12:03am

Sun February 10, 2013
Music

The Kentucky Fiddler Who Inspired Aaron Copland's 'Rodeo'

Originally published on Wed February 13, 2013 6:29 pm

Sunday night's Grammys are an opportunity to rain accolades on pop music and perhaps witness the musical return of Justin Timberlake. But each year, the Recording Academy also honors recordings of "lasting significance" by inducting them into the Grammy Hall of Fame. One of them this year is Kentucky fiddler Bill Stepp's performance of "Bonaparte's Retreat."

"It's normally done as a stately sort of march," musician and author Stephen Wade says. His new book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us, tells the backstory of Stepp and other artists whose performances were captured on Library of Congress field recordings. (Wade's album Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition is also up for a Grammy.)

Recorded in the fall of 1937, Stepp's version of "Bonaparte's Retreat" offered a different take on the traditional tune.

"It's perfectly conventional in the sense of what the melody is," Wade says. "But he's transformed the tempo from a march into a hoedown, and that makes all the difference."

That Beefy Melody

Stepp's performance made an impression on Aaron Copland (via Ruth Crawford Seeger's meticulous transcription), who incorporated it, almost note for note, when he was writing the music for the hoedown movement in the ballet Rodeo.

"When you're hearing 40 concert violins and a xylophone and a wood block all playing together, really [you're] hearing fiddler Bill Stepp," Wade says.

The Library of Congress field recordings were captured in their natural settings — in farmhouses, yards, churches and prisons. In most cases, the singers and their families never knew what happened to the recordings.

"I went to a couple family reunions, and at one of them, everybody knew Fiddler Bill — that's what they called him — Fiddler Bill or Grandpa," Wade says. "And they'd all heard the Copland thing in some form or another. It made its way all over the world, really, through that beef commercial: 'Beef, it's what's for dinner.' But no one had connected the two. And so when I was in this hall playing just a little cassette, crossfading Fiddler Bill's recording into the symphonic version — I mean pride, pride just filled the hall, and it was just wonderful."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tonight's Grammy Awards will bring all the glitz and glam we have come to expect with performances by the pop music stars of the moment, including Taylor Swift and a comeback by Justin Timberlake. But each year, the recording academy also honors recordings of, quote, "lasting significance" by inducting them into the Grammy Hall of Fame. One of the recordings nominated this year is "Bonaparte's Retreat" by Kentucky fiddler Bill Stepp. Musician and author Stephen Wade's new book tells the backstory of Stepp and other artists captured on Library of Congress Guild recordings. He told us a bit about "Bonaparte's Retreat."

STEPHEN WADE: It's normally done as a stately sort of march. For instance, this 1936 recording of Fiddlin' Arthur Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BONAPARTE'S RETREAT")

FIDDLIN' ARTHUR SMITH: (Playing)

WADE: And this 1937 recording of Bill Stepp. It's perfectly conventional in the sense of what the melody is, but he's transformed the tempo from a march into a hoedown. And that makes all the difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BONAPARTE'S RETREAT")

BILL STEPP: (Playing)

WADE: These were recorded in people's farmhouses and in churches and in prisons. It sounds of life were not scrubbed from these recordings.

STEPP: I'm listening to "Bonaparte's." That's the bony part.

WADE: And so when Bill Stepp is talking while he was fiddling and says that's the bony part, that's the bony part - that's just part of what these records sound like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BONAPARTE'S RETREAT")

STEPP: (Playing)

WADE: Bill recorded this in the fall of 1937, and not long after that Aaron Copeland had been hired to write music for a new ballet called "Rodeo." And for his hoedown, for the main theme that you can hear is this version of "Bonaparte's Retreat." So, when you're hearing 40 concert violins and a xylophone and a wood bock all playing together, really we're hearing fiddler Bill Stepp.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RODEO")

WADE: I went to a couple family reunions, and at one of them, everybody knew Fiddler Bill - that's what they called him - Fiddler Bill or Grandpa. And they'd all heard the Copland thing in some form or another. It made its way all over the world, really, through that beef commercial: Beef, it's what's for dinner. But no one had connected the two. And so when I was in this hall playing just a little cassette, crossfading Fiddler Bill's recording into the symphonic version - I mean pride, pride just filled the hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RODEO")

WADE: These recordings were just simply a day in their lives. And most cases they never knew what have happened with these recordings. In the case of Fiddler Bill Stepp, he never knew that this nearly anonymous Kentucky fiddler has, you know, continued to play for millions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BONAPARTE'S RETREAT")

STEPP: (Playing)

MARTIN: Stephen Wade's book is "The Beautiful Music All Around Us." His new album is up for Best Album Notes tonight. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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