalls the careers of sisters Christine and Katherine Shipp.  The girls were taught music in Mississippi by their mother, Mary, who only allowed religious music in the home.  Mary would compose vocal tunes based on ballads her pastor husband had purchased.  She then taught each of her children different parts so that they could all accompany Dad in his pastoring.  Mary explained her rare talent as an ability to “scale” or “call” the songs that were appropriate for church music.
Christine and Katherine were recorded in 1939 as they harmonized on “Sea Lion Woman.”  The song originated as a fiddle tune the girls’ grandfather had played before the Civil War.  As the tune was passed down to later generations, the fiddle arrangement vanished, and the tune was altered to include melodic repetition, clapping and dancing.  To the girls, the music was a fun game that helped them pass the time.
There are other equally talented musicians throughout the book.  Vera Hall was recorded in 1940, performing her version of “Another Man Done Gone.”  That emotionally charged rendition later drew compliments from Carl Sandburg, Johnny Cash, and John Mayall.  Jess Morris, a classically trained violinist who attended Valparaiso, joined the other artists with his field recording of “Goodbye, Old Paint,” during which he combined classical violin techniques with cowboy harmonies.  This nostalgic piece probably recalled his days as a predator controller (or wolf hunter) on a Texas ranch, but it had its origins in Britain and in the Appalachian Mountains.
Why read this book?  It is both a valuable snapshot of American music culture and a terrific collection of biographical sketches of those historic creators.  As there was no studio enhancement of their music, each recorded piece is unique.  You have only to listen to the included CD to experience the originality and freshness of those early recordings.  You are bound to recognize familiar tunes in a new way.

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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