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

Bill Cosby Removed From Documentary On Black Stuntmen

Bill Cosby was instrumental in opening the door for black stuntmen in Hollywood early in his career. He was to be a central figure in a new documentary about black stuntmen, but that has now changed. He will be mentioned, but his interviews have been pulled, following the latest revelations about the comedian, who admitted in court documents that he drugged women for sex.
NPR

Me-Tea-Morphosis: Tea Bags Get Second Life As Works Of Art

Artists are reinventing the humble tea bag, letting its contents and simple shape and color shine in beautiful, fragile art. Some are even farming out the tea drinking to get to the used bags.
NPR

New York's LaGuardia Airport To Get Long Overdue Redesign

NPR's Melissa Block talks to Janet R. Daly Bednarek, an aviation expert and professor at the University of Dayton, about the airport that was once thought of as a model for all U.S. airports.
NPR

Researchers Warn Against 'Autonomous Weapons' Arms Race

Already, researcher Stuart Russell says, sentry robots in South Korea "can spot and track a human being for a distance of two miles – and can very accurately kill that person."

Leave a Comment

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