In May 1979 a young musician named Stephen Wade opened a one-man show at a small yet adventurous off-Loop theater in Chicago. Called Banjo Dancing, or the 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song, Dance, Folklore Convention & Banjo Contest and How I Lost, it consisted of songs, tunes, and stories sourced in American folklore and literature, accompanied by his five-string banjo and percussive dance steps.
Scheduled for a four-weekend run in an eighty-seat black box, the show took a wholly unexpected turn. Theater critics from around the nation saw it and raved. “An impassioned banjoist, a nimbly authoritative clog dancer, a soulful singer of folk music and an enthralling tall tale raconteur,” said Time magazine. “A wondrous artist, this Stephen Wade.” The reviews soon led to an invited appearance at the White House, and the show moved into successively larger spaces in Chicago, and eventually to stages across the nation.
A three-week engagement at Washington's Arena Stage turned into ten years. “Among the enduring Washington institutions—the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the inaugural parade—it will soon be necessary to include Stephen Wade,” wrote the Washington Post. Over time, Banjo Dancing became one of the longest-running, off-Broadway shows in the United States.
Now forty years after its premiere, with A Storyteller's Story: Sources of Banjo Dancing (Patuxent Music CD-333, 2019), Stephen Wade explores the precedents that lit his way. For him, so much stems from the Old Town School of Folk Music, this place where he learned the banjo from his teacher, Fleming Brown, and whose class he eventually inherited. Even more, the album illuminates a set of influences and experiences thriving long before Banjo Dancing, and embodied by an unlikely group of musicians, writers, orators, and actors. Tonight's concert brings this all back home.
A 2013 Grammy nominee, Stephen Wade is author of the prizewinning book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (University of Illinois Press, 2012).
Between 2015 and 2019 Wade established and directed all five years of the American Roots Music Program at Colorado's Rocky Ridge Music Center, a faculty much filled by Old Town School teachers and a student body populated by their students. He earlier wrote and narrated a series of song studies that aired on NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition. In addition to performing, recording, and teaching, he is currently researching another book on American folklore.