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A Banjo-Playing Folkore Detective: Stephen Wade

by Jerome Weeks 3 Oct 2013 7:43 AM

Stephen Wade has tracked down the human and musical connections behind some of the great field recordings of the Library of Congress: field hollers, chants, cowboy waltzes. Now, the master musician-folklorist brings his award-winning book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us, to life on stage.


Folklorist Stephen Wade spent 18 years researching Library of Congress field recordings, tracking down the ordinary, unknown people, black and white, who gave us such classic songs as the cowboys’ lament, “Goodbye Old Paint.” He comes to Stage West this weekend with his trove of music and history. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s all about the human connections Wade finds.

  • Wade playing ‘Buckdancer’s Choice’  and ‘Needlecase’ on his mentor Fleming Brown’s banjo:

  • Wade playing ‘Cluckin’ Hen’ on the fretless banjo:

  • KERA radio report:

  • Online report:

More than one writer has described what folklorist Stephen Wade does as detective work. In 1994, Wade was in Dallas, researching a haunting recording, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” — a slow, soul-stirring, a capella foot-stomper made in 1942 by an unknown singer, Bozie Sturdivant, from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Wade had learned that, by the late ’40s, Sturdivant had moved to Texas, and a Dallas Public Librarian helped him, via the Social Security death index, to learn that Sturdivant had died in Denison.

Wade recalls phoning the Denison Public Library: “And someone overhearing the phone conversation with the librarian there said, ‘I knew him. I knew someone who sang with him.’ That person there who sang with him? I called him up and said, Do you happen to remember Bozie Sturdivant?


Folklorist and musician Stephen Wade in KERA studio. Photo: Jerome Weeks

“He said, ‘Well, I’m looking at his picture right now.’ ”

The picture, the only known photo of Sturdivant, appears in Wade’s new, deeply researched book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us. Investigating this kind of web of connections – where music meets history and research meets performance – has been Wade’s life’s work; he’s a detective with five strings. The 60-year-old, Grammy-nominated musician is perhaps best known for his one-man show, Banjo Dancing, or the 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song Dance Folklore Convention and Banjo Contest . . . and How I Lost. It was a joyful compendium of white and black folk tales, Mark Twain jokes, clog dancing and banjo music that Wade opened for a three-week run in 1981 in Washington, D.C. Instead, it ran for 10 years, one of the longest-running solo shows in American theater history — and then Wade toured it to places like Addison and Fort Worth (which is what he was doing in Dallas in 1994).

As he toured, Wade pursued the individual artists behind some of the great field recordings of the Library of Congress, people like Sturdivant. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, folklorists, including the famous John A. Lomax and his son Alan, fanned out across the country. They hauled portable equipment to record housewives, Appalachian coal miners, cotton pickers and schoolchildren, singing in church basements, factories and fields.

“These recordings were made on these disc-cutting machines,” Wade says.Some of these things weighed 300 pounds. So ‘portable,’ put quotation marks around that. You had to be a pretty husky fellow to carry one of these things around.”

Wade went through the 70 albums the Library of Congress released, culling what he felt were the 30 best songs for a 1997 CD — including not just well-known performers such as Woody Guthrie and black blues musician David “Honeyboy” Edwards but also washboard bands and prison convicts. At the same time, Wade tracked down the history behind thirteen of those recordings – songs like “Shortenin’ Bread” and “Rock Island Line.” Wade recounts these stories in The Beautiful Music – and he’ll recount some and play some of the songs this weekend at Stage West.


Texas fiddler Jess Morris.

Wade lives in the Washington, D.C. area, but his researches have continually brought him back to Texas. In one case, it was learning about a 60-year-old cowboy fiddler named Jess Morris. In 1941, he declaimed a fervent, nasal version of “Goodbye, Old Paint” into John Lomax’ recording machine in Dallas, singing as if to put his whole life into the one song. Morris had been a real ranch hand; he was there for the last cattle drive in the 1880s at the giant XIT Ranch in the Panhandle. He did receive classical training on the violin, but quit school to play the fiddle at country dances. As a little boy, he’d learned “Old Paint” from a former slave named Charlie Willis. The song is actually derived from traditional English ballads (just as “Streets of Laredo” is), but Morris — via Willis — made it his signature tune.

Typical of Wade, he hunted down any descendants in Texas, who could fill in Morris’ life and career – and what put him there in Dallas, what led to the earnest quality of his singing and playing. At the Library of Congress, Wade had to sift through file cabinets full of the postcards and clippings Morris sent there — sent to everyone who might get him some attention, including then-Senator Lyndon Johnson. Morris was an irrepressible self-promoter.

Even so, his song might have remained a curiosity, but the sheet music was given to a UT law student named Woodward Maurice Ritter — who became famous on Broadway in 1931 singing the song in the play, Green Grow the Lilacs. Ritter turned that into a long-running music-and-movie career as “Tex” Ritter, one of Hollywood’s top ‘singing cowboys.’ As a result, “Goodbye, Old Paint,” with its farewell to a dying horse, became a country standard, a lament for the passing of the Old West. Larry McMurtry even used its refrain, “I’m-a leaving Cheyenne” for the title of his 1963 novel, Leaving Cheyenne.

“Jess was very conscious of the historical power of the XIT Ranch, that he had lived through something special,” says Wade. “In his last days, he was talking about this as a farewell, as a memorial.”  

In the kind of link-up that delights Wade, he points to the fact that Green Grow the Lilacs was the source play for the musical, Oklahoma! — which was choreographed by Agnes de Mille. De Mille had commissioned composer Aaron Copland to create the music for the ballet, Rodeo — after hearing his Billy the Kid, and Billy the Kid, at one brief point, happens to echo Morris’ version of “Goodbye, Old Paint.”

These kinds of personal and cultural connections, Wade says, means we don’t live in a void. In fact, the folkorist-musician sees the flow back and forth between the artist and folk traditions, between individual and collective creativity. And he sees this appropriating and fusing of different cultures as quintessentially American.

We will use anything at hand – field hollers, jump rope rhymes, musical saws, jugs, and spoons — and make it sing.

 “Jess is a microcosm of our nation,” Wade says “He plays with Hispanic players all the time, those are his guitar-players. And he learns it from an ex-slave.” The migration of “Goodbye Old Paint” has a similar stamp — crossing the ocean as an English ballad, becoming a waltz at barn dances, and finally, a forlorn elegy for that American creature, the cowboy.

Wade quotes folklorist Ben Botkin: “Culture, like love, laughs at locksmiths.’ “  

Stephen Wade performs Saturday and Sunday at Stage West in Fort Worth.

  • Marco Benedetti

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  • Marco Benedetti

    Hello friends, I want to congratulate you for your article, I want compaqrtir with you this video which I hope is your total satisfaction
    fraternal greetings