Musician for rotator 11-13

American folk musician and author Stephen Wade plays the banjo for Northview School students Friday. Wade described how banjos are made and why folk music is important in our lives.


Northview School music teacher David Madden always tries giving his students a superior learning experience.

He provided that recently when  his friend, American folk musician Stephen Wade, visited the school to talk about how folk music impacts people’s lives.

"It’s important to the past and future," Wade said. "Folk music has evolved as it’s constantly renewing. These songs were played to children in the 1890s. You didn’t have to play silly-sounding songs. I think little children can appreciate cool music like adults can in their own way."

Wade showed the fifth-graders the five banjos he has collected. He received them from friends, teachers or sellers.

One banjo hailed from 1860 before the Civil War broke out, and another was a decorative one constructed in 1905 for wealthy players.

"I love the bite of banjos," Wade said. "I love the tones and the variety of it. Mostly, I love the people behind it. The banjo is really a way of recalling and remembering these individuals. It’s a legacy of voices."

A wooden banjo grabbed the students’ interest when Wade said animal skins from possums and other critters made up the head.

The students let out a shocked "eeewww" following that explanation.

Wade, with Madden and Parkland music professor Jordan Kaye, played folk music from the 1820s through early 1900s while also giving the historical, cultural and sociological reason for its importance.

A song most people have heard before, "Home Sweet Home," had its origins in the 1820s, and evolved into a popular banjo song by the 1850s.

Another tune was "Railroad Bill," about a black vagrant originally named Morris Slater who robbed and terrorized trains in Alabama.

Wade, who lives in Washington D.C. and traveled 12 hours by car to Northview, also talked about his book "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience," which took him more than 200 interviews and 15 years to write before being published in 2012. The book received favorable reviews from The Washington Post and numerous other publications.

"I was very interested in the decisions the players made, and getting their point of view with their musical styles," Wade said. "The book is based on recordings from 1934-1942. I’m showing up a half century after the fact. I interviewed some musicians and their families and community members on what was the role of the song."

Most of the musicians were largely unknown, but Wade said they affected us as "we’ve heard these songs through them."

"They showed us how a single person can change the course of a democracy," Wade said. "We have songs from loggers, farmers, cowboys, state prisoners, farm wives and little kids. These people are affecting us. The idea of the beautiful music around us is speaking to a creativity we find just that way, and it can be in the North Woods, the South and Appalachians.

"This informal dimension is a part of our lives to the extent we make ourselves available to it. We all have folklore in our makeup, and it goes on."

Wade told the children he learned how to play guitar and the banjo from musicians who were born from the 1870s through 1890s, so their spirit lives on through him and others who learn the tunes.

"The oldest man I ever knew was named Paul Cadwell, who was born in the 1880s," Wade said. "He was so old that Woodrow Wilson was his history teacher at Princeton before he was president. That was a long time ago."

Madden said he and Kaye met Wade two years ago when he was in the Rantoul area working on his book. Wade joined them playing music.

This past summer, Wade was in Urbana and told Madden he would be at the University of Illinois this fall to give some lectures, so Madden talked the accomplished musician into helping teach Northview’s students.

"Music is a vital part of our humanity and our being," Madden said. "Having Stephen here is huge because when you learn, it’s one thing to hear recordings or see pictures. The best learning is what you see live. People should have live audio-visual experiences everyday.

"Seeing it live is where you could experience it, feel it and think about it in the most deep way. It’s more important and effective than TV, computers or any technology."