Book Review

THE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC ALL AROUND US: Field Recordings and the American Experience                                                                                                            Stephan WADE.                                                                                                                       University of Illinois Press (2012) Urbana, IL, a.o.                                                                         504 pp. – bibliography, 50 photos, notes, index; musical CD w. 13 selections.                  US$ 24.95 (hb)/UK₤ 16.99 (hb).

My first reaction to receiving this book was “who the hell is Stephan Wade” and what does he know about being in the field recording trenches”? As a former dedicated “field-recordist” myself (been there, done that, etc. in the SE of the US for the decade of the 1970’s), I wondered how such a difficult subject would be dealt with in print. Field-work can be awkward at the best of times as there are many potential obstacles and it ain’t always pretty. Your average run-of-the-mill aficionado may have good intentions, but they are often fraught with unforeseeable problems.

Among the potential stumbling blocks encountered regarding field-work are: Would the results be laden with excessive romanticism? Would it be merely a bunch of collected song or performer listings? Would it be well meaning in intent, but a shambles in its actual execution? Would it be written in a “private” vocabulary that only the most dedicated and rarified ethnomusicologist would understand? Would it be filled with the oft-common batch of incorrect conclusions that can come from even the most well-intentioned armchair-/computer-based scholarship? Would it be frustrating to read due to multitudinously obvious omissions and too many pieces of the popular “accepted wisdom” that always crops up? Because of past experiences and disappointments, I was worried.

The author of this book is cited as a “musician, recording artist, and writer” who has also done appearances on “All Things Considered” over National Public Radio in the States. Still not that enlightened! His Wikipedia page indicates much experience with teaching and theatre – more encouraging is his past immersion in the materials held by the Folklife Archives at The Library of Congress. This book has its roots in a CD assembled by Mr. Wade of thirty field recordings issued in the past by the LofC and released in 1997 by Rounder[1]. It contains in its text as much of the stories of the artists chosen as can be determined at this late date (with photographs when available), as well as the stories of and behind these LofC “greatest hits” sourced from the original collection[2],[3]. All the songs cited are given a detailed musicological or historical examination, often both, with plenty of oral history that opens them up to the reader’s understanding and enjoyment. No secret language here! Since Wade had already done the excavation for that CD, putting together the thirteen sides on the CD-R attached to the book may have been easy-peasy. Or maybe not! My own experience at The Library with Lomax was one of hard yakka and extremely difficult choice-making decisions with so much great material into which to delve and from which to choose.

Well, I’ll state here that such potential fears have not been realized with this book at all. Its essential premise is to take these older songs (and their performers) that had been recorded by The Library of Congress’ Archive of Folksong (as it was known back in the 30s/40s) field workers (usually a Lomax!) as its examples. Those chosen pieces were later made available to the general public back in the day on records sold by the Archive itself – first as two-sided 78 rpm discs often later bundled in thematic “albums”, then on similarly organized LP’s when that technology became prevalent, and most recently in digital CD form.

The thirteen selections here seem to have sort of chosen themselves for the author and he does each one full justice. The variety of songs here certainly makes for a nice primer of what the Library personnel then (and now) considered some of the best of “American” folk musics of yore. This book, then, is a brilliant idea well executed – the author has done his research on so many different levels and has produced a well-written and most readable (not always the case with “academic” writing) publication. Each chapter is “tight” and could be a fine stand-alone essay on a song and an artist, but the collection in toto is masterfully woven together into a meaningful whole.

Extremely well researched and detailed in its annotation, Wade has done his readers, the artists and their material a great service here. Fortunately, there is a CD attached of the thirteen, a necessary commonplace in the 21st Century when publishing books that deal with music. Certainly, musicking about music (as the late Kenny Goldstein would have said) amplifies the writing about said music (and vice versa), and it all fits together as a whole. Wade has done well by his subjects here and I look forward to his future publications! Good writing well thought out and well organized is much appreciated!! Thanks, Stephan Wade – now I know who you are!

[1] “A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings – Rounder CD 1500, selected and annotated by Stephan Wade.

[2] The artists are: Bill Stepp, Kelly Pace, Ora Dell Graham, Christine & Katherine Shipp, the Nashville Washboard Band, Vera Hall, Bozie Sturdivant, Pete Steele, Texas Gladden, Luther Strong, Charlie Butler, and Jess Morris.

[3] The songs are: “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, “Rock Island Line”, “Pullin’ the Skiff”, “Shortnin’ Bread”, “Sea Lion Woman”, “Soldier’s Joy”, “Another Man Done Gone”, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down”, “Coal Creek March”, “One Morning in May”, “Glory in the Meeting House”, “Diamond Joe”, and “Goodbye, Old Paint”.

Peter B. Lowry

Pub: BLUES & RHYTHM # 290, pp 43/44.

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