Some of the greatest treasures in the Library of Congress are field recordings of American music captured in the early 20th century. Musician Stephen Wade set out to unearth the stories behind the recording sessions, which were done everywhere from kitchens to prisons. He joins Kojo in studio to explore the little-known history of this iconic music and how it became part of our cultural fabric.

Guests

  • Stephen Wade Folk musician; recording artist; author, "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience" (University of Illinois Press)

Stephen Wade Reflects On ‘The Beautiful Music All Around Us’

Wade talks about the stories behind 13 performances captured on Library of Congress field recordings between 1934 and 1942 in locations reaching from the Mississippi Delta to the Great Plains.

Transcript

  • 13:07:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There are millions of ghosts lurking in the treasure trove of the Library of Congress, but perhaps none more ubiquitous now than those you can find on the famous field recordings of American music from the 1930s and '40s, tunes that captured musical moments in kitchens and prisons and on front porches, and froze them in time. Melodies that inspired generations of musicians and composers, and live on forever, in songs that took on lives of their own.

  • 13:08:31

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIMore than a decade ago, Stephen Wade set out on a detective mission of sorts, to unearth the stories of the musicians behind those recordings, stories that every bit as much about the American experience as they are about music. Stories that you can still hear in music that goes on all around us.

  • 13:09:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIStephen Wade is a musician, author and recording artist. His most recent book is titled "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience." He spent 18 years working on it. His most recent album is titled "Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition." It was nominated for a Grammy. Stephen Wade joins us in studio. Good to see you again, Stephen.

  • 13:09:46

    MR. STEPHEN WADEGood to see you, Kojo, thanks so much.

  • 13:09:48

    NNAMDIWhat we just heard a few moments ago was a song called "Soldier's Joy," performed by the Nashville Washboard Band, a group of street musicians recorded by a professor at Fisk University in the early 1940s. You found that professor's son, to my joy, who told you that when the Nashville Washboard Band played in his childhood home, quoting here, "these people were their music." But little outside these recordings and the memories of those who saw them play remains of the group. Why did you feel so strongly about unearthing the stories of the musicians that we hear on that recording?

  • 13:10:27

    WADEWell, in their case, as with all the people in the book, it just seemed like that was, these were three dimensional recordings. You know, you can hear the sounds of clocks ticking and roosters crowing, sometimes trucks driving by, and that sense that the recordings had kind of the audible presence of life, we have to -- the music itself are played by, you know, individuals, and why not learn -- that's how I had learned to play, was – and in fact, inspired by going, by these recordings, to go – my teacher said, you have to go and learn from the people who know how to play this music.

  • 13:11:04

    WADESee it in context, go to the churches, go wherever. So I wound up, in the course of this book, you know, in prisons and all sorts of places where these things had been done. In the case of the Nashville Washboard Band, they were street musicians, and they were hard to find. All I really found were people who had seen them, and who remembered them, such as John Work IV, who remembered – who had said that wonderful line that you just quoted about these people were their music.

  • 13:11:33

    WADEHe was talking about how they were just wrapped around their instruments. This was in his living room, he was a little boy when he saw it. He'd grown up on classical music, you know. His father, John Work III, his setting of "Go Tell it on the Mountain" is the one that everyone hears, and his grandfather was on the first recordings of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. His great grandfather was their trainer, helped star them. So this enormous musical legacy, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford, who dropped by their house on a regular basis. He'd seen this great breadth of music. But these, he called these men homegrown technicians.

  • 13:12:11

    NNAMDIAnd his father was a professor at Fisk also, the family has several generations of Fisk alumni, but his father actually went out and recorded the Nashville Washboard Band on street corners.

  • 13:12:23

    WADEWell he saw them. They – at the time of this recording, he recorded people like them actually in that same living room where John Work IV watched it. But he also went to churches around middle Tennessee and did some field recording there a few years earlier. I mean, you're absolutely right. His – the Washboard Band at that time were playing just outside the Grand Ole Opry, so they were on the street while people would go in and see bands inside. The Opry at that time was located by the War Memorial Auditorium in downtown.

  • 13:12:55

    NNAMDIYou write that the stories of these musicians are metaphors for how this country has lived. So when you listen to this recording of "Soldier's Joy" and you look at the stories of people like the relatively anonymous street corner musicians playing it, what do you hear and see?

  • 13:13:12

    WADEThere's an indivisibility of art and life that's going on here all the time, that these people are playing instruments that, you know, the Washboard player, for instance, he had it mounted on -- he had two washboards mounted in the shape of a V on a sawhorse, OK? So they lived nearby. I found out where they lived, and it's a boarding house, it's near where the Opry was located at that time. And they could carry these things, and they were kind of weather proof. I mean, washboards could handle the outdoor stuff.

  • 13:13:40

    WADEThe banjo and mandolin player was playing a pretty portable kind of instrument there, and it could take some beating too. And the bass player was playing a lard can attached – it was kind of like a washtub bass sort of arrangement, with a stick and a wire.

  • 13:13:56

    NNAMDIThis is a melody, song that came over the Atlantic hundreds of years before the Nashville Washboard Band started playing it. How does a tune travel across history, culture, and racial lines like that?

  • 13:14:08

    WADEWell that's the American story, isn't it?

  • 13:14:10

    NNAMDIYeah, it is.

  • 13:14:10

    WADEI mean, that's the interconnectedness, and we keep affecting each other. There's this -- in this story, it seems to me in this particular chapter, it says both cultural distinctiveness and cultural sharing, 'cause when you heard that version of "Soldier's Joy," you're hearing, you know, almost a New Orleans second line parade drumming that's going on with that washboard player, the blind washboard player, Theopolis Stokes. The same time, you had this British American tune, you know, sort of done in this sort of jazz time kind of way. So you had this wonderful combination that, where both those things are going on.

  • 13:14:48

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have questions or comments for Stephen Wade. He's a musician, author and recording artist. His most recent book is titled "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience." His most recent album is called "Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition." It was nominated for a Grammy. A lot of people remember the Nashville musician Bobby Hebb as the guy behind the tune "Sunny." Beautiful tune. You found that his eventual career was one that had a lot to do with street musicians in his hometown, like the Washboard Band. Why is he, why is Bobby Hebb an important part of this story too?

  • 13:15:27

    WADEOh, he was great. I talked to him. He had been -- his parents were blind, and they had – they were, in that time, you know, that's just the way that -- there was no state support. They had to make a living. They made a living on the streets. They had what he told me was Hebb's Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra, and it was he and his brothers and sisters and his parents. And they went out and they played on the streets of Nashville, and he told me that it showed him that he, you know, he learned how to play at that time.

  • 13:15:55

    WADEHe would sing and dance and played the spoons with them. And then that led to his going on the Grand Ole Opry. He was the second African American that -- he was on that show. He played with Roy Acuff, and he was in Roy Acuff's Jug Band, which was a offshoot band that Acuff had that stemmed from his own medicine show days. And Bobby had told me how important it was to him to have that experience. And then after that, he left -- this is the mid '50s -- he left and went to Chicago, played with Bo Diddley, and went on with his career.

  • 13:16:32

    WADEBut he said, again, this interconnectedness thing, he said we would listen to Walter Winchell, you know, at night, but we'd listen to bluegrass in the morning, or one or the other. He was hearing all kinds of things that were being processed and brought into his musical vocabulary, and that's what, always his story -- this is a person who, you know, he's an opening act for the Beatles on their last tour or America, he helps write "Natural Man" for Lou Rawls. He writes "Sunny" for his late brother.

  • 13:17:01

    WADEAnd yet, to him, the whole washboard and street music experience in Nashville was really important. So for me, he was a witness, and able to explain what, more about the lives of the Nashville Washboard Band. And so I sought him out. I'm sorry he's passed away.

  • 13:17:20

    NNAMDIHe passed away in 2010.

  • 13:17:21

    WADEYeah. I...

  • 13:17:23

    NNAMDIAnd I'm so glad, though, I'm sorry he passed away, but I am so glad that you had the opportunity to speak with him before that time, so that he can become a living, breathing part.

