A PIONEER OZARK FOLKLORIST:
JOHN QUINCY WOLF, JR.
By Gene Hyde
When Alan Lomax came to Arkansas in 1959 to record folk singers, he first visited folklorist John Quincy Wolf, Jr., an English professor at Southwestern in Memphis and a noted expert on Ozark folk musicians. Wolf had been collecting folk songs in the Ozarks for decades, and Lomax thought that Wolf’s recordings “ranked with the best regional collections anywhere.” Wolf furnished Lomax with names and addresses of Ozark folk musicians, enabling Lomax to make his well-known recordings.
For three decades, Quincy Wolf collected folk songs with a passion that combined a love of the music with a deep respect for the singers he recorded. His advice was eagerly sought by folklorists and festival promoters across the country. He was revered by his students at Southwestern, and was highly respected by the musicians he recorded. His legacy includes a sizable collection of recordings and a number of scholarly articles on folklore
Born in Batesville, Arkansas, in 1901, Quincy Wolf attended Arkansas College (now Lyon College), earned a Master’s from Vanderbilt, and received his Ph.D. in English from Johns Hopkins. He and his wife Bess moved to Memphis in 1937, where Quincy joined the English department at Southwestern (now Rhodes). He was chair of the department for several decades.
Wolf’s interest in Ozark studies follows in his father’s footsteps. In the 1930’s, the elder Wolf wrote a series of essays about growing up near Calico Rock. Originally published in the Batesville paper and in the Arkansas Gazette, these vignettes present a realistic view of late nineteenth century mountain life. Quincy edited his father’s papers and they were published as Life in the Leatherwoods, a text unique in its depiction of early Ozark life.
Although Quincy had no formal folklore training, he emerged as “one of the few real scholars to become interested in Ozark folklore,” wrote Gordon McCann in Ozark Folklore: An Annotated Bibliography. Wolf would travel around the Ozarks at his own expense, buying his own tape recorder, tapes, and gas. “And lots of tires,” laughs Bess Wolf, who still lives in the Wolf home in Batesville. “Those old roads were tough on tires.”
In 1941, Wolf began his field studies of folk music at the Old Settlers’ Picnic and folk festival at Blanchard Springs. In the early 1950’s he began to systematically preserve the music of singers and instrumentalists, eventually recording over 200 different performers, including Almeda Riddle, Jimmy Driftwood, Absie Morrison, Ollie Gilbert, and Neil Morris (Jimmy Driftwood’s father)
Wolf was proudest of discovering Almeda Riddle, the Cleburne County singer Lomax dubbed “one of the most important ballad singers of our time.” Wolf recorded over 100 of Riddle’s songs and served as her advisor and friend.
As a star on the folk circuit in the 60’s, Almeda Riddle once received an enthusiastic invitation to perform at Harvard. Wolf was taken by the image of Harvard students fawning over Riddle’s music, remarking that he “had to smile because the wealthiest, the most aristocratic university in the United States...was sitting at the feet of a woman from the Ozarks.” Betraying his egalitarian spirit, Wolf added: “This is appropriate. I think Harvard has a good deal to learn from the Ozarks.’”
By 1963 Wolf's severe arthritis made him curtail his Ozark trips, but his passion for folk music never waned. His focus shifted closer to his Memphis home, and he collected songs from Memphis blues singers and Sacred Harp singers in the upper South. His tape recorder captured performances by Furry Lewis, Bukka White, and scores of Sacred Harp performers.
By the mid 1960’s Wolf was recognized as a major resource in the folk community. Alan Lomax corresponded with him regularly, and would come to stay with the Wolfs in Memphis, running off into the countryside to record folk and blues musicians he learned about from Wolf. The promoters of the prestigious Newport Folk Festival consulted with Wolf about the scheduling of Ozark musicians, blues artists, and Sacred Harp singers for their annual summer folk festival.
Wolf’s interest in folk music was primarily academic, and he was motivated purely by a love of the music and a desire to preserve it. He couldn’t pay the musicians he recorded, and he taped them with the understanding that he would not profit from their music. Many folk song collectors did not share these ethics, and would often pay singers a small royalty (if anything), press a record of their music, and then personally pocket the profits from record sales.
