Folk scholar Wade brings ‘performer’s passion’ to ...

Folk scholar Wade brings ‘performer’s passion’ to historic music at MTSU

Grammy-nominated folk scholar Stephen Wade is a walking, singing and sometimes dancing encyclopedia of traditional American music. If you have a chord, he has a story of how Kirk McGee or Sid Harkreader or Lead Belly played it.

During a half-hour mini-concert at MTSU’s James Walker Library Wednesday, Sept. 24, Wade gave rapt students, staff and visitors a little preview of his full-scale “concert and conversation” event planned for Thursday, Sept. 25, on campus.

An animated Stephen Wade plays and tells the story of Col. David Crockett’s adventures in Arkansas at a “mini-concert” at MTSU’s James Walker Library Wednesday, Sept. 24. A free, full-length “Concert and Conversation with Stephen Wade” is set Thursday, Sept. 25, in MTSU’s Business and Aerospace Building and is open to the public. (MTSU photos by Darby Campbell)

Focusing on Tennesseans from the frontier to the MTSU campus, the boisterous banjoist played tales of Col. David Crockett and his adventures in Arkansas, crashed into an Uncle Dave Macon clawhammer to preach an alliterative “Beauty and the Beast” while providing his own percussion with his rhythmic clogging, and praised the late MTSU folklore scholar Charles Wolfe as “an enormous encouragement to me in my life.”

“Some people come just for the tuning,” Wade wisecracked during a quiet moment while he adjusted one of his historic banjos.

The audience, peering down from the library’s three upper floors onto the almost-full first floor, laughed in unison, then resumed tapping their toes and nodding when Wade began to play again.

Wade, whose visit to MTSU is part of the university’s Tom T. Hall Writers Series, also has a free public 5 p.m. concert event set Thursday, Sept. 25, in Room S102 of the Business and Aerospace Building. You can find a printable campus map at

He’s also visiting music and oral history classes during this trip to MTSU.

“I’m so excited to be back at the ground zero of Uncle Dave Macon!” Wade cried during a relaxed meet-and-greet with admirers Wednesday after his mini-concert. “He offered such an enormous breadth to his music and incorporated so many kinds of popular music into his own.”

Wade’s love of music, history and people culminated in an award-winning 504-page book, “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience.” It’s a collection of Library of Congress field recordings spanning from 1934 to 1942 from southern Appalachia down to the Mississippi Delta, teamed with Wade’s own scholarly research and personal interviews.

MTSU alumnus Bill Steber made a special trip back to campus for Wade’s visit, savoring the music and the tales as well as an opportunity to talk with a man he said “made a big difference in my life.”

Steber, a professional photographer, has been documenting blues culture in Mississippi for more than 20 years. In 1997, Steber had been trying, unsuccessfully, to visit the infamous Louisiana penitentiary known as Parchman Farm to photograph members of the prison’s renowned blues band.

He recalled that he was poring over one of Wade’s CDs and went back to the prison to try one more time.

“I guess they thought I was you,” Steber told a surprised Wade, “because they let me in. That was the only reason they let me in that close, I’m sure.”

Wade laughed as he signed Steber’s copy of his old CD and his book.

“He’s a rare case of someone who brings a performer’s passion to an academic field,” Steber said after his conversation with Wade. “He’s a joy to listen to and to see.”

Folk scholar Stephen Wade, standing, explains his discovery of the origins of the blues/folk classic “Rock Island Line” first popularized by Lead Belly during an informal meet-and-greet session Wednesday, Sept. 24, in MTSU’s Walker Library. Among those listening are, seated from center, Michael D. Doubler, a historian, author and great-grandson of Uncle Dave Macon; and MTSU alumnus Bill Steber, a professional photographer and Mississippi blues culture researcher.

To learn more about the recordings in “Beautiful Music,” including a brief video interview with Wade, visit You can also watch a free 1987 documentary about Wade, including his own performances as well as some of his interview subjects and idols, at

Dr. Greg Reish, the new director of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music, is a friend and scholarly colleague of Wade’s and introduced him at the Sept. 24 library events.

“Stephen is an extraordinary scholar and musician, passionately devoted to the vernacular music of the United States and the people who make it,” Reish said. “His presentations are truly marvelous, and we are very excited to welcome such a captivating and engaging figure.”

Wade became intrigued by traditional music and folklore as a youngster growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, where he met musicians moving into the city from the Mississippi Delta and the Southern Appalachians. He developed acclaimed theater performances, including “Banjo Dancing” and “On The Way Home,” to share his love of folk music and history and also was a part of the public television documentary “The Unquiet Library,” a study of the Library of Congress’s music division.

He has recorded and/or produced more than a dozen albums, including his most recent, the Grammy-nominated “Banjo Diary: Lessons from Traditions” on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

All Wade’s appearances are co-sponsored by the MTSU College of Mass Communication, The Center for Popular Music, MTSU College of Liberal Arts, Department of History, School of Music and the Virginia Peck Trust.

The Tom T. Hall Writers Series in the College of Mass Communication at MTSU celebrates songwriters, authors, poets and screenwriters and offers students, faculty, staff and the public a chance to learn more about the creative process as well as the business end of success.

Previous Hall Writers Series guests have included country superstar Vince Gill; acclaimed songwriter John Hiatt; bluegrass impresario Ricky Skaggs; Dan O’Shannon, one of the Emmy-winning executive producers and writers of the hit ABC comedy “Modern Family”; and the Emmy-nominated creative team behind the HBO Films movie “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which included MTSU alumnus and composer George S. Clinton.

— Gina E. Fann (

A crowd of students, staff and visitors listen to folk scholar Stephen Wade during a "mini-concert" at MTSU's James Walker Library Wednesday, Sept. 24.

A crowd of students, staff and visitors listen to folk scholar Stephen Wade, center, during a “mini-concert” at MTSU’s James Walker Library Wednesday, Sept. 24.