THE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC ALL AROUND US: Field Recordings and the American Experience. By Stephen Wade. Urban-Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 2012.
The text is a collection of twelve case studies that explore how the vernacular creativity of performers and instrumentalists functions on traditional forms of music. Wade selected thirteen representative tracks from his 1997, 30-track CD. Those recordings are from the legendary Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture (AFC) collection, 1933-1946. Each of the thirteen tracks is a performance by one of the subjects, two by Ora Dell Graham. In their excitement, the reader might proceed directly to the case studies to get up-close to the lives of the subjects. This would be a mistake. Wade makes excellent use of the preface and introduction to give the reader a panoramic view of this work that will heighten their appreciation for text. There, we get a glimpse into the author’s early interactions with vernacular performers and gain an understanding of his commitment to folk music. For the “reservoirs of culture thrive not only in institutionally sanctioned preserves such as museums and concert halls, but also in the streets and marketplaces” (x). Wade does not attempt to move vernacular music into the ivory tower but to position the “peasant fiddler” as equally worthy of an acknowledged place in the human experience “as the symphony violinist” (25).
Wade conducted in-person and telephone interviews; corresponded via personal notes and emails; and consulted numerous books, journals and newspaper articles, and AFC files to produce the case studies. The rigor of Wade’s scholarship is matched by the book’s literary allure. His writing is fresh and full of imagery, which contributes to this work being a multimedia experience between to covers. Reading cases could be laborious. But, across the twelve case studies, Wade skillfully holds the readers interest in what interviewees said or what the researcher read about the subjects. In addition to the music CD that comes with the book, Wade gathered many never-before-published images of his subjects, and their families and friends (199 & 242). He included sheet music for some songs and lyrics for others. The opportunity to engage with the material through several forms of media heightens this work’s intellectual appeal. Wade brings his experience as a researcher, educator, essayist, musician, and composer to bear on this work in an informative and thrilling manner.
This work builds on the research and field work of folklorists including: John and Alan Lomax, Benjamin Botkin, and Archie Green. Wade helps the reader by recalling their work and contributions to the understanding and appreciation of vernacular music. He moved beyond matters of textural and melodic variations that preoccupied scholarly attention of the early 1930s. Rather, he opened up the lives of the performers and placed their lived experience alongside their AFC recording. The result is a set of rich biographies that traces iterations of a song along its trajectory to present day manifestations of the piece. “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” brings together a fuller profile of twelve performers from the past, and underscores the relevance of AFC field recordings to performers and audiences today.
Z. Hall, Independent Scholar, Kansas City, Missouri