Stephen Wade

Old Town School of Folk Music, 3/25

With his worn blazer and tie and a head topped by a ring of curly white hair, Stephen Wade looks like central casting’s idea of a Patient Private School Instructor or Kindly Old Uncle. But Wade is in fact a folk anthologist and an old-timey banjo player, and his banjo playing is just like old-timey banjo playing should be: wild and intricate flurries of notes, plucked so hard and fast that the strings snap and thump against the resonating head, sounding at their most intense like a steam locomotive hurtling suicidally fast down the track. Only his voice marks him as a musician who learned the trade when microphones could be taken for granted–instead of a keening holler or a broken-down shout, he sings in a gentle, reverent rasp, and the first time you hear it the contrast to his wild picking is almost startling.

During the two concerts Wade played last Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, he only sang on a couple numbers. As the curator of the evening he seemed mostly content to let the other performers he’d invited–all fellow associates of the school–do the singing for him. He mostly saved his voice for what old folkies like to do even more than play–which is talk about folk music.

The purpose of the shows was to honor folk-music legend Hobart Smith and celebrate Smithsonian Folkways’ recent release of In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes, a compilation of material Smith recorded, 15 months before he died, in the home of Old Town instructor Fleming Brown, who has also since passed. Backed by a trio of guitar, fiddle, and either piano or pump organ, Wade played songs from those sessions, interspersed with lengthy prepared comments. Half the time the evening felt like a classroom lecture, and half the time it felt like a much-postponed wake for both Smith and Brown.

Wade made Hobart Smith out to be something more mythical than just a man, but to be fair Smith’s an easy guy to mythologize–the details of his life might’ve been lifted from a folk song. He was born in 1897 in the Appalachian village of Saltville, Virginia–a company town that took its name from the salt deposits below, which were pumped to the surface as brine and dried out in enormous furnaces–and that’s where he was eventually buried, having lived there his whole life. When he was seven his father, King Smith, gave him his first banjo, and he spent his childhood mastering it alongside a number of other instruments, including guitar, fiddle, and pump organ.

On banjo Smith fused the traditional Appalachian hillbilly style with a mind-bogglingly complicated “double-noting” technique developed by the region’s African-American players (from whom he also learned a whole repertoire of songs). Simply put, double-noting involves picking twice as many notes as usual in the same amount of time, with lots of flourishes like hammer-ons and pull-offs that make it almost impossible to parse at full speed. Smith sought out all the musicians he could and used their performances as lessons, trying to remember what he’d heard until he could get home and figure out how they’d played it–a process he’d later reminisce about with Brown. “You first got to get the tune on your mind,” he said, “and then find it with your fingers.”

Smith learned Civil War-era songs from men who’d learned them from Civil War-era musicians, and the blues from someone who may or may not have been Blind Lemon Jefferson. By the mid-50s, when listeners outside Saltville began taking folk music seriously as an art form, Smith might’ve known more American songs than anyone else alive–though he himself was never sure how many hundreds or thousands of tunes that actually was. During his sessions with Brown he’d sometimes try a song he thought he’d forgotten decades ago and end up playing through it without a stumble.

By the early 60s Smith had been discovered by roving field recordists like Alan Lomax, and instead of church services and square dances he was playing the likes of the Newport Folk Festival. And he wasn’t just performing for the next generation of folk musicians but teaching them as well, sometimes leading five or six workshops a day on topics from banjo technique to gospel singing.

Fleming Brown was an avid follower of Smith’s. He’d incorporated Smith’s double-noting technique into his own playing and was teaching it in his classes at the Old Town School. His talent impressed Smith, and they developed a friendship based in their mutual passion for folk music. During a two-week series of Chicago-area engagements Brown set up for him in October 1963, Smith sat down for several recording sessions in Brown’s rec room. They hoped to document Smith’s playing style to make it easier to teach to others: he’d amble through a song like “Railroad Bill” at a fraction of his normal tempo, so a listener could pick out what exactly was happening between his fingers and the strings to create the phenomenally dense and detailed patterns he was known for. Then, without a perceptible change in effort, he’d tear through it at its proper speed–if anything it seemed to be more of a strain for him to slow down.

The other big reason for the sessions was that no full-length commercial release of Smith’s music existed–just some field recordings and a radio appearance or three preserved for posterity. Brown intended Smith’s teaching tapes to do double duty as demos for a proper LP. But Smith, who was already suffering from a heart embolism during the sessions, soon became too ill to perform and died of a stroke in 1965. The tapes Brown was left with were too raw to be released at the time–without the four decades of historical value they’ve accrued since, they came off like nine hours or so of haphazardly recorded songs, playing tips, and conversations.

On some tracks you can hear Brown’s children (or his dogs) in the background, and because he used only one mike, the balance between Smith’s instrument, voice, and time-keeping foot stomps is inconsistent and sometimes just off. The fidelity isn’t even as good as what Lomax managed with his primitivist recording style. But in their own way Brown’s tapes are far superior to the sociological documents Lomax made–instead of that detached documentary feel, they have a charming intimacy. In Sacred Trust is a collaborative effort, with Brown’s questions and Smith’s performances alternately driving the proceedings, and the result is a sort of double portrait. It sounds exactly like two friends geeking out over folk music in a rec room.

Brown used the tapes (and the tablatures he’d transcribed from them) to teach his students, among them Stephen Wade. In the 70s Wade picked up Brown’s love of Smith’s songs and style and became something like his protege. Before Brown died in 1984 he gave Wade the tapes, which he still hoped might see release someday. Wade went on to become a noted folk performer and researcher, making appearances on NPR and guiding Rounder’s release of the 1997 anthology A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. Then O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a series of Lomax reissues provoked an explosion in demand for antique folk music–and because several performers on the film’s sound track appeared on compilations that also featured Smith, interest in his songs grew in particular. Wade enlisted the help of a director at Smithsonian Folkways and shepherded In Sacred Trust into the world, picking the tracks to be released and taking on the extra role of biographer as he composed the exhaustive liner notes.

Last week’s concerts were in some ways an extension of that work. It took Wade nearly three hours to tell Smith’s story, counting the intermission, the guest appearances, and the life-and-times slide show that included some of Smith’s letters and family photos as well as a few pictures from Saltville. That’s a lot of old-timey music, and a lot of talk, to absorb in one sitting. But even as the program came to a close, barely anyone in the audience was fidgeting. Maybe they were still concentrating on the tunes they’d heard, trying to keep the music in their heads till they could get their fingers on the notes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.