Wolf’s integrity in this regard won him the trust, loyalty, and friendship of many musicians. They would seek Wolf’s advice about recording contracts, and Wolf would see that they were treated fairly. He even went so far as to obtain a lawyer’s pro bono services to help Gus Cannon obtain royalties from the unauthorized use of his song "Walk Right In."
Acting in this spirit, Bess Wolf donated Quincy’s entire collection of nearly 500 tapes to the Regional Studies Center at Lyon College in Batesville in 1983, on the stipulation that there would be no copying, recording, or commercial use of the tapes. According to Wolf’s desires, scholarly study of the Collection is welcomed and encouraged. Anything short of that, in Wolf’s viewpoint, would not be fair to the musicians who appear on the tapes.
Scholarship and folklore were major passions for Wolf, but in many ways he was a teacher first. He was a Wordsworth specialist, and taught English classes as well as folklore. He was a pioneer folklore educator, offering folklore classes years before such classes were common on college campuses. He would bring musicians into class and send his students out into the field to make their own recordings of singers and storytellers.
By 1969, Wolf’s health had deteriorated to the point where he was teaching his classes in the living room of his home near Southwestern. “We tore out a wall to make the room bigger,” Bess Wolf relates, “so we could accommodate all of Quincy’s students.”
Wolf’s reputation among Southwestern students had grown to nearly legendary proportions. Bill Jones took his class in 1969. “I can’t emphasize the degree to which Dr. Wolf was revered and recognized as an incredible resource and repository of cultural history,” said Jones, who is now Reporter of Decisions for the Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and a free lance writer.
Jones recalls one memorable field trip in Wolf’s class. “He sent us out one Sunday to a Sacred Harp concert in northeast Mississippi. We came to this small, rural church, and ..I was completely unprepared for what I heard. It was mesmerizing, an American equivalent of Tibetan monks vocalizing.”
Jones paused, as if to catch his breath, and continued. “It was a totally humbling experience, really a kind of revelation. I was moved as I had seldom been moved... When we got back to class Dr. Wolf talked about the Sacred Harp tradition, how it evolved, and how it had moved down to the deep south. By providing the academic context, I was able to make sense of what I had experienced emotionally. Wolf’s class was one of the most eye-opening that I took in college.”
By 1970, Wolf’s declining health forced him to retire from Southwestern. He died in March, 1972, and was instructing his tutorial students from his hospital bed just weeks before his death.
As a teacher, he touched thousands of students. Not only did he teach them ideas and expose them to folklore, he also impressed them with his dignity, ethics, and sense of egalitarianism. “There was a remarkable gentility about the man,” Bill Jones said, “A gentlemanly concern not to make someone ill at ease. Without lecturing us, he reminded us to be courteous and to accept the singers (who came to class) for who they were.“
Wolf leaves behind his recordings, papers, and publications. The Wolf Collection at Lyon College is annotated and indexed, and is available for study and research. His wife Bess donated Wolf’s papers to Lyon College in 1998.
One of Wolf’s most important contributions is perhaps best summed up by Robert Cochran, the Director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas and author of Our Own Sweet Sounds: A Celebration of Popular Music in Arkansas. “What Wolf did,” Cochran states, “was introduce collectors and festival promoters from outside the area to Ozark and Arkansas musicians. His main impact on folk music studies was to connect people from outside the region to the folk.”
As an expert on Ozark folk music, Quincy Wolf’s advice brought folklorists, collectors, and concert promoters to his door. As a preserver of folk songs, Wolf’s integrity earned him the trust and respect of Almeda Riddle and many other musicians. And, perhaps most importantly, Quincy Wolf’s efforts as a pioneer Ozark folklorist helped the world discover the rich folk culture of the Arkansas highlands. After all, it’s not just the folks at Harvard that have a “good deal to learn from the Ozarks.”
This article originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on April 3, 1998.
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