by Dr. Earle Hitchner
I have several memories of Joe Wilson (March 16, 1938-May 17, 2015), a tireless champion of traditional and especially rural American music and other arts, but two stick out.
The first was on radio. The year was 1988, and Joe was the tour director accompanying the fiddlers on the inaugural “Masters of the Folk Violin” sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, for which he was executive director from 1976 to 2004. One of the fiddlers on that tour was County Clare-born, longtime Boston resident Séamus Connolly, who had appeared previously on “The Celtic Hour,” a Saturday afternoon show I programmed and hosted at WFDU-FM in Teaneck, N.J., that expanded from one hour at its outset in 1984 to three hours a couple years later through to 1989, the year I left. Séamus and I had talked about having him and perhaps another fiddler on the show with me to promote the tour and the upcoming concert at Julia Richman High School auditorium in Manhattan, and he mentioned that Joe Wilson had expressed interest in joining him on the air with me.
Joe and Séamus arrived at the studio with two other members of the tour: Cheticamp-born, Waltham, Mass., resident fiddler Joe Cormier, who received a National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship in 1984, and a 17-year-old southwestern longbow-style fiddler and singer born and raised in Illinois who never went on the air with me. She chose to spend her time thumbing through the Celtic music LP’s in the studio and asking me where the Mary Black records were. It was Joe Wilson who introduced me to her: “Earle, this is Alison Krauss.” Only years later would I connect Krauss’s interest in Mary Black, an Irish vocalist successful at recording traditional and pop-rock-folk music, with her own interest in those genres that would lead to 27 Grammy Awards, the most for any female musician in history.
Conversing with Séamus was always easy for me, but I quickly found Joe Wilson to be no less engaging. He was a delightful, witty, and extremely knowledgeable interviewee, and we hit it off. Joe Cormier, though somewhat reticent, spoke insightfully about his style of fiddling, a mix of Cape Breton, French Acadian, and Scottish influences. The time the three of us spent on the radio seemed to zip by, and of the four guests in the studio with me that Saturday, Alison Krauss made the least impression on me–until I saw her perform at Julia Richman High School. It was apparent to anyone with clear eyes and clean ears that she was a budding major talent, with a voice to match her bowing.
Aside from Joe Cormier, that first “Masters of the Folk Violin” tour featured five future NEA National Heritage Fellowship winners: bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker (1993), jazz/swing fiddler Claude Williams (1998), Joe Wilson himself (2001), Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet (2005), and Irish traditional fiddler Séamus Connolly (2013). If anyone needed further evidence of how acute an ear Joe Wilson had for musical talent, that tour provided it. In his essay for the Masters of the Folk Violin CD (all six inaugural tour fiddlers are on it) issued by Arhoolie Records in 1993, Joe Wilson’s humor is just as evident. In describing Cajun music, Joe quoted a sign on a window at Marc Savoy’s violin-making shop in Eunice, Louisiana: “In his lifetime Stradivarius made 496 violins, 3,000 of which are owned by Cajuns.” Joe’s historical anecdote about Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry playing fiddles together for two weeks in 1760 is also priceless, as is Joe’s quoting of his fiddle-playing uncle in response to those hard-bark preachers and others claiming the fiddle was the “Devil’s Box.” He dubbed them “a goddam bunch of tin-eared Jeremiahs.”
The second vivid remembrance of Joe Wilson that springs to my mind occurred at the 18th annual Irish Folk Festival on May 29, 1994, at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va. That festival marked the official comeback of then 64-year-old, Boston-born Joe Derrane to public performance of Irish traditional music on the two-row button accordion after a hiatus of more than 30 years. On site was Joe Wilson, who instantly recognized the historic importance of Derrane’s re-emergence there and treated him with the respect, care, and encouragement the occasion deserved. Derrane was a sensation that day, dazzling the audience with tunes played so crisply and innovatively that it was impossible for most of us to keep our jaws ungaped. Celtic Thunder co-founder and box player Terence Winch had the best line–with a clever nod to a Creedence Clearwater Revival song–for that day: “Who’ll stop Derrane?” No one could, did, or wanted to. Joe Wilson was as stunned as the rest of us. As Derrane was leaving the Band Shell stage after the final encore of his midafternoon performance with pianist Felix Dolan, Joe Wilson stopped Derrane and made him pledge into the microphone, in front of a cheering, capacity crowd, that he would never stop playing the button accordion again. Around that same time a still exultant Joe Wilson made this remark on camera to Frank Ferrel, who was filming a documentary on the button accordionist: “Joe Derrane–back from the dead, and better than ever!”
Keeping his pledge, Joe Derrane went on to record seven new albums, tour nationally and internationally, and receive his own NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2004. Without fanfare Joe Wilson had joined myself and select others in championing Joe Derrane for that highest of U.S. government honors for a folk or traditional artist.
Besides nominating many other artists for an NEA NHF over the years, Joe Wilson had a direct hand in launching the NCTA’s “Green Fields of America” Irish-American music and dance national tours of 1978, 1979, 1982, and 1984; three more “Masters of the Folk Violin” tours in 1989, 1994, and 1995; “Masters of the Banjo” tours in 1993 and 1994 (young Seamus Egan, co-founder of Solas, was an inaugural member); “American Masters of Celtic Music” in 1997; and “Irish Fire” in 1997.
Under the auspices of the NCTA, Joe Wilson in the early 1980s helped the National Folk Festival, first held in St. Louis in 1934, to migrate around the country and provide a solid, three-year footing for various cities and regions so that they could follow up with their own folk festivals. One such city, Lowell in northeastern Massachusetts, hosted the National Folk Festival from 1987 to 1989, and in 1990 the Lowell Folk Festival was officially launched. It has enjoyed great success, and I witnessed the large crowds firsthand as an emcee there.
Joe Wilson had raconteur and scribal skills that thankfully resisted the pedantry found in most ethnomusicological presentations. His humor was simply too buoyant and downright risible to allow for sleep-inducing solemnity. In a tribute to Joe Wilson written by Barry Bergey, who served for 29 years as a folk and traditional arts specialist in the NEA and was the director of its Folk and Traditional Arts program from 2000 to 2014, Barry captured some of Joe’s unique take on life: “I recall him describing someone as so low that ‘wearing a top hat he could easily slide undetected under the belly of a snake’ … He once wrote: ‘Do I have to 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?’” Anyone who can skewer that motley bunch with mirthful precision has earned my undying admiration.
And that is what Joe Wilson has left us: a cultural legacy deserving our undying admiration. He remains a force still exerting his wit and will. Who can’t feel enlightened and ennobled by both?