As a devoted scholar, folklorist, and folk arts advocate, Judith McCulloh embodies the very spirit of the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship.
McCulloh was born in 1935 in Spring Valley, Illinois, and grew up at Northmoor Orchard near Peoria, where she helped her parents sell their apples and cider. At the National Folk Festival in St. Louis in 1954 she systematically wrote down the words and music to songs she heard backstage, unaware she was "collecting" or "doing fieldwork." Her fascination with traditional music grew more serious during her studies at Cottey College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and Ohio State University.
McCulloh completed her Ph.D. in folklore at Indiana University and spent 35 years at the University of Illinois Press, where her positions included executive editor, assistant director, and director of development. During this time McCulloh spearheaded the renowned series Music in American Life, making her an important force in expanding and transforming music scholarship. The 130 titles she published cover all aspects of American music, including blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, doowop, jazz, rock, cowboy and railroad songs, minstrelsy, zarzuela, opera, pow-wow, ghost dance songs, brass bands, and community choruses. Series books examine instruments from the banjo and the theremin to the guitar in Baroque Mexico, and people from John Philip Sousa, Marian McPartland, Fritz Reiner, Fred Waring, Charles Ives, and Charles Seeger to Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Fiddlin' John Carson, Aunt Molly Jackson, Robert Johnson, Robert Winslow Gordon, Sarah Gertrude Knott, Tito Puente, and Elvis. Her music books garnered twenty ASCAP Awards.
At the University of Illinois Press McCulloh also created the series Folklore and Society. These sixteen books, bracketed by Edward D. Ives's George Magoon and the Down East Game War and Archie Green's Tin Men, stand as models of folklore scholarship.
McCulloh's contributions have been a major force in the preservation, understanding, and documentation of American folk culture. She has served as president of the American Folklore Society and served on the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress at a time when her leadership and vision helped to save the center from dissolution in the 1990s. She is currently an emerita member of the center's Board of Trustees.
McCulloh's hard work and vigilance have been recognized on numerous occasions, including a University of Illinois Chancellor's Academic Professional Excellence Award, an Ohio Wesleyan Distinguished Achievement Citation, a Society for American Music Distinguished Service Award, an International Bluegrass Music Association Distinguished Achievement Award, and an International Country Music Conference Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society and an Honorary Member of the Society for Ethnomusicology.
NEA: Tell me a little bit about your background. Where were you born?
Judith McCulloh: I was born in a very small town in Central North Illinois called Spring Valley. My father worked on the railroad -- he worked in the roundhouse in Granville, Illinois, nearby -- and I made my way to the Spring Valley Hospital. Apparently I made headlines then as the 100th baby to be born there. But I wasn't aware of the honor at the time. Then we moved down to Peoria where my dad worked at Caterpillar Tractor. He eventually bought a small orchard and then the larger orchard, Northmoor Orchard, just outside Peoria. Where I grew up and went to Peoria Central High School it was still rural enough that when we looked out the back window, we could see an old German farmer, Mr. Schaer, plowing with his horses during the day and against the setting sun. For a time, before the road got paved, the road that went near the orchard was all mud and in the spring, cars would get stuck and old Mr. Schaer had a good laugh hauling them out with his horses. But that's all in the past now and civilization has taken it over and that place is now Old Orchard subdivision.
I went from there to a small women's junior college in Nevada, Missouri, called Cottey College and after those two years finished my BA at Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware, Ohio working mainly in English. I started a PhD in English at Ohio State after getting a Masters there and then through a series of happenstances changed course. I'd gotten a Fulbright to study Sanskrit in Belgium at the Free University of Brussels in 1958-59. The summer before I went, I attended a workshop at the Folklore Institute at Indiana University. It ran for six to eight weeks; it was held every four years and all kinds of people came. Folkniks, serious students, scholars, world renowned people, everybody was equal there. It was the most exhilarating experience I'd ever had. I was so intrigued by this field of study which really opened up the whole world to research and contemplation that instead of coming back to Ohio State I came to Indiana and entered the folklore program there, where I eventually got my degree. At that time I was married; my husband had gotten a job at the University of Illinois and so I came over here to Urbana in the early ?60s and I've lived here ever since.
NEA: When you were a kid growing up, did your parents listen to the kind of music that you would come to love?
