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Judith McCulloh 1935-2014

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Judith McCulloh, AFC Trustee Emerita, 1935-2014

On behalf of all my colleagues at the American Folklife Center, I’m very sad to say that Judith McCulloh, a pivotal figure in the fields of folklore and ethnomusicology, and a crucial friend of AFC and its staff, passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning, July 13. Judy was a truly remarkable folklorist and ethnomusicologist who transformed our fields in many ways. As an editor at the University of Illinois Press, she has had an incalculable effect, putting out scores of books that changed the way we thought about music and culture. As a member of National Endowment for the Arts folk arts panels, and especially as a member of the AFC board, she helped folklife become more firmly established in the government.  As president and Executive Board member of the American Folklore Society, she worked to advance the Society and the field in both academia and the public sector.  And as treasurer of the Society for Ethnomusicology during a difficult period, she created the category of “Life Member,” and brought financial stability to the organization.

Judy has received honors from many of the organizations she has worked with.  In 2004, AFC named her its first “Trustee Emerita.” In 2010, she received the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA, which is given for major contributions to the excellence, vitality, and public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts. Earlier this year, the AFS Executive Board named Judy the first recipient of its Lifetime Award for Service to the Field, which will be presented posthumously at this year’s annual meeting in Santa Fe.

Judy’s work as an editor advanced the fields of folklore and ethnomusicology, but equally importantly, it gave many of us, as both novices and advanced scholars in those fields, hours and hours of fascinating, challenging, and exhilarating reading. Through the Music in American Life series in particular, she established folk and roots music, as well as other popular music, as a respected field of inquiry to an extent that it had never achieved before. Through Judy’s efforts, you can read scholarly works about Hank Williams, Pop Stoneman, and Lee Collins, and books taking jazz, blues, and folk seriously as both music and culture. Another of her series, Folklore and Society, presents important works by masterful scholars in the field.  You can always trust a book she shepherded through publication to be informative, groundbreaking, and fun to read. Astoundingly, too, she accomplished her high standard without hurting feelings.  Kay Kaufman Shelemay, a celebrated ethnomusicologist and a former AFC Trustee, remembered:

Once a colleague confided that he had received a rejection letter from Judy concerning his book proposal to the University of Illinois Press. He was going to save that letter forever, he said, because Judy McCulloh’s rejection letter was so much more positive and gracious than any acceptance letter he had ever received!

McCulloh sm
Judith McCulloh (center), on the occasion of her election as chair of the AFC Board of Trustees at the Board’s February 1996 meeting. Here, she poses with the late Lindy Boggs (left) and Robert Malir (right), whose terms came to an end at that meeting. As per AFC custom, Boggs and Malir hold duck decoys carved by Leonard Burcham, while Judy holds the gavel of office. Photo by David A. Taylor.

At AFC, Judy is probably best remembered in her role as chair of the Board of Trustees in the late 1990s.  Until that time, the Center was required to seek reauthorization every few years, which took staff time and effort away from the AFC’s mission and caused anxiety and uncertainty about future programs and collections.  Judy set her sights on permanent authorization.  Like her mentor Archie Green, whose political advocacy was responsible for the center’s founding, Judy got the job done. At the time, Alan Jabbour, then the Center’s director, wrote:

Over the past year and a half the Center’s Board of Trustees mounted a national campaign to gain permanent authorization.  Hundreds of friends of the Center responded with thousands of letters, telephone calls, faxes, e-mail messages, and direct-contact conversations with Members of Congress.  The campaign not only helped create new supporters of the Center but reassured previous supporters that the Center had an active, concerned constituency. Thanks to the Board for spearheading this campaign, and especially to Judy McCulloh, who, as chair of the Board up till March of this year, was the campaign’s indefatigable central operator.

Peggy Bulger, who became director in 1999, shortly after permanent authorization, agreed:

When I became the director of the Center, Judy sat down with me and shared her experiences regarding the authorization battles. Judy chaired the Board during much of that period and folks sometimes referred to her as ‘the mouse that roared.’ There were continued crises and, luckily for all of us, Judy rose to the challenge.

