The Kentucky Fiddler Who Inspired Aaron Copland's 'Rodeo' | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

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

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 recording made an impression on Aaron Copland, who incorporated it, almost note for note, when he was writing the music for the theme of 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 farm houses, 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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Bringing Tales Of WWII To American Radios And Bookshelves

Bill Shirer brought stories of war in Europe into American homes. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Ken Cuthbertson about his new book, A Complex Fate: William L. Shirer and the American Century.
NPR

Trickster Journalist Explains Why He Duped The Media On Chocolate Study

John Bohannon, the man behind a stunt that bamboozled many news organizations into publishing junk science on dieting, talks to NPR's Robert Siegel about why he carried out the scheme.
NPR

Hastert Due To Be Arraigned Next Week

The Los Angeles Times reports that the FBI spoke with two individuals who made accusations of sexual abuse against the former Speaker of the House.
NPR

Tech Giants Compete ... For Your Vacation Albums

With ballgames, family reunions and trips to the beach, summer is full of chances to snap photos. Apple and Google are in a battle to help you store, organize and share all those visual mementos.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.