Stephen Wade, the writer and narrator of Catching the Music, was born in Chicago in 1953, where, growing up, he observed first-hand some of the wonderful traditional musicians who had migrated to the city from both the Mississippi Delta and the Southern Appalachians. As an eleven-year-old student of Jim Schwall of the Siegel-Schwall Band, Stephen began playing the guitar. By his teens he acquired a banjo and encountered, as he had with the guitar and the blues, a continuing legacy of players devoted to the instrument and its rural history. One of those players was Fleming Brown, a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music. In 1971 Stephen began an apprenticeship with this masterful player and singer, and within a few years, inherited teaching his class at the School. During this period, he also began working as accompanist to Fleming Brown's teacher, Doc Hopkins, the great old-time radio singer from Harlan, Kentucky who came to Chicago in 1930 to perform on the WLS National Barn Dance, an occupation which lasted 22 years. Under the loving and watchful care of these musicians, Stephen studied the five-string banjo.
Both Doc Hopkins and Fleming Brown encouraged Stephen to travel beyond Chicago to find other players and settings where the music had developed. This led him to record in the field a number of gifted regional musicians. One by-product of this work led to his 1997 collection A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500), for which he is now completing a book for the Music in American Life series, University of Illinois Press. In 1994, The Newberry Library recognized his research by making him their second Arthur Weinberg Fellow. In addition to recording and producing (his own recordings include Dancing Home and Dancing in the Parlor), his writings have appeared in publications that include American Music, ARSC Journal, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Studies in Popular Culture, Encyclopedia of Chicago, Musical Quarterly, American Archivist, Southern Quarterly, Journal of Country Music, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. Since 1996, his song studies have appeared on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Stephen’s theater pieces showcase another direction of his research in narrative, music, and dance. His first one-man show, Banjo Dancing, opened in Chicago in 1979, and on Labor Day of that year, Stephen performed at the White House. Following its initial thirteen-month run, the show went on tour, eventually coming to Washington, D.C. in January 1981. Scheduled for a three-week engagement, Stephen’s performances at Washington’s Arena Stage ran for over a decade, making Banjo Dancing one of the five longest-running, off-Broadway shows in the United States. In 1989 he opened his second show, On the Way Home, in Washington, and in 1991, he began a national tour of both works. In 1993, after a six-month run of On the Way Home in Chicago, he became recipient of that city’s Joseph Jefferson Award (Best Actor). Stephen has also been a five-time Helen Hayes Award nominee and in spring 2003, received the Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur Award for his work as composer, adaptor, and musical director of the world premiere of Zora Neale Hurston's Polk County.
Most recently, Stephen’s In Sacred Trust: Remembering the Music of Hobart Smith extends the story told in Catching the Music. This four-man, narrated, multi-media concert piece had its first performance in spring 2006, appropriately enough at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. In the fall of 1963 Virginia traditional musician Hobart Smith (1897-1965) came to Chicago where he not only performed at the Old Town School, but stayed with its banjo teacher Fleming Brown. As the two players faced one another in Brown’s wood-paneled rec room, with Brown’s tape recorder set on a coffee table between them, Smith made the most extensive recordings of his career. Smith died soon after these sessions, and for years the musical past he had shared on those tapes found expression through Fleming Brown’s banjo classes at the Old Town School. Shortly before his own death, Brown passed these tapes on to Stephen Wade for safekeeping, and possibly, future publication. In August 2005, the highlights were finally issued on the Smithsonian Folkways label as In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes. Since then, the In Sacred Trust concerts have celebrated their release. Like the album, the stage piece, which features Mike Craver, James Leva, and Zan McLeod, along with Stephen Wade, focuses on the learning and energies that have sustained this music.
For more on Hobart Smith and Stephen Wade go to this website at National Public Radio: