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

Handmade Signs From Homeless People Lead To Art, Understanding

Artist Willie Baronet is on a 24-city, 31-day trek across the country this month, buying handmade signs from homeless people. He says the project has changed the way he views homelessness.
NPR

You'll Be Maaaaaaaad About Goat If You Follow This Chef's Recipe

Goat — it's the other red meat! And it's easy to mess up. Kenyan-born Kevin Onyona reveals the secrets to a tender yet hearty stew: You've got to break down that meat, and you've got to give it love.
WAMU 88.5

McDonnell Corruption Trial Begins Monday

It's a first for the Commonwealth of Virginia on Monday, as Bob McDonnell becomes the first governor of Old Dominion to face potential jail time.

NPR

What It's Like To Own Your Very Own Harrier Jump Jet

The Harrier Jump Jet is known for vertical take-offs and landings. It also has an accident-prone track record, but that didn't dissuade one pilot from buying his dream plane.

Leave a Comment

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