The Beautiful Music All Around Us (#2)

by

The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience by Stephen Wade (University of Illinois Press, 2012, hardback, xvii + pp.477)

CD included: 1.  Bonaparte’s Retreat – WH Stepp;  2.  Rock Island Line – Kelly Pace and group;  3.  Pullin’ the Skiff / Shortnin’ Bread – Ora Dell Graham;  4.  Sea Lion Woman – Christine and Katherine Shipp;  5.  Soldier’s Joy – Nashville Washboard Band;  6.  Another Man Done Gone – Vera Hall;  7.  Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down – Bozie Sturdivant;  8.  Coal Creek March – Pete Steele;  9.  One Morning in May – Texas Gladden;  10.  Glory in the Meetinghouse – Luther Strong;  11.  Diamond Joe – Charlie Butler;  12.  Goodbye Old Paint – Jess Morris.

reviewed by Chris Smith (www.mustrad.org.uk):

Stephen Wade’s book has its origins in the CD, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500), which I reviewed for MT in 1998.  The Beautiful Music All Around Us is now in its fourth printing, and has received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, and an ARSC Award for Excellence.  This review comes late to the party, therefore, but it considers a book that all readers of this website need to be aware of.

The Rounder CD presented 30 tracks, and knowing Stephen, I’m sure that he would have liked to have written a chapter on every one of them.  Inevitably, what we have is less than that in regard to quantity, but decidedly not short on quality.  Its twelve chapters each deal with one artist, although the total number of songs discussed, and included on the illustrative CD, is a baker’s dozen, because Ora Dell Graham gets two (and two minutes playing time.)

Each chapter discusses the song included on the CD, in terms of the particular performance, earlier and later versions, the meaning of the song for the artist and her/his community, and its after-life in folk and popular culture.  (Wade even managed to interest me in the use of Rock Island Line and Sea Lion Woman on the soundtrack of a John Travolta movie.)

There is also as much biographical information as can be gathered, ranging from very full for the likes of Jess Morris, a voluminous correspondent and self-documenter, to scarcely anything for the members of the Nashville Washboard Band or the convict Charlie Butler, whose sad-eyed prison photograph is haunting.  (‘Bad case and one of Beal Streets bad boys,’ the District Attorney wrote on his court record.)  The process of researching the singers’ lives and deaths is also described, in encounters with relatives and acquaintances that range from friendly to tense.  A conversation with a retired schoolteacher takes an unexpected turn:

As I got up to leave, she took her other hand from her pocket, drawing with it an unholstered, snub-nosed, .38 caliber revolver.  I suddenly realized that the whole time we talked, she had it pointed at me.  She revealed it now as a statement of trust.

The assiduity with which Wade has tracked down people and documentation is extraordinary; in these pages, we learn that the original version of Rock Island Line was discovered in the railroad’s booster club magazine, and find out how Isaac Shipp came to learn songs in Sierra Leone and the Belgian Congo, a puzzle which I noted in my preamble to the review of the Treasury CD.  (Wade describes Shipp, who died in 2007 at the age of 91, as ‘a truly amazing man.’) We also encounter the descendants of Bill Stepp and Pete Steele, of Texas Gladden and Luther Strong (a violent drunkard, whose children seem to have survived their upbringing remarkably well.) In the introduction, we also meet Ella Hoffpauir Boudreaux, ten years old when she sang Sept Ans Sur Mer with her sisters, and living in conditions where a fantastical song about hunger had all too realistic resonances.

These are just a few of the people who give testimony.  Throughout, Wade lets them speak in their own voices, and tell their stories in and on their own terms.  The richness of even the poorest lives (Bill Stepp’s first five years were spent in a cave) is conveyed through the informants’ own words, and in contextualisations, explanations and comments that are insightful, humane and beautifully written.

 

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