BY MARTY McGEE—
Benjamin “Uncle” Wade Ward, born on October 15, 1892, near the town of Independence in Grayson County, Virginia, was known for his frailing or clawhammer style of banjo playing. He also had an equally personal fiddle style.
Ward began to pick the banjo when he was 11 years old, and began fiddling at the age of 16. Wade learned how to play from his brother Davy Crockett Ward, 20 years his senior and already an accomplished musician. When Wade was 14 he traveled to Tennessee and saw for the first time “chording” and picked up the tune “Chilly Winds” from local musicians there. By the age of 18 Ward had become well known in the area, playing for a variety of local social and economic events alongside Crockett.
On August 6, 1913, Wade married 19-year-old Lelia Mathews. (Lelia died on May 10, 1951, at the age of 63; Wade’s second wife, Mollie Yates, died on August 4, 1961.) Ward’s first real band, formed in 1919, was called the Buck Mountain Band. The band was composed of Wade, his brother Crockett, well known local fiddler Van Edwards, and Van’s son, Earl Edwards, a guitar player. The Buck Mountain Band briefly recorded for OKeh Records.
Wade, who soon became widely known for both his fiddling and banjo playing, was hired in 1919 by the Parsons Auction Company to provide the music for their Saturday sales. He continued in this capacity for 51 years, well into the 1960s. Besides dances and land sales, Ward also played at local Republican party meetings and events.
Ward did his first solo banjo recording in Asheville, North Carolina, on August 31-September 1, 1925, but the four songs he cut — “Fox Chase, “A Married Man’s Blues,” “Chilly Winds” and “Brother Ephram — were not issued by OKeh. Wade picked the banjo with his nephew Fields Ward (who handled a majority of the vocal duties) and brother Crockett (fiddle) in the Galax String band known as the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters in the 1930s and 1940s. The Bogtrotters were led by autoharp player Doc Davis, and the other member of the band was fiddler Uncle Alex (Uncle Eck) Dunford.
After John Lomax and Pete Seeger recorded Wade and the Bogtrotters for the Library of Congress starting in 1937, the band appeared on a nationwide CBS radio program, originating in Roanoke, Virginia, on January 9, 1940. Not long after this famed radio broadcast, the Bogtrotters started gradually breaking up due to illness and death. The final blow to the band was when Fields moved to Maryland in 1947.
Wade suffered a severe heart attack in 1942, and over the succeeding couple of decades played occasionally with the nearby Lundy family, Galax fiddler Charlie Higgins, guitarist Dale Poe, or just by himself. In the late 1950s interest in his music was renewed by urban folk music enthusiasts. Young banjo pickers began to make the pilgrimage to Independence to visit Ward, and soon he enjoyed a nationwide reputation as one of the premier clawhammer banjo players of his generation. He also toured extensively (playing at the Smithsonian Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1967) before his death at his Peach Bottom Creek farm on May 29, 1971.