- The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience by Stephen Wade
In 1928, the Library of Congress established the Archive of American Folk Song (later renamed the Archive of Folk Culture) with the ambitious goal of collecting, as music division chief Carl Engel put it, “all the poems and melodies that have sprung from our soil or have been transplanted here, and have been handed down, often with manifold changes, from generation to generation as a precious possession of our folk.”1 Over the next decade, professional and amateur collectors alike traveled widely—though particularly in rural areas—to make recordings with machinery loaned to them by the Library of Congress. By 1942, thousands of hours of audio had already been added to the archive, and the Library issued its first albums, six sets of 78-rpm records ranging in content from Anglo-American ballads to Iroquois songs. If the archive preserved the many voices of the folk, the published records would disseminate a varied sampling of them in order to “educate the American people as to the value of their cultural heritage and national civilization.”2
Like many artists from the folk music revival of the 1960s, Stephen Wade, a renowned banjo player, performer, and folk music researcher, listened avidly to these recordings. His new book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us, echoes this early enchantment: “With their bureaucrat-gray jackets and decidedly noncommercial titles like Songs and Ballads of American History and of the Assassination of Presidents,” he writes, “[the albums] seemed imbued with the high purpose and solemnity proper to an undertaking by the federal government” (xii). At the same time, the recordings captured not only the performances themselves but also informal conversations and the ambient sounds of the household, playground, and streetscape, situating the art in everyday human experience. If there is a single theme that unites Wade’s book, it is that these audio artifacts point us toward complex human stories that have been variously suppressed, neglected, or forgotten. The biographies of the archive’s performers, Wade points out, were often less important to early collectors than the history of the song or story being recorded. [End Page 129] In a series of case studies, Wade attempts to correct this oversight by weaving together detailed analyses of the music’s evolution and the personal histories of his featured performers—histories he has recovered from interviews with their descendants, documents in local archives, and many other sources.
The result is an eloquent, engaging, and impressively researched volume that will appeal equally to scholars of Depression-era culture and to a general audience interested in folk music and its performers. Wade describes each chapter as a case study selected from his earlier Rounder Records compilation A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. By his own admission, any of the hundreds of published field recordings or thousands of archival materials could have served just as well, and if there is a limitation to this richly diverse book, it is that folk artists from the rural south are disproportionately represented here as in the original Treasury. Given the evident breadth of Wade’s knowledge, the depth of his field research, and the diversity of the archive’s materials from the period he covers, one wonders what practical impediments may have prevented his inclusion of, for example, a Native-American case study. That said, each of Wade’s chapters offers a compelling account of the relationships among local contexts, family life, national popular media, and artistic expression.
For example, in the case of Texas Gladden, whose ballad singing was influential but whose biography has remained largely undocumented until now, Wade tells the story of a subtle but painful conflict between public and private life, between Gladden-the-balladeer, who sang at a festival attended by Eleanor Roosevelt, and Gladden-the-woman, whose children recall her songs as inseparable from the hard quotidian chores of Appalachian life. The private lives of some of Wade’s...