From the Tavern to the Theatre

By Ross Altman, PhD

A Storytellers StoryBy the happiest of accidents I found myself in Chicago in May of 1979, blissfully unaware that a one-man show was about to open at the Body Politic, a local theatre. It was called Banjo Dancing, or the 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song, Dance, Folklore Convention and Banjo Contest…and How I Lost. Its star was Stephen Wade.

It was a smash hit, and soon graduated to Washington, DC, including an appearance at the White House, for a three-week run that turned into ten years—among the five longest-running off-Broadway shows in America. “An impassioned banjoist, a nimbly authoritative clog dancer, a soulful singer of folk music and an enthralling tall tale raconteur: A wondrous artist, this Stephen Wade.” (Time Magazine) “Among the enduring Washington institutions—the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the inaugural parade—it will soon be necessary to include Stephen Wade.” (the Washington Post)

I reviewed the show in these pages and Stephen, a 2013 Grammy nominee, has just sent me a new CD annotated with a 44-page booklet to show where it came from and how it evolved—the sources of Banjo Dancing. I was so eager to hear it that I got into a not-so-happy accident when I started to listen to it in my car.

Wade started to play the banjo at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where he met his chief mentor, Fleming Brown, in 1972. He was already playing blues guitar, but the five-string banjo soon won him over. On this new album he plays both—though banjo is the lead instrument. On Another Man Done Gone, he plays blues guitar—and in the notes to the song goes into its rich heritage. It was originally sung with different words—by Big Joe Williams—as Baby Please Don’t Go. He met Big Joe once, but it was enough to inspire him with a love for the blues.

It was Big Joe’s big hit—but typically Wade goes to the earlier spiritual for his source—which he learned from black gospel singer Vera Hall from Livingston, Alabama, who recorded it in 1940 when it became a civil rights anthem as well as a blues. That is why you need to read the notes as well as hear the songs—only both will give you the full flavor of each song—and the full depth of the album.

A Storyteller’s Story opens with Banjo Serenade, in which Stephen Wade describes the banjo as a “World of sound—down low it can bark, and up high it can be like bells—be strident, then whisper—go from a harpsichord to a talking drum, like a Model T Ford in a syncopated rhythm; it can be plaintive, then mournful—and then explosively articulate. It’s like water colors, full of happy accidents [there’s that ‘happy accident’ again]. It’s asymmetrical and interesting to look at—it’s hard to tune, it’s recalcitrant—it’s a musical mule—it has a voice.” If you have ever heard a better brief description of a banjo—or any instrument—perhaps you will send it to me. But that’s only half the story. For the whole piece—which Stephen wrote for an hour-long documentary that first aired on public television in June of 1987—called Catching the Music, he accompanies it on a banjo tune that Hobart Smith learned from his mother, Louvenia. She called it Chatham Hill Serenade. It also traveled under different names—near her home in Saltville, Virginia, Heel and Toe, Come Let’s March’ and Old Seventy-Six. It was a “rudimentary, two-chord introduction to finger-style picking.” Her son Hobart Smith (1897-1965) recorded Chatham Hill Serenade in October, 1963 when he stayed with Stephen’s teacher Fleming Brown. A few months earlier he had performed it at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, saying “My mother used to be a banjo-picker and she learned me this jig. It’s right cute, I think.”

The University of Chicago was the reason I went to Chicago in the first place—it was known as the home of The Great Books Program, founded by President Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. Hobart Smith was the reason Fleming Brown stayed. He was Stephen Wade’s mentor, and recorded Hobart Smith for nine hours at one stretch. Brown left those recordings to Wade, along with Smith’s banjo when Fleming Brown retired. Hobart Smith could play everything except “a car bumper and a barbed-wire fence…he played the banjo for everything that was in it.”

Peachbottom Creek and John Henry are up next—which Stephen picked up from Wade Ward of Independence, Virginia. “When I visited Wade’s family who resided in the same home that he had long occupied, I asked him about Peachbottom Creek. For years it had summoned in my mind some majestic waterway, a fanciful byproduct of my affection for this tune. His granddaughter now led me outside the house. Peachbottom Creek flowed just beside it. One could cross the creek in a single step.” Once again, as he does throughout this 44-page booklet, Stephen Wade embellishes each tune with a personal story that enlarges its significance.

“Wade Ward brought to all his tunes an immediately identifiable style,” he goes on. “Fleming Brown told me early on, ‘There’s Old Joe Clark and then there’s Wade Ward’s Old Joe Clark. Bearing that in mind I approach Peachbottom Creek not in the downpicking technique that Wade employed, but in a three-finger style. His version, ever and always, stands alone.” That last line demonstrates Stephen Wade’s regard for the artists he has assimilated. He pays tribute to them, without copying them.

“Stephen Wade's enchanting one-man show Banjo Dancing, directed by longtime Body Politic stalwart Sharon Phillips, played there in 1979.” This, according to the Chicago Tribune in its 1994 lament for the theatre that was losing its longtime struggle to survive, brought back a lot of old memories.

