A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

In Memoriam: Joe Wilson, former Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts

2001 NEA National Heritage Fellow Joe Wilson
Photo by Tom Pich
We recently lost a great friend of the Great Lakes Folk Festival. Actually, he was much more than a friend of the festival. Joe Wilson, the former Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, played a central role in helping us bring the National Folk Festival to East Lansing for three years in 1999-2001. We had just completed our twelfth Festival of Michigan Folkllife on the MSU campus that was a partner festival to the Michigan Festival. Both had started in 1987 as part of the sesquicentennial of the state of Michigan. When the Michigan Festival decided not to continue due to economic challenges, we wanted to ensure that the folklife festival continued. Then Mayor Mark Meadows had read in a national municipal publication about the National Folk Festival taking bids for their next site. Mark called me and asked me what I knew about the National Folk Festival and could we possibly pursue it for East Lansing. I told Mark that our MSU Museum staff knew Joe Wilson well and we would contact him. Joe was thrilled at the prospect of coming to Michigan and to a city where the state traditional arts program had already had a festival history. In the end, we were selected over cities like Portland, Oregon and the National Folk Festival helped us transition to today’s Great Lakes Folk Festival—now  featuring artists from not only Michigan, but also from the Great Lakes, the US, and the world. His passing is a real loss to not only those who knew and loved him but also to those who have come to embrace American music in a deeper way by understanding its roots in folk and traditional culture.

If you had never met Joe, it is hard to capture his passion, reverence, humor, deep knowledge, and advocacy for American folk and traditional music. His contributions to documenting and presenting the traditional arts in the U.S. and globally are legendary. Barry Bergey, former Director of the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at  the National Endowment for the Arts, perhaps said it best when he wrote:

"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. “

The Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing is a living tribute to Joe and the many others who have dedicated themselves to presenting a more inclusive view of the cultural democracy that we all aspire to for America.

C. Kurt Dewhurst
Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage
MSU Museum


From Joe's Family:
Joseph Thomas Wilson (March 16, 1938 – May 17, 2015)

"Joe Wilson left us on Sunday, May 17, 2015.  He left us a legacy so vibrant and alive that even though his physical presence is gone, his spirit and his passions live on in all of us who knew and loved him.  His time here on Earth removes the cliché from the phrase “gone but not forgotten.”

Joe was born on March 16, 1938, in Creston, North Carolina, the second son of Josephine and James Wilson.  When Joe was about 2 years old the family moved to Trade, TN, where he grew up with his older brother, Kenneth, and his two younger siblings James Walter and Julia.

He embraced his Blue Ridge Mountain cultural heritage with love and passion, and he shared that love with everyone he met.  Joe was always eager to learn new things and this curiosity about the world and other traditions gave him the ability to embrace the cultures and traditions of people from all over the world.

His long tenure as the Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) provided Joe with the platform he needed to spread his traditional culture gospel all across the globe.  He produced festivals, recordings, national and international tours, wrote articles, books, created the Blue Ridge Music Center and the Roots of American Music exhibit housed there. He rebranded Hwy 58 that runs through South West Virginia as The Crooked Road and made the culture and music found along this route an important part of the region’s economy.  His keen political sense made him a great advocate for the arts and all the artists he loved so much.  Joe loved a good political fight almost as much as he loved traditional music, but to all who knew him we all knew that the thing that drove him, inspired him, fed him was the music, always the music.

Joe gave his life to his passion and in turn was repaid with every conceivable honor and award the world of folk life has to offer.  He received a National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship in 2001, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists.  The Library of Congress named him a Living Legend in 2009.  But the honor he most appreciated was the love, respect and gratitude shown to him by all the people whose lives he touched.

Joe is survived by: his wife, Kathy James; his daughters Melinda Wilson and Laurie Niswander and her husband Joel Niswander and his grandchildren Wesley and Emma Niswander; his step-daughter, Jacqueline Pfeffer; the mother of Melinda and Laurie, Patricia Wilson; his brother, James Walter Wilson; his sister, Julia Wilson; his sister-in-law Helen Wilson; his nieces and nephews: Paul Wilson, Yvonne Wilson, Bryan and Judy Wilson, Teresa and Danny Hott, Jessica Wilson, Neil James, Andrew James, and Bryce Edwards; his mother-in-law, Maryse James; and his brother-in-law, George James.
Please join us for a Celebration of Joe’s Life, Work, and Legacy

Thursday, June 25, 2015, at his beloved Blue Ridge Music Center

Mile Post 213, Blue Ridge Parkway

700 Foothills Road

Galax, VA 24333
Bring your instruments and come and play a tune for Joe or share a story or two.  For those unable to attend, a second celebration is being planned later in the summer in Washington, D.C. (date, time, and place to be announced on the National Council for the Traditional Arts’ website: www.ncta-usa.org<http://www.ncta-usa.org/>).  
In lieu of flowers, it is the wish of the family that contributions in memory of Joe’s life, work and legacy be made to the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) to support programs that promote and benefit the Blue Ridge Music Center and the artists of the Blue Ridge region:  NCTA, 8757 Georgia Avenue, Suite 450, Silver Spring, MD 20910."

Listen to Jon Lohman interview Joe Wilson here.

Watch a clip of Joe discussing traditional music.