Stephen Wade (musician)

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Stephen Wade
Born1953 (age 65–66)
OriginChicago, Illinois, United States
Occupation(s)Musician, writer, researcher
LabelsSmithsonian Folkways, Flying Fish, County

Stephen Wade (born 1953) is an American folk musician, writer, and researcher.

Early life[edit]

Stephen Wade grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s where, early on, he came to know a number of vernacular musicians who had moved north to the city from the Mississippi Delta and the Southern Appalachians. Wade started playing blues guitar at age eleven, and by his teens, began focusing on the five-string banjo.

Wade met banjo player and singer Fleming Brown at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music in early 1972 and by the mid-‘70s, Brown passed his classes over to Wade to teach. In 1972, Wade also began accompanying Brown’s teacher, Doc Hopkins, the celebrated Kentucky-born, WLS National Barn Dance performer. Under the tutelage of these two mentors, Wade immersed himself in the banjo, traditional music, and American folklore. They, along with other scholars, collectors, and performers, encouraged him to seek out traditional musicians elsewhere, as well as to research American humor and folk tales from both living sources and archival resources.

Banjo dancing[edit]

Wade developed Banjo Dancing in the late '70s, a one-person theatrical performance combining storytelling, traditional music, and percussive dance. The show opened in Chicago in May 1979 where it ran for thirteen months, including an invited performance at the White House. Wade brought Banjo Dancing to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 1981 where he was initially booked for three weeks. His engagement there ran ten years, becoming during that time one of the longest-running, off-Broadway shows in the country.

In 1986, Wade appeared in the public television documentary The Unquiet Library, a study of the Library of Congress’s music division. This led the following year to his writing and narrating Catching the Music, a celebration of the banjo and its learning.

On the Way Home, Wade’s second critically acclaimed theatre show, opened in 1989 in Washington, D.C. In the early ‘90s, he took both this show and Banjo Dancing on the road. Wade received the Joseph Jefferson award in 1993 for his Chicago run of On the Way Home. A five-time Helen Hayes award nominee, in 2003, Wade received the Helen Hayes / Charles MacArthur award as composer, adaptor, and musical director for the world premiere of Zora Neale Hurston’s Polk County.


Wade's essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in such publications as American Music, ARSC Journal, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Studies in Popular Culture, Encyclopedia of Chicago, Musical Quarterly, American Archivist, Southern Quarterly, Journal of Country Music, New Letters, Beloit Magazine, Folklife Center News, Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post’s Book World.

Stephen Wade has written the award-winning book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (which includes a companion CD in the cloth edition), published in August 2012 by the University of Illinois Press.


In fall 2013, The Beautiful Music All Around Us received the ASCAP Deems Taylor award and also the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) 2013 award for Best History in the category of Folk, Ethnic, or World Music. This 504 page study grew out of his 1997 Rounder collection, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. In turn, that album gave rise to his folksong commentaries that have aired on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

Recognition for The Beautiful Music All Around Us has continued, and in November 2016, Wade became the first-ever individual to receive the Judith McCulloh Public Sector Award [1] from the Society for Ethnomusicology.

Wade released Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition [2] in September 2012. The album, which explores musical knowledge passed across the generations, received a Grammy nomination, recognized at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards.

Recent career[edit]

Wade's latest album, Americana Concert: Alan Jabbour and Stephen Wade at the Library of Congress, went into release on the Patuxent label in December 2017.

In June 2017, Smithsonian Folkways issued Wade's all-solo album, Across the Amerikee: Showpieces from Coal Camp to Cattle Trail.

In 2013–2014 Wade served as Resident Artist/Scholar Fellow, Department of Music, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, George Washington University, and as 2013 George A. Miller Visiting Scholar, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Wade directs the American Roots Music Program at Colorado's Rocky Ridge Music Center. He is currently working with Academy Award-winning film writer, producer and director Paul Wagner in creating a film for broadcast on public television based on The Beautiful Music All Around Us.

Selected discography[edit]

  • Americana Concert: Alan Jabbour and Stephen Wade at the Library of Congress Patuxent Music Patuxent CD-308 (2017).
  • Across the Amerikee: Showpieces from Coal Camp to Cattle Trail. Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40223 (2017).
  • Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition. Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40208 (2012).
  • Dancing In the Parlor. County COCD 2721 (1997).
  • Dancing Home. Flying Fish FF 70543 (1990).


  • Various artists, On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music. Great Smoky Mountains Association (2016). Performer.
  • Various artists, The Patuxent Banjo Project: The Best of Washington, DC, Baltimore, MD, Northern VA, and Southern PA. Patuxent CD 250 (2014). Performer.
  • Hobart Smith, In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes. Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40141 (2005). Producer and annotator.
  • Tony Ellis, Sounds Like Bluegrass to Me. Copper Creek 0174 (1999). Producer and annotator.
  • Various artists, Black Appalachia. Rounder CD 1823 (1999). Annotator.
  • Various artists, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. Rounder CD 1500 (1997). Producer and annotator.
  • Various artists, The Art of the Banjo. Sonoton SCB 248 (1997). Producer, annotator, and performer.
  • Tony Ellis, Farewell My Home. Flying Fish FF 70620 (1993). Producer and annotator.
  • Various artists, Authentic America, Vols. I and II. Sonoton SAS 036 and SAS 037 (1990). Producer, annotator, and performer.
  • Tony Ellis, Dixie Banner. Flying Fish FF 444 (1987). Producer, annotator, and performer.
  • Fleming Brown, Little Rosewood Casket and Other Songs of Joy. Merrywang 1953 (1984). Producer and annotator.


  • Altman, Ross. "Pure Perfection": Across the Amerikee: Showpieces from Coal Camp to Cattle Trail. <>.
  • Harrington, Richard. “Stephen Wade, Trusting in an Unsung Hero.” Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2006.
  • Hentoff, Nat. "American Folk Songs, Direct From the Field," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 1997.
  • Guarino, Mark. "Stephen Wade Uncovers 'The Beautiful Music All Around Us'," Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 20, 2013.
  • Inskeep, Steve. "Stephen Wade and the Banjo." Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Sept. 19, 2003.
  • Kalem, T. E. "Pipes of Pan." Time, June 25, 1979.
  • Kogan, Rick. "Stephen Wade: A Telling Tale of Making Beautiful Music." Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2013.
  • McClain, Buzz. “Stephen Wade, Back to Teach.” Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2006.
  • Moss, Mark D. "Stephen Wade." Sing Out! 42, no. 4 (Spring 1998): 76-77.
  • "Stephen Wade." Folkstreams. <>.
  • Wolfe, Charles K. "The Early Years." In The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Country Music, edited by Bob Allen, 37. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.