- Lucky Joe's Namesake: The Extraordinary Life and Observations of Joe Wilson ed. by Fred Bartenstein, and: Roots Music in America: Collected Writings of Joe Wilson ed. by Fred Bartenstein
Like his colleague and occasional collaborator Archie Green, Joe Wilson (1938–2015) defied easy characterization. An East Tennessee native who devoted much of his professional life to documenting and presenting the folklore and history of southern Appalachia, Wilson eschewed the title "folklorist," a term that he associated with high-minded academics who "turn up their nose at amateurs" without proper academic training (Lucky Joe's Namesake, 29). Rather, Wilson was a self-described "do-gooder" who believed that he should do everything he could to provide support for "the originals of our world of art" (Lucky Joe's Namesake, 158). As executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), Wilson was a passionate advocate for musicians not only from his home region, but also from around the United States and even as far away as Cambodia. And, as the writings collected here by bluegrass historian Fred Bartenstein indicate, Wilson's passion and advocacy extended to nearly everything he was involved with, from the Civil Rights Movement to local history. [End Page 193]
Given the breadth and volume of Wilson's writings, Bartenstein was able to produce two volumes that, while complementary, can be read as stand-alone books. The first book, Lucky Joe's Namesake, uses Wilson's writings—some of which were unpublished during his lifetime—to create a memoir that sheds light not only on his significant contributions to the world of US vernacular music, but also on his family's history in East Tennessee, his brief stint in the Nashville music scene of the early 1960s, his efforts to counter violence in Birmingham in the mid-1960s, and his retirement in the New River Valley. Bartenstein augments the narrative with extensive examples from Wilson's published and unpublished writings. Many of these pieces—especially his writings on his hometown of Trade, Tennessee—should be essential reading for anyone interested in Appalachian history and culture. Readers with an interest in the Civil Rights Movement will also be intrigued by "Hucksters of Hate—Nazi Style," a piece exposing the racist violence of the National States Rights Party that Wilson and Edward Harris wrote for The Progressive in 1964.
The second volume, Roots Music in America, presents an array of Wilson's extensive writings on the many different varieties of US vernacular music that he found interesting. A substantial number of these pieces explore Appalachian musical traditions, with essays on important places ("The Blue Ridge: A Place Near the Heart in American Musical History," "Fries: Where the Music Began"), institutions ("Radio and the Blue Ridge," "Bristol's WCY: Early Bluegrass Turf"), musicians ("Grayson and Whitter," "Carroll Best: Too Tall to Sleep in a Car"), songs and tunes ("Rachel and the Eighth of January," "Durang's Dance and Hoffmaster's Tune"), and instruments ("Men and Kings: A Mini-History of the Guitar," "The Pedal Steel: A Folk Instrument of Our Time"). Additionally, Bartenstein has collected writings on the blues (most notably, "Cephas and Wiggins: Masters of the Piedmont Blues"), cowboy poetry, and Native American flutes, among others. Many of the pieces in this volume were published in programs for NCTA productions, while still others reached readers in Bluegrass Unlimited and other popular publications. Although an occasional factual error can be found from time to time, as in Wilson's assertion that the rebec—a bowed string instrument—is "a form of guitar," these pieces reveal both careful scholarship and a deep devotion to clarity and conciseness (86). Readers with an interest in US vernacular music will undoubtedly find these sources to be of great value.
In reviewing the breadth of the writings collected in these volumes, Wilson's deep interest in reaching a wide and diverse...