Write for the World by Stephen Wade

University of Illinois Press author Stephen Wade contributed this piece for the University Press Week blog tour. The tour continues today at University of Nebraska Press. A complete blog tour schedule is also available here.


Back when big city newspapers still had heft, sidewalk onlookers eager for the latest edition could watch a paper make its run: an endless spool of pulp throttling past the plate glass windows. Under giant rollers and gears unleashing locomotive power, the ribbon of type sped by with clatter and clang–streaming, turning, and stacking.

As befitted that era of gunmetal and grease, industrial folktales surrounding the printer’s trade circulated on the shop floor. These included the type louse, a self-satisfied creature that fed on shavings cast from the linotype machine. After gorging himself on one such repast, the satiated critter toppled down on the keys for his lunchtime snooze. To the editor’s consternation and the operator’s despair, despite his intention to type “the congregants prayed” the metal slug now read “the congregants brayed.” And so that report went out to the world. Even though, the worker explained to his boss’s dubiety, the type louse had been the cause of it all.

Nowadays other bugs bedevil publishers and authors alike. As a writer and
musician humbled by the sight of his quarter-million carefully selected words
reduced to a red plastic thumb drive, I find it consoling to know that at Illinois—from editorial to production to marketing—the Press stands united to combat literary lice, whether born of cybernetic strain or, more likely, byproducts of this author’s postprandial fatigue.

I attribute the Press’s watchfulness–their ethic of taking care–to a deeper
impulse, however, than simply due diligence.  It centers on a commitment
to humane scholarship: to publish learned books that neither hide behind grad
school theory nor deaden themselves with verbal opacity. Instead, they seek
works whose authors are willing, in the words of former University of Illinois
Press editor Judith McCulloh, to “write for the world.” This quality of
engagement has given me for forty years now a personal university, my own
school of higher learning. The shelves in our home sag with UIP books,
and I can tell you why.

In 1972 University of Illinois Press launched an unprecedented music series
with folklorist Archie Green’s Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining
. Archie (he preferred being called by his first name and utterly
abjured the honorific of “Dr. Green”) began with a handful of discs, following
their dark spiral trails to their surrounding social, ideological, and historical backdrops. Archie’s analytic breadth was staggering, his method etymological. He watched how a given song, like a word in living speech, evolved over time—how it changed hands and found new meanings. He combined first-person interviews with archival investigation, bolstered by a staggering network of contacts and correspondence in addition to his command of earlier research. Archie’s case studies set a standard for looking at the world and those in it.

Archie also named the series that his book marshaled into being. He called it
Music in American Life. Nowadays more than a hundred and sixty books have
followed his lead. Its subjects speak to the breadth of our nation’s musical
creativity: from garage rock to cowboy song, from traveling opera troupes to
down home blues, from radio barn dances to Alice Tully Hall. As a musician
I devour them, intrigued by their varied stories. I absorb them, too, as a
writer, noting distinctive models of how music in society can be interpreted.
By either light, I read them confident that I can rely on their contents.
Beyond intellectual stringency, a moral commitment informs these books.
The permissions process, for instance, accords respect to living persons quoted
beyond fair use, and the system of peer review relies on collegial dialogue to
enhance the author’s contributions.

UIP and its fellow university presses amplify our democracy. Not driven by a robust bottom line as their primary reason for being, they make room for the richness of American voices. Many of our most evocative and emblematic creators, despite their value for us all, thrive at the margins, escaping both popular notice and the rigorous analysis they merit. So much of what I know about string band music, for instance, comes not just from a near-lifetime of playing it, but from reading about it. As champions of work that would rarely find a home in the commercial publishing world, the university presses, citing here the single example of the Music in American Life series, form a refuge. It would be painful to imagine my own life without these books. They provide not only substantive knowledge, but personal enlargement.

In my career as a musician I’ve seen the same refuge of high standards, the same intense commitment, the same openness to venture among the smaller record companies. The independent label Flying Fish, for example focused on living innovators of traditional forms: from Western Swing veterans to newgrass virtuosos, rockabilly guitarists to jazz violinists, Gambian griots to Salvadoran percussionists. Over the label’s eighteen years of existence, Fish released some six hundred albums. Its roster of artists remains still a remarkable inventory of gifted players and singers.  Moreover, employees at Flying Fish, like the staffers I’ve come to know at UIP, went to work day after day on behalf of a music they loved. I hold Flying Fish and other indies in the same deep respect I accord the University of Illinois Press and its colleagues.

As for the sleepy typesetter who lost his job because of the type louse, I can
tell you he had other resources to call upon. These included his method for
punctuation. Since his days as a printer’s apprentice he knew that if you hold your breath till you’re blue in the face, that’s when you put in a comma. When you yawn, it’s time for a semicolon. And when you feel a sneeze coming on, start a new paragraph.

Such traditions, what they meant in his machine-age time, and what they might
say to us now, occupy the kind of study I’d like to find under a university press imprint. To tell you the truth, that’s the subject of my next book. Better get back to work before that lunchtime break comes on.


Musician, recording artist, and writer Stephen Wade is best known for his long-running stage performances of Banjo Dancing and On the Way Home. He also produced and annotated the Rounder CD collection A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings that gave rise to his new book The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience.  Since 1996 his occasional commentaries on folksongs and traditional tunes have appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

Stephen Wade photo © 2011 MaryE Yeomans

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