‘Beautiful Music’ traces the origins of field recordings


Stephen Wade. Signs and talks about his book "The Beautiful Music All Around Us." 7 p.m. Feb. 20. Free. Presser Hall, Maclean Auditorium, 141 E. College Ave., Decatur. 404-471-6000. www.agnesscott.edu

On an otherwise unremarkable autumn day in 1940, in the sleepy Delta town of Drew, Miss., 12-year-old Ora Dell Graham sang into a disc-cutting machine that recorded her voice.

She recited a jump-rope rhyme “Pullin’ the Skiff” for a man who had stopped, by chance, at her small brick schoolhouse by the side of U.S. 49. He was on his way back from his real destination, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, where he’d been denied permission to record prisoners’ songs because he lacked a proper letter of introduction. When he finished recording “Pullin’ the Skiff” and a few other songs, he packed up his cumbersome machine and continued on his way. It certainly wasn’t an everyday type of thing to happen in Drew, but few people at the time probably thought much more about it than that.

Although Ora Dell Graham remained largely unknown throughout her life, her recording became a significant part of one of the most influential archives in modern history. The voices and songs of ordinary people – schoolchildren, prisoners, coal miners, housemaids, farmers, ranchers, blues men, railroad workers, wanderers and moonshiners — are contained in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The holdings were created by researchers like father and son team John and Alan Lomax who travelled throughout the U.S. in the 1930s and early 40s, often in the rural South, recording songs and ballads performed by singers and musicians in their own communities. Released in various formats over the years, the songs have had an enormous impact on American culture, influencing countless musicians, composers, writers, filmmakers and artists. From Bob Dylan and Nina Simone to the Coen Brothers and composer Aaron Copland, the songs have left an indelible mark on our country’s understanding of itself.

But whatever became of Ora Dell Graham? Did she and the others who were recorded for the Library of Congress ever realize the impact their recordings had? Did their families and communities know of their enormous contributions? And where did these songs come from?

For years, such questions fascinated writer and musician Stephen Wade. His new book “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” (University of Illinois Press) represents the culmination of his nearly 20 years of research, travel, interviews and detective work tracking down the original artists behind 13 of the more than 30,000 field recordings contained in the Library of Congress collection. And in the process, he traces the origins of the songs and the paths they took in the culture at large once they were recorded. Wade will speak about his experiences researching and writing the book at Agnes Scott on Feb. 20.

“I grew up with these records,” said Wade, an occasional folk music commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and an accomplished banjo player who created the touring stage shows “Banjo Dancing” and “On the Way Home.”

“In the background, you can hear roosters crowing and people talking and trucks driving by,” he said, recalling his astonishment upon first hearing the recordings. “The sounds of life are not scrubbed from them. They were recorded in homes and churches and prisons. That’s what hit me: The music and life were indivisible.”

The idea for the book was born in 1994 when Wade was working on the CD “A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings.” He became interested in the provenance of the recordings and realized there wasn’t much information available.

“It became quickly apparent that what I was engaging in was more than liner notes,” he said.

Wade made many trips to the Mississippi Delta, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Plains and other locations where the recordings were created. He conducted hundreds of interviews and followed thousands of leads, learning about the lives and fates of performers like Ora Dell Graham, Texas Gladden, Luther Strong, Bozie Sturdivant and others.

“It never was easy,” he said. “A number of times people didn’t have any idea their parents had made those recordings. Many of the people themselves had no idea that anything [significant] had happened. This is just a day in their lives. They got recorded, boom, gone.”

At a family reunion in Kentucky, Wade played a 1937 recording of the late fiddler Bill Stepp playing “Bonaparte’s Retreat” alongside the Aaron Copland piece it inspired – “Hoedown” from the ballet “Rodeo” – for Stepp’s descendants.

“The pride that filled that hall was just palpable,” said Wade. “The fact that I got to be the agent to transmit that to them was a moment that I treasure … This thing is out there in our world. The result is that a nearly anonymous Kentucky fiddler continues to play for millions.”

Most of the performers are long dead, but Wade hoped he would find Ora Dell Graham, who was just 12 when she recorded “Pullin’ The Skiff” still alive. After following numerous leads, he discovered she died in a car crash on U.S. 49 on her way to hear some music in Clarksdale one night. She was just 24. A surviving nephew acknowledged the grim irony: Her death stemmed from her yearning for music and dance. Wade showed him a postcard of the Library of Congress and explained that his favorite aunt’s songs were preserved there in the same building with the books of Thomas Jefferson and a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. They had become part of our nation’s legacy.

The original researchers who collected the field recordings tended to write off songs like “Pullin’ the Skiff” as elements of folk life that needed to be archived quickly before they vanished. But Wade doesn’t see it that way. He says the songs are part of the beautiful music that’s around us every day.

“It’s not something that’s locked in the past. It’s fluid. It’s perpetually changing,” said Wade. “That’s the nature of tradition. It keeps moving along. That’s a condition of how it works. It’s all around.”