Final Notes, Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson left us on Sunday, May 17, 2015.  He left us a legacy so vibrant and alive that even though his physical presence is gone, his spirit and his passions live on in all of us who knew and loved him.  His time here on Earth removes the cliché from the phrase “gone but not forgotten.”

Joe was born on March 16, 1938, in Creston, North Carolina, the second son of Josephine and James Wilson.  When Joe was about two years old the family moved to Trade, Tennessee, where he grew up with his older brother, Kenneth, and his two younger siblings, James Walter and Julia.

He embraced his Blue Ridge Mountain cultural heritage with love and passion, and he shared that love with everyone he met.  Joe was always eager to learn new things and this curiosity about the world and other traditions gave him the ability to embrace the cultures and traditions of people from all over the world.

His long tenure as the Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) provided Joe with the platform he needed to spread his traditional culture gospel all across the globe.  He produced festivals, recordings, national and international tours, wrote articles, books, and created the Blue Ridge Music Center and the Roots of American Music exhibit housed there. He rebranded Hwy. 58 that runs through Southwest Virginia as the Crooked Road and made the culture and music found along this route an important part of the region’s economy.  His keen political sense made him a great advocate for the arts and all the artists he loved so much.  Joe loved a good political fight almost as much as he loved traditional music, but to all who knew him we all knew that the thing that drove him, inspired him, fed him, was the music, always the music.

Joe gave his life to his passion and in turn was repaid with every conceivable honor and award the world of folklife has to offer.  He received a National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship in 2001, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists.  The Library of Congress named him a Living Legend in 2009.  But the honor he most appreciated was the love, respect and gratitude shown to him by all the people whose lives he touched.

Joe is survived by his wife, Kathy James; his daughters Melinda Wilson and Laurie Niswander and her husband Joel Niswander, and his grandchildren Wesley and Emma Niswander; his step-daughter, Jacqueline Pfeffer; the mother of Melinda and Laurie, Patricia Wilson; his brother, James Walter Wilson; his sister, Julia Wilson; his sister-in-law Helen Wilson; his nieces and nephews Paul Wilson, Yvonne Wilson, Bryan and Judy Wilson, Teresa and Danny Hott, Jessica Wilson, Neil James, Andrew James, and Bryce Edwards; his mother-in-law, Maryse James; and his brother-in-law, George James.

A celebration of Joe’s life, work, and legacy was held on June 25, 2015, at the Blue Ridge Music Center, at Mile Post 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Galax, Virginia. A second celebration is being planned later in the summer in Washington, DC (date, time, and place to be announced on the National Council for the Traditional Arts’ website, ncta-usa.org).

In lieu of flowers, it is the wish of the family that contributions in memory of Joe’s life, work, and legacy be made to the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) to support programs that promote and benefit the Blue Ridge Music Center and the artists of the Blue Ridge region:  NCTA, 8757 Georgia Avenue, Suite 450, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

Kathy James


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