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Publishers WeeklyBanjo player and folk music expert Wade was introduced at an early age to the dynamic nature of "folklife" via Casey Jones, an indigent performer born in 1870 who was famous throughout Chicago for his eccentric street-corner routines involving a chicken named Mae West who, when not perched atop the old man's hat, drank from a flask, tightrope-walked, and danced "the shimmy-she-wabble" and "the boogie-woogie" to the sounds of Casey's accordion. Throughout Wade's exhaustively researched excavation of the histories behind a baker's dozen field recordings made by the Library of Congress in the 1930s and '40s (which are included with the book on an audio CD, along with 17 other tracks), the author never loses sight of the ebullient and sorrowful lives behind the music, of which Casey Jones and his hat-top chickens were merely one example among many. From 12-year-old Mississippian Ora Dell Graham singing "Pullin' the Skiff" to Kelly Pace and prisoners of the Arkansas State Penitentiary doing a rendition of "Rock Island Line," Wade profiles these and other "vernacular builders" while "grappling with questions of culture and ownership, and by extension, what is ours, individually and collectively." Tracing these songs' and singers' roots from cotton fields to prison yards, from front porches to back alleys, Wade's study offers an understanding not only of a musical thread vital to American culture, but of America itself. 50 b&w photos.
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