As a devoted scholar, folklorist, and folk arts advocate, Judith McCulloh embodies the very spirit of the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship.
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. At the National Folk Festival in St. Louis in 1954 she systematically wrote down the words and music to songs she heard backstage, unaware 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.
McCulloh completed her Ph.D. in folklore at Indiana University and spent 35 years at the University of Illinois Press, where her positions included executive editor, assistant director, and director of development. During this time McCulloh spearheaded the renowned series Music in American Life, making her an important force in expanding and transforming music scholarship. The 130 titles she published cover all aspects of American music, including blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, doowop, jazz, rock, cowboy and railroad songs, minstrelsy, zarzuela, opera, pow-wow, ghost dance songs, brass bands, and community choruses. Series books examine instruments from the banjo and the theremin to the guitar in Baroque Mexico, and people from John Philip Sousa, Marian McPartland, Fritz Reiner, Fred Waring, Charles Ives, and Charles Seeger to Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Fiddlin' John Carson, Aunt Molly Jackson, Robert Johnson, Robert Winslow Gordon, Sarah Gertrude Knott, Tito Puente, and Elvis. Her music books garnered twenty ASCAP Awards.
At the University of Illinois Press McCulloh also created the series Folklore and Society. These sixteen books, bracketed by Edward D. Ives's George Magoon and the Down East Game War and Archie Green's Tin Men, stand as models of folklore scholarship.
McCulloh's contributions have been a major force in the preservation, understanding, and documentation of American folk culture. She has served as president of the American Folklore Society and served on the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress at a time when her leadership and vision helped to save the center from dissolution in the 1990s. She is currently an emerita member of the center's Board of Trustees.
McCulloh's hard work and vigilance have been recognized on numerous occasions, including a University of Illinois Chancellor's Academic Professional Excellence Award, an Ohio Wesleyan Distinguished Achievement Citation, a Society for American Music Distinguished Service Award, an International Bluegrass Music Association Distinguished Achievement Award, and an International Country Music Conference Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society and an Honorary Member of the Society for Ethnomusicology.
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