Judith McCulloh remembered 

Judith McCulloh accepting her National Heritage Fellowship in 2010 - Photo by Michael G. StewartAnother personality whose death we missed initially is that of Judith McCulloh.

A pivotal figure in the fields of folklore and ethnomusicology, Judith McCulloh passed away on July 13 (2014). She had been fighting cancer for many years.

Employed as an editor at the University of Illinois Press for 35 years she was the inaugural editor for the much lauded Music in American Life series, which was launched in 1972.

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.

When at the National Folk Festival in St. Louis in 1954 she systematically wrote down the words and music to songs that she heard backstage, unaware that 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.

Subsequently, she earned her PhD. in folklore at Indiana University.

Judy McCulloh staffing the U of I Press booth at a bluegrass festival - photo by Tom AdlerThe first book in the Music in American Life series was Archie Green’s Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs. In all McCulloh published 130 titles in the series, making her a very important force in expanding music scholarship and transforming ethnomusicology.

Those books embraced subjects such as blues, bluegrass, country, folk, Gospel, doowop, jazz, rock, cowboy music and railroad songs and minstrelsy, among other styles of music.

These books examined Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Aunt Molly Jackson and Robert Johnson, among many others.

They ranged from monographs, biographies, memoirs, reference books, readers to edited collections.

Of particular interest are Bluegrass: A History (written by Neil V Rosenberg), Traveling the Highway Home (John Wright’s Ralph Stanley biography), Bill Monroe: A Reader (edited by Tom Ewing), Bluegrass Breakdown (Robert Cantwell), Bluegrass: A Reader (edited by Thomas Goldsmith), The Stonemans (Ivan M Tribe), The Music of Bill Monroe (Neil V Rosenberg and Charles Wolfe), Come Hither To Go Yonder (Bob Black), Home Grown Music: Discovering Bluegrass (Stephanie P Ledgin),  Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (Norm Cohen), Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (Bill C Malone), and That Half Barbaric Twang (Karen Linn),  followed by * Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens (Bill C Malone and Hazel Dickens), Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir [Josh Graves] (Edited by Fred Bartenstein), Crowe on the Banjo (Marty Godbey), Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festivals (Tom Adler) and Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass (Murphy Hicks Henry).

A few very important bluegrass books were published after McCulloh had retired. However, such is the length of the lead-in time that she actually initiated several. Her successor Laurie Matheson explains ….

Laurie Matheson - photo © 2012 by MaryE Yeomans“Judy’s legacy remains very much alive at the Press. She developed the Hazel Dickens book with Hazel and Bill Malone, and it was published under her sponsorship. Books she initiated are still coming to fruition, and will continue to do so for many years, I’m sure. She put Murphy Henry’s Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass under contract some years ago; I took over when the manuscript came in, which was after Judy’s retirement. Similarly, I shepherded the J.D. Crowe book through after Judy retired, but she had planted that seed long before. Same with Tom Adler history of Bean Blossom. Fred Bartenstein’s volume on Josh Graves came in after her retirement, and Judy might not have had conversations specifically with Fred about it, but the fact that she had built the bluegrass list here made Illinois the ideal home for it.

We are all lucky beneficiaries of Judy’s vision and hard work!”

Frank Godbey, Marty’s husband until she passed away prematurely, provides this insight into the genesis of Crowe on the Banjo

Crowe on the Banjo by Marty Godbey“Marty and I had gotten to know Judy McCulloh through mutual friends, most notably Tom Adler, and we always had a great time visiting when our paths crossed at events such as Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festivals in Bean Blossom, Indiana, or the IBMA conventions over the years.  Marty and Judy were chatting one day at IBMA in, I think, the late 1990s or early 2000s, when the subject of Marty’s many magazine articles about J.D. came up and Judy said, ‘You should write a book.’ Marty asked, modestly, ‘But who would publish it?’ Judy was quick to reply, ‘Well, I would!’ And that’s how Marty’s association with the University of Illinois Press began.”

Fred Bartenstein praises Judith McCulloh for her encouragement and supreme efforts on behalf of roots music …..

Fred Bartenstein“Judy was a sweetheart, … and did such a good job with University of Illinois Press, especially a friend to bluegrass, country, and other roots music. Judy looked at my first draft of Bluegrass Bluesman, loved it, and encouraged University of Illinois Press to publish it.”

The author of Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, Murphy Hicks Henry, remembers …..

Murphy Henry“Judy did sign me to UIP. Not sure when. It took me ten years to write the book and it’s been out 1.5 years, so probably around 2002? 2003? She was a subscriber to my Women in Bluegrass newsletter and knew about my extreme interest in women’s issues, particularly in bluegrass. She suggested I send in a proposal; I did, and a mere 10 years later. Voila! A book! She was always encouraging and never nagged when I missed my deadline by eight years! One of the great things she did, in my opinion, was when she retired, she handed me over to her successor, Laurie Matheson, who was also fabulous. It was a smooth transition, so Judy either picked her successor well, or trained her.

I also admire the many, many books that Judy has shepherded thru UIP. From Neil’s Bluegrass: A History, to Bob Black’s memoir, the Bluegrass Reader, the Bill Monroe Reader, Marty’s book on JD, the Josh Graves book and the early on one that Judy herself wrote a chapter in, Stars of Country Music. And those are just the ones that come to mind! Or are right here in front of me!!!!

She was a tremendous force for spreading the literary word about bluegrass music.”

Her music books have merited 20 ASCAP Awards.

In 2010 McCulloh received the Bess Lomax Hawes Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for her significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage.

Judith McCulloh was a Fellow of the American Folklore Society (AFS) for many years, serving as President in 1987. Just prior to her death the AFS Executive Board named her the first recipient of its Lifetime Award for Service to the Field. This award is now re-named in her honor.

“…a driving force for excellence and leadership in book and journal publishing in folklore, ethnomusicology, and music history, and the creator of and prime mover behind the Folklore in Society and Music in American Life book series for the University of Illinois Press.”

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.