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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Joe Wilson ​(1938-2015)

Sunday, May 17, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

Earlier this year, on May 17, 2015, the National Council for the Traditional Arts lost its longtime former director and guiding light, and the nation lost a powerful advocate for folk and traditional arts. The passing of NCTA Chairman Joseph Thomas Wilson has been deeply felt by his family, the board and staff of NCTA, his many friends and colleagues, and the legion of musicians and artists he championed over the course of his life. Though in precarious health for a number of years, Joe never dwelt on his personal challenges, but marshaled every ounce of his energy and formidable intellect in the service of promoting American folk culture. A larger than life figure, Joe charmed everyone he met, from the artists he loved and admired to the distinguished Congressmen, government officials, foundation directors, and corporate leaders he invariably enlisted to his cause. He was a natural raconteur and voracious reader, whose knowledge of American history and culture was exceptional. The breadth of Joe’s achievement and influence is so far-reaching that is challenging, in a brief statement, to adequately convey a sense of the man and to do justice to his legacy. He was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Ashe County, North Carolina in 1938 and grew up near Mountain City, Tennessee. This beautiful part of the country indelibly marked his personality and profoundly informed his life’s work.

 After working a number of jobs in the 1960s, Joe was hired by the board of the National Folk Festival Association in 1976, the Bicentennial year, to take charge of the pioneering arts organization that was founded by the indomitable Sarah Gertrude Knott during the depths of the Great Depression. Joe immediately changed the organization’s name to the National Council for the Traditional Arts to embrace his expansive view of its mission and scope of activity. He reinvigorated the National Folk Festival and put it back on the road after an extended residency at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in northern Virginia. (The festival was first held in St. Louis in 1934.) The decision brought immense social, cultural and economic benefits to towns and cities around the country. He also helped produce major regional festivals in Seattle, El Paso and San Francisco. Joe also conceived a series of extraordinary thematic tours that introduced audiences across the country to the diversity of America’s musical heritage. The traditions of Irish, Mexican, French Canadian and Southeast Asian immigrants were celebrated, along with the regional folk styles of the southern Appalachians, Mississippi Delta, Louisiana Cajun country, and the western ranchlands. Some tours focused on a particular instrument—a clever way to showcase the versatility and range of folk performance. His Masters of the Folk Violin tour helped bring national attention to the talent of a young Alison Krauss, among others. He became a cultural ambassador abroad, leading tours of American folk musicians around the world with backing from the U.S. Information Agency. Joe produced countless recordings and oversaw the documentation of all NCTA festivals and tours that together constitute one of the most important private archives of American folk music ever assembled. Much of the collection has been digitized and is now housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He was magnanimous in lending his voice and powers of persuasion in support of the American Folklife Center, the Folk and Traditional Arts program of the NEA, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In fact, he was available to help any and all persons and organizations that shared his values, and, needless to say, an indispensable friend and advisor to countless traditional artists. In his later years, Joe turned his attention to the hills of home. In an effort that spanned a couple of decades, he worked with the Congress and the National Park Service to establish the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Galax, Virginia.

The Center opened in 2002, offering visitors the opportunity to experience and learn about the rich musical heritage of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Joe’s good works did not go unrecognized during him lifetime. In 2001, he received the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the field of folk and traditional arts bestowed by the National Endowment for the Arts. And in 2009, he was received the Library of Congress’ with Living Legend Award. We bid farewell to our visionary friend and leader with sorrow and gratitude. He will long inspire us to carry on the wonderful work he pursued with unmatched devotion and love. Joe was a folk hero to many, and now a folk legend forever more.

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