Edited from “The Route of ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’: From ‘Fiddler Bill’ Stepp to Aaron Copland,” by Stephen Wade
William Hamilton Stepp (1875-1957) began life as the illegitimate child of a locally prominent father and a half-Indian mother whose principal means of support was prostitution. As a Nottaway Indian, Lucinda Stepp (1838-1909), like her mother, Rachel Memdra Miranda Sea Horse Stepp (1813-87), occupied the lowest rungs of eastern Kentucky society. Although both women found occasional employment as domestics, and from time to time manufactured homemade lye soap, household brooms, and corn-shuck beds, they spent their lives in poverty.
Here in April 1875 Bill Stepp was born, the product of a union between William Taylor Seale, scion of a judge and nephew of a local minister, and Lucinda Stepp. Bill was one of Seale’s three children with Lucinda. But Seale would never acknowledge these youngsters, a fact sardonically observed by one local as “too many wood’s colts.” In the year following his birth, authorities arrested Lucinda and her mother on charges of adultery, which, in the parlance of the day, was understood as prostitution. “Don’t think too hard on them,” said Lizzie Seale, a local centenarian who in 1986 still remembered Lucinda and her sisters. “They did what they had to do to survive.”‘
By the age of five, Bill Stepp had been removed from his mother’s care to the nearby home of Asa Smyth. Bill became a “bound boy,” in today’s terminology, a court-appointed foster child. “It was in this home,” recalls Bill Stepp’s oldest granddaughter, Dorothy Allen, “that he began to play the fiddle.”
By all accounts Stepp cared little for workaday toil. He was not, in the words of another of his grandsons, “workified.” While the family warmly remembers this man they call “Fiddler Bill,” they also acknowledge his personal uprootedness. With a fiddle balanced on his saddle, and by the light of a kerosene lantern, he would leave home without notice for two or three weeks at a time. Nannie recounted an incident during her mother Hester’s final illness. After dressing himself fastidiously, Bill announced he would “step out of a night.” Hester rose up from her sickbed and threw the contents of her bedpan on Bill’s fresh suit with the words, “Now, Bill, take that to your dance.” Nannie sat back in her chair and sighed, “He was a rounder.” He married, I learned, seven times in his life.
Bill Stepp recorded for the Library of Congress. One of a handful of musicians drawn from the Lakeville community, Stepp played seventeen pieces for the disc machine operated by Alan Lomax and his wife, Elizabeth. The Lomaxes were then in the final week of a Kentucky song-collecting expedition, a venture that yielded 859 recorded items, 148 of which included the fiddle. Over the course of the trip the couple recorded a dozen fiddlers, Stepp being the last.
Among his seventeen classic fiddle tunes, Lomax recorded Stepp playing “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” On the recording, in a wonderful turn of speech, Stepp draws his listeners’ attention to that strain in the tune richest with military connotation. As he plays the low strings of his fiddle, he says, “That’s the Bony-part, that’s the Bonypart.”