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 is deeply felt by his family, the board and staff of NCTA, his many friends, 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 marshalled 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, who knew more about American history and culture than anyone I ever knew.
The breadth of Joe’s achievement and influence is so far-reaching, we are gathering on our website the tributes, images, and sound bites we hope may collectively convey a sense of the man and his legacy, beginning with the lovely message from his wife Kathy James and Joe’s daughters, Laurie and Melinda.
Joe 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 Center for the Performing Arts in northern Virginia. (The festival was first held in St. Louis in 1934.) The decision brought immense social and economic benefits to a dozen or more towns and cities around the country. He also helped produce major regional festivals in Seattle, El Paso and San Francisco.
In the midst of his festival programming, Joe 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. He became a cultural ambassador abroad, leading at least half a dozen tours of American folk musicians around the world with backing from the U.S. Information Agency.
Joe was magnanimous in lending his voice and powers of persuasion in support of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the Folk and Traditional Arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, 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, he was an indispensable friend and advisor to countless artists and performers.
In his later years, Joe turned his attention to the region he loved best—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.
We’re thankful that Joe’s good works did not go unrecognized during him lifetime. In 2001, he received the National Heritage Fellowship Award, 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 honored by the Library of Congress with institution’s Living Legend Award.
On behalf of the board and staff of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, I 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.
We hope you enjoy learning more about the life and work of Joe Wilson, and about the work and programs of the organization he created, the National Council for the Traditional Arts.
Chairman of the Board
National Council for the Traditional Arts