Stephen Wade’s Banjo Life
By Richard Harrington
June 23, 1987
The Stephen Wade era in Washington began around the same time as Ronald Reagan’s but, one suspects, the houses have probably been fuller and happier at Arena Stage than on Pennsylvania Avenue. Wade’s one-man show, “Banjo Dancing, or the 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song Dance Folklore Convention and Banjo Contest and How I Lost,” has been running at Arena for more than six years now, and “Catching the Music” (WETA, 8p.m.) isn’t likely to convince people they can afford to miss it. This hour-long show, produced by WETA’s Jackson Frost and written by Wade, features several excerpts from “Banjo Dancing,” and clearly reveals Wade’s musical inspirations and esthetic motivations.
First came the instrument (it was actually his third, after electric and classical guitar)—and when Wade talks about the banjo, it’s in poetic terms. “It was a world of sound…down low it could bark and up high it’d be like bells…it could be strident and then whisper…go from a harpsichord to a talking drum…it was like a Model T Ford in syncopated rhythm…it could be plaintive and mournful and then explosively articulate…like a watercolor, full of happy accidents.”
Early on, Wade was given some good advice—not to worry about buying expensive instruments, but to listen to old records, and, most importantly, to “find the people who knew how to play the music.” That’s pretty much been his modus operandi ever since, and “Catching the Music” is a moving celebration of all those musicians he learned from.
Appropriately, Wade begins with his own teacher, the late Fleming Brown of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music; then goes further back to his teacher, Doc Hopkins, who’d started off telling Brown, “I can’t teach you, but I can show you.” That’s the way it is with folk culture, and when Wade recalls a get-together a few years back with Brown and Hopkins, he also remembers Brown’s telling comment: “We are a family. A family is not necessarily just blood.”
There are other forebears in Wade’s program, people like Kirk McGee, Gordon Tanner, Clint Howard and in particular, Hobart Smith, Roscoe Holcomb, Uncle Dave Macon and Virgil Anderson of Kentucky. Wade and Alan Jabbour of the American Folklife Center place them in cultural and musical contexts, but it’s obvious these are not just teachers but vibrant individuals. Both Wade and Jabbour are about the business of documenting and celebrating folk cultures—there’s a lovely moment when they lose themselves in a sprightly banjo-fiddle duet—making real and immediate what for too many people seems ancient history. These are not old songs or old styles that Wade is championing, though; they’ve just fallen away from the public ear because they haven’t had an effective carrier.
Wade is a wonderful emissary, of course, not only in his astounding skill and unflagging energy, but through his mesmerizing passion and devotion to the music and to its master musicians. He has made himself known to them, and they have given him back some secrets in return. When you learn about his influences, you’re really learning all about him and the things he values. At one point, Wade mentions the greatest compliment that can be paid to a banjo man—“he could make that banjo talk.”
Stephen Wade’s playing is as eloquent as his stories, and any time spent with him gives credence to this observation from Virgil Anderson: “Music is something to think about, it’s a charm to the world. Gad gave it to us for a past time here. Just think about how good God is! What else could He done?” When Wade smiles that sweetly innocent smile of his and connects you to his music, you have to think, “not much.”
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