  • 13:17:32

    WADEI talked to over 200 people in the course of my book. About 100 are in the book, and so many have passed on. The best part of my work nowadays, Kojo, is going back to the communities where I did my research and presenting this book, doing presentations with this book in those places. And the people whose lives have been the most devastated, whose stories are the roughest in this book are the ones who are most happy to have those stories out. It's not with embarrassment, it's with understanding and expressing their kin with a heightened sense of who they really were. And so that's been so meaningful to me, through this time.

  • 13:18:11

    NNAMDIWell, we join the families in both the meaningfulness and the happiness we enjoy as a result of your work. Family is at the center of another story that you document. Let's listen for a second to a family affair that you studied rather closely in your research for this book.

  • 13:19:19

    NNAMDIThat's Texas Gladden singing "One Morning in May." You and I talked before about one Hobart Smith. He's a musician who meant a lot to your life. We talked about what he's meant to you and to our cultural history. I don't think we talked about Texas Gladden, though. Who is she?

  • 13:19:35

    WADEThat was his older sister. She was born in 1895. Hobart was born in 1897. And let me just say here. Texas was not a nickname. She had a sister named Kansas. She had a sister named Virginia. They had a cousin named Tennessee. Hobart, he was born in 1897, right. Okay. Guess who's gets inaugurated earlier -- he's born in the spring -- William McKinley -- Hobart McKinley Smith is his name and Garrett A. Hobart is vice-president. So he's named after the president and vice-president.

  • 13:20:03

    WADEThe family had this great penchant of taking, you know, new places on the American map or public officials like that as part of the naming that was going on. And well, it just seems like part of it I wanted you to know -- the song that she's singing...

  • 13:20:17

    NNAMDI"One Morning in May."

  • 13:20:18

    WADE...yeah, that -- you've heard in other versions because it's found in Abiding Life and The Streets of Laredo and the St. James Infirmary Blues. This is it from the female protagonist point of view.

  • 13:20:29

    NNAMDIAnd she was his older sister. What did you find so compelling about that recording that you needed to learn more about the story behind it?

  • 13:20:37

    WADEWell, I mean, for one thing she's a wonderful artist. And everybody in this -- you know, all the people in this book certainly are. And they're just -- and so you have this great version of the song. And then...

  • 13:20:47

    NNAMDIYou say this song offers a feminine retelling of the unfortunate rake, a kind of ballad that's lived on for decades in did many American musical styles. How do you explain the pervasiveness of the rake?

  • 13:21:00

    WADEWell, a rake, you know, it's a debauched kind of concept. There's interest there automatically. And so this is someone dying of venereal disease, the story is. But, you know -- and I talked to her son and her daughter about this. I mean, when she would sing it at home, that really was not the message. It was just an abidingly sad song and in a sense romantic song is how it was viewed, you know, in the family. And I understand...

  • 13:21:32

    NNAMDIYou sat in that room where she recorded that song with her children observing her. One of them told you he didn't much like the crickets chirping in the background.

  • 13:21:41

    WADERight. But they're all gone now in terms of processing. He -- yeah, that was Jim Gladden her son. He was real -- yeah, we sat -- and her sister is still -- his sister is still alive. I just saw her about a month or so ago. I was in Salem and I did a presentation for the book. And about 35 members of the family came out and she's still alive, Eleanor Wilma Jean. And there's that name thing again.

  • 13:22:08

    WADEWhen Texas as pregnant with Eleanor Wilma Jean, it was the year that she played at the White Top Festival and Eleanor Roosevelt came to the festival and she met her and...

  • 13:22:19

    NNAMDIYou actually own a banjo that Hobart Smith used on the In Sacred Trust sessions that you joined us to talk about a few years ago, a banjo that belonged to the man who taught you, Fleming Brown.

  • 13:22:30

    WADEThat's right. And Fleming starting to play the banjo in the first place because of Hobart Smith. And so then it -- these things keep circling into one another like, you know, great then diagrams of intersecting circles that Texas gets Hobart recorded. Fleming hears Hobart in 1948 singing with Texas. He takes up the banjo. And then in 1963 Hobart comes to Chicago, stays with Fleming, they make those recordings. Fleming gives them to me and very much in sacred trust. You know, this is something important to him and he says, and do something with this.

