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Remembering Joe by Scott Lilly

Remembering the man who understood how people and culture connected—and why that connection means everything. Joe Wilson probably knew more about traditional American music than anyone who ever lived. He passed away peacefully in Winston-Salem yesterday after battling renal disease and other health issues for many years. He was truly one of the most remarkable men I ever knew.

Joe was born in North Carolina, very close to where the borders of that state join those of Virginia and Tennessee. He came by his knowledge of the music and traditions of the Appalachian Mountains naturally. But no one knew more about why that music sounds the way it does or the various cultural cross- currents that shaped it than Joe. And he not only understood the details and traditions of Appalachian music, but virtually very type of American music from western swing to zydeco, mariachi, blues and polka.

Joe directed the National Council for Traditional Arts for roughly three decades. Among other things, he managed NCTA’s annual National Folk Festival. Joe decided that the right thing to do was to move the festival out of Washington and take it on the road where it could be used to assist in the redevelopment and revitalization of cities like Lowell, MA, Bangor, ME, Butte, MT and Richmond, VA. He worked with local leaders, and repeatedly created events that attracted tens of thousands, and in some instances, hundreds of thousands, of people to abandoned waterfronts and struggling inner cities that were profoundly changed over time, rebuilding not only their economy but also their pride, confidence and solidarity in building their future.

Joe knew nearly everything about all of the great artists in traditional music, including those that most people had never heard of, but were amazed and delighted by, once they had a chance to sample them. Friends would try to trick him, searching for old 78 rpm records of artists that they had never heard of, and asking Joe to identify all of the members of the band. Typically he would, and tell them as well which instrument each musician played, other instruments they often played, and how that particular recording differed from earlier or later versions by the same artist.

He organized a number a national and international tours, introducing traditional artists to packed audiences here and around the world. He thought it was his mission to not only help Americans understand their own traditions, but to help those around the world get a better and deeper understanding of who we Americans are by seeing a side of us that is not often exported through the prism of newspapers, sitcoms or motion pictures.

In the early 1990s, Joe began working with the National Park Service to build an interpretive center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, because he passionately felt that all Americans should have an opportunity to understand the roots of American music, and how settlers passing through that region had contributed their German, English, Scotch Irish and African traditions to form a mixture of sounds and rhythms that is our nation’s unique musical inheritance–as well as our gift back to the world.

In that same vein, Joe realized that the people who lived in that part of the country had a resource that could help create badly needed jobs. The now highly popular Crooked Road, a 330-mile trail connecting 60 music venues gives visitors a chance to sample all of the marvelous music and folk art prevalent throughout Southwest Virginia. An organization known as the Friends of Southwest Virginia prepared an economic analysis of the area two years ago in which they estimated that expenditures by travelers to the region had increased by 43% or about $400 million dollars during the 8-year period from 2004 to 2012, an amount that has no doubt grown significantly since then, as the route has continued to gain interest and attention.

Joe not only liked the music produced by traditional artists; he cared for them as people. He was their agent, their advocate and their friend, particularly when they were in need. One artist who had traveled internationally on one of Joe’s tours as a young teenager came back to him as she was trying to make sure that she had the right blend of musicians and instruments on her first big album. When Now that I’ve Found You sold more than a million copies, Allison Krauss asked that Joe be included among those receiving the commemorative plaque from Rounder Records.

But most of his time was dedicated to artists who never reached the national limelight. They were blues artists, church choirs, coal miners and polka bands that were often down on their luck or in need of advice and encouragement. I never met one who didn’t think Joe walked on water–and so did I.

-Scott Lilly, member of the NCTA Board of Directors