McCulloh: There was not that much music at home; my mom sang a couple of little ditties but that was pretty much the extent of it. Looking back, about the only traditional music I remember hearing was in the church. This was the Apostolic Christian Church in Peoria, and it's related as much to the Amish and Mennonites as to anything else. There was very slow unaccompanied four part harmony singing there with a man leading the group, (the men always led everything), and some old, old pieces there which was probably the extent of the tradition I heard. Later one of my aunts said, "Oh there's this place out in the country called The Hub in the town of Edelstein where all the big country music acts stopped on their way through the Midwest and they had some terrific music there but of course we wouldn't have told you about that because they served beer there and it would not have been proper." So I'm afraid I missed out on The Hub in Edelstein.
NEA: Tell me about your dissertation. It was about a song?
McCulloh: Yes it was about an old lyric song called "In the Pines". It goes, "In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines and you shiver when the cold wind blows." And there are variants on it. That interest developed through the folk music revival in the early 1950s when I was at Cottey College. I had an instructor there who had some records oBurl Ives and Richard Dyer-Bennet and people like that. In fact, Dyer-Bennett came to Nevada, Missouri, and gave a concert and I went and I was struck by one thing he said which was, "I am not a folk singer, I am a singer of folk songs." And I thought, my goodness that's an interesting distinction, and started thinking about that. I had a little phonograph, so I began buying records and went fairly quickly from an interpreter of folk song and folk music to one of traditional singers -- the folk -- and came to love the sounds and the repertoire that they had. I was glad to learn about the lives that they lived and why the music mattered so much to them. Through the years I kept that interest and built up a library. I went to concerts, programs and the 1954 National Folk Festival in St. Louis and various other venues where traditional music could be heard. When it came time to write a dissertation I settled on this text tune study of "In the Pines" which I still like, which is a sign of a good song I would say. There were some dreadful interpretations of it, mainly in the pop field, but in the main, I still love to hear that song. I'm trying to revive it at some of the Bluegrass festivals I go to, mainly down at Bean Blossom, Indiana where people like David Davis often will sing it and there's a ripple of recognition in the crowd. Bill Monroe had a big hit with that and people say "Oh yes" as though they'd forgotten about it.
NEA: And of course Lead Belly.
McCulloh: Lead Belly had a version of it called "Black Girl" which I think was taught to him by Alan Lomax out of a combination of the Cecil Sharp collection from the Southern Appalachians and a Robert Gordon cylinder that was in the Library of Congress Archive of American Folksong where Alan worked for many years. Lead Belly was eager to learn songs and absorb new repertoire and the people who took him around were I think just as eager to teach him repertoire to supplement what he came with on his own accord. "Black Girl" was one of those. It was widely copied, of course, as was the Bill Monroe version.
NEA: Well we also had Kurt Cobain doing it with Nirvana as "Where did you sleep last night".
McCulloh: That was about as wild as you could get, yes, and that was memorable for many people who perhaps never heard the earlier key versions of it.
NEA: Can you talk about how folklore and a career devoted to folklore, folk life and folk music has changed over the years? When you first went into it, I would imagine the field, especially when you're looking at American folklore, was quite small.
McCulloh: When I first went to Indiana University in the folklore program, all of the students and the faculty could gather around one table on the third floor of the library. That program has grown; other programs have sprung up since then. There are ups and downs in the field, by its nature it absorbs and draws upon I think potentially every discipline in the world -- that's one of the magic features of folklore. Archer Taylor the great riddle and proverb scholar used to say, "File away everything you learn, you never know when you're going to need that bit of information." I try to take that to heart but because folklore is not that readily defined the way English has come to be defined as a discipline, such as history or women's studies or anthropology. It has sometimes had a hard time finding a home in the academic institutions and so through the years much of the vibrancy of the field has come to rest in what we call the public sector. That is, arts agencies, humanities councils, the National Park Service, out in the historical societies, out in the public -- newspapers, magazines, businesses -- wherever an awareness of tradition might be valued. That has really grown since I got started in the field. To the extent that now I think about half of all folklorists do work in the public sector rather than in academic settings.
When I first started at the University of Illinois Press as an editor, I remember colleagues asking me "What are you doing now that you've graduated?" and I said, "I'm an editor at the University of Illinois Press." "Oh," they said. "That's too bad; it's too bad you couldn't get a real job." That was in '72 when I began there and about ten years later when the job market got a little tighter, people started sidling up to me at the meetings and saying, "How did you ever land that great job in publishing?" I just had to smile and said, "You could do this too if you tried and encourage your students to keep their eyes and ears open for all opportunities." So that's just one sign of how things have changed.
NEA: Well you did tremendous work at the Press and among the things that you accomplished was editing the series "Music in American Life". That was a very, very important series.
