Smithsonian Folkways Remembers Joe Wilson (1939-2015)
Joseph “Joe” Wilson grew up in the small town of Trade, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Tennessee. Some of his earliest memories were accompanied by the sound of family and mountain music from the Blue Ridge, steeped with influences from European and African immigrants. From that early exposure to traditional music, Joe went on to become an important and innovative advocate for preserving and presenting cultural heritage and the traditional arts.
Over the course of his career, Wilson achieved a long list of accomplishments in shaping cultural policy and promoting folk and other vernacular music. Joe produced 53 albums, three of which were released on Smithsonian Folkways: Bruce Hutton’s Old-Time Music – It’s All Around, Eddy Pennington’s Walks the Strings and Even Sings,and Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City. He also helped organize 21 national folk music tours, 7 international tours, and nearly 40 folk festivals, including the National Folk Festival. With Lee Udall, he co-wrote the foundational book Folk Festivals: A Handbook for Organization and Management.
Joe Wilson became Executive Director of the National Folk Festival Association in 1976. With the board of directors, Wilson changed the name of the organization to the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), to further reflect the organization’s expanded mission. Wilson served as Executive Director of the NCTA for 28 years and continued to sit on the board of directors and serve as chairman after retiring in 2004. He was also Director of the Blue Ridge Music Center, located in Galax, Virginia, and played a major role in its formation. In 2006, Wilson wrote a second book, A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. He was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2001 and the Library of Congress “Living Legend” award in 2009. Joe Wilson passed away on Sunday, May 17, 2015, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He leaves behind a strong legacy of preservation and presentation of cultural heritage in the United States.