  • 13:23:07

    WADEAnd so -- and then that occasioned us to get together in 2006.

  • 13:23:11

    NNAMDISee that's the advantage of having an individual who is not just a musicologist, who is not just a folklorist but who is a banjo player himself. You're sitting here and you've got a banjo.

  • 13:23:21

    WADEAll right.

  • 13:23:22

    NNAMDICan you play a little bit of "Soldier's Joy"...

  • 13:23:25

    WADEOkay. So this would be sort of...

  • 13:23:26

    NNAMDI...as Hobart Smith himself might have played it?

  • 13:23:28

    WADEOkay. I'll try.

  • 13:24:43

    NNAMDIStephen Wade playing "Soldier's Joy" the way Hobart Smith might have played it. You learned from Fleming Brown who learned from a man named Doc Hopkins. How has that tradition of teacher, student and the passing down of a craft define the art that you ultimately set out on as a musician?

  • 13:25:02

    WADEWell, you know, I had -- there's this living presence caring about me. And then whenever I played badly and Fleming would say, oh that sounds like a piano falling down a staircase, you know, you'd feel it. And -- but they cared so much so it made you want to work that much harder. So...

  • 13:25:19

    NNAMDIBut you started out playing the guitar before you learned to play the banjo. What was it about the banjo?

  • 13:25:22

    WADEI did. Well, it was -- no, it was all the same because I was just playing blues guitar as a little boy. I was lucky enough -- I was born in Chicago. I was lucky enough to see people like Muddy Waters and -- because my guitar teacher was in a band that was opening for them a lot. So I saw Muddy. I met him when I was 11 and I saw Howlin' Wolf. I saw Mahalia Jackson. I saw these wonderful great players who had come up to Chicago and lived there. And so the music shifting to the banjo -- I knew I was going to play the banjo even then. It was just a matter of identifying the right instrument.

  • 13:26:00

    WADEMy dad had some records that were four-string banjo, which was different than the rural banjo, which is where I was -- what I wanted to play. And we just -- it took a lot to figure that one -- sort that one out.

  • 13:26:12

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Here is Brian in Wheaton, Md. Brian, you've got to wait until Stephen Wade puts on the headphones so that he can hear you.

  • 13:26:24

    WADEOkay.

  • 13:26:25

    NNAMDIBut he's got them on now, Brian, so go ahead, please.

  • 13:26:27

    BRIANHi, Kojo. Great show. Thanks for taking my call. I've been listening to, oddly enough, the Grateful Dead's Terrapin Station just before I turned over to your show and heard, was it -- her name Texas Harland?

  • 13:26:40

    NNAMDITexas Gladden.

  • 13:26:41

    BRIANTexas Gladden, pardon me. And it struck me how pervasive the influence of folk music really is. Because if you listen to the way that Jerry Garcia sings, particularly in Terrapin Station, it sounds very, very similar to Texas Gladden, the way that a lot of other folk singers seem to sing in that day, sort of slide up or down into their notes instead of hitting them crisply and clearly. So I thought that was just fascinating how pervasive folk music's influence appears to be.

  • 13:27:11

    NNAMDIAnd Stephen Wade can talk a little bit more about that.

  • 13:27:14

    WADEWell, I can tell you, as you probably know, Jerry Garcia was a banjo player. He was a folk musician. And so he was real familiar, I guess. I don't know enough about exactly, where Brian's saying, Terrapin Station to be able to respond to that exactly, but -- and about the idea of going around a note and going into -- being square on the note. I think there's a range of ways of singing certainly in traditional styles. And there's many, many styles. But surely Jerry Garcia's playing was affected and profoundly so by the records and stuff that he had grown up on, which certainly -- which would have included in his listing I'm sure at some point or other, Texas Gladden.

  • 13:28:02

    WADEI mean, Texas affected, for instance, her recording of the song "Mary Hamilton" done the same day in that same room that she did "One Morning in May, you know, became -- was on Joan Baez's first record. And then so that gets out that way. Then I know that Jerry Garcia, some of the songs he sang were from, you know, his "Finario" song was from Joan Baez. So these threads can -- they do bind us.

  • 13:28:27

    NNAMDIStephen Wade. He's a musician, author and recording artist. His most recent book is titled "The Beautiful All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience." He spent 18 years putting that together. His most recent album is titled "Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition." It was nominated for a Grammy. We're going to take a short break but we will be continuing this conversation with Stephen Wade. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:36:48

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Stephen Wade. He's a musician, author and recording artist. His most recent book is called "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience." His most recent album is titled "Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition." It was nominated for a Grammy. If you'd like to join the conversation with Stephen Wade call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. Or you can send us a Tweet from (sic) kojoshow.

  • 13:37:15

    NNAMDIWe were talking about Hobart Smith's family and Texas Gladden. Let's go from the Smith family and Texas Gladden's home to Arkansas for a minute, where in the early '30s a group of prisoners at a state penitentiary there, they were famously recorded singing the tune "Rock Island Line." Well, I may be forced to render my -- oh, here we go.

  • 13:38:30

    NNAMDIStephen Wade, when I started in college my roommate had a Lead Belly LP that featured "Rock Island Line." I didn't know much else about it. What you have done once again is lead me into expanding from that basic Lead Belly knowledge into a lot more. We just heard Kelly Pace and some of his companions from Arkansas performing this song.

  • 13:38:51

    WADEWell, Lead Belly heard the song when he heard that performance. He was the driver and the song demonstrator and manservant really for John A Lomax the collector. So Lead Belly's on that trip, driving him around and they go to two prisons in October and late September, 1934. And that's where he is first exposed to that song. Then in 1937 he begins recording it and he recorded it -- Lead Belly, a number of times changing the song considerably from this kind of Gospel quartet sound into the work song that you know and that you heard in school and that the world came to know.

  • 13:39:31

    WADESo Lead Bell was certainly a creative and great performer. And he mined other sources and put it together and -- in the course of making up his version.

  • 13:39:42

    NNAMDIOf course, Lead -- go ahead. Of course, Lead Belly was very familiar with prison, but go ahead.

  • 13:39:46

    WADEWell, he was and he really hated apparently immediately getting out and then going back. I mean, when you think about it he had just gotten out. And then, you know -- so there was, you know, tensions I think in that relationship from the, you know, that got blown...

  • 13:39:59

    NNAMDIWhy was it so important to you to trace "Rock Island Line" back to this prison in Arkansas and then to an engine wiper named Clarence Wilson?

  • 13:40:07

    WADEWell, that was the discovery for me of my life, really. I just, you know, the recordings are a moment in time, but it was clear from listening to the two field recordings from 1934 that there had to be a life to that song prior to those recordings. They didn't start there. That's just all we had as information. So I thought, well, maybe, just maybe some railroader commented on it somewhere. So I found out that there was a railroad magazine that the Rock Island put out, and there was one library that had it, and they were in boxes, and they shipped them all to the wonderful Interlibrary Loan at University of Maryland.

  • 13:40:45

    WADEI went over and I had to -- so I went there, and these boxes upon boxes and I just started going through it page by page. And, you know, if I had coughed or looked away or a pretty girl walked by, I wouldn't have seen it. And there it was, in the back of one particular magazine in super small type, news from a local. This was the repair shop at the Biddle Shops in Little Rock, and I saw it on the page. I immediately knew what I looking at.

  • 13:41:11

    WADEIt was called "Buy Your Ticket Over Rock Island Lines" and it was a booster song, which meant -- starting around 1904, the railroad started these booster clubs which were basically an idea that the employees would help promote the Rock Island as a kind of promotional thing. So here it was. It named the people who wrote...

  • 13:41:29

    NNAMDIThat's why it named -- okay. That's why it named employees of Rock Island.

  • 13:41:34

    WADEWell, and they -- and that version, I found -- it named people who were in the room because in the report they're talking about their bosses in the last verse of the song who were actually in the room at that time. So by four years later when the song has made its way through totally noncommercial means, certainly no recordings makes its way into the Arkansas prison system of two different penitentiaries completely informally, those details drop away. The song is simplified, improved, but still the basic foundation of it as a quartet song, as -- sort of combining spiritual and commercial together that happens in the song, is already in place.

