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  • Obituary:W.K. McNeil (1940-2005)
  • Simon J. Bronner

With the death on April 19, 2005, of William Kinneth McNeil, known to friends and folklorists as "Bill" and to a reading public as "W. K.," folklore studies lost a prominent advocate of historical approaches to traditional culture as well as the most comprehensive historiographer of its early period. His prodigious publication list is filled with oft-cited books and articles on folk song, narrative, and speech, especially from his two regional mountain homes of the Ozarks and Appalachians. For almost half of his sixty-four years of life, he served as folklorist for the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas and helped build its Ozark Cultural Resource Center into a major research facility. At home in the library, as well as in the field, Bill was a major resource of masses of folklore information, all of which he seemed to have memorized. Indeed, his local newspaper mourned his passing with a telling headline, "William Kinneth McNeil: Folklore Historian, Research Go-to Guy" (Woodworth 2005). I know I went to him often and was always amazed at his encyclopedic knowledge, ranging beyond folklore to film, literature, sports, and the birthday and birthplace, of all the singing cowboy stars, which he stated matter of factly, with the same ease as rattling off the vital statistics of the members of the Folklore Fellows, like records remembered from baseball cards.

The details of Bill's life reveal his grounding in the folk culture which he studied. He was born in the Appalachian Mountains near Canton, North Carolina on August 13, 1940 to working-class parents and stayed in the region to get his B.A. in history at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, in 1962. Through his teen years his incredible memory was already beginning to show with lyrics to gospel and country music songs, which drove him to talk to local musicians and singers about the "old songs," especially Appalachian ballads. He received a scholarship to pursue graduate studies in history at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and he was excited to be in a location where the frontier was still in living memory; the state had been a territory until 1907. Not one for "dry-as-dust history," as he called it, he turned to oral narratives of people in the region who remembered the territorial days to complement the documentary record. He studied American history with attention to the frontier regional experience and increasingly delved into the field of history of science to understand the biases of historians in shaping the narrative of America. He wrote his first essay for publication in 1964 on Confederate treaties in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) for the Chronicles of Oklahoma.

Bill was well on his way toward his doctorate when he heard in 1966 about a new program in American Folk Culture in Cooperstown, New York, combining historical and ethnological perspectives on American culture. Led by folklorists Louis C. Jones and Bruce Buckley, the folk culture program drew him, because he felt frustrated by the lack of attention to fieldwork and cultural material in history, and he was intrigued by the applied component of museum work that was offered alongside other studies. A turning point in his thinking came as a result of working in 1966 as a VISTA volunteer back in Appalachia in Knox County, Kentucky, where he encountered living traditions familiar to him from his upbringing in North Carolina. Cooperstown's folklife perspective opened his eyes to the possibility of developing this material with a view toward its application for the community from which it came.

While at Cooperstown, he completed a master's thesis on autograph album verse, which showed his constant attention to not only the subject, but also how it had been shaped by [End Page 356] scholarship. He was also concerned, as he would be throughout his career, with the relationship of folk materials to popular culture revealed historically. In the case of autograph album verse, he showed that the modern student album custom was not just a corruption of romantic Victorian patterns but, in fact, had various roots, including a folk cultural tradition overlooked by literary...


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