Stephen Wade on making Catching the Music

The Making of Catching the Music

Midway through Catching the Music, the camera falls for a few seconds on a celebrated 19th -century genre painting. Created in 1859 by Eastman Johnson and titled Confidence and Admiration, it depicts an African American musician in a tattered hat and worn brogans, his right hand frailing the banjo. As he plays with a faraway look in his eyes, a youngster, perhaps his son or some other neighborhood urchin, looks on. However rough their surroundings—the painting, it turns out, depicts a slum that literally stood in the shadow of the US Capitol—their visual attitudes suggest the skill of the elder’s playing— his confidence and the interest and admiration felt by his young listener. Likewise, Catching the Music tries to tell a similar story, of musical learning passing from one player to another.

Catching It

The verb “to catch” has, over the years, provided rural musicians a way of describing this kind of learning. Unlike the rigors of conservatory studies, “catching” suggests an informal approach, particularly apt with respect to the banjo, an instrument that historically lies closer to alley life than to whatever marble mansions it might aspire.

In the words of Doc Hopkins, the old-time radio singer from eastern Kentucky who gave Fleming Brown his first lessons on the banjo in the late 1940s, “I can’t teach you, but I can show you.” In his childhood in the early 1900s, Doc learned from watching, remembering, and then attempting for himself what others had showed him. As in Eastman Johnson’s painting, he recalled the confidence of the elder players he saw and the admiration he felt for them. This catching of the music happened more than a generation later between Doc and Fleming.

And today this venerable mode of transmitting knowledge still remains the banjo’s primary form of transmission as shown by the wealth of personal instruction tapes and seasonal music camps available. Admiring players still catch songs from those whose confidence may exceed theirs, only to eventually make these works their own.

The Unquiet Library

Catching the Music stemmed from an earlier film also produced and directed by Jackson Frost for WETA, Washington, D.C.’s public television station. In 1986, Jack made a one-hour documentary about the Library of Congress’ music division called The Unquiet Library. The film includes Aaron Copland describing the first performances of his Appalachian Spring that took place at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. Performance clips and conversation also take place with members of the Juilliard String Quartet who long drew from the Library’s collection of Stradivarius instruments, as well as interviews with the Library’s music staff.

The film further explores the Library’s interest in American folk music, signaled by its establishment in 1928 of the Archive of American Folk-Song. The Unquiet Library called on Alan Jabbour, director of the American Folklife Center, which operates the Archive, and me as one of its users, to discuss how it served, in Alan’s graceful words, “as both a vessel to receive documents and an instrument to create them.” I talked about my exposure to the Library’s published field recordings at the Chicago Public Library, a course advocated by Fleming Brown who had likewise drawn from them in his youth. Alan and I ended the segment by playing a tune found in the Archive’s collection, with Alan on fiddle and me on banjo.

One upshot of this program was receiving, some months later, a call from Jackson Frost, interested now in filming portions of Banjo Dancing, my one-man show.

Banjo Dancing: Stories behind the Stories

At the time, I was performing Banjo Dancing, then in its sixth year at Arena Stage. As flattering as Jack’s query was, I thought that filming the show would prove difficult. Past examples of live theater translated to television offered little comfort as many such efforts appeared static, for what in the living moment had been so vital. Television thrived on intimacy and close-ups, and such an effort would require multiple cameras, and, I imagined, infinite takes. To subject a live audience to all that ran counter to my sense of the performer’s obligations to his patrons.

Moreover, I thought a better way to present Banjo Dancing would be to explore the stories behind its stories. This notion came from an earlier conversation I had with George Stoney, the great documentarian and currently Paulette Goddard chair in film at NYU. One night, after my show at Arena Stage, George came backstage and we began by talking about Wasn’t That a Time, a film starring the Weavers that he helped produce. He said that he wanted to provide there what you couldn’t get just by going to the concert itself.

That led me to think of what could be made of certain pieces in Banjo Dancing. Where they came from, how they evolved and varied—in short, what made them folklore. But given that the WETA program could run only an hour, and knowing that the interest there centered on the stage show itself, the chance of pursuing this other tack seemed remote.

What Makes Them Play?

If this seems a long-winded way of telling how Banjo Dancing wasn’t filmed, without yet telling how Catching the Music came to be made, in the same conversation with Jack, I also mentioned another idea, one that concerned my teachers and what inspired them to play. Jack was going on vacation and I asked if he would mind if I wrote this idea down in greater detail and give it to him when he returned. He said, “No problem,” and two weeks later, I had completed a script.

I’m happy to say that this script enabled Jack to show it around the station with the result being that the original shooting budget suddenly doubled. I still consider that one of the greatest professional compliments I’ve ever known.

