Stephen Wade, that ‘Banjo Dancing’ man, is coming home to Chicago and reflects on life and music
Over the years, I have written about Stephen Wade whenever he returned to Chicago . But when talking to him a few days ago from the home he has shared for decades with his wife in a Washington, D.C. suburb, I realized that in many important ways he has never left.
“Growing up in Chicago was an intoxicating experience,” he said.
Wade will soon be back home for a few days. He will be doing research at the Newberry Library for his next book, which is about American folklore. He will revisit, as he always does, some of the touchstones of his youth, some of them vanished (Maxwell Street’s old market), some transformed (the Earl of Old Town is now Corcoran’s Grill and Bar) and some still flourishing, such as the “L” and the Old Town School of Folk Music .
Most conspicuously, Wade will be appearing there in concert on April 23. The show is billed as ”A Storyteller’s Story” and it was to have taken place in April 2020, and then April 2021, both having been canceled due to you-know-what.
The full title of the show is “A Storyteller’s Story: Sources of Banjo Dancing” and its title is taken from the title of Sherwood Anderson’s 1924 autobiographical memoir. It should jog some pleasant and exciting memories because it is meant to mark — delayed as it has been — the 40th anniversary of the show that launched Wade’s career.
Some of you likely remember it, if perhaps unable to recall its full title, “Banjo Dancing, or the 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song, Dance, Folklore Convention & Banjo Contest and How I Lost.” It was the one-man show that premiered in 1979 in a small space at the Body Politic Theatre. The Tribune’s theater critic, the late Richard Christiansen, wrote that it was “an extraordinary performance … sheer inspiration,” calling Wade “a genuine original and a terrific discovery … such a giving performer, so happy in his art and so invigorating in his presentation.”
The show became a phenomenon, moving to the Apollo Theater here and later to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where it was greeted by this, from David Richards, a critic for The Washington Post: “Among the enduring Washington institutions — the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the inaugural parade — it will soon be necessary to include Stephen Wade.”
That rave and the show’s intrinsic joys — music, songs, stories, clog dancing — turned what was to have been a three-week engagement into a 10-year stay, with Wade giving more than 2,100 performances for some 350,000 audience members.
He would keep creating. There would be more performances, notably of a long-running show called “On the Way Home”, CDs and a lot of writing. There was the 2012 book “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience” (University of Illinois Press). He had spent 18 years working on the book, which tells of 13 performances that were part of Library of Congress field recordings, the stories behind the music and the people who made it. I wrote when it was published that “these stories are compelling, moving and revelatory. In playing the part of investigative reporter and sensitive listener — and writing in graceful style — Wade gives new and vivid life to long-gone performers and their singular songs.”
Then came the CD “Across the Amerikee: Showpieces from Coal Camp to Cattle Trail,” filled with solo and “display music,” loosely defined as music created for listening rather than for dancing or other activities.
In many ways, the past is always present in Wade’s life and work, and no more so than in his most recent album, “A Storyteller’s Story: Sources of Banjo Dancing,” which is the basis for his Old Town School show. The CD has 20 delightful tracks and is accompanied by a 44-page booklet. In it, Wade writes of the morning before his first public performance of “Banjo Dancing,” on May 15, 1979, “Despite the passage of 40 years since that debut, certain memories remain. That morning I listened to Bill Monroe’s ‘Bluegrass Instrumentals’ album. His rusty-throated mandolin scraping with fearless assertion, his accompanists restating his tunes with intricacy and resonance, filled a reservoir with inspiration that I knew I would soon require. I wanted those sounds welling in my mind.”
He goes on: “This album looks back on a set of influences and experiences — musical, narrative and historical — long before set in motion and shared by many that led to that date I remember vividly still. Banjo Dancing came from an unlikely group of writers, musicians, actors and orators.”
I have known this performer since we were teenagers, and he remembers moments of our shared youth that have escaped my memory but remain vividly in his. He has ever been and remains, even talking on the telephone, remarkable friendly and self-effacing.
He has ever been shadowed by the past and its people, many of them now ghosts. In the booklet with his new CD is a wonderful 1975 photo, described by Wade as one of “ John Prine, Steve Goodman , Harry Waller and me in Toronto at the Mariposa Folk Festival … a particular trip marked a busman’s holiday for Goodman and Prine, who brought me there, housed me, introduced me around, got me on stage and literally picked up the phone a few days later to obtain work on my behalf. This selfless intercession led to my finding a career beyond Chicago and launched a process that four years later culminated in ‘Banjo Dancing.’”
That photo will be part of the upcoming show, one of many photo slides that, Wade says, “will suggest certain songs, very historical and personal, with a focus on Chicago, on the Old Town School, and my predecessors.”
The Old Town School of Wade’s youth was located on North Avenue, its original location where young Stephen Wade arrived in 1972 and where he began taking banjo lessons from Fleming Brown. Wade always refers to Brown as “a great and wise teacher.” He would dedicate “Banjo Dancing” to Brown, who died in 1984, by which time Wade was no longer in Chicago.
The great Chicago banjo player Greg Cahill has a lengthy and fascinating interview with Wade in Banjo Newsletter . He first met Wade in the back of the Earl of Old Town in the early 1970s, and he told me, “I hated to see him leave Chicago but felt proud that this gem of a historian/performer/writer from our town would be recognized as such by the rest of the world.”
“A Storyteller’s Story” will be April 23 in the Maurer Concert Hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.; tickets $30 at 773-728-6000 and www.oldtownschool.org