“…and How I Lost” is the great hook for Banjo Dancing. Most recently, in the Washington Post, according to Wade, in that show's opening number, when its narrator loses the contest, "he's doing Hobart's version of 'Soldier's Joy.' And when he gets up to dance, his last chance in the contest, it's 'Last Chance,' a tune Hobart learned from his cousin. This may mean nothing to anybody else," Wade says, "but it meant a lot to me." Wade’s new album’s title, A Storyteller’s Story emanates from Sherwood Anderson’s—author of the novel, Winesburg, Ohio— 1924 memoir.

Wade’s captivating 44-page booklet introduces you to a rogues gallery of Chicago denizens from H.L. Mencken to Nelson Algren. Mencken wrote, “I give you Chicago. It is not London-and-Harvard. It is not Paris-and-buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib, and it is alive from snout to tail. Three years later Mencken amplified this characterization with an even broader pronouncement. In describing the city as “the gargantuan and inordinate abattoir by Lake Michigan,” he deemed it ‘the literary capital of the United States.’” No wonder Mencken’s classic book on English was entitled The American Language.

The other great Chicagoan Wade pays tribute to, Nelson Algren described “The city’s rusty heart, that holds both the hustler and the square. Takes them both and holds them there. For keeps and for a single day.” Stephen Wade sums up the “Second City’s” influence on his masterpiece, “Throughout this album’s survey of twenty sources that contributed to Banjo Dancing, larger influences, the workings of that rusty heart, repeatedly step forward. Vibrant cultural forces thrived in what Algren termed this ‘cagework city beneath a coalsmoke sky.”

Wade paints this affectionate portrait of his hometown in his lovely reminiscence, Chicago at the end of the album. He captures an unlikely hero “In a music store, ‘There was even a picture there signed by Bob Dylan, wearing tight black pants, wearing dark sunglasses, Beatle boots, polka dot shirt, tabbed collared buttons, standing there holding a Stratocaster guitar plugged into a Twin-Reverb Amp.’”

“Part of that atmosphere lingered in the whiskey fumes and cigarette stubs that permeated the saloons where I performed, while nearly an equally heady atmosphere spilled from the classrooms of the nation’s first permanent school devoted to folk music.” That would be The Old Town School of Folk Music—where he met Fleming Brown, who was recording Hobart Smith at the time. He devotes a special section to Hobart Smith’s unparalleled vernacular voice in “Hobart Smith on Music/Cumberland Gap,” “It was just something within me.” “When Hobart tells of whistling a tune down a mountain hollow and finding a banjo answering from a wall, he speaks not only for himself but for musicians immemorial.”

Other heroes abound in this collection—notably the late Tom Paley, with whom he recorded Leather Britches, in December 2006. Stephen flew to London to study with Tom in December of 1985 on the first anniversary of Fleming Brown’s death. “It seemed a fitting memorial to Fleming, now all the more poignant with Tom’s passing in 2017.”

Another memorable interview is the Voice of America Broadcast with Doc Hopkins, from July 16, 1982. It was Doc who taught Fleming Brown to play the banjo back in 1948: “I can’t teach you, but I can show you.” Now his third generation student, Stephen Wade, carries the lead banjo, while Doc backs him up on guitar. But Doc’s narration really brings the banjo to life: “A number of tunes surround Doc’s stories of tip [double] thumbing, the banjo’s Black origins, and its different picking styles. Stephen frails a Civil War-era fretless banjo, with forays into modern techniques--Uncle Buddy in a two-finger and Buck Dancer’s Choice, in three-finger styles.”

One of the writers Nelson Algren invited to Chicago was folklorist Jack Conroy—who would go into “a North Clark Street tavern and buy thirty shots at once, line them up on the bar, then offer any taker: ‘You tell me a story and I’ll give you a drink.’ The gambit worked.” Jack was collecting industrial folktales, at the behest of folklorist Benjamin Botkin, who had addressed the Third American Writer’s Congress in New York. There he had spoken of folklore as “something not long ago and far away but real and living among us.” Conroy took Botkin at his word, and started to update John Lomax’s frontier humor, with Chicago in mind. Thus was the Old Town School of Folk Music to benefit from this strange melding of sources that would one day result in Stephen Wade’s Banjo Dancing—a rainbow stew of music, spoken word and dance. “…and How He Won.”

Here is the complete track listing:

1)         Banjo Serenade

2)         Market Square

3)         Another Man Done Gone

4)         Peachbottom Creek/ John Henry

5)         The Far-Famed Fairy Tale of Fenella

6)         Station Will Be Changed After a While

7)         Leather Britches with Tom Paley

8)         Railroad Blues

9)         Rhode Island Reel

10)       East Virginia

11)       Hobart Smith on Music/Cumberland Gap

12)       Voice of America Broadcast with Doc Hopkins

13)       Snow Camp

14)       Old Paint

15)       How Ruby Played

16)       Up Jumped the Devil

17)       Tales and Yarns

18)       Wolves Howling

19)       Ray Nordstrand’s Introduction at Orchestra Hall

20)       Chicago

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; writes for FolkWorks and may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.