After she became Trustee Emerita in 2004, Judy continued to exert an influence on the board and staff.  “Over the last years she has been a wise counselor for me, as well as the conscience of the AFC’s original mission,” said Kurt Dewhurst, the AFC board’s current chairman, earlier today.

In my own time here, which began in 2005, the staff and work of the Center has continued to be influenced by Judy, who was always quick to recommend research projects, new AFC collections, and ways to improve service.  For example, she was largely responsible for our Inauguration 2009 Sermons and Orations Project collection, 2008-2009, having suggested the idea to Peggy Bulger and the staff at a Board of Trustees meeting. (See a finding aid here.) She was also behind more than one of the research articles I wrote for Folklife Center News, and remained to the end an enthusiastic reader of this blog.

As a loyal friend and mentor, Judy was personally important to many current and former members of the AFC board and staff.  Joe Hickerson, retired head of the AFC archive, knew Judy the longest; he met her when she arrived at Indiana University for graduate school in folklore in 1958, where Joe had already been studying for a year. In Joe’s words:

She was absolutely one of my favorite people in the field of folklore.  She had a remarkable combination of archival experience, musical knowledge, and folklore background; much greater than mine!  As she went on to be president of AFS and president of our own board, I never felt intimidated—she was always welcoming, friendly, and generous…not just to me, but to all of us.

Joe also remembered regular musical jams during their student days, at which McCulloh alternated between playing the mandolin and recording the sessions on tape, at one point threatening to write an article on the group’s “156 renditions of ‘Mississippi Sawyer!’”

The current staff also remembers her for her kind and generous spirit.  AFC’s cataloger, Maggie Kruesi, often put Judy up during her visits to Capitol Hill.  Maggie told me:

She loved gardening and shared her plants by bringing or mailing me bulbs and live plants from her garden, including seedlings of her mother’s moonflowers. She also made amazing things from pieces of fabric and from paper – I have Judy McCulloh pillowcases, napkins, gift bags, and origami boxes. She was so generous and thoughtful, and these and the flowers were her houseguest gifts.

Judy has been to AFC many times for board meetings over the years, but on one occasion she spoke at length on a subject near and dear to our hearts: Archie Green and the founding of AFC.  In the video at this link, Judy’s talk begins at 14:55

All of us at AFC will miss Judy’s calming presence, her great ideas, and her willingness to speak her mind. For more about Judy, you can read her biography and an interview with her on the NEA site. But for now, let’s hear from our own Betsy Peterson, AFC’s director, and a longtime friend of Judy’s:

Judy’s calm and generous spirit is truly inspiring.  She touched so many nooks and crannies of folklore and ethnomusicology.  Not only was she a staunch advocate for the AFC…she understood the value and significance of folklore in peoples’ lives. She championed many organizations in the field and talked often with young folklorists, sharing her expertise and advice freely with others. The AFC staff and board are grateful for her warm friendship and support and offer our sincere condolences to Judy’s husband Leon and her family.

Do you have memories of Judy that you’d like to share?  Please do so as comments on this blog.

Comments (4)

  1. I think I first met Judy at AFS in about 1972 when I was a graduate student at UCLA and, at that time, a ballad scholar.She was a gracious mentor, a wonderful role model for female folklorists, and a loving friend. She had a gentle but strong presence. I am still somewhat stunned that she is gone. Thank you so much for this beautifully written tribute to a truly remarkable person. We will all miss her.

  2. Wonderful tribute, Steve. I was reminded that I was Secretary of SEM when Judy was treasurer. In regard to the Life Memberships, Judy did not create the category (I believe there were a double handful of such members at the time), but rather, more significantly, she urged us to have a sale, offering the $500.00 Life Membership at a special rate of $300.00 for a period of time. There was an increase in Life Membership by a factor of six or more! She also orchestrated special sale prices for the Society’s publications. The result: solvency!

    • Thanks for the clarification, Joe. We received the information about Life Memberships from another former member of the Board of Directors!

  3. Judy and I were colleagues in the 60s – through the 80s, mostly when she and Archie Green worked together on Archie’s book, Only a Minor. I got to know both quite well, and did a cross-country travel with Archie once.
    Truly a generous person and always available…at least when I was around.
    Although I haven’t been in touch for some years, she’s always been remembered as one of the special people I’ve met in my career.

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