Stephen Wade's affection for the Chicago in which he grew up and that he left long ago is passionate and palpable in the introduction to his astonishing book, “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience.”
He writes: “For a quarter we could take the ‘L' downtown and ride it like a roller coaster. We'd lean in as it whooshed and rolled into the damp warm corridors and we jumped between its cars when it swooped back above ground into the searing light of day, screeching perilously around the famous curves of the Loop.”
I have known Wade since those teenage years and might have actually rode the “L” with him. And so, when he told me he was returning for performances Tuesday at Loyola University Chicago, Thursday at Northwestern University and Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, my memories, too, were sparked:
He was born in 1953 and now it is 1979, and Wade's one-man show opens in a small space at the Body Politic Theatre. It is called “Banjo Dancing,” and it is a wickedly friendly, engagingly intense display of banjo playing, singing, clog dancing and storytelling.
It moves to the Apollo Theater here, and then to Washington D.C., for what is to be a three-week engagement at Arena Stage. It stays there for six years. Yes, six years and 2,198 performances.
Long into that run, David Richards, a critic for the Washington Post, writes, “Among the enduring Washington institutions — the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the inaugural parade — it will soon be necessary to include Stephen Wade.”
It is 1990, and he is here to play one show at the Chicago Maritime Festival, and I realize that he has a become a scholar and a star but retains a certain shyness that is terribly attractive to audiences, a curly-headed boyishness that charms. His laugh is quick and self-effacing as he tells me about a recent TV appearance alongside Willard Scott on the “Today Show,” an album he is producing and some of the writing he is doing.
It is 1992, and he is back with a new show, “On the Way Home.” It has a good deal of music and dancing, but it is story-intensive, grand narratives woven from the fabric of the stories, biographies and tall tales collected by the Federal Writers Project in the '30s.
“This is not a sequel,” he tells me. “If people ask, ‘Is this new show like “Banjo Dancing'? I say, ‘Well, it has the same cast.'”
He also says: “I am apprehensive coming back to Chicago. It's a sense of daunting anticipation. But there is a resonance here different from other places.”
That remains true today, but also echoing is something else he told me almost two decades ago about a book he was contemplating:“I could see taking a long time to write it.”
And, indeed, he spent 18 years working on “The Beautiful Music All Around Us,” which tells of 13 performances that were part of Library of Congress field recordings and the stories behind the music and the people who made it.
These stories are compelling, moving and revelatory. In playing the part of investigative reporter and sensitive listener — and writing in graceful style — Wade gives new and vivid life to long-gone performers and their singular songs.
The book, which is accompanied by a CD, has its roots in the banjo lessons Wade took as a kid from the legendary Fleming Brown at the Old Town School.
“He had been inspired by some of these same Library of Congress folk music recordings,” Wade says. “He wanted me to better understand the music by seeing it from the point of view of these makers. These recordings brimmed with life and surrounded the music. Sometimes roosters crow, trucks drive by, schoolchildren giggle, kitchen clocks tick, a prisoner urges his fellow inmate to sing with all his might. Paraphrasing the words of folklorist Benjamin Botkin, I came to realize the music was taking place against a background in life. Life was audibly present. At the same time, so much was unknown: Who were these players, what were their lives?”
And so, he began the journey.
“Apart from archival work and library research, some 200 living voices have guided my course,” he says. “These included family members and townsfolk and even a few of the surviving performers.”
Wade lives with his wife near Washington and is in residence at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which has an American roots music program.
Since “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” was published in September, Wade has been on the road a lot, from the Mississippi Delta to the Texas Panhandle.
“I vary my presentations from place to place, focusing, as the book's title suggests, on songs, stories and persons unique to those places,” he says.
That is what he plans to do at Loyola and Northwestern and the Old Town School.
“So much of this book begins in Chicago, inspired from just growing up there,” he says.
“A way to explore its contents might be through the lens of Fleming Brown, his music and lessons. I'll try to tell a story behind the book, one uniquely Chicago, knowing that this kind of creativity here goes on all across the nation.
“As an 11-year-old fledgling musician, I recall watching some of the great Mississippi bluesmen ply their craft here,” he continues. “Sometimes I got to see them with the tavern doors flung open, and I watched not only those great players but their audiences respond with an appreciation they mutually shared, an understanding born of their common experience.”
So, welcome home, Stephen Wade, the “L” is still running.
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