Home / news / Joe Wilson: memories from Barry Bergey

Joe Wilson: memories from Barry Bergey

Joseph T. Wilson

March 16, 1938 – May 17, 2015

Joe Wilson would have been the only person on this earth who had the wit and storytelling skills to adequately summarize his career, but he would have rather discussed music, musicians, and their communities. He was always eager to share a new or old recording, show you a compelling photograph or book, or recount an obscure point of history. When Joe last visited this past February he shared a story from his youth that I had never heard before. His family had two work horses on their hill-country farm near Trade, Tennessee. He probably spent many an hour looking at their south ends pulling north while working in fields. They had been on the farm for most of Joe’s youth and he admired and respected those horses for the work they did.   The horses were getting too old to pull a plow and Joe was tasked with taking them into town to sell, most likely for a trip to the glue factory. On his journey home he came to a fork in the road. Joe said he realized that his life on the farm would never be the same without the horses he loved so much and he wanted a different life than he’d known. Turning away from home, Joe hitch-hiked the long and uncharted road to Nashville. Thus began a life journey that blazed many new trails and navigated numerous crooked roads, all the while advocating for the arts and traditions of folks who, like those he grew up with in eastern Tennessee, displayed character and artistic skills deserving of our sincere respect and attention.

I first met Joe in 1976 when, as the new Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), he came to St. Louis to try to talk the Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts into hosting the National Folk Festival in the town where it originated in 1934. He arrived wearing a polyester suit that was slightly unkempt and of a color not found in nature. It was accessorized with a boldly patterned, haphazardly-knotted, free-range tie splayed across his torso. We didn’t know what to make of him at first. Was he a backwoods savant, a door-to-door salesman, a musical promoter, or an eccentric escapee from academe? It turns out he was a little bit of each.

Joe immediately took an interest in what we were doing in Missouri, encouraging us to continue documenting traditional musicians in the Ozark region. He returned time and time again to help us mount a festival on the grounds of the Arch in concert with the National Park Service, and he prodded us to apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Joe made us believe in ourselves and he became a lifelong mentor and friend. He loved to join recording trips, because ultimately it was about the artists. Joe also loved fiddling with the equipment – he could go on and on about the qualities of Neumann mics and Revox recording machines. “Son, those mics are so sensitive, they can pick up a chigger grittin’ its teeth out in the yard.” Joe taught and supported us, as he did with so many other cultural activists around the country. He gave of his time and energy to a degree far beyond our ability to repay.

Joe’s work at the NCTA set a standard for us and for the field of folklore. Advocating for intensive fieldwork, equitable representation, and responsible presentation in the service of traditional arts and artists, he initiated the practice of moving the National Folk Festival around the country, leaving a legacy of ongoing and successful annual events in Lowell, Massachusetts; East Lansing, Michigan; Bangor, Maine; Richmond, Virginia; and Butte, Montana. Through NCTA, and with NEA funding, Joe initiated the first domestic tours featuring culturally specific musical traditions, including Irish, Mexican American, French-American, Jewish, Ozark, African American, and Native American artists. He also devised tours that highlighted the diversity of our nation’s artistic excellence with Masters of the Steel String Guitar, Masters of the Folk Violin, Masters of the Folk Banjo, and Saturday Night/Sunday Morning.

Joe’s hand was seen in constructive initiatives that served traditional artists via collaborations with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Park Service, and the Library of Congress. His cultural knowledge helped shape White House cultural events, public television and radio programming, and Presidential Inaugural celebrations. U.S. cultural diplomacy efforts were shaped in part by Joe’s work with the United States Information Agency and their Arts America program. His impact on U.S. cultural policy and public artistic presentation was recognized through a long list of honors including a Living Legend award from the Library of Congress and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Joe had a deep sense of moral accountability and an even deeper faith in our capacity to right wrongs if we only tried hard enough. He was an intellectual and religious polymath. I can remember him saying something to the effect that he was Baptist by music, Catholic by visual arts, Quaker by behavior, and Unitarian by belief. In matters related to equity and justice, he was a voice for the unheard, a limner of the unseen, and a champion of the under-appreciated. During his days in Birmingham covering civil rights movement for The Progressive Joe wrote about the injustices he witnessed.

While traveling in Southeast Asia on one of the U.S. Information Agency musical tours, Joe visited a refugee camp in Thailand and encountered Cambodian musicians and dancers, victims of the Pol Pot genocide, attempting to reconstruct their artistic traditions in the most horrific of circumstances. It was not long before he was mounting a campaign to bring these master artists to the United States and after he was successful in his resettlement efforts, Joe organized a U.S. tour of these Court musicians and dancers to draw attention to both their artistry and their plight. The survival and revitalization of these art forms in both the U.S. and Cambodia today owes a great debt to Joe’s efforts.

Though he spoke softly and with a relaxed cadence, Joe was no stranger to rhetorical sword fights and the ingenuity of his verbal repartee was suitable for a Shakespearean play set on a Tennessee mountainside. I recall him describing someone as so low that “wearing a top hat he could easily slide undetected under the belly of a snake.” Joe clearly enjoyed the back and forth of it all and expected to get as well as he gave. He once wrote: “Do I have to also give up bashing politicians, agency heads, college presidents, coaches, players, and left lane drivers? If so, could I have some time at a halfway house before I totally quit?” He did know when to let up though. After months of skewering a political operative, word came out that the object of Joe’s distain was suffering from a serious illness. Joe held fire and responded with “When God puts his hand on somebody, I take mine off.”

Joe was the best friend an artist could have. He played a significant role in the careers of so many performers through the years. I guess all of that started when he worked with Marty Robbins in Nashville after that fateful journey from the farm. Musicians such as Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, John Cephas, Seamus Connolly, John Jackson, and D.L. Menard, to name just a few, have benefited from Joe’s friendship and support. In 1977 Dee and Delta Hicks, master ballad singers who had never traveled far from the Cumberland plateau in Tennessee, attended the National Folk Festival in Vienna, Virginia. They returned to their home to find that it had burned to the ground. Joe quickly mobilized a group of NCTA Board members and within days raised enough money to purchase a new place for them to live. Dee Hicks, an artist who would not have been heard via the popular media was a national treasure and a walking library of centuries-old ballads. Joe deeply cared about the artists who embody our cultural heritage.

Although Joe left the farm, the farm never really left him. In the end Joe retraced that fork in the road he took early in life and turned toward home. He relocated to the Appalachian region with his beloved and supportive wife Kathy James and, although technically retired, found new ways to tell the story of his region, which in many ways was his story. Joe developed and later directed the Blue Ridge Music Center, conceived of and established the Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail, and wrote the Guide to the Crooked Road.   In the dedication prefacing that Guide he says of the musicians of southwestern Virginia: “Among the lessons they teach is that an art form that is freely given and always shared can be kept forever.” Joe Wilson spent a lifetime freely giving and generously sharing profound cultural wisdom. We are a better nation thanks to his work. He’s left it to us to keep that legacy alive.

Barry E. Bergey

May 21, 2015