Fiddling Bill’s beautiful music

WadeS15_144Word comes from the Library of Congress that twenty-five selections have been added to the National Recording Registry. While the likes of Merle Haggard and the unstoppable Gloria Gaynor will no doubt get the headlines, we at the UIP Palace of Sounds are most excited to see the inclusion of Bill Stepp’s “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” one of the songs discussed by Stephen Wade in his acclaimed book The Beautiful Music All Around Us.

To quote the LOC,  Stepp’s song is “a variation on a common fiddle tune called ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ that musicologists believe laid the groundwork for Aaron Copland’s ballet and orchestral suite piece Rodeo.” Prog rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer also put Copland/Stepp on their epic “Hoedown,” a centerpiece of their album Trilogy.

But don’t let those poseurs dissuade you from listening to Stepp’s incendiary real thing:

Wade’s tireless search for the songs and the people behind them provided him, and us, with a colorful biography of the man called Fiddler Bill:

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 (1813-1887), 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.”

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.


“He was a shrewd old feller,” said Nannie Howard, Bill Stepp’s last surviving child. “And I mean, he was shifty.” Although Nannie spoke affectionately of her father, her choice of words seemed surprising. In calling him a shifty man she followed a long-time regional practice, revealing ambiguities of his character—fluent and resourceful, footloose and concealed. “Shifty people,” Bill’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.”

By all accounts Bill 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.” 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.