- Roots Music in America: Collected Writings of Joe Wilson ed. by Fred Bartenstein, and: Lucky Joe's Namesake: The Extraordinary Life and Observations of Joe Wilson ed. by Fred Bartenstein
Joe Wilson, late former longtime director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), was both the folklorist and the folk, the singer and the song. In these two rich and ranging collections, Wilson, a stalwart advocate [End Page 218] of the indigenous cultures of the United States for four decades and moreover a proud and knowing Appalachian, is presented across his life and career in a compilation of his written, unfolding voice. The topics, tones, logics, biographical excursions, and literary genres are multifold. Edited by Wilson's longtime friend Fred Bartenstein, the paired set is rich, if at times pleasantly confusing, consisting of Wilson's writing previously published in books, magazines, newspapers, liner notes, and trail guides, as well as unpublished emails, personal correspondence, listserv posts, and various fragments of unfinished essays and cultural criticism. The disparate nature of the source material is matched across the collections in content, including autobiographical reflections, local and cultural histories, folk artist profiles, guidebook interpretations, instructional essays, and much more.
"I come at this from the fringes," Wilson, who died in 2015, writes to start Lucky Joe's Namesake. Born in 1938 and raised in Trade—maybe Tennessee's oldest established community—Wilson's life was uncanny in its stretch and span. His 77-year course took him from the life of a child laborer during his early years in rural East Tennessee, to a peripheral music industry player in 1960s Nashville, to a progressive freelance writer in Civil Rights Era Alabama, to a corporate advertising functionary in New York, and eventually to an unmatched career as an influential and admired culture worker. This longer and less integrated of the two collections lays forth Wilson's unusual pathway in the section "An Extraordinary Life," a chronology of seven chapters that embeds his eventual work at the NCTA within a broader biographical overview. The chapter "The NCTA Years" is but nine pages, as this pivotal period—for folklorists certainly—is developed more fully later. Two sections follow, one devoted to tales and local lore that Wilson inherited and inhabited from his young life in Trade and another, more fascinating and unexpected still, re-examining his time as a journalist in the 1960s covering the National States Rights Party in Alabama.
The second half of Lucky Joe's Namesake circles back and settles into the NCTA years of Wilson's life and his writing on matters of public folklore. As the second volume reviewed here collects Wilson's extensive writings specifically on American traditional musics, these essays reflect broader concerns and personal musings from his professional life. The final sections include "Folklore and Folk Festivals," "The Crooked Road," and, simply, "Miscellany." While Wilson's discussion of his role in the genesis of Virginia's significant Crooked Road music trail is a particularly instructive dive into how heritage is made and sold, I suspect that it will be his hard-earned, at times provocative, perspectives on folklore as a system of values and actions and the presentation of such in festivals and concerts that will be of greatest interest and use to students, teachers, and practitioners of folklore. My own note-taking was most stimulated in these 43 pages. Here, the reader encounters a gymnastic, at times slippery, mind for matters of traditional culture, preservation, and authenticity.
In the essay "Beginnings of the National Folk Festival," Wilson carefully excavates the early development of what he asserts was the first folk festival to self-consciously present various ethnic and regional cultural expressions on the same stage (p. 127). Rather than place his emphasis primarily on the artists presented, Wilson shapes his history out of the intentions and actions...