Remembering Joe

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JOE WILSON, 1938-2015

We lost one of the great activists and advocates for the traditional arts on May 15. Joe Wilson served as Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts from 1976 until 2004. During this time the NCTA expanded the annual National Folk Festival, transforming it into into a traveling, three-year event designed to engender similar festivals in its host cities once it had moved on. One example of the spectacular success of this experiment was in the old Massachusetts mill town of Lowell, where the festival he started has breathed new life into this culturally and economically depressed area.In addition, Joe organized national and international tours of American traditional musicians, produced records and concerts, and helped found the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Virginia.

Raised in the small mountain community of Trade, Tennessee, Joe brought to his life and work a love of his own mountain traditions, which he was able to expand to embrace a wide range of cultural expressions. A well-read and sophisticated citizen of the world, he operated within the sometimes disarming persona of the “good old mountain boy.”

He mentored many young and not-so-young public folklorists, myself included. He loved a good political fight on behalf of the traditional arts and brought to this advocacy a mastery of the English language in several of its forms. He was a consummate encourager (and, when necessary, deflator). All of us who are working to encourage and preserve vernacular cultural traditions owe him a lot, and we who knew him will find a big gap in our lives.

— Jim Griffith

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