Stephen Wade Goes 'Across The Amerikee' With Historical Banjo And Guitar Music

Aug 14, 2017
Originally published on August 14, 2017 8:15 pm

Before the Grand Ole Opry was the longest-running radio broadcast in US history and a country music institution, it was a humble Nashville program called the WSM Barn Dance. Its first ever guest performer, in November 1925, was Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a septuagenarian fiddler from Tennessee who once said he wanted to "throw his music out all over the Amerikee."

That charming phrase was adopted by banjo player, guitarist and historian Stephen Wade for his new record, Across The Amerikee: Showpieces From Coal Camp to Cattle Trail, which was released in June.

Wade first came to the attention of a wide audience in 1979 with his stage show Banjo Dancing, which combined extensive research into traditional American music and culture with his knack for storytelling and musicianship, and which ran for 10 years. More recently, Wade penned The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, an acclaimed 2012 book on a dozen notable musical field recordings found in the Library of Congress.

Wade's new album focuses on "showpieces": songs or instrumentals that show off what a performer can do, or tunes that particular performers made their own. Hear his conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel — plus a few in-studio mini-performances — at the audio link.

Radio producer Tom Cole and web producer Karen Gwee contributed to this story.

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Banjo player, guitarist and historian Stephen Wade has a new record out. It's called "Across The Amerikee."


SIEGEL: Wade first came to the attention of a wide audience in 1979 with his stage show "Banjo Dancing." It combined Wade's extensive research into traditional American music and culture with his knack for storytelling and musicianship. The show ran in Washington for 10 years.

Since then, he has written a book on traditional music in America and recorded or produced more than a dozen albums tracing the path of work songs, dance tunes, even playground songs across more than a century. His new album focuses on showpieces, songs or instrumentals that showed off what a performer could do or tunes that particular performers made their own. We started our conversation with the title "Across The Amerikee."

STEPHEN WADE: That comes from the first person to broadcast on the "Grand Ole Opry" even before it was the "Grand Ole Opry." His name was Uncle Jimmy Thompson. He was born in the 1850s. And he got on the air and said that he was going to send his music - he was a fiddler, old-time Tennessee fiddler - going to send it across the Amerikee. And I just loved that. And then it was - the - his popularity, it brought such a great response that that led to the establishment of the nation's longest-running radio show, the "Grand Ole Opry."

SIEGEL: Your record is a collection of songs and tunes - mostly on banjo, but there a couple of guitar tracks as well - that date from the earliest days of recording and radio. And it begins music that was meant for listening as opposed to a lot of the other pieces that you've collected and performed over the years.

WADE: When I started playing the banjo, my teacher Fleming Brown - I would go visit him up at his place. And he lived in this little attic apartment in Chicago near Wrigley Field. And we'd listen to records at night. And he'd say, look at that performance. He was looking at the - sort of these ideal realizations of a traditional tune and point to this aspect or that performer who had really captured an angle on a way to play the tune.

SIEGEL: Give us an example. You brought your instruments here. So give us an example of a song that comes out of your own experience researching American traditional music.

WADE: This is a tune called "Spanish Fandango." And in 1838, it first appears in print as a guitar number. And then it - and banjo players and guitar players use it - it was a good beginner's piece. And because it doesn't have that defined of a melody, there's - many variations have emerged. And I'll play a variation of it that I learned from a musician who had been on the "Grand Ole Opry," Kirk McGee.


SIEGEL: Wonderful, wonderful. But that's an example of a tune that might go from entertainment at home to finally being heard, as it was said, across the Amerikee on - either on radio or on a record.

WADE: Well, that - and even off-record. I mean, records are a moment in time, a documentation but not the whole story. I have here a banjo that was made in the mid-19th century. That's well before the advent of recorded sound. And that really is a showpiece expansion. You could tell it was made for the stage because of the design, the parqueted fingerboard. And there's even a little wooden banjo inlaid in the neck itself.

SIEGEL: Yeah, it looks unusual. Does it sound unusual?

WADE: It sounds like the 19th century.

SIEGEL: Let's...

WADE: This is the pitch that banjos of that era were actually tuned at.


SIEGEL: (Laughter) What was the tune, by the way?

WADE: Well, first it was "Old Johnny Booker," and then I wound up going into "Arkansas Traveler." And certainly "Arkansas Traveler" goes back to entertainment and showpieces and all the dialogue and humorous dialogue that attends to that from the mid-19th century.

SIEGEL: How do you define a showpiece? How is it different from any song you might play with a banjo?

WADE: It's a song for listening, not just for show. That was a distinction that a man I knew - he died at the age of 104. He was the oldest old-time musician of all. His name was Wade Mainer. And he died in 2011. And he talked about show music and listening music. And for me, that idea of the showpieces here was both of those ideas coming together.

SIEGEL: Stephen, can you play us another showpiece?

WADE: This is - tune is sort of a bird imitation called "Lost Gander." This is from playing a man named Dee Hicks from Cumberland Plateau.


SIEGEL: That's beautiful. Stephen Wade, thanks for coming in and...

WADE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...Talking and playing for us.

WADE: Sure, thank you.

SIEGEL: Stephen Wade's new album is called "Across The Amerikee." It's on the Smithsonian Folkways label.