  • 13:42:13

    WADESo there's these great traditions nurturing it, and you find -- I found in looking at magazines, there was dozens of Rock Island Line songs, and there was this whole movement, and there -- and on other railroads and in other industries they were doing this too, you know, the IC Railroad had its songs and singers that were being recorded doing quartet music, promoting both the railroad and the divinity.

  • 13:42:37

    NNAMDIAnd of course, the songs shifted as it's been reclaimed by others along the way.

  • 13:42:41

    WADEYeah.

  • 13:42:42

    NNAMDIBut you tracked down family members, and you visited the grave of Kelly Pace, the voice we heard on this recording.

  • 13:42:48

    WADEYeah.

  • 13:42:48

    NNAMDIHe made dozens of recordings for John Lomax who was a man who spent most of life in prison, and sang his way out. What did you learn about Kelly Pace?

  • 13:42:58

    WADEWell, he spent over half his life in prison. He was a burglar, and he was in several -- in and out of prison several times. He finally died working in a saw mill, a log kicked back on a cutter and knocked him down. I knew his brother -- his older brother, and I spoke with his sister as well. The thing that they talked about Kelly was how skilled he was. Now, and it wasn't just his skills, you know, in the underworld, which was, you know, something he would talk about too to them, but -- because if you wanted anything, Kelly could procure it for you.

  • 13:43:36

    WADEIt was, you know, he was a song leader. And so the singing in the prison, something that he and his brothers had done long before he was ever incarcerated. They had their own quartet singing that they did, their own club is what they called it, and he could dance, and any other songs that he recorded, you can see he's a good organizer for his fellow inmates in that capacity, and is interested in music.

  • 13:44:02

    NNAMDIAllow me to go to the phones again, don your headphones. Here is Frank in Arlington, Va. Frank, you're on the air with Stephen Wade, go ahead, please.

  • 13:44:11

    FRANKYeah. Good afternoon Kojo, Stephen. I guess my comment's a little bit off track, but...

  • 13:44:15

    NNAMDIThat's fine.

  • 13:44:16

    FRANK...you know, I cannot hear the Stephen Wade without thinking those wonderful nights of banjo dancing at Arena Stage. I can't tell you how many times I went there, how many guests to Washington I took there, and how much I hoped sure that might have become another shear madness, you know, just go on and on.

  • 13:44:33

    WADEWell, bless your heart. Thank you.

  • 13:44:35

    FRANKWhat, you know, what wonderful evenings.

  • 13:44:38

    WADEWell, thank you very much.

  • 13:44:39

    NNAMDIStephen Wade thanks you, and I thank you for that call and reminding us about that. So thank you for your call, Frank. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. You know, the most haunting voice you chased in your book might not have belonged to a man or a woman, but a child...

  • 13:45:03

    WADEYeah.

  • 13:45:03

    NNAMDI...who was famously captured singing a children's song. I'd like to, if we can for a minute, listen to a young woman named Ora Del Graham.

  • 13:45:58

    NNAMDIWhat did you hear when you listened to this recording, and what were you looking for when you went hunting for Ora Del Graham's story?

  • 13:46:06

    WADEWell, I had first heard this record, you know, when I was a teenager, and I just loved her voice, and I was drawn to it, and I -- just as much you are.

  • 13:46:15

    NNAMDIMm-hmm.

  • 13:46:15

    WADEShe's enormously musically. She was 12 years old there when she's singing there at her school. It was a segregated school in Drew, Mississippi called the Drew Colored School. And I -- there was no death certificate for her, and I couldn't find anything in state records, and so I thought, you know, in 1997 I went to Drew in January hoping I might find her, because she just would have been in her late 60s then and could well have -- she could have been alive. And it turned out that she wasn't, but I did meet family members there, and then eventually the person that she raised, her nephew, who lived elsewhere.

