- Judith Binkele McCulloh (1935–2014)
At the 2014 annual meeting, American Folklore Society President Michael Ann Williams announced a new prize, the Judith McCulloh Award for Lifetime Service to the Field. Former AFS President (1987) McCulloh died July 13, 2014, in Urbana, Illinois, where she’d lived for many years. The prize appropriately reflects a unique career, built upon work as a publisher of scholarly research in folklore and music.
I met Judy in the late spring of 1961, outside the house she shared with Ellen Stekert on South Rogers Street in Bloomington, Indiana. Just accepted into the MA program at the Indiana University (IU) Folklore Institute, I was 22. She, 26, was already a graduate student there. Her influence on me and on other students in our cohort was profound—especially among those of us who loved and valued American vernacular music.
Judy married mathematician Leon McCulloh in 1961. He was teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In May 1962, Judy visited him there for a weekend and saw Flatt & Scruggs give a concert for Archie Green’s Campus Folksong Club (she was a founding member). She came back with tapes of the show and asked me to come into the Archives of Folk and Primitive Music (AFPM) to help her draft a table of contents for the recording, which she was depositing in the Archives. It may have been the first time anyone gave a recording of a bluegrass show to a folk music archive.
In the fall of 1962, McCulloh moved to Urbana; then in the fall of 1964, she returned to Bloomington for a year. George List, the director of the Archives of Traditional Music (ATM), as the APFM was now called, was going on sabbatical leave. Judy became acting associate director. I had just begun to work there as a graduate assistant; she assigned me to copy my large collection of Bill Monroe show tapes and prepare a listening guide to the collection for visiting patrons. It is difficult to recall the fact that, at the time, not all folklorists or ethnomusicologists were convinced of the relevance of bluegrass music great Monroe to our field of study. Judy was a key player in the move to recognize the importance of such music in American cultural history.
Judy began working at the University of Illinois Press in 1968. There, she helped launch the Music in American Life series. An accomplished scholarly writer herself, Judy had a way of encouraging other scholars to follow and write about their ideas, and of suggesting to them things they hadn’t thought about before. It’s no wonder she had such a successful career as an editor.
Under Judy’s direction, the University of Illinois Press’s Music in American Life series grew over a 35-year period to encompass 130 titles. Many, like Archie Green’s Only a Miner (1971), were award-winning landmarks. She also originated and edited the Folklore and Society series, co-published with the AFS at Illinois.
McCulloh’s professional work immersed her in worlds of scholarship. She spent decades traveling to academic conventions where she operated the University of Illinois Press booth, selling books and schmoozing with scholars and music professionals, and attending paper sessions. She was a lively conversationalist with broad interests. By talking with conventiongoers, she came to know who was working on what, and what people wanted to read about. Many of the titles in her series were hatched at these meetings.
These books brought groundbreaking scholarship to the reading public, especially those seeking to learn more about roots and heritage [End Page 97] traditions, particularly in music. They played key roles in public folklore by introducing, explaining, and valorizing folk artists and their works.
Many years as a trustee of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress made McCulloh aware of the underlying issues confronting public folklore. Often she was an advocate for the disciplines in which she’d studied and worked—folklore and ethnomusicology. The National Endowment for the Arts recognized this in 2010, naming her a National Heritage Fellow, and awarding her the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship...