The Route of "Bonaparte's Retreat": From "Fiddler Bill" Stepp to Aaron Copland

The Route of "Bonaparte's Retreat":From "Fiddler Bill" Stepp to Aaron Copland
by Stephen Wade

Musician and researcher Stephen Wade is best known for his long-running, one-man stage performances in "Banjo Dancing" and "On the Way Home." His commentaries on folk songs for National Public Radio's All Things Considered and this article are both drawn from a larger work in progress," American Folk Music: A Personal Treasury from the Library of Congress." This
book, to be published by the University of Illinois Press, will document the stories behind the thirty pieces Wade selected for the CD, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder 1500).

John and Becky Arnett of West Liberty, Kentucky, made their way through Orlando International Airport and boarded the monorail that would ferry them to the departure lounges. Like a futuristic ride at nearby Disney World, the train glided past postcard views of manmade lakes and landscaped palm trees. It coasted to a stop, and a warning tone signaled the vehicle's computer-driven arrival. They began their trek down the long, carpeted corridor to the plane. Gate announcements, prefaced by the bleating of an electronic whistle, barked from the public address system. Between the clatter of messages and noises, a crescendo of forty concert violins and a xylophone streamed from the loudspeakers. For many of Orlando's air travelers,
the melody recalled a well-known television commercial in which images of sizzling steaks and high-spirited fun flash across the screen. Throughout the spot, this musical arrangement plays beneath the gunmetal voice of Robert Mitchum telling a nation, "Beef, it's what's for dinner."[1] Becky listened to a few notes, pointed to the speakers overhead, and said, "John, can't you hear it? That's Grandpa! That's Grandpa!"[2]

In truth, Becky's grandfather, fiddler Bill Stepp, born in rural Kentucky twenty-five years before the close of the nineteenth century, is the creative source of an American anthem. In 1942 his rendition of the tune "Bonaparte's Retreat" became incorporated, nearly note for note, in the score of Rodeo, an acclaimed modern ballet.[3] Cast in a rousing orchestral setting, the piece entered the repertoire of popular American concert works. By the early 1970s it appeared as "Hoedown," an FM radio hit for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a symphonically oriented English rock band.[4] Later, it formed the soundtrack for the beef growers' commercial, and finally, in this, an example of its continuing presence in American life, it recurs in the music piped
down the hallways of a modern airport. The route taken by Stepp's singular performance spans the breadth of our national experience. William Hamilton Stepp (1875-1957) began life as the illegitimate child of a locally prominent father and a half-Indian mother whose principal means of support was prostitution. As a Nottaway Indian, Lucinda Stepp (1838-1909), like her mother, Rachel Memdra Miranda Sea Horse Stepp (1813-87), occupied the lowest rungs of eastern Kentucky society. Although both women found occasional employment as domestics, and from time to time manufactured homemade lye soap, household brooms, and corn-shuck beds, they spent their lives in poverty.

In the words of Lucinda's great-granddaughter, "These women would work all day for a spool of thread."[5] Not unlike today's homeless who occupy open bus shelters, from the mid- 1870s until 1912 one or another of this family (including Lucinda's
youngest sister, Morning Stepp) lived under a large sandstone cliff near Beattyville in Lee County, Kentucky. In that region of the state, the Kentucky, Licking, and Red Rivers have cut a number of such formations, and indigent persons up and down the rivers once occupied these rough cave dwellings. Along with moonshiners who took advantage of the concealment (and running water) the caves afforded, and pirates who, in earlier years, preyed on the flatboats that plied these waters, the Stepps lived outside conventional practices and protections, their living spaces divided by scrap lumber and tree limbs. Today, the cliff lies near a modern ranch-style home that boasts a spacious vegetable garden and an outdoor swimming pool. From the
line of trees behind the house, however, the ground drops away to a
sharp ravine of shelf rock concealed by bushes and trees, its depths
hidden by sunlight and overgrowth. One could easily plunge from
this precipice into the rocks and scrub below. Only by leaning with
the trail and grasping at roots scattered along the way can a venturer
safely edge down the face of the incline. There, some fifty feet beneath
the highway, is the place where Bill Stepp spent the first five
years of his life. It curves in a slow are, divided into two chambers.
Pieces of rock have fallen to the dry creekbed below. In years past, a
"Bonaparte's Retreat" 345
long canopy jutted from the cliff's entrance; a natural spring still runs
through its shaded interior. Soot marks from open fires have stained
the rock ceiling. Even today, one can imagine a couple huddled in a
dark corner of this dwelling, hidden from public detection. Here in
April 1875 Bill Stepp was born, the product of a union between William
Taylor Seale, scion of a judge and nephew of a local minister,
and Lucinda Stepp. Bill was one of Seale's three children with Lucinda.
But Seale would never acknowledge these youngsters, a fact
sardonically observed by one local as "too many wood's colts."6 In
the year following his birth, authorities arrested Lucinda and her
mother on charges of adultery, which, in the parlance of the day, was
understood as prostitution. "Don't think too hard on them," said Lizzie
Seale, a local centenarian who in 1986 still remembered Lucinda
and her sisters. "They did what they had to do to survive."'
By the age of five, Bill Stepp had been removed from his mother's
care to the nearby home of Asa Smyth. Bill became a "bound boy,"
in today's terminology, a court-appointed foster child. "It was in this
home," recalls Bill Stepp's oldest granddaughter, Dorothy Allen, "that
he began to play the fiddle." In 1880 sixty-year-old landowner Asa
Smyth lived along the same Long Branch road as Lucinda and Rachel
Stepp, his home within a half-mile of the cliff. The county census
of that year reports five-year-old William Stepp's presence in the family
together with Smyth's two stepsons and his young wife. According
to family accounts, Smyth was expected to teach the boy a trade
and provide for him until the age of eighteen. Apparently a kind man,
he did not isolate Bill from his mother or her people. Bill's sister, for
instance, was married under Smyth's roof. Nearby, too, lived Bill's
aunt Morning Stepp (1855-1933). Morning's companion, a man named
William "Greasy Bill" Tincher, had been arrested in 1876 along with
Rachel and Lucinda for adultery and with them saw the case dismissed
two years later by the circuit court. A generation older than
Bill Stepp, "Greasy Bill" played the fiddle, and it was this commonlaw
uncle that locals cite as the young man's first musical preceptor
during the time he lived at Asa Smyth's.8
In the mid-1890s Bill was performing at local affairs in Lee County
and later, Magoffin County, where he relocated. His showmanship is
still remembered. Bill's nephew Clayton Congleton described one of
his uncle's appearances in Beattyville. More than a hundred peoplea
sizable gathering for that time-traveled from throughout the region
to dance to his fiddle. As Bill played from his spot on the back
porch of Congleton's home, the guests "ran figures" along the wide,
flat yard that lay behind the house. For some numbers he joined them
himself, standing up to clog while he continue to draw his bow. On
this occasion, he tied a red ribbon to his fiddle.9
346 Wade
Frontier experiences marked these years of Bill's life. In addition
to his work as a musician, Stepp rafted logs. Lumber then ranked as
the chief industry in Beattyville, a small town poised above the three
forks of the Kentucky River. Bill transported product upriver to the
sawmill in Royalton. During this period too, Bill's first wife, Cornelia
Noe (1874-1893), died in childbirth with their unborn daughter.
Mother and child were buried on Asa Smyth's farm. In the wake of
these losses Bill came to Magoffin County to visit Cornelia's family.
Although Lee and Magoffin Counties remained separated by only one
county to the east, travel to Magoffin remained difficult well into this
century. Before the 1930s brought paved roads, horseback or foot was
the usual form of transport. Bill traveled by horse to Magoffin, where
for the first time he encountered Cornelia's niece Hester Arnett. "I was
staying over at Grandmother Noe's," Bill told Dorothy Allen, "That's
how I met your grandmother."'1 They wed in 1896 and had twelve
children, who, in turn, would give them sixty-three grandchildren.
"He was a shrewd old feller," said Nannie Howard (1919-), Stepp's
last surviving child. "And I mean, he was shifty." Although Nannie
spoke affectionately of her father, her choice of words was startling.
"Shifty people," Bill Stepp's grandson explained, "don't have the formal
education. But, like Grandpa, they are smart in their own way.