  • 13:46:54

    WADEAnd he -- and between those people, and going in the Sunflower County School records and all this sort of thing, and going to that school over there, I was able to learn a good something about her life. She died at age 24. She was on her way to Clarksdale to go sing in a club, and her car got smashed in an embankment. And I -- it was very powerful to think about that here's a woman who's, you know, recordings reside at the nation's library, right?

  • 13:47:24

    WADEAnd when I met her nephew, he had never heard of the Library of Congress. He didn't know what it was, and I had with me what had been written three weeks after Ora Del made those recordings in 1940. I had with me -- for some reason when I was visiting him, I had the "Canons of Selection." These were written by Archibald MacLeish when he was the librarian, and it said about holding the papers, the life and achievements of the American people.

  • 13:47:46

    WADEAnd so I said to her nephew, I said, you know, what this means with her recordings is that the papers of the president are still equal in a sense to the poetry of a schoolyard child, because it's all there and it was put out. And he got it. He said, I understand. And -- because he had no idea she'd made these records. She's on the first record Muddy Waters ever made too. It's the same album.

  • 13:48:05

    NNAMDIWow.

  • 13:48:07

    WADEIt was the same collection that came out, you know, in 1942, 1943, and so it was a sad story about her ending and that of many other members of her siblings and his mother, and it was a tough life that they had there in Drew.

  • 13:48:22

    NNAMDIBut the answer she gave to Lomax when he asked her where she learned the song is really instructive in a lot of ways.

  • 13:48:27

    WADEOh, it's perfect. Because he says where'd you learn it, and she said, I learned it just by go on singing it. I mean, isn't that in the poetic transactions in a schoolyard.

  • 13:48:35

    NNAMDIExactly right.

  • 13:48:36

    WADEI mean, that's how you get it. You just go on...

  • 13:48:37

    NNAMDIShe just goes on singing.

  • 13:48:38

    WADEShe nailed it.

  • 13:48:40

    NNAMDIHere's Kaitlin in Sterling, Va. Kaitlin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:48:46

    KAITLINHey, guys. Thank you so much for doing this show. This is fantastic. Just wanted to ask you, Stephen, a quick question. There are two albums called American Primitive, volume one and two. I don't think they're available anymore. I've actually been trying to find them, but they feature some of the oldest folk recordings, and one or two in particular is actually from the late 19th century, I believe. And it's kind of a cornucopia of different folk music, but I was wondering if you had ever heard of them.

  • 13:49:13

    WADEI have. I don't own them. I think what -- those are counterparts to these kinds of recordings. Those were, as I understand it, were commercial recordings. And so what you had with the advent of recorded sound is this enormous body of work that was marketed to -- by race, and by ethnicity. So you had foreign language recordings, an enormous body of them, sold in essentially ethnic neighborhoods. You had race records, and you had hillbilly records.

  • 13:49:46

    WADEAnd so there's these -- the recording companies pretty, you know, figured out that there was that -- those markets existed. Even before that they were just on cylinder recording there were just great bodies of commercial recording at the very beginning, and some of that was done here in Washington D.C. This is where Victor was, you know, at Columbia. They were here, and you had John Phillips Souza recording and all kinds of -- banjo players too.

  • 13:50:11

    NNAMDIKaitlin, thank you very much for your call. We're running out of time very quickly, but there's a CD that accompanies this book. The book is called "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and American Experience," and I'd like you to play something that is on the CD that comes with this book, and that is, can you play "Shortnin' Bread" for me?

  • 13:50:31

    WADEWell, I could. I'm going to have -- okay. I'm in a different tuning here. Hang on.

  • 13:50:35

    NNAMDIThat's all right. I can keep talking while you get ready to play. Stephen Wade also has a new album. It's called "Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition." It was actually nominated for a Grammy. There are those of you who have enjoyed him at Arena Stage. You will shortly be enjoying him playing "Shortnin' Bread" as we go out from this broadcast.

  • 13:50:57

    WADEAnd the context here is that Ora Del sings it too.

  • 13:51:41

    NNAMDIStephen Wade, "Shortnin' Bread." He is a musician, author, and recording artist. His most recent book is titled "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience." His most recent album is titled "Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition." It was nominated for a Grammy. Stephen Wade, thank you so much for gracing these airwaves and broadening our knowledge. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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