McCulloh: Yes. It continues to be an important series; my colleague Laurie Matheson is doing a tremendous job carrying that on. When I left the Press in 2007 I had published about 130 titles in the series. I had two agendas really; there was the obvious one of trying to represent all aspects of American music and music in America -- that is, old and new and sacred and secular and classical and pop and traditional and so on and so forth. My other agenda, which came more by example than overtly, was to show that there are many different ways to write about American music. Some people are good at doing history, some case studies, some bibliography, some discography, some memoirs, some biography, some criticism and thought pieces, there are all kinds of different ways to let us learn something more than we already knew, things that we should know that sometimes we didn't even know we should know. So yes, I'm very proud of that series.
NEA: What's so interesting about the field of folklore is, as you pointed out, it's multidisciplinary; it literally goes across the board from visual arts to music, to storytelling and literature. While your focus in this series was on music, you really had to have your arms around all of this in other positions that you held, as the head of Folklore and Society for example.
McCulloh: Well the world is a big thing to get your arms around, I have to admit that, but it's a challenge that's worth rising to. The Folklore and Society series was a finite series -- unlike the Music in American Life Series which at Illinois is still going on -- that was designed to set the best models possible for how to use folklore as one more tool -- not as a novelty, not as something quaint, but as a very legitimate perspective on the world and on how we can make sense of the world and share our insights with other people. So, Archie Green was a good part of that, as well as Sandy Ives and a number of other people who are much revered and respected colleagues in the field of folklore.
NEA: Part of what you did with both Music in American Life and Folklore and Society is to help create a model for how to write about this.
McCulloh: Well I would hope so, heaven knows I tried and heaven knows each book is its own special contribution and each book is different. Each author's different and each has something new to offer and a little bit different view of the world. That I always found exciting. In publishing there's a lot of grub work, a lot of committees, and a lot of paperwork and the usual that goes with any job where you sit and stare at a computer screen or get on the phone for a while. But to have the chance to create something special and to work with something new every single day, that is a good kind of work to be engaged in. I really would not give that up for anything. Archie Green once said, "If you're happy in your work, you can be happy in your life." He was the master of Laborlore Explorations and he knew that was true.
NEA: Well you've devoted your career to folklore. Is it easy or difficult for you to talk about what it was other than the camaraderie of that moment that just drew you to this so passionately?
McCulloh: Oh, that could be a short answer or that could be a year's answer. That's a challenging question. I think part of the inescapable appeal of folklore is its intimacy and its significance for the people who carry it on and shape it, or reshape it in some way. It's such an essential part of people's lives whether they put a label to it or not. And if in this complex and troubled world we have cause to appreciate the beauties and the positive forces around us and the potential that people have, we really need to understand and appreciate what makes these people who they are, what they are, what they value and what's important to them. I think we should spend a little more time looking at what people hold so dear that they pass this knowledge and art and practices on to their friends, their children and their communities. If we can appreciate that, then we will be better people for it and the world would be a better place for it.
NEA: Looking at a particular song like "In the Pines", why is it that that song has 160 variations? Why is it that that song endures in so many different manifestations?
McCulloh: Well there were 160 variants that I found.
NEA: And that was in 1970.
McCulloh: I think there must be thousands of them out there that simply did not get documented in some way or another and of course Kurt Cobain came along after I finished my dissertation. Occasionally people still surface who have a non-standard version of that in their memories. It's partly the music, it's a haunting melody, and it's partly the mystery of the words. It's the idea of darkness, isolation and the wind whistling through the pines. In some of the older variants there's a story of a very macabre accident with a train where a person, usually a woman, gets beheaded and they find her head in the driver's wheel and they never find her body. This is memorable and it's one of those very simple sets of lyrics that hint at a story, it doesn't spell it all out, but it's very mysterious. The combination of a simple but powerful melody and intriguing lyrics in the song proved too much to forget completely and people do carry it on. It's more popular in some eras then others but traditionally things do wax and wane that way; even the study of tradition waxes and wanes. A Ballad study was once where it was at, ballad and folk tale, and now that's more of an optional study in many places while something else has risen to the top.
NEA: In the work that you do, what strikes me is that you're both reclaiming culture and preserving culture but it's a living thing and it's still vibrant today, it's not a museum piece.
McCulloh: No, not at all. Tradition is all around us and if we talk I'm sure we could find a lot of fascinating heritage that you have perhaps not thought about in those terms and I could probably think of some more things like old recipes and sayings. It's the same thrust that the American Folklife Center's enabling legislation refers to -- the need to preserve and present American folklife so that we all can benefit from what it has to teach us. It's very much a living thing and I can't imagine tradition not being out there.
NEA: You brought up the American Folklife Center. There was quite a battle that you were involved in to save the Folklife Center and you were known quite affectionately as ?the mouse who roared'. What happened? Take us through that.
McCulloh: Well what happened essentially was that there were some people in the Library of Congress and in Congress who did not fully appreciate what the American Folklife Center had to offer to the Library and to Congress. You need to remember that the Center was created out of whole cloth by a bill signed by President Ford in 1976 and the Center was placed at the Library, so it was not really an integral part of the Library in the sense that the other divisions are. It was a strange animal and it dealt with multi-format ethnographic collections, which was again a little unlike any of the other units within the Library, so it was an odd duck. And it had to be reauthorized every two or three years with funds appropriated every year and it was difficult for the Library to cope with all this special circumstance and I think that the lack of appreciation of what the Center was all about and the potential it offered created problems that led for a time to the possibility that it might be dissolved -- that the enabling legislation might be actually repealed.
So those of us on the Board of Trustees at that time decided no, this is not right, and we need to get ourselves organized and get the good word out. So we did that. I happened to be chair of the Board at that time so I found ways to organize and get some educational efforts going with the huge help of public folklorists and some academic folklorists and we essentially divided ourselves into parishes throughout different parts of the country where we had the strongest connections. We got in touch with people and asked them to write letters, call their senators and representatives, that sort of thing. We submitted information for hearings and tried to work with our colleagues within the Library who truly were colleagues to calm down this effort to do away with the Center.
Eventually the light was seen and the Center received permanent authorization so it is now permanently a part of the Library of Congress and goes through the appropriations process every year, along with the rest of the Library. The librarian, Dr. Billington, initiated some projects which he felt the Center was especially equipped to handle, such as the Veterans History Project which was designed to document the stories of all of America's War Veterans, something like 19 million of them at the time the legislation was passed. That has been a flagship program. There was his initiative of local legacies also, when the bicentennial came up to document traditions in all of the states and there was huge participation. But it just showed how the incredible staff at the American Folklife Center could rise to that challenge to work with people back home, work with people in Congress, and bring the two together and really as a result, make the library look good in the eyes of Congress, which is not a bad thing.
NEA: Did you know Bess Lomax Hawes?
McCulloh: I was privileged to know Bess, yes indeed. I served on two or three NEA folk arts panels and then met her whenever she came to the American Folklore Society meetings, of course, and really got to know her over the years. She was the most marvelous, truly marvelous remarkable woman. I can see her still with her hair a little frazzled, pushing her glasses up on the top of her head, and during breaks, especially at the panel meetings, just wandering around talking with us and saying, "You know, I wonder what would happen if we thought about doing this?" She would kind of murmur at us and wouldn't you know, when we reconvened the panels, someone would raise a hand and say, "You know, I wonder what would happen if we did thus and so?" as though that person had thought of it themselves out of whole cloth. Bess would sit there and push her glasses up on her head again and say, "You know, that's a wonderful idea." She was very smart, she was very wise. Some years ago I began talking with her about writing her story because she had such an interesting life and accomplished so much and really changed the course of folklore in this country; she was a hero to so many people. She thought about it and said, "Yes I really should do that." Eventually she did and when I was still at the University of Illinois Press, she sent her manuscript in and it was wonderful and I made a few suggestions and she took them under advisement. About that time I retired and so my successor Laurie Matheson had the privilege of working with her and eventually publishing her memoir in 2008 that was called Sing it Pretty and I would commend that to anyone who was interested in Bess, interested in the NEA, or interested in folklore. It's quite a wonderful, readable story and I'm glad that she shared with us what she wanted to share with us. There were things perhaps about her family she might have kept to herself, or possibly things about politics she might have kept to herself. But there is more than enough to inspire all of us to try to do as much as she did in the lives given to us.
NEA: Since you knew Bess and knew her well, what went through your mind when you got the phone call from Barry Bergey and you were told that you would be receiving the Bess Lomax Hawes Award?
McCulloh: When Barry laid that news on me, he sent me reeling. It is such an honor to have an award named for Bess, and to have that association with her. It's an honor I can't even begin to describe. As I said, she was a hero of mine and I wish she were here so that I could thank her personally. Maybe she's smiling down, we don't know.
Photo by Mary E Yeomans
Awarded the 2010 Bess Lomax Hawes Award for the preservation of cultural heritage, Judith McCulloh talks about her extensive work as a folklorist and editor at the University of Illinois Press. [24:04]