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  • In Memoriam:W. K. McNeil 1940-2005
  • Ronald L. Baker

William Kinneth McNeiL—"Bill" to his friends, "W. K." to his professional audience, and "Dr. James Withers" to readers of his research notes for the privately printed Eat Beans, They Make You Astute (1988)—was born near Canton, North Carolina, on 13 August 1940. As a child he developed a lifelong love of reading, and in his teens he found plenty of time to pursue this passion while bedridden with rheumatic fever for more than a year. During that period of rest and recuperation, Bill read everything he could get his hands on, including a set of encyclopedias, which probably did as much as anything to contribute to his legendary encyclopedic mind. In his youth he also fell in love with music, especially country songs, as he encountered Appalachian songs and ballads firsthand from local musicians.

After high school graduation Bill studied history at Carson- Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, where he received a B.A. degree in 1962. As a graduate student at Oklahoma State University he became especially interested in American regional history, the history of the American frontier, and the history of science. In 1964, while still a student at Oklahoma State, he published the first of his many articles: "Confederate Treaties in Indian Territory" appeared in Chronicles of Oklahoma under the byline "Kinneth McNeil."

By 1966 Bill had completed most of the work for a Ph.D. in history at Oklahoma State, but that year he worked as a VISTA volunteer in Knox County, Kentucky, which gave him a break from library research and put him back in touch with the Appalachian oral traditions he had learned to love and respect during his childhood. At the same time he discovered a fairly new graduate program—founded just two years earlier, in 1964—in American folklife at Cooperstown, New York. Since the New York State Historical Association co-sponsored the program with the State University of New York at Oneonta, the folklife program did not seem too far afield from Bill's interest in history. He found the program especially attractive because it would allow him to combine historical research with fieldwork and apply his training in history to the study of traditional groups and genres; consequently, Bill left Oklahoma State and enrolled in the Cooperstown M.A. program in American [End Page 361] Folk Culture, taking a few courses in Cooperstown's program in History Museum Training along the way. His master's thesis on autograph album verse demonstrated folk as well as popular literary influences on the genre, and this research led to several early publications in folklore, including "The Autograph Album Custom: A Tradition and Its Scholarly Treatment" in Keystone Folklore Quarterly (1968) and "From Advice to Laments: New York Autograph Album Verse, 1820-1850" in New York Folklore Quarterly (1969).

Bill graduated from the Cooperstown program in 1967 and worked as a public sector historian for the New York Office of State History in Albany until 1970, when he enrolled in the doctoral program in folklore at Indiana University. Bill found IU's folklore department quite compatible with his interests, for his major professor there was Richard M. Dorson, champion of both historical approaches to folklore and research on the history of folkloristics. Notable among Bill's several publications in folklore journals during this period was "Mary Henderson Eastman: Pioneer Collector of American Indian Folklore," published in Southern Folklore Quarterly (1975). This seminal historiographic study grew into his mammoth doctoral dissertation, "A History of American Folklore Scholarship before 1908," which he completed in 1980. After a quarter of a century, Bill's dissertation remains the best account of the early history of folkloristics in the United States. His interest in the nexus of folklore and history is exemplified in his leadership of the American Folklore Society's Folklore and History Section and in his substantive contributions to that section's journal, The Folklore Historian.

Bill spent 1975 working with the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife program before joining the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, as its only folklorist—a position he held for the rest of his life...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-0413
Print ISSN
0737-7037
Pages
pp. 361-363
Launched on MUSE
2005-12-14
Open Access
No
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