Over the centuries, intrepid explorers have sought the source of the Nile. Brave doctors have risked their own lives to find the sources of communicable diseases. And religious leaders of all kinds have tried to find the source of true faith.
But folklorist and musician Stephen Wade, who performs at Stage West on Saturday and Oct. 6, finds the sources of songs.
“It has been described as a detective story,” said Wade about his recent book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, which provides some of the material for his upcoming Stage West show.
“I will be talking and narrating and weaving the music in and out,” said Wade, 60, a noted musicologist who has spent most of his life researching and performing American folk music. “And there will be plenty of pictures. I will probably be showing 200 pictures or so at Stage West.”
Wade has shared his vast knowledge of folk music through recordings, writings, television documentaries and live performances.
He has researched the origins of various folk songs from locales as diverse as the Library of Congress, the Mississippi Delta and rural Texas, and said that the gold he digs for is seldom found.
“In folklore, we never find beginnings,” he said. “We always seek them. But, usually, we wind up with who possessed a given song at a given time. Not where it began.”
Except in the case of Rock Island Line — an enduring folk tune known to all but attributed to no one.
“And then, in the extra-small type in the back of this magazine, there it was,” said Wade, recalling how he painstakingly went through piles of Rock Island railroad company magazines before coming across something of a holy grail of folk music.
He found that the song had been composed by Clarence Wilson, a Rock Island railroad “engine wiper” from Little Rock, Ark.
“I don’t make a big deal out of this in the book that I discovered this, but it really is a discovery,” he said. “I was so shook up that, when I tried to call my editor in Illinois, it took me three times to dial the phone. Because I knew I will never have that experience again. I’m lucky it ever happened.”
But Wade obviously makes some of his luck with his exhaustive research. He worked on Beautiful Music for 18 years, starting his efforts in Texas.
“I see this [Stage West performance] as bringing the book back home. The project began in 1994 and some of the earliest research was done in Marshall, Texas,” said Wade, whose dedication to the work he does in addition to his performing is further evidenced by the Grammy nomination he received for the liner notes for his 2012 CD Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition. “Texas is an endless story of musical creativity. There have been a lot of books written about Texas music, and they all needed to be written.”
Wade said he interviewed more than 200 people while researching Beautiful Music, which focuses on a dozen seminal American folk tunes and the usually untrained, nonprofessional musicians who either created those songs or recorded defining versions of them. His extensive efforts as a performer and author recently led to Wade being honored with an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award — a prize acknowledging outstanding contributions to outstanding “print, broadcast and new media coverage of music,” according to the music licensing organization’s website.
“It is sort of the Oscars of that world,” he said.
Wade grew up in Chicago but has lived most of his life in the Washington, D.C., area. “I came [to Washington] when I was 18 because it was a major bluegrass capital,” he said. “I came back when I was 28 to play at the Arena Stage for what was supposed to be three weeks. But it turned out to be a run of 10 years and two weeks.”
Since then, Wade has promoted American folk music via every medium imaginable. He is especially well known for “Banjo Dancing,” the show he developed at Arena Stage and performed across the country, including the White House in 1979 and at Stage West on a previous visit. But stage performances like the upcoming show in Fort Worth are relatively rare for Wade.
“This is the only theater I have taken this to. I am mostly at universities and homes,” said Wade, who also does folk music commentaries on National Public Radio.
But Wade and his music belong out with the people because he feels the songs that he has researched and performed (and the early recordings of them) have a special kind of vibrancy and immediacy.
“These field recordings have a palpable presence of being in life. You may hear a clock ticking, or neighbors talking or a truck driving by while they are playing,” Wade said. “I think of them as being exceptionally three-dimensional. They are foregrounded in art, but backgrounded in life.”