You can get by on a little of nothing, get by and do it well."1'
By all accounts Stepp cared little for workaday toil. He was not, in
the words of another of his grandsons, "workified." While the family
warmly remembers this man they call "Fiddler Bill," they also acknowledge
his personal uprootedness. With a fiddle balanced on his
saddle, and by the light of a kerosene lantern, he would leave home
without notice for two or three weeks at a time. Nannie recounted
an incident during her mother Hester's final illness. After dressing
himself fastidiously, Bill announced he would "step out of a night."12
Hester rose up from her sickbed and threw the contents of her bedpan
on Bill's fresh suit with the words, "Now, Bill, take that to your
dance." Nannie sat back in her chair and sighed, "He was a rounder."
He married, I learned, seven times in his life.
Yet as he moved from Lee County to Magoffin, and finally to Hamlet,
Indiana, where he finished his days, Stepp took care to live in close
radius of the family he and Hester had raised. None of his descendants
remember his speaking of his childhood or of the domestic rupture
that scarred his beginnings. The living memories of Bill Stepp
carried by his descendants today keep returning to his high style, his
appealing flamboyance. His grandchildren knew him as a man who
seldom worked, yet somehow kept money in his pocket. One smiled
when he described this striking figure gone now some forty years:
"He could walk down a road and never get mud on his shoes." Bill
"Bonaparte's Retreat" 347
Stepp's daily attire of ironed shirts and pressed pants did not fit the
mien of an outdoor laborer. "Oh, he wasn't a committed farmer," said
his grandson. "He was a committed musician."13
In Lakeville, Kentucky, the awning that once sheltered the entrance
to Owen Hoskins's grocery has fallen away. Sixty years ago Fiddler
Bill came by horseback to play here on Saturday mornings, as his
neighbors traded their crops of tobacco, ginseng, and eggs. Now the
boarded-up business with its whitewashed wood is collapsing, abandoned
since the owner's death. For the past several years, a local gospel
group has parked its bus beside the building. The rusting vehicle
stands unused, its once-bright robe of purple paint fading away. Next
door, children's voices clatter above the sounds of a television. Otherwise,
this section of road is empty, bordered only by small tobacco
fields and some vacant outbuildings. Past the grocery, in the distance,
mist lingers above the notch of trees. Around the curve, Stinson Creek,
a branch of the Licking River, runs down behind the woods. In 1937
Bill Stepp lived along this creek in a log cabin. Fiddler Bill's granddaughter,
Dorothy Allen, raised in this home, remembers days like this:
People liked him, and they liked to hear him play his music.
They'd come and sit on that porch, especially on a rainy day.
They'd stop by and tie their horses to the paling. Grandpa would
sit out on the porch. They'd come in, sit around, sometimes
they'd be ten, fifteen people sitting on that porch listening to
Grandpa play fiddle.14
Listeners, Dorothy said, wanted him to make the fiddle "hiccup like
a drunkard."'5 He'd pluck the strings and stagger his bow like the
uncertain steps of an inebriate. There were other tunes, too-hoedowns
and hymns-that met with great favor. Sometimes he'd retune
his fiddle for "Bonaparte's Retreat," but as Dorothy recalled, "that one
was always last." When it came for the neighbors to leave, Bill would
call inside, "Hester, don't you think we better get some dinner on the
One month after Hester's death at age fifty-five from a stroke, Bill
Stepp recorded for the Library of Congress. One of a handful of musicians
drawn from the Lakeville community, Stepp played seventeen
pieces for the disc machine operated by Alan Lomax and his wife,
Elizabeth.16 The Lomaxes were then in the final week of a Kentucky
song-collecting expedition, a venture that yielded 859 recorded items,
148 of which included the fiddle. Over the course of the trip the couple
recorded a dozen fiddlers, Stepp being the last. Two months before
their trip had begun with another fiddler, one whom Lomax and
his father, John, had come to know some years earlier.
348 Wade
In August 1933 John A. and Alan Lomax were nearing the end of
their first Library of Congress music expedition. On their final leg
north to Washington they stopped in Harlan, Kentucky, at the invitation
of song collector Harvey Fuson. A native of the state, a local poet,
and an amateur scholar, Fuson had compiled Ballads of the Kentucky
Highlands two years earlier. One of his sources was James Howard, a
blind musician who sang and played the fiddle. Fuson introduced the
Lomaxes to Howard, who in turn became the first fiddler they ever
recorded. The following year they included several of his dance tunes
and one of his mining songs in their American Ballads and Folk Songs.17
Three years later, in June 1937, Fuson again contacted the Library
of Congress, inviting its recording unit to his section of Kentucky.
Aware that the absence of musical notation in his book had been a
shortcoming, he remarked, "I realize this was a defect and felt it at
the time, but had no way of getting the music."18 During the 1920s
and 1930s portable electric disc-recording equipment was a specialized
technology, scarcely available except to scholarly institutions such
as the Library or to those commercial record labels that sent out field
units in search of regional performers. In exchange for these recordings,
Fuson promised to contact additional singers from other parts
of Leslie and Harlan Counties, as well as students at the Pine Mountain
Settlement School. As a result, the recordings made early in the
trip represent those performers beginning with James Howard on
September 6, 1937.
In an endeavor "as chancy as the collection of folk-songs where Acts
of God, bad roads, and bad tempers so often intervene,"'19 Lomax recognized
that despite such vicissitudes,
Most of one's encounters here in Kentucky are as pleasant as one
could well imagine. Everywhere you go you are invited to spend
the night and forced to eat a meal. Indeed, on account of the fact
that one cannot establish any sort of impersonal relationship with
these people, it is difficult to collect songs quickly.20
After coordinating his journey with a talent show in West Liberty that
featured a number of local performers, Lomax left on October 24 for
nearby Salyersville.21 The day after that he recorded Bill Stepp.
More than sixty years have passed since the Lomaxes visited Bill
Stepp. None of Fiddler Bill's family recalls the recording session. Salyersville's
historical society, just three miles from Stepp's home in
Lakeville, has no files on the expedition. Not long ago, fire consumed
whatever issues of the local newspaper might have remained from
the time of the trip. My conversation with the former Elizabeth Lomax
yielded no information about Stepp, and Alan's several strokes
have blocked his own memories.22 Outside of the recordings them'
, ? .

""" . o
~r J
t'.i . .,~
Fig. 1. Fiddler Bill Stepp on a visit to Indiana near the time of his 1937 Library
of Congress recordings. Courtesy of Becky Arnett.
350 Wade
selves, the documentary materials that come closest to the experience
reside in some notes scribbled on the sleeves of the recording blanks,
in Lomax's correspondence of that time, and in a summary of the
Archive of American Folk-Song's activities that accompanied the Library's
annual report for 1937.23 Still, one wonders, who led the Lomaxes
to Bill Stepp? Was it a chance encounter on the road? The local
talent show in West Liberty? One of the high school
superintendents to whom he had written in advance of the trip?
Hopeful of finding some answers, I went to Lakeville. With Becky
Arnett as my guide, I sought out the oldest persons "in good mind"
who could either remember Bill Stepp or describe Lakeville of that
era. During my first trip in 1997 I visited Ollie Barnett, who still lived
along the same road and overlooked the same branch that he once
had shared with his neighbor Bill Stepp. In 1930 Barnett turned eighteen
and was finishing his first year as a teacher in Waldo, Kentucky.
As an end-of-session reward for his students, he invited Fiddler Bill
to play for the last day of school. Barnett warmly described how his
old friend came by horse, bringing with him his fiddle and "a millsack
full of stick candies as a treat."24 As for Stepp's rendition of
"Bonaparte's Retreat": "To me, it was just a wonderful voice and
wonderful sound."
On returning for the 1999 Stepp family reunion, I wondered if we
couldn't try again, this time to talk with others from that period of
Bill's life. Early the next morning, Becky started calling the oldest folks
she knew in the community, setting up appointments for later that
day. After playing the banjo at the reunion-where eighty-year-old
Nannie Howard had been the first to jump up and start clogging-I
drove with Becky and John back to Lakeville.
Late that afternoon, we stood outside the home of one of Lakeville's
most senior residents. I riffled through the Library of Congress's list
of Salyersville performers, and a ballad singer identified only as "R.
