Judy McCulloh

NEA National Heritage Fellow
Judy McCulloh
Photo by Mary E Yeomans

Transcript of conversation with Judy McCulloh

Judy McCulloh:  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, 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, the potential that people have we really need to understand and appreciate what makes all these people who they are and what they are, what they value, what's important to them.  I think if we spent a little more time looking at what people hold so dear that they pass knowledge and art and practices on to their friends, their children, their communities.  If we can appreciate that we will be better people for it and the world would be a better place for it.

That was folklorist and recipient of the 2010 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, Judith McCulloh

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works.

I'm your host, Josephine Reed. 

Scholar Judith McCulloh has devoted her life to the preservation and celebration of folk art.  During her 35 years at the University of Illinois Press, she spearheaded the renowned series, Music in American Life. The 130 books she's published cover all aspects of American music and have won twenty ASCAP Awards. And as if that wasn't enough, Judith also created the series Folklore and Society, whose sixteen booksstand as models of folklore scholarship.

Because of her contributions to the preservation, understanding, and documentation of American folk culture and her great passion for folk art, Judith McCulloh is the recipient of the 2010 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship.  I had the opportunity to talk to Judith about American folk culture. Here's our conversation:

Jo Reed:  Judy, tell me about a little bit about your background, where were you born?

Judy McCulloh:  I was born in a very small town in Central North Illinois called Spring Valley and my father worked on the railroad, he worked in the roundhouse 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 and then we moved down to Peoria where he, my dad worked at Caterpillar Tractor. It was still rural enough that when we looked out the back window, we could see an old German farmer, Mr. Scherr plowing with his horses against the setting sun and during the day.

Jo Reed: How did you become interested in studying folk life?

Judy McCulloh:  I'd gotten a Fulbright to study in Belgium at the Free University of Brussels in 1958/59 and the summer before I went over there was a Folklore Institute at Indiana University, it ran for oh I don't know, six to eight weeks; it was held every four years and all kinds of people came.  Folknicks, serious students, scholars, world renowned people, everybody was equal there it was the most exhilarating experience I'd ever had. The force of it was that I was so intrigued by this field of study that 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. 

Jo Reed:  When you were a kid growing up did your parents listen to the kind of music that you would come to love, was there Bluegrass or Blues or Folk music, Country music in the house?

Judy 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 Abastella Christian Church in Peoria, it's related as much to the Amish and Mennonites as to anything else and the 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 that was probably the extent of the tradition I heard. 

Jo Reed:  When did you first become attracted to music in the way that you were, because your dissertation was about a song?

Judy McCulloh:  Yes it was uh.. it was about uh.. 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 they're very insulated.  That interest developed through the folk music revival in the early 1950s when I was at Cottee College I had an instructor there who had some records of Merle Ives and Richard Dyer-Bennet and people like that.  In fact Dyer-Bennet 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, began buying records and went eventually, fairly quickly actually from the interpreters of folk song and folk music to people who we know would call traditional singers, the folk and came to love the sounds and the repertoire that they had and was glad to learn about the lives that they lived and why the music mattered so much to them.  So through the years I kept that interest and built up a library, went to concerts and programs and 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 was some dreadful interpretations of it, mainly in the pop field but in the main, I still love to hear that song and I'm trying to revive it at some of the Bluegrass festivals I go to, mainly down at Bean Blossom, Indiana and there's a ripple of recognition in the crowd.  Bill Monroe had a big hit on that


Jo Reed:  Looking at "In the Pines," why is it that that song has 160 variations, why is it that that song endures?

Judy McCulloh:  Well there were 160 variants that I found.

Jo Reed:  And that was in 1970.

Judy McCulloh:  I think there must be thousands of them out there that simply did not get documented in some way or another and 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, the idea of darkness, isolation, 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 spill it all out but it's very mysterious.  The combination of a simple but powerful melody and an intriguing lyrics proved too much to forget completely and people do carry it on, it's more popular in some eras and then less popular but in tradition 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 and something else has risen to the top.

Jo Reed:  Well you've devoted your career to folklore. When you first went into it I would imagine the field, especially when you're looking at American folklore, was quite small.

Judy 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 who was 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 or 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 wherever an awareness of tradition might be valued and that has really grown since I got started in the field to the extent.  Or now I think about half of all folklores do work in the public sector, rather than in academic settings. When I first went to work at the Press, I remember talking with…

Jo Reed:  We're talking about University of Illinois Press?

Judy McCulloh:  Yes to the University of Illinois Press, when 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 "Oh 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 10 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?" and 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.

Jo Reed:  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.

Judy 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 and 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.

Jo Reed:  You know, what's so interesting about the field of folklore, as you pointed out it's multidiscipline, it literally goes across the board from visual arts to music, to storytelling and literature and while your focus in this series was on music, there's a way where you really had to have your arms around all of this.

Judy 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 and the Folklore in Society Series which 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. 

Jo Reed:  Well part of what you did with both Music in American life and Folklore in Society is you helped create a model for how to write about this.

Judy 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, each author has something new to offer and a little bit different view of the world and 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 and 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 and he was the master of labor law explorations and he knew that was true.

Jo Reed:  In the work that you do, 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.

Judy McCulloh:  No not at all, tradition is all around us and if I talk to you long enough Jo I'm sure we could find a lot of fascinating heritage that you have perhaps not thought about in those terms and perhaps you have and I could probably think of some more things like old recipes and sayings and…

Jo Reed:  It's funny, I was just thinking about food when you said that <laughs>.

Judy McCulloh:  Yes it's getting close to supper time.

Jo Reed:  It must be <laughs>.

Judy McCulloh:  Yeah but it's the same thrust that the American folk life centers enabling legislation refers to with the need to preserve and present American folk life so that we all can benefit from what it has to teach us.  Now it's very much a living thing and I can't imagine a tradition not being out there.

Jo Reed:  You knew Bess Lomax Hawes, didn't you?

Judy McCulloh:  Oh 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 women and 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 said "You know, I wonder what would happen if we did this and so?" as though that person had thought of it out of whole cloth and Bess would sit there and push her glasses up on her head again and say "You know, that's a wonderful idea" and there we go and she was very smart, she was very wise.  And then 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 and she thought about it and said "Yes I really should do that" and eventually she did 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 NEA, interested in folklore.  It's quite a wonderful, readable story and I'm glad that she did bring this off and shared with us what she wanted to share with us. 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.

Jo Reed: Since you knew Bess, and knew her well, what went through your mind when you got the phone call, I'm assuming from Barry Bergey, and you were told that you're receiving the Bess Lomax Hawes Award?

 Judy McCulloh:  When Barry laid that news on me, he sent me reeling. It is such an honor to have an award named for Bess, 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'm just-- I wish she were here that I could thank her personally so maybe she's smiling down, we don't know.

Jo Reed:  Well it seems like it's come full circle?

Judy McCulloh:  Oh yes.

Jo Reed:  Judy McCulloh, many, many congratulations, I think anyone who's interested in folklore, folk culture in this country owe you a great debt as well and I thank you.

Judy McCulloh:  Thank you Jo very much.

That was folklorist and recipient of the 2010  Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, Judith McCulloh

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from the traditional ballad "In the Pines," performed by Bill Monroe, used courtesy of Universal Music Group. 

Additional guitar music composed and performed by Pat Donohue and Clint Hoover

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov.  Next week, we celebrate Hispanic heritage month with a conversation with author Rudolfo Anaya.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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.