The Making of Catching the Music

During the spring of 1987, we shot the film on my weekly days off from the theater. Most of the narration took place in my apartment across from Arena Stage, while the rest involved several locales. Apart from the Library of Congress where Alan Jabbour was filmed and where we played together once again, Jack and I traveled to Chicago where Doc Hopkins had sung on WLS and where Fleming Brown had taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

We also traveled to Kentucky’s Cumberland Plateau to the home of banjoist Virgil Anderson. Actually, we went there twice, two weeks running, the first time without a camera. I wanted Jack to meet Virgil as a person and not an instrumentality to an end. Apart from being morally right to make this effort, it was more than repaid a week later. As the camera rolled, Virgil described music in poetical terms, calling it “a charm to the world.” Then he set what we did in relation to God’s larger plan.

Still in the USA

The initial trip to Virgil’s paid off, too, in allowing Jack to practice how to get the crew to Virgil’s home. As you’ll see in the film, the only way by foot into Virgil’s house required traversing a swinging rope bridge (By car, a high-sprung truck fording the river was needed). One thing I didn’t mention in the film, but expressive of this setting is that carved in the cement at one end of his bridge, Virgil had cut the letters “U.S.A.” When I asked him why he had done that, he smiled and said he wanted people to know that even though they had come so far back in the woods, they were still in the United States! I might add that the tune he teaches me during the program as his wife Mabel looks on is the “French Waltz.” There was no artifice there. I didn’t know the tune previously. Virgil was really trying to teach it to me, and I was truly trying to catch its music.

Archival Sources

We also used archival film footage and historical photos. Doc Hopkins located a number of still pictures from his past as did Fleming Brown’s family. Other friends, scholars, and collectors alerted me to still more resources, and the program’s assistant producer, Anne Garefino, did the hard work of obtaining serviceable copies and securing the releases.

One bonus moment I’ve always wanted to mention was that in the scene where Folk Archive’s field recordings are being described, the camera pans from the portable disc cutter to a guitarist singing into a microphone. He’s not identified in the program, but that’s Woody Guthrie.

Happy Accidents

Only one performance segment of those filmed at Arena Stage actually came from Banjo Dancing, and that’s the banjo contest at the opening. All of the other pieces weren’t then tied to Banjo Dancing (but all soon came to be part of my second show called On the Way Home). On the evening we taped this portion, we had an invited audience. Between camera set-ups, I explained how each tune fit in the sequence of the program.

Yet for all this planning, happenstance also helped shape the final program. Sometimes happy accidents, and sometimes just plain accidents (see the beginning of the scene that takes place outside the Old Town School), played a role. When Virgil’s son Hershel joins Virgil and me on a tune, he had come to his parents’ house not to play or to watch us talk, but to make house repairs. Fortunately, he kept a fiddle there.

The Fundamental Questions

Throughout the making of Catching the Music, from first script to final edit, Jack Frost kept asking fundamental questions: What are we seeing? Where are we going? Are we making the point? How is this moving? How do we get to the next scene? There’s good reason why he’s had such a long and illustrious career in this medium. Through it all he stayed buoyantly open, often finding parallels from his own life by which to measure these experiences. He remained mindful of our direction, watchful of how each scene might play to the viewers.

The Edit Room from Hell

We edited the film in what WETA staffers called “the edit room from hell.” I can’t say why they called it that, but for that week or so we did our work sometimes overnight and otherwise beginning at four or five in the morning before the day shift came in. The room was where the McNeil-Lehrer shows were assembled, and its temperature felt more like winters in Antarctica than Hell’s burning embers. Despite it all, we edited until dawn, and had breakfast at a nearby greasy spoon which bears the enviable name of the Weenie Beanie.

Does It Sound Good in a Car?

All the music recording was done by Pete Reiniger. I knew Pete from before this project began and asked that he become part of our crew. Since Catching the Music, we’ve worked on a number of records together. Nowadays he supervises sound for all of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. For this program, and again speaking anecdotally, we found ourselves making an interesting compromise. In an effort to account for the sound compression imposed by broadcast signals and aware of the low quality of most television speakers at that time, we set our preliminary mixes and equalization. We made decisions on sound in his van, first by making cassettes of the banjo as I played it in the theater. Then we ran outside and used his automobile’s sound system as a gauge. We figured, if it sounded good enough rattling around in that bare shell of a vehicle, we might approximate the end product—of what the audience would actually hear once it reached a TV set at home.

The day the program first aired, June 23, 1987, Richard Harrington wrote a wonderful review that appeared in the Washington Post, appended below. Before that, producer Jackson Frost adds his own thoughts on the making of this film. Finally, Catching the Music received a Regional Emmy nomination for Best Documentary in 1987.

Stephen Wade, November 2006