C. Macfarlane" appeared on the disc numbered just below
"Bonaparte's Retreat."25 The sleeve note also said that he taught English
at the Salyersville High School. The woman we were talking
with, whose mother we were to visit that evening, replied that a
Roscoe McFarland had been her English teacher and gestured to the
hillside behind me. Another McFarland, perhaps his kin, lives over
the rise, just a few turns away.
In the light that remained before sunset, we drove over to the Mc-
Farlands' house. As we came around the bend, a car heading toward
us stopped in the one-lane dirt road. Arnold and Lydie McFarland
watched quietly as Becky and I approached them, the log sheets of
the recordings waving under my arm. The McFarlands remembered
Becky, as she had attended Salyersville High School with their son.
They spoke briefly about him, and then Lydie spoke, looking not at
me but straight ahead. "No matter what," she vowed, "I'm not going
to part with any of my Buell Kazee records."26 At that moment,
this reference to the legendary musician came as a total-and thoroughly
welcome-surprise. Lydie was talking about Magoffin County's
most famous traditional musician, the banjoist and ballad singer
who between 1927 and 1929 recorded fifty-eight sides for the Brunswick
recording company.
Standing on this unpaved road with green burrs stuck all down my
trouser legs, and Lydie describing her wind-up gramophone and a
cabinet full of original records, I realized I was talking with a couple
in direct touch with the music of their community.27
"Are you, by chance, kin to an 'R. MacFarlane.'"
"Well," Arnold answered, "I had a brother named Roscoe."
I looked again at the notes. "Did he teach English at the Salyersville
"Yes, he did."
"Was your family from Wise County, Virginia?"
"Yes, they were."
With the Library's recording log confirmed, and the weight of uncertainty
lifted, the conversation turned to Roscoe McFarland (1911-
85), an educated man, who, like Buell Kazee, found pleasure in the
old ballads. Arnold spoke affectionately of his quiet older brother and
the songs he sometimes performed.28
Becky asked him, "Did you remember hearing my Grandpa Stepp?"
"When he'd draw on a bow, you couldn't just stand and listen."
Arnold began to describe a schoolhouse dance on an election day.
"When he started playing, people drove like a bee to honey." Arnold
said he was unequaled. "Nobody held him a light in his playing."
"Have you ever heard," I asked, "of a fiddler named Clay Waiters?"
"He was my uncle. He married my daddy's sister."
Here, then, were the two fiddlers the Lomaxes had recorded in the
Salyersville location. Clay lived at Mill Branch, and Bill at Stinson,
some four or five miles apart. They knew each other as friends, playing
partners, and neighbors.
"Now, Bill Stepp hit it at a dog race. I mean he moved along. He
fiddled like he meant it. Now, Uncle Clay fiddled slow, but you could
tell what he was playing all right. Just had an old style of playing.
Never did change from it."29
We began to go through the list of remaining performers. Arnold
and Lydie McFarland held an entire map in their minds of these musicians,
and who of their families survived them today. By whatever
circumstances the Lomaxes came to record Bill Stepp-the contact
might have stemmed from Roscoe McFarland at the high school as
352 Wade
easily as from Clay Walters who sang at most of Salyersville's funerals,
and with whom Lomax would later correspond-it became clear
that a dense network of families and friendships linked these players
together. Of all the descendants I should contact, Arnold said,
"When you find Peggy Howard, you'll have found a singer."
When Peggy Howard picked up the phone, I could hear music in
the background. Angular mountain voices seeped through the telephone,
and from time to time Peggy would have to speak up. She had
just sung "Model Church" and was running through some other numbers
with her sister.30 Every week Peggy sings in church, and at home
she hosts music get-togethers where one area of her kitchen is bricked
in just for clogging. She chuckles about these "frolics." In the 1920s
Peggy's great-grandfather, banjo player Boze Hale, also hosted a
weekly jam session at his house, a log cabin at Half Mountain. "Visitors,"
she said, "would light a lantern and play till daylight at the
Boze Hale frolic." Among the musicians who came to the frolic were
Peggy's father and mother, who first met there.
Peggy's mother, multi-instrumentalist Mae Porter Puckett (1913-91),
began playing the guitar at the age of ten. By her teens, Mae was being
taken by her grandfather to Owen Hoskins's grocery on Saturday
mornings. As neighbors traded their chickens and tobacco for
groceries, the sixteen-year-old learned to accompany Fiddler Bill on
banjo and guitar. Several years later, Bill's daughter Opal Stepp wed
Cletus Porter, Mae's first cousin. The following year, in October 1937,
twenty-four-year-old Mae, now a married woman herself, joined Bill
for three Library of Congress recordings. They played two fiddle tunes
and then backed Mae's sister on "The Old Ship of Zion." On these
fast, high-pitched tunes, she set a chordal foundation for the fiddle's
lead. At these sessions, too, Mae performed one solo song while her
sister, Nell Hampton, a blind ballad singer, sang fourteen more into
the Library's disc-cutter. Two days earlier their father, Harvey Porter
(1871-1955), recorded three songs himself. A few days later, his best
friend, town barber Basil May, performed his guitar-accompanied
"Lady of Carlisle." That same day Eula Cooper, the wife of a lawyer,
and described on the sleeve notes as "very hi class," also recorded
three lyric numbers. She, too, sang with Mae from time to time.31
A number, then, of the Salyersville recordings can be sorted through
Mae Puckett's family. If the Archive's numerical listings can be depended
on to reflect the actual sequence of recordings, Harvey Porter
made the first discs in Salyersville. He, too, could have led the
Lomaxes to Bill Stepp, Clay Walters, and all the rest.
On the other hand, banjoist Virginia Prater, "Winnie" in the Archive's
files, led music classes at the same high school where Roscoe
McFarland taught, suggesting yet another linkage. Singer Branch Hig"
Bonaparte's Retreat" 353
gins, eighty-seven years old at the time of the recordings, was also a
well-known figure in the community, his name familiar still to both
Arnold McFarland and Peggy Howard. Arnold described him as "an
old man with a big family," and his performance of "The Vance Song,"
a lament of a condemned man, made enough impression on the Lomaxes
to be included a few years later in their collection Our Singing
Country. From nearby Boardtree Hollow, banjoist Walter Williams
played with Bill Stepp on some of the expedition's last recordings.32
Williams joined Stepp on "Wild Horse" and "Mud Fence" in a display
of instrumental virtuosity. Williams also recorded several songs
on his own and again navigated his pieces with masterful speed,
while displaying a knowledge that spanned the length of the fingerboard.
In his final report of the trip, Lomax affectionately cited Williams,
"who took all day to tune his banjo, but who was well worth
waiting for."33 One way or another, through blood ties, marriage, and
social contact, the Salyersville players were entwined in one another's
There are more connections. Seventy-eight-year-old fiddler and
banjoist Richard Whitely, who played with Stepp in the 1930s and still
owns one of his fiddles, mentioned that he also played with banjoist
Nora Carpenter.35 Carpenter's name was familiar to me because Becky
and her mother had spoken of her as one of Bill's closest music partners.
That friendship continued well after Stepp moved to northern
Indiana in the early 1940s. Carpenter would bring her banjo along on
her visits. But in the fall of 1937 Carpenter and her husband were
operating the one hotel in Salyersville. Just as she, too, could have
furnished the Lomaxes with the names of the Salyersville performers,
one could speculate that it was at her lodgings that Alan Lomax
penned these words: "This afternoon, the best fiddler I have heard
in Ky. is coming to play."36 On the day he made that assessment Bill
Stepp recorded "Bonaparte's Retreat."
Napoleon Bonaparte's career touched the imagination of nineteenthcentury
America, making an impression that expressed itself in songs,
set pieces, and marches wherever local militia drilled to the fife and
drum. From "Napoleon Crossing the Rhine" to "Bonaparte's Retreat
from Moscow," a profusion of tunes and titles have traced the peregrinations
of the French leader. No other military figure, neither Washington
nor Lee, Jackson nor Grant, has been commemorated so widely
in American folk music. By the twentieth century his name appeared
on dozens of recordings. Kay Starr's 1950 jukebox hit that swayed
couples to its dreamy refrain, "And I kissed her while the fiddles
played 'Bonaparte's Retreat,'" provides but a late example of the romance
attached to Napoleon. Even in the era of the Internet, tradi354
tional histories continue to circulate in cyberspace, commenting on
Napoleon and the music he inspired."B
The most famous of these accounts concerns Uncle John, a fiddler
at Pine Mountain, Kentucky. After running through a few tunes for
an inquiring college professor, the old-timer launched into his favorite.
