JOHN QUINCY WOLF: AN APPRECIATION
By George Lankford
Vol. 13 No. 1 Winter-Spring 1985
Reprinted by permission
As folklore has matured into an academic discipline with its own eclectic lingo, taboos, and lore, and as its professional practitioners have explored ever more complex ways of analysis of traditional materials, only a few of the "amateur" folklorists have received the recognition that is due them. Indeed, their names are known largely to those who use their collections as raw materials and to those whose lives were touched by the folklorists themselves. 1 John Quincy Wolf, Jr. was one such unheralded folklorist. When he died prematurely in 1972, he was mourned by the Memphis newspapers, by the Tennessee Folklore Society (of which he had been an officer), and by generations of his fond students. Although he had published in various folklore journals, his death was not noted in print, probably because there was no nearby folklorist to record his passing. Perhaps this brief biographical summary may serve as a belated appreciation for his work and can call attention to his collection, which still awaits its qualified analysts.
Wolf was born in Batesville, Arkansas, in 1902. Batesville was and is a small town whose nineteenth-century importance lay in its location on the White River at the point it emerges from the Ozark escarpment. While Quincy, as he was called, and his sister Cleo grew up as town people, they were only a generation off the Ozark subsistence farm. Their father, John Quincy Wolf, Sr. ("Pop"), was born up the White River in an area called "the Leatherwoods" from a peculiar tree which grows there. Orphaned early, Pop grew up on a farm near Calico Rock on the upper White. After a brief adventure in White River steamboating (a passion he never lost), Pop took the less romantic path of moving downriver to Batesville to seek his fortune in banking and commerce. He became cashier of the new First National Bank in Batesville, and over a long life in that town became one of the community pillars. John Wolf must have been quite a storyteller, and it is fortunate that his memories of his youth in the Ozarks overflowed onto paper. He wrote several series of his memoirs and published them in the local paper. They eventually were edited by Quincy into several articles and a well received book called Life in the Leatherwoods. 2
Quincy and Cleo grew up filled with enthusiasm for education, and it was at least partially due to the elder Wolf's sense of deprivation in his poor childhood that led Quincy into the life of an academic. He enrolled at Arkansas College (now Lyon College), a small Presbyterian school in Batesville. At the age of 20, in 1922, he received his degree in English. A year later he received a Master's from Vanderbilt. He returned to Batesville and taught math, history, and chemistry at his alma mater, where he married a musician, Bess Millen, one of his students. Together they went to Baltimore where they both continued their studies, she in music and he in literature at Johns Hopkins. After writing his dissertation on Wordsworth, Quincy received his Ph.D. in literature. The couple returned to Batesville, but the Depression had little Arkansas College on the ropes; in 1937 Quincy and Bess had to leave the family home. After brief stays at Goucher College and the University of Wisconsin, they moved to Memphis. Quincy accepted a faculty position at another Presbyterian college, Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). In the 1940s he became chairman of the English department, a position he held until his death three decades later.
His interest in folklore probably was born in his youth, listening to the stories of his father and absorbing the traditional culture of his native Ozarks. The first sign of his lifelong avocation, however, was in his sophomore year at Arkansas College, when he began collecting ballads locally. It appears that he first discovered them in literature, then made the connection with local traditional culture. The major step in the Wolf team's interest in Ozark folk music came in 1941, when they journeyed back from Memphis to Blanchard Springs for the first Old Settlers' folk music festival. Rationing of gas and tires in World War II intervened, but the Wolfs continued their treks back to the Ozarks to record folk music as soon as the war was over.
When Vance Randolph, John Fletcher Gould, and others began the Arkansas Folklore Society, Quincy participated from afar. In 1956 he traveled to the society's meeting at the University of Arkansas to give a talk on Fent Noland. The topic was an excellent choice, for it caught several of Quincy's interests. C.F.M. