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The Beautiful Music All Around Us

Field Recordings and the American Experience


Publication Year: 2012

The Beautiful Music All Around Us presents the extraordinarily rich backstories of thirteen performances captured on Library of Congress field recordings between 1934 and 1942 in locations reaching from Southern Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and the Great Plains. Including the children's play song "Shortenin' Bread," the fiddle tune "Bonaparte's Retreat," the blues song "Another Man Done Gone," and the spiritual "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down," these performances were recorded in kitchens and churches, on porches and in prisons, in hotel rooms and school auditoriums. Documented during the golden age of the Library of Congress recordings, they capture not only the words and tunes of traditional songs but also the sounds of life in which the performances were embedded: children laugh, neighbors comment, trucks pass by._x000B__x000B_Musician and researcher Stephen Wade sought out the performers on these recordings, their families, fellow musicians, and others who remembered them. He reconstructs the sights and sounds of the recording sessions themselves and how the music worked in all their lives. Some of these performers developed musical reputations beyond these field recordings, but for many, these tracks represent their only appearances on record: prisoners at the Arkansas State Penitentiary jumping on "the Library's recording machine" in a rendering of "Rock Island Line"; Ora Dell Graham being called away from the schoolyard to sing the jump-rope rhyme "Pullin' the Skiff"; Luther Strong shaking off a hungover night in jail and borrowing a fiddle to rip into "Glory in the Meetinghouse."_x000B__x000B_Reflecting decades of research and detective work, the profiles and abundant photos in The Beautiful Music All Around Us bring to life largely unheralded individuals--domestics, farm laborers, state prisoners, schoolchildren, cowboys, housewives and mothers, loggers and miners--whose music has become part of the wider American musical soundscape. The book also includes an accompanying CD that presents these thirteen performances, songs and sounds of America in the 1930s and '40s. By exploring how these singers and instrumentalists exerted their own creativity on inherited forms, "amplifying tradition's gifts," Wade shows how a single artist can make a difference within a democracy.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

I don’t think I had gone much past second grade when I first saw Casey Jones, the Chicken Man. This tall, kindly-eyed, toothless figure with a weathered button accordion stood at the center of a crowd that gathered on the corner of Diversey and Clark, a dense Chicago intersection near my elementary school. ...

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pp. xv-xviii

A simple thank-you cannot begin to express my gratitude to the performers presented in this book, their families, friends, and fellow musicians. They have brought rich delight into my life, and my respect for them is boundless. Their names appear in the unnumbered notes immediately preceding each chapter’s endnotes. ...

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pp. 1-24

In May 1941, near the end of Fisk University’s seventy-fifth anniversary festivities, music professor John W. Work III hosted an afternoon concert in the school chapel. The program included a banjoist he first saw busking on Nashville streets, a gospel quartet he heard about from his barber, and Fisk’s minister, who doubled as an old-time storyteller specializing in slave-era tales. ...

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Chapter 1: Bill Stepp: Retreat across America

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pp. 25-46

John and Becky Arnett of West Liberty, Kentucky, made their way through Orlando International Airport and boarded the monorail that would ferry them to the departure lounges. Like a futuristic ride at nearby Disney World, the train glided past postcard views of manmade lakes and landscaped palm trees. ...

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Chapter 2: Kelly Pace: Coworker in the Kingdom of Culture

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pp. 47-74

On October 1, 1934, using Arkansas State Penitentiary letterhead, John Lomax wrote home, “I ought to turn up something of rare interest.”1 And over the next few days he did. Despite the malfunctions of his recording apparatus and the long drives “down the worst roads in Arkansas” to get it repaired, ...

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Chapter 3: Ora Dell Graham: A Little Black Girl from Mississippi

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pp. 75-104

Sonny Milton focused silently on the road ahead. Nestled between us in the cab of his pickup, set in a rusted metal frame held fast by tacks and twine, lay a picture of someone he had always loved. Ora Dell Graham—“Honey”—had been his favorite aunt. ...

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Chapter 4: Christine and Katherine Shipp: In a Chromatic Light

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pp. 105-128

Do I remember when christine and katherine made those records?”1 Luella Shipp’s voice, already coursing with a vitality that defied her age, now leaped in volume. “Honey, I was there.” Her radiance matched the front room where we sat, a room ablaze with dozens of Christmas cards propped up among smiling snapshots of nieces and nephews ...

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Chapter 5: Nashville Washboard Band: Something Out of Nothing

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pp. 129-152

During the spring of 1942 Fisk University music professor John W. Work III welcomed a quartet of street musicians called the Nashville Washboard Band into his home. This visit marked the first of two. The second took place that July when the group, bringing along a fifth player, returned to make their sole recordings. ...

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Chapter 6: Vera Hall: The Life That We Live

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pp. 153-178

On a brittle, yellowed index card among John Lomax’s voluminous family papers lies an account of Vera Hall singing “Another Man Done Gone.” Writing in her own hand, Ruby Terrill Lomax evokes the first time she and her husband heard Vera mention the song, ...

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Chapter 7: Bozie Sturdivant: A Song That Went with Him

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pp. 179-206

Lewis W. Jones, a Fisk University sociologist, took on a research-and-recording project with the Library of Congress in September 1941 to study how music functioned in the lives of Coahoma County, Mississippi, black residents. In the county seat of Clarksdale and its outlying communities, Jones and his colleagues documented a cottongrowing region ...

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Chapter 8: Pete Steele: It's What Folks Do

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pp. 207-236

Pete Steele had decided to pack up his family and start over. Afflicted with black lung disease after seventeen years as an East Kentucky coal miner, he planned now, a few months short of the Great Depression, to begin sharecropping in Bismarck, Illinois.1 Born Simon Peter Steele (1891–1985) in Woodbine, Kentucky, Pete spent his youth in White Oak, a rural community in adjacent Laurel County. ...

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Chapter 9: Texas Gladden: From Here to the Mississippi

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pp. 237-266

Jim Gladden stood in his canning shed looking over his neatly stacked shelves of jams, jellies, and pickles. Each fall Jim made preserves for the winter months. Now, with Thanksgiving just two days away, he took a quick inventory. Along one shelf he kept several rows of homegrown tomatoes. ...

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Chapter 10: Luther Strong: Way behind His Time

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pp. 267-296

A few feet from Faye Sandlin’s door, at the next house trailer over, a nine- or ten-year-old girl stands outside playing a violin. Coming closer up the walkway, we make out “Old Joe Clark.” I can’t help but smile at Faye, conscious that her father, mountain fiddler Luther Strong, once knew this piece himself. ...

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Chapter 11: Charlie Butler: Call Me to Home

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pp. 297-326

Paul Oliver’s massive 1997 Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World surveys an estimated 800 million dwellings. Their occupants include nomads, urban dwellers, pastoralists, and peasants, living under pointed thatch in Indonesia, makeshift huts in the Scottish outlands, and wooden farmhouses across Pennsylvania’s countryside. ...

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Chapter 12: Jess Morris: Boiled Shirt and Cowboy Boots

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pp. 327-360

To open the Jess Morris “corporate subject” file at the Archive of Folk Culture is to release a veritable flood of clippings, letters, and postcards brimming with the Texas fiddler and singer’s picturesque experiences and expansive personality. Other collections harbor the same unsinkable spirit, ...


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pp. 361-422

Works Cited

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pp. 423-446

A Note on the Recording

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pp. 447-448


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pp. 449-478

E-ISBN-13: 9780252094002
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036880

Page Count: 504
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Music in American Life