Taken with the beguiling melody, the scholar asked the grizzled
musician for its title. The mountaineer answered, "That one's called
'Napoleon Crossing the Rockies.'" Mindful of his duty to the truth,
the professor diplomatically averred, "That was a lovely tune, Uncle
John, and I'm terribly grateful that you played it for me, but you do
know that Napoleon never actually crossed the Rockies." After a
moment's reflection, the musician replied, "Well, historians differ."
In 1937 arts educator Allen Eaton included the story in his Handicrafts
of the Southern Highlands, where it appeared in a section covering
the music and instruments of the mountains.38 There musicologist
Charles Seeger spotted the tale, and he, in turn, quoted it to Alan
Lomax.39 Lomax wrote to Eaton for the text in 1939, remarking that
he and his father might want to include it in "a book of folk songs
and fiddle tunes," a book that would eventually become Our Singing
Country.40 The book's musical settings, arranged by Seeger's wife,
composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, included Bill Stepp's version of
"Bonaparte's Retreat." Lomax intended to preface the tune with this
story, thus providing it with an anecdotal context. By using such material
in Our Singing Country, the Lomaxes hoped to bridge disparate
domains as they brought their rural field recordings to the attention
of an urbane audience. The introductory stories provided an entertaining
access to the unfamiliar material.
But by 1941, which marked the publication of Our Singing Country,
Alan Lomax had selected a different quotation, one taken from
Kentucky singer and labor activist Aunt Molly Jackson.41 Aunt Molly
characterized Napoleon as a liberator, a latter-day Robin Hood who
would venture from his homeland in France to protect the rights of
others: "If some country like Germany," she declared, "would try to
take some poor little country that was defenseless and make 'em do
as they wanted 'em to do-you know, work for 'em and all thatwell,
he'd go and he'd fight for that country, and he'd lick Germany."
42 With Nazi aggression unloosed across Europe, her view of Napoleon
as a defender of freedom invoked an older radicalism: "To the
Irish composers of this tune and to American frontiersmen," Lomax
later added, "Bonaparte was a hero."43
Public fascination with Napoleon surely played a part in fusing the
instrumental tune with his name. Moscow's burning by its citizenry,
Bonaparte's flight in the Russian snow, the decimation of his forces,
let alone his defeat at Waterloo and his banishment to St. Helena com"
Bonaparte's Retreat" 355
prised intensely dramatic stories that found a widespread audience
in the English-speaking world of the nineteenth century. Other tunes,
such as "The Rights of Man," "The Battle of Waterloo," "Down with
the French," and "The Battle of the Nile" also commemorate in their
very titles the historical events.
In addition to serving a symbolic role, tunes like "Bonaparte's Retreat"
could actually be enlisted into military service. Historian Vic
Gammon cites how the British army appropriated the French revolutionary
song "Ca Ira" as an aural feint intended to confuse the enemy
(in England, the tune became known, ironically enough, as "The
Downfall of Paris").44 Field musicians using drums, fifes, and, later,
bugles, rallied troops into formations with charges, quicksteps, and
retreats. Academic inquiry into the tune began in 1944 when Samuel
Bayard collected "Bonaparte's Retreat" from the whistling of a western
Pennsylvania workingman, F. P. Provence. Tellingly, Bayard found
that this former fiddler, who was born in the 1870s, learned the tune
from a Civil War fifer who "played it as a retreat in Civil War days."45
Ex. 1. Bayard's transcription. "Bonaparte's Retreat," from Samuel Bayard's
Hill Country Tunes. Reproduced by permission of the American Folklore Society.
Rather slow a- a-
VAB: , " -
The evocative melody may have derived from a particular family
of Bonaparte songs known as "The Island of St. Helena" or "Boney's
in St. Helena."46 With a few melodic and metrical changes, the tune
suddenly becomes "Bonaparte's Retreat" as it is commonly played
today. But when Samuel Bayard included in his pioneering work on
American fiddle music, five distinct airs associated with three different
Napoleonic titles, he connected one of these "Bonaparte" pieces
to an Irish pipe march called "The Eagle's Whistle." Frank Ferrel's
recent recording of "The Eagle's Whistle" highlights the similarities
between the tunes.47 Like most renditions of "Bonaparte's Retreat,"
Ferrel's piece unfolds at a slow pace, suggestive of the tune's ceremonial
role. In both the high and low strains, the bow draws mournfully,
answered by a brief arpeggio. With an open tuning, resonant
356 Wade
with drones and double-stops, the fiddle imitates the stately, somber
plaint of regimental bagpipes. "Bonaparte's Retreat" also employs this
feature, with the drone setting the tune's slow tempo. A related tune
that Bayard associated with "Bonaparte's Retreat," one sometimes
called "The Old Man and Old Woman Quarrelin'," similarly alternates
high and low strains. Here the fiddle recreates a husband's lowpitched
growl as he confronts the treble-voiced invective of his wife.
In like manner, "Bonaparte's Retreat" fuses two lines of contrasting
pitch and energy that serve a descriptive function.
In the headnote just above the transcriptionof Bill Stepp's
"Bonaparte's Retreat" in Our Singing Country, Alan Lomax rightly
classified the tune as imitative: "The piece," he wrote, "is descriptive-
marching, wind howling, etc."48 On the recording, in a wonderful
turn of speech, Stepp draws his listeners' attention to that strain
in the tune richest with military connotation. As he plays the low
strings of his fiddle, he says, "That's the Bony-part, that's the Bonypart."
Bascom Lunsford observed this feature, too, during his 1935
Library recording when he remarked, "The 'G' string is supposed to
represent the drum in the retreat." Still other players accelerated the
tune to represent the combatants' flight, an effect illustrated by the
1929 recording by Crockett's Kentucky Mountaineers. In yet another
performance, one commentator said of fiddler Ed Haley's version, "If
two armies could come together and hear him play that tune, they'd
kill themselves in piles."49
The tune first appeared on a recording in 1924, played by A. A.
Gray. This Alabama-born fiddler played a slow, dignified solo, not
unlike a concert violin piece, intended solely for listening. Other recordings
followed with performances by Crockett's Kentucky Mountaineers,
the Skillet Lickers, and in 1936 Arthur Smith's graceful rendition.
When the Lomaxes arrived the following year in Kentucky,
they also encountered "Bonaparte's Retreat" in a variety of forms. In
one seven-day span, they collected the tune from George C. Nicholson,
Boyd Asher, and Luther Strong.s50
None of these players, however, performed "Bonaparte's Retreat"
as elaborately as did Bill Stepp. Like them, Stepp employed the customary
D-A-D-D tuning, and followed the usual "leaping" structure.
He played the A or high part, followed by the B or low part. Then
the A part repeats at its original pitch, after which the B part transposes
an octave higher, which, in effect, places it higher than the A
part. In these respects, Stepp's version is perfectly conventional, but
he did one other thing: he transformed the tempo from a march to a
hoedown-and that made all the difference. In Alan Jabbour's words,
"His is not just one more version, but a singular, racing breakdown."51
The ringing overtones of repeated drone notes, the masterful dexter"
Bonaparte's Retreat" 357
ity of his phrasing, the introduction of triplets on the first beat, the
long strings of notes, and graceful changes in bow direction allowed
Fiddler Bill to perform the tune at square-dance velocity. "Bonaparte's
Retreat" was reborn from a slow air into a dazzling example of instrumental
With this inspired change from a familiar time signature to a new
and radically different meter, Bill Stepp incurred his neighbors' admiration
and touched the memories of his family. In a few years' time,
his fiddling would quietly revitalize the cultural experience of incalculably
In April 1942 dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille contacted
Aaron Copland about a new ballet she had just completed. As the first
American invited to choreograph for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo,
de Mille submitted a work set in the thoroughly regional locale of
frontier Texas, circa 1900. The plot centered on a young woman smitten
with a charismatic cowboy. The Cowgirl, whom de Mille herself
would play in the show's New York premiere that fall, disguises herself
as a ranch hand in order to remain near the Head Wrangler. He
is attracted to another, the Ranchowner's Daughter. Undeterred, the
Cowgirl tries to impress him with her derring-do, ending in a botched
attempt to ride a rodeo bronco. Later that evening, a dance occurs,
and as couples waltz around the ranch house, the Cowgirl departs
in tears, still unable to draw the attentions of the Head Wrangler. A
calf escapes the corral and the cowboys quit the gathering to recover
the stray. After they return, a square dance strikes up and the girl reappears,
wearing a skirt and with a bow tied in her hair. To the soaring
folk medley that featured "Bonaparte's Retreat," the cowboy forsakes
the Ranchowner's Daughter, finding his match instead with this
impassioned woman. They feverishly dance, the girl falls into his
arms, and he kisses her. The show closes as the dancers form a grand
While this synopsis overly simplifies Rodeo as the ballet would soon
come to be known, its theme concerned in de Mille's words, womankind's
perpetual question of "how to get a suitable man." De Mille's
exultant story mirrored events that had recently transpired in her own
life. "For years," Copland biographer Howard Pollack writes, "she
thought her features unattractive and her body ungainly.., leaving
her dowdy in her dress and prim in her relations with men."s2 But in
1941, minding Martha Graham's firm counsel, de Mille put on her best
dress, got her hair done, and fixed her makeup before meeting Graham's
Texas-bred concert manager, William Prude. De Mille would
liken him to Gary Cooper in his charms, and in short time the couple
became engaged.53 If, as Pollack explains, de Mille's efforts result358
ed in her own romantic realization, the wearing of her dress and the
transforming of her appearance, like that of Cowgirl's, signified not
appeasement but personal growth. In the wake of this experience, of
her finding a suitable man, de Mille wrote her ballet.
Externally, Rodeo's Cinderella-like tale echoes a popular family of
British and American folksongs.54 When a young man is sent to war,
a woman dresses herself in man's apparel to be near her beloved.
Despite her fingers "being keen and slender," she brooches back her
hair and enlists as an orderly, a foot soldier, or a common seaman.
Determined to stay by her lover's side, she is afraid neither to wield
a gun nor to face the cannonballs' fire. In the end, though, she removes
her disguise, and the two joyously find one another. Whether de Mille
drew inspiration from one such song or another lies outside this study,
but there's no question that she brought to Rodeo a familiarity with
traditional music.55 At her April meeting with Aaron Copland, she not
only handed him a version of "Old Paint" that she notated herself,
but presented him with a "time plot" calibrated to the precise beat:
"Hoe-Down, 4 minutes.... Pause and silence for about 4 counts...
Dance begins on walk-hit a fiddle tune hard."56 Written as much in
the terminology of fiddling as that of modern dance, these instructions
would spur Copland to seek out "Bonaparte's Retreat." Agnes
de Mille had chosen her composer well.
Since his days as a composition student in Paris, Aaron Copland's
(1900-1990) interest in creating a body of identifiably American symphonic
music freed him from following purely belletristic models. During
this period, too, Copland became part of a circle of New York artists
and writers that convened at photographer Alfred Stieglitz's
Photo-Secessionist 291 Gallery. Members of 291, including Georgia
O'Keeffe, Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Edmond Wilson, Paul Strand,
Van Wyck Brooks, and Harold Clurman, joined other modernists who
tied their work to the social surround. Over the course of their meetings,
speakers articulated a gathering interest in the American idiom,
an interest that emerged in the following decade under the cultural
aegis of the New Deal. Many of these artists found in America's "common
man" (a term that Copland artfully employed in his 1943 Fanfare
for the Common Man), a symbol of national identity.
For composers such as Aaron Copland, quotation from American
folk music fit within this sensibility. As words carry habitations of
their earlier usage, folk tunes, even in a contemporary philharmonic
setting, can suggest a social inheritance. Copland's pieces, such as
Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, Lincoln Portrait, and Billy the Kid-all of
which contain passages from traditional music-accomplished in
sound what Carl Sandburg achieved in Good Morning, America: a modern
poetics stocked with what he called "the proverbs of a people."57
"Bonaparte's Retreat" 359
In the 1930s one of Copland's colleagues was composer Herbert
Haufrecht (1910-98). The two met at New York's Composers' Collective,
a forum of socially conscious conservatory musicians who debated,
and sometimes ventured, a music for American workers. Haufrecht
warmly described Copland's abilities as a folk-music arranger,
"as if he were steeped in it."58 "But," he continued, "we used folk
material as a basis, as germinal, as elements to integrate into your
work." Nowadays these same tunes tend to be valued for their intrinsic
worth, but Copland, like other composers at the Collective,
Haufrecht observed, viewed folk tunes as building blocks for sophisticated
Copland's own remarks illustrate this point. He first began to incorporate
traditional music in his 1936 El Salon Mexico, where "it
seemed natural," he wrote, "to use popular Mexican melodies for thematic
material; after all Chabrier and Debussy didn't hesitate to help
themselves to the melodic riches of Spain."59 Although Copland himself
witnessed music-making at Mexico City's El Salon, the thematic
material he selected came from printed sources. In the years that followed,
Copland would largely draw from written works for folk
tunes, but wherever they originated, traditional melodies presented
valuable resources that challenged the modern composer:
to put fresh and unconventional harmonies to well-known melodies
without spoiling their naturalism; moreover for an orchestral
score one must expand, contract, rearrange and superimpose
the bare tunes themselves, giving them something of one's own
touch. That is what I tried to do.60
By separating the melodies, "the bare tunes," from his own invention,
he situated the music in a familiar, rough-hewn frame. Copland did
not address the varieties of technique or the hallmarks of personal
style practiced by folk musicians. While interest today has shifted
emphasis from the song to the singer, Copland focused on the melodies
as raw materials. "Give me a book of tunes," he said, "and I'll
immediately know what tune attracts me and what one doesn't."61
As a professional composer, he saw his role in terms of leaving an
imprint on such texts. With a symphony orchestra as his medium, he
could mold a work, in his own words, "expand, contract, rearrange
and superimpose" the ready charms of a folk tune.
When Copland turned to Anglo-American folk material, his concentration
remained on the fresh and unconventional harmonies suggested
by the melodies. His efforts began with a 1937 opera for schoolchildren
called The Second Hurricane where he adapted the
Revolutionary War song, "The Capture of Burgoyne." The following
year dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein approached Copland to score
360 Wade
a ballet based on the life of Billy the Kid. Kirstein brought the composer
several books of Western songs to examine, and from these
works Copland drew portions of six tunes that included "The Old Chisholm
Trail" and "Whoopee Ti Yi Yo." Kirstein also passed along
some sheet-music editions of these songs as collected by John Lomax
and arranged by Oscar Fox.
Copland's contact with the Lomaxes' work resumed in 1940 when
he received a commission from Alan Lomax to write a piece for his
radio series, broadcast over the Columbia School of the Air. The program,
intended for young listeners, featured a field recording followed
by a radio orchestra performance of a new composition on the
same theme. "I began to work," Copland wrote, "on 'John Henry' by
going through the collection of folk tunes put together by Alan Lomax."
Copland had selected "John Henry" from the Lomaxes' 1934
American Ballads and Folk Songs, where it appeared as the first selection
in the book. Calling his piece a "descriptive fantasy," Copland
used an anvil, sandpaper blocks, and train whistle, instruments outside
the compass of a chamber orchestra, to animate the four-and-ahalf-
minute composition.62
The information that Copland received from American Ballads and
Folk Songs about "John Henry" cited neither a performer nor a recording.
He found, instead, a simplified tune and a composite text. Even
with these vagaries, Copland could still determine which melodies
interested him simply by reading the notation. In later years he would
again call on the Lomaxes' songbooks, as well as from such notable
works as George Pullen Jackson's Down East Spirituals, Cecil Sharp's
English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, and Samuel Bayard's
Hill Country Tunes.63
When Copland set to work on Rodeo, he turned to the Lomaxes' Our
Singing Country for his principal tune selections. In November 1941
the volume appeared, and from the outset reviewers lauded the
book's music transcriptions by composer and musicologist Ruth
Crawford Seeger (1901-1953). "Crawford," as she is called in Judith
Tick's masterful biography, worked directly from Library of Congress
recordings, and her instincts as a composer, where "the choice of every
note involves an act of will," led to a painstaking appraisal of
every disc. As a result, "No one who has studied these or similar recordings,"
writes Crawford in the book's music preface, "can deny
that the song and its singing are indissolubly connected." This hallmark
of vernacular artistry had a profound effect on her own approach
to music. Through these transcriptions, Crawford became exposed
to "a new kind of dissonant music." Tick contrasts her to "a
composer like Aaron Copland, who when using cowboy songs for the
ballet 'Billy the Kid' was inspired rather than hindered by ideals of
"Bonaparte's Retreat" 361
simplicity."64 Where Copland saw a bare tune, Crawford found an
involved performance.
Crawford's work on Our Singing Country began in the summer of
1937. It lengthened into a four-year process during which she transcribed
some three hundred songs. She balanced her tasks as the
mother of three young children with her commitments as a musician,
slowing down the recordings, jotting on her notepad each pass she
made. On one side stood her coal-black bottles of Higgins ink and,
with it, the authority of written music. On the other, her Ansley variable-
speed turntable, by which she examined these performances and
probed their idiosyncrasies. Her laborious process sometimes caused
friction between the book's compilers and herself. Alan Lomax's sister,
fifteen-year-old Bess, shuttled innumerable messages between the
Lomaxes' office at the Library of Congress and Crawford's home in
suburban Maryland:
Bess, you tell Ruth that no blues singer God ever made would
sing "redder than rouge"-it's "redder than ru(by)" with a voice
break in the middle-that's why she doesn't hear it right.
Now, Bess, you go back and tell Alan and your father that I have
listened to this song exactly 78 times all the way through, not
mentioning single verses. How many times have they listened to
it? Get them to figure that out.65
In the completed book, Our Singing Country keyed printed texts to
specific Library of Congress field recordings.66 Head notes for each
of the 195 entries included the final tone from the field recording, the
Archive's number for that item, the performer, instrumentation, location,
and date, followed by textual references. These elements furthered
the emphasis on individual performances. As Crawford would
poetically write in a letter to a friend, she sought to put on paper "the
breath of the singer."67
Copland took three pieces from Our Singing Country for Rodeo: a
railroad work chant called "Sis Joe"; a cowboy song titled "If He'd
Be a Buckaroo"; and the fiddle tune, "Bonaparte's Retreat" (named
"Bonyparte" in the book).68 FOr the transcription of "Bonaparte's Retreat"
Crawford did not satisfy herself with a simple notation of the
basic melody. Her meticulous scoring made clear the richness and
subtlety of Stepp's drone notes and melodic decorations. Still, she
added in a footnote, "the bowing in ... 'Bonyparte' could not be determined
with sufficient accuracy to allow its notation."69
Copland's interest, however, lay not in duplicating the technique
of the Kentucky fiddler. He demonstrated in "Hoe-Down," as Howard
Pollack explains, "how timbre can dramatize the most homespun
Social Songs
located in France. He was a Frenchman-not the King of France, he went
out for himself. That's all he ever done, was just watchin' countries and
makin' his money that way."
Fast = 138 Probable tuning:
D.C. al Fine
,[. sEss]- 1- •••s1
Fig. 2. Ruth Crawford Seeger's transcription of Bill Stepp's performance of
"Bonaparte's Retreat" (here called "Bonyparte"). Reproduced from John A.
Lomax and Alan Lomax, Our Singing Country, by permission of the Alan Lomax
"Bonaparte's Retreat" 363
musical ideas." At the movement's outset, Copland recreates the cacophony
of instruments tuning up. Horns and strings push with
seeming dissonance, suggestive of the verdant moments before a symphony
concert. The instruments converge, and a Western theme sets
off like the sauntering of a horse. A wood block punctuates the clipclop
of the passage. Bowed basses add a comic lilt as the violins and
piano play in stop-time rhythms. Then "Bonaparte's Retreat" breaks
in. A horn plays the drone from the tune's third high part, followed
by the central strain of the melody. A xylophone's mallets beat in time
with the bowing of the strings. The orchestra powers through the lower
registers of the tune while a triangle rings high above. The melody
repeats three times, and the horns veer off in disparate directions.
The piece draws to quiet and Copland inserts the sprightly fiddle tune
"Hop Light Ladies," followed for a measure by a Celtic-sounding
"Gilderoy." "Hop Light Ladies" repeats, trailed by yet another traditional
tune, "Pretty Betty Martin."'7 Copland finishes the collage with
a familiar hoedown turn. A snare drum rattles, then a pause, and the
cowboy motif returns. The piece slows with brass and woodwinds,
drifting into a pensive, meditative chord. "Bonaparte's Retreat" floods
back, and oboes, cymbals, and horns tap out a telegrapher's tattoo.
The piece ends on a showstopping cadence.
Fiddler Bill's "Bonyparte" in Our Singing Country "became a signature
tune for an American sound," writes Judith Tick, "after Aaron
Copland swallowed it whole for the 'Hoedown' movement in the
ballet suite 'Rodeo' a few years later, and Agnes de Mille's dancers
moved to the upbeat triplet figures and the double-stop drones so
assiduously notated by Crawford."71 Even with tympani and horns,
reeds and brass, a xylophone and wood blocks, swirling in philharmonic
majesty, we're hearing Bill Stepp.The day I first met Fiddler Bill's family, I inserted a cassette of his
Library of Congress performance into a tape recorder. Becky Arnett,
her mother, Nannie, and I sat around their kitchen table. Her mother
beamed as we listened. "Now he really loved it," Nannie affirmed.
"That's the reason he was so good. He loved it." That night this one
remaining child of Bill Stepp would call him a shifty man. She would
use this word to explain the ambiguities of his character, his multiple
marriages, and his personal unrest. Still, his music remained his
constant companion. Although Becky and Nannie had heard the Library's
recording before, the dubbing faded his solo fiddle into the
symphonic version. Becky's face reddened. "I'm not a musician," she
said, "but I know what you mean."'72 The piece that she had casually
heard so many times on television incorporated her grandfather's
tune with pointed accuracy. Even the key stayed the same. A few
364 Wade
months later I played this tape again for dozens of family members
at their annual Stepp reunion. Everyone there knew the beef growers'
commercial, but none had connected it to their grandfather. It took
Fiddler Bill's family by surprise, and pride filled the hall.
At suppertime we stopped our conversation to watch the evening
news. That day, Oliver Stone's movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt, premiered
nationwide. Becky said, "You see, we have another famous
member of this family."'"7M3 agoffin County native and publisher of
Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt is one of Becky's cousins from her
mother's side. When Becky took to me to Owen Hoskins's grocery
in Lakeville near Fiddler Bill's home during the time of the recordings,
she pointed to an ornate iron fence atop the nearest hillside. It
surrounds the grave of Flynt's wife, Althea. As I looked up at the
memorial I couldn't help but think of her brief life, the notoriety of
the skin trade, and Flynt's seemingly theatrical anarchy, his battles
over civil liberties, political and sexual hypocrisy, and the press. Even
in this misty spot in Kentucky America's mass culture hovers close
by, and Bill Stepp and his family are actors on that stage. It seemed
fitting when his grandchildren mentioned their hope that Larry Flynt
might someday underwrite a movie about the life of Fiddler Bill.
Ahead of us, hidden by mist and mountainside, lay the remnants
of Bill Stepp's cabin. I thought of him riding by horseback to a dance
where he would play the fiddle. His life that began in a Kentucky cave
and the prostitution of his Indian mother speak to grim features of
our national experience. But his grandchildren also remember how
proudly he told a minister as they flocked into church and filled its
pews one by one, "This is my family."74
Behind us, in the car, a recording of Rodeo quietly plays, summoning
still other images: Tanglewood and a composer's ink on manuscript
paper. Copland's "Hoe-Down" occupies a cherished place in
the American symphonic repertoire.
"There are almost everywhere two parallel systems of roads,"
writes landscape theorist John Brinckerhoff Jackson.75 "One of them
local and centripetal, the other regional or national and centrifugal,
and we need to recognize the role of both." When Ruth Crawford
Seeger conceded in Our Singing Country that Bill Stepp's bowing
"could not be determined with sufficient accuracy," she identified one
of those systems, with its own means, its own idiom, and its own
methods.76 Fiddler Bill's technique did not transfer, but the tune, the
product of his inspired innovation, did transfer. In a route that traveled
from Bill Stepp and his community of fellow players in Salyersville
to the recordings made by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax for the Folk
Archive; from Ruth Crawford Seeger and her conscientious transcriptions
to Aaron Copland and his dreams of a national music, a moun"
Bonaparte's Retreat" 365
tain road wound its way to a transcontinental highway. Guided by
the map Crawford drew, Copland charted a new destination, and conservatory
instrumentalists steeped in their artistic byways learned Bill
Stepp's peerless version of "Bonaparte's Retreat."
Since he first recorded it, more than half a century has passed. But
whenever the beef growers' commercial airs on national television,
or Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Hoedown" reprises on the radio,
whenever a dance company performs Agnes de Mille's Rodeo or Aaron
Copland's score resounds in concert halls around the world, W. H.
Stepp, a nearly anonymous Kentucky mountain fiddler, continues to
play for millions.
Special thanks to Dr. Judith McCulloh for her editorial skills, her kindness, and her
discernment. Thanks also to John Cowley for his reading of an early draft of this paper,
and to Jean Murphy for her help throughout the latter stages of this work. Thanks
to Michaelle LaFond Wade for each day of our lives. Profound thanks, too, to Bill
Stepp's daughter, his grandchildren, and neighbors who have willingly shared their
memories of this much-loved man. Above all, thanks to Becky Arnett, keeper of her
family, chronicler of their story.
1. National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Beef Board sponsors the ad. As late as
summer 2000 the commercial continued to air on national television, but with a new
announcer and a sped-up arrangement of the "Hoe-down" movement from Rodeo.
2. Becky Arnett, personal communication with author, May 1998.
3. Bill Stepp's recording of "Bonaparte's Retreat," AFS 1568 A2, occurred on Oct. 26,
1937, and was first issued on American Fiddle Tunes. AFS L62. 1971. From the time of
his original recordings, Stepp was listed at the Archive of American Folk-Song (now
the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, at the Library of Congress) as
"W. M. Stepp." However, his name was actually William Hamilton (W. H.) Stepp, and
his name now appears with these initials on A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings,
Rounder 1500, 1997.
4. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, "Hoedown" Trilogy, Cotillion SD-9903, 1972. In 1972
"Hoedown" reached number 5 on Billboard's LP charts. From John Rockwell's essay
"Art Rock," in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, ed. Jim Miller (New
York: Random House, 1976), 352.
5. Becky Arnett, letter to author, June 12, 1997.
6. Eunice Arnett, interview with author, Aug. 4, 1997.
7. From photocopies of Lee County Circuit Court records, dated October 1876, April
1877, and April 1878. Lizzie Seale interviewed by Becky Arnett and Lucy Noe Gay,
quoted in letter to author, June 12, 1997.
8. Dorothy Allen, interview with author, Jan. 16, 1997. Lucy Noe Gay and Becky Arnett's
sources for this information included Oma Ross, Morning Stepp's granddaughter,
and local resident Georgia Lands.
9. Clayton Congleton, son of Bill's sister, Kate Congleton, recalled this scene in a discussion
with Lucy Noe Gay and Becky Arnett. Impressions of Stepp's showmanship
also came from my interviews with Ollie Barnett, Aug. 4, 1997; Richard Whitley, Oct.
8, 1999; and Arnold McFarland, Oct. 5, 1999, all of whom had seen Stepp perform once
he had moved to Magoffin County.
366 Wade
10. Dorothy Allen, interview with author, Jan. 28, 1997.
11. Nannie Howard, interview with author, Jan. 10, 1997; William Stepp, interview
with author, Aug. 3, 1997.
12. Sam Stepp, interview with author, Oct. 1, 1999; Nannie Howard, interview with
author, Jan. 10, 1997.
13. William Stepp, interview with author, Aug. 3, 1997. In addition to numerous conversations
with Becky Arnett starting in January 1997 and continuing to the present,
interviews with other grandchildren of Bill Stepp include: Elsie Risner, Jan. 3, 1997 and
Aug. 3, 1997; Sonny Stepp, Aug. 3, 1997; Sam Stepp, Aug. 3, 1997 and Oct. 2 and 3,
1999; Dorothy Allen, Jan. 28, 1998; Gentry Stepp, Aug. 3, 1997; Richard Stepp, Aug. 3,
1997 and Oct. 2, 1999; and Francis Wayne, Jan. 14, 1997. Other family members interviewed
were Nannie Howard, Jan. 10 and 11, 1997; and Lucy Noe Gay, Oct. 9 and 10,
1998 and Oct. 2 and 7, 1999.
14. Dorothy Allen, interview with author, Jan. 28, 1997.
15. This popular traditional program piece is called the "Drunken Hiccups." Stepp
recorded it for the Library of Congress in 1937.
16. W. H. Stepp's Library of Congress recordings: AFS 1568 A1, "Silver Strands" (recorded
on Oct. 25, 1937); followed by AFS 1568 A2 (recorded on Oct. 26, 1937),
"Bonaparte's Retreat"; 1568 B1, "Dolly"; B2, "Callahan"; 1569 A1, "Piney Ridge"; A2,
"Ways of the World"; A3, "Run Nigger Run"; 1572 B2, "The Pretty Little Widow"; 1572
B3, "Old Hen, She Cackled"; 1573 A1, "I'm Gonna Feast at the Welcome Table"; A2,
"I'm Gonna Feast at the Welcome Table." (Although marked in the Archive's card catalog
as one of Stepp's, it actually has no fiddle on it, but only a female vocal); 1573
A3, "The Drunken Hiccups"; 1573 B1, "Old Ship of Zion"; B2, "The Rebel's Raid"; B3,
"Gilder Boy"; 1574 A1, "Sally Gooden"; 1600 B1, "The Wild Horse"; B2, "The Mud
Fence." These last two were recorded on Oct. 28, 1937.
17. Henry Harvey Fuson, Ballads of the Kentucky Highlands (London: Mitre Press,
1931); John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York:
Macmillan, 1934).
18. H. H. Fuson, letter to Library of Congress, June 28, 1937, Folk Archive correspondence
files, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
19. Alan Lomax, letter to the Acting-Chief of the Music Division, Aug. 14, 1937, Folk
Archive 1937 Kentucky expedition files.
20. Alan Lomax, letter to Harold Spivacke, from Hazard, Ky., n.d., but likely Oct.
16, 1937, Folk Archive 1937 Kentucky expedition files.
21. Ova Haney, Superintendent of Morgan County Schools, West Liberty, Ky., letter
to Alan Lomax, Sept. 22, 1937. See also Lomax's letter to Haney, Sept. 8, 1937, Folk
Archive 1937 Kentucky expedition files.
22. Elizabeth Sturz, interview with author, Jan. 2, 1996. Personal communications
with Alan Lomax, 1996-98.
23. This information can be found in the 1937 Kentucky expedition files at the Archive
of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
24. Ollie Barnett, interview with author, Aug. 4, 1997.
25. Roscoe McFarland's name was misspelled in the Archive's listings.
26. Lydie McFarland, interview with author, Oct. 2, 1999.
27. This conversation with Arnold McFarland occurred on Oct. 2, 1999, and was followed
by a taped interview on Oct. 5, 1999.
28. Roscoe McFarland, recorded on Oct. 25, 1937, sang: AFS 1567 A, "The Ship Carpenter";
B1, "Pearl Bryant"; B2, "Fare You Well, My Pretty Little Miss."
29. Clay Walters recorded on Oct. 27, 1934, AFS numbers 1574 B through 1584 B.
Many of the twenty-nine pieces he played were songs that he accompanied himself
on fiddle.
"Bonaparte's Retreat" 367
30. Peggy Howard, interviews with author, Oct. 7, 8, and 10, 1999.
31. Bill Stepp and Mae Puckett recorded together on Oct. 26, 1937, beginning with
AFS 1572 B2, "Pretty Little Widow"; B3, "Old Hen She Cackled"; and AFS 1573 B1,
"Old Ship of Zion" with Nell Hampton singing. Eula Cooper was recorded on Oct.
27, 1937, AFS 1586 A1, "My Son Johnny O"; A2 "Poor Robin Is Dead"; and 1586 B1,
"If I Were Some Little Bird." Basil May recorded on this same day AFS 1587 B, "The
Lady of Carlisle." Harvey Porter, recorded on Oct. 24, 1937, appears on AFS 1554 B1,
"The Covington Burglar"; and 1554 A, "The Lonesome Scenes of Winter." Eula Cooper,
recorded on Oct. 27, 1937, appears on AFS 1586 A1, "My Son Johnny-0"; A2, "Poor
Robin Is Dead"; and AFS 1586 B1, "If I Were Some Little Bird."
32. Arnold McFarland, interview with author, Oct. 9, 1999. John A. Lomax and Alan
Lomax, Our Singing Country: A Second Volume of American Ballads and Folk Songs (New
York: Macmillan, 1941). "Vance Song" appears on 322-23 and "Lady of Carlisle" on
162-63. Walter Williams, recorded on Oct. 28, 1937, appeared on AFS 1599 B, "Mississippi
Sawyer"; 1600 A, "John Hardy"; B1, "The Wild Horse," with Bill Stepp; B2, "The
Mud Fence," with Bill Stepp; 1601 A, "East Virginia" B, "Pass Around the Bottle."
33. From the "Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ended
June 30, 1938," 183-89.
34. Two additional performers are ascribed to the Salyersville location. However,
these are errors in the Archive's log. Banjoist J. M. Mullins came from Floress, Kentucky,
where his recordings were made, and Monroe Gevedon and family are listed as
recording in both West Liberty and Salyersville. However, Gevedon came from Grassy
Creek, Kentucky, and was recorded there, prior to the sessions held in Salyersville.
35. Richard Whitely, interview with author, Oct. 8, 1999.
36. Alan Lomax, letter to Harold Spivacke, Oct. 26, 1937, Folk Archive 1937 Kentucky
expedition files.
37. Kay Starr (vocal), with orchestra. Recorded in 1950 on Capital 1652. Rereleased
on LP DT 415. Hits of Kay Starr. In June 1998 numerous exchanges concerning both
"Bonaparte's Retreat" and this story appeared in the Internet discussion group called
" time."
38. Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (New York: Russell Sage
Foundation, 1937), 204-5.
39. See correspondence beginning with letter from Lomax to Eaton, Dec. 9, 1939;
Eaton's reply, Dec. 15, 1939; and Lomax's answer, Dec. 18, 1939. Folk Archive correspondence
40. Alan Lomax, letter to Allen Eaton, Dec. 9, 1939. Folk Archive correspondence files.
41. Lomax recorded this story along with many others of Aunt Molly Jackson's in
New York City in 1939. For a study of Aunt Molly Jackson, see Shelly Romalis's Pistol
Packin' Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong (Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1999).
42. Lomax, Our Singing Country, 54-55.
43. This quotation appears in a typed headnote for Bill Stepp's "Bonaparte's Retreat."
It adjoins the quote from Aunt Molly Jackson that appeared in Our Singing Country,
cited above. However, here Lomax attributes those words to Stepp himself. Page
marked "S-61" in the Lomax papers at the Association for Cultural Equity, Hunter
College, New York City.
44. Vic Gammon, "The Grand Conversation: Napoleon and British Popular Balladry,"
RSA Journal 137, no. 5398 (September 1989), and republished without pagination
on the Internet website "Musical Traditions," article MT 038.
45. Samuel Preston Bayard, Hill Country Tunes: Instrumental Music of Southwestern
Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1944), 39 (87). Whistled by F. P.
Provance, Point Marion, Pa., 1943.
368 Wade
46. Linda C. Burman-Hall, "Southern American Folk Fiddling: Context and Style,"
Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1974, 107.
47. Frank Ferrel, "The Eagle's Whistle," Yankee Dreams, Flying Fish CD 70572, 1991.
48. Lomax, Our Singing Country, 54.
49. Bascom Lunsford, AFS 1834 A3, "Bonaparte's Retreat," recorded in March 1935.
Crockett's Kentucky Mountaineers, Brunswick 353, "Bonaparte's Retreat," released in
November 1929. Charles Wolfe, Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky
(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982), 75.
50. A. A. Gray, OKeh 40110, "Bonaparte's Retreat," released in August 1924. Four
years earlier Gray had won third place with this tune in the Georgia Old Time Fiddler's
Contest in Atlanta. Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, with Riley Puckett and
Clayton McMichen, Columbia 15485-D, "Bonaparte's Retreat," released in October
1929. Smoky Mountain Fiddler Trio with Arthur Smith, Bluebird B6387, "Bonaparte's
Retreat," released in July 1936. George Nicholson, AFS 1502 A, recorded at Laurel County,
Ky. Boyd Asher, AFS 1528 B1, recorded at Hyden, Ky., and Luther Strong, AFS 1538,
recorded at Hazard, Ky.
51. Alan Jabbour, personal communication with author, October 1994. See also Alan
Jabbour's own writings on Bill Stepp's "Bonaparte's Retreat." These include his notes
to American Fiddle Tunes (AFS L62, originally released in 1971; reissued on compact disc
in 2000 as Rounder 18964-1518-2) and his article, "Copland's Kentucky Muse," Civilization
(June/July): 110.
52. Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (New
York: Henry Holt, 1999), 365.
53. Ibid., 365-66.
54. See "Ballads of Lover's Disguises and Tricks," in G. Malcolm Laws, American
Balladry from British Broadsides (Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1957), 201-25.
55. De Mille's interest in folk music continued beyond "Rodeo." In the 1950s de Mille
asked Copland to write a ballet using sea shanties. See her interview in Aaron Copland
and Vivian Perlis's Copland: 1900 Through 1942 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984),
56. Copland and Perlis, Copland: 1900 Through 1942, 357.
57. Carl Sandburg, Good Morning, America (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928), 15-
58. Herbert Haufrecht, interview with author, May 8, 1996.
59. Copland and Perlis, Copland: 1900 Through 1942, 245.
60. Ibid., 279.
61. Pollack, Aaron Copland, 468.
62. Copland and Perlis, Copland: 1900 Through 1942, 291. "John Henry" appears on
pp. 3-10 in the Lomaxes' American Ballads and Folk Songs.
63. George Pullen Jackson, Down East Spirituals and Others of Olden Time (New York:
J. J. Augustin, 1943), and Cecil J. Sharp, English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians
(London: Oxford University Press, 1932).
64. Judith Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 242, 254, 265. Quote appears in Ruth Crawford
Seeger's music preface in Lomax, Our Singing Country, xviii. See also Tick's article,
"Ruth Crawford, Charles Seeger, and 'The Music of American Folk Songs,'" in Understanding
Charles Seeger, Pioneer in American Musicology, ed. Bell Yung and Helen Rees
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 109-29.
65. Bess Lomax Hawes, typescript of SEM lecture titled "2/18/94 revision for Ethnomusicology,"
66. This is true with the exception of "The Sporting Cowboy," by Watts & Wilson,
241-42, and "Down on Penny's Farm" (called "Po' Farmer" here), 280-81, by the Bentley
Boys, both of which were taken from commercial sources. No recordings were cit"
Bonaparte's Retreat" 369
ed for "Cotton Eyed Joe," 99; "Old Banghum," 149-50; "Old King Cole," 204-5; "The
High Barbaree," 212-13; "Down Down Down," 273; "Bugger Burns," 331; "I Got to
Roll," 390; and "Godamighty Drag," 398.
67. Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger, 279.
68. "Sis Joe" appears in Lomax, Our Singing Country, on 262; "If He'd Be a Buckaroo"
on 249-50, and "Bonaparte's Retreat" called "Bonyparte" here appears on 54-55.
69. Lomax, Our Singing Country, 57.
70. Pollack, Aaron Copland, 368. Pollack notes on p. 635 that Copland's source for
these three tunes came from Ira Ford's Traditional Music of America (New York: E. P.
Dutton, 1940).
71. Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger, 272.
72. Nannie Howard, interview with author, Jan. 10, 1997; Becky Arnett, interview
with author, Jan. 10, 1997.
73. Becky Arnett, interview with author, Jan. 10, 1997.
74. Dorothy Allen, interview with author, Jan. 28, 1997.
75. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1984), 23.
76. See
Lomax,'Our Singing Country, 57.