Remembering Joe Wilson, longtime director of the NCTA

The National Folk Festival has lost a friend and champion before we had a chance to acquaint him with the National Folk Festival we’re building here in Greensboro.

Joe Wilson, longtime director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) and the National Folk Festival from 1976 to 2004, passed away on Sunday, May 17, 2015. Joe was the visionary who saw the potential of the Festival to connect communities across cultural, economic and civic lines decades before anyone ever heard of “placemaking.” Joe created the modern residency model of the National Folk Festival; taking it to a community for three years, planting the seeds for a legacy event, then moving on to the next host city to do it all over again. Greensboro will be the 10th city to host the Festival since Joe began cultivating this field of folk festivals in the 1980s.

I worked at the NCTA from 2001-2006 and for two of those years, I worked directly under the tutelage of Joe as programmer of the Blue Ridge Music Center Summer Concert Series in Galax, Virginia and the Lowell Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. When I traveled with Joe to those communities, I marveled at the way he engendered a sense of community and friendship with the people we met, and how every meeting, concert, and festival felt like a family reunion. With “Uncle Joe,” there were disagreements and sharp critiques, but also laughs and wild, pun-filled stories you never could precisely place on the spectrum between fact and fiction.

Joe was a great storyteller and writer – skills he masterfully used to advocate for the traditional arts from a local up to a federal level. He was able to communicate the complexity and sophistication of traditional art forms in his writing, his presentations, and to his festival audiences by presenting the best, but not necessarily the most famous, artists on stage. He believed that these traditional art forms, forged by a place and people who cherished them and chose to pass them along – should be presented on an equal footing to the public. No main stages. No headliners. Just the best tradition-bearers presented on the same stages. A Chinese guzheng player, followed by a Malian griot, followed by a Cajun band, followed by Mexican mariachi, capped off by a soulful, unsung blues man from Alabama.

Joe spent the final years of his life nearby, in Southwestern Virginia, and I had hoped he would be able to join us to see how rich and unique our North Carolina cultural heritage is and how we plan to celebrate that at this year’s National Folk Festival in Greensboro. I know that he would have been thrilled to see generations of Triad residents at the Festival, and to see the region’s immigrant and refugee communities welcomed at an event that celebrates all of us who call America home.

And so, as you become acquainted with the National Folk Festival in the coming months, I invite you to also get acquainted with Joe Wilson. Even though he won’t be able to join us in person, I know he’ll be with us in spirit and we’ll feel his presence. Joe is a part of our story and through the legacy of his vision, we will carry on the tradition of presenting the National Folk Festival in Greensboro. I know we’ll make him proud.

Amy Grossmann – Local Director, National Folk Festival in Greensboro 2015-2017

Read Joe’s Bio from the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship:

Beautiful tribute to Joe by the Roanoke Times:

Listen to Joe narrate the WDUQ and National Folk Festival radio program, “Gospel Ship”:

Joe’s Guide to the Crooked Road:

Read about the Crooked Road, Virginia’s heritage music trail:
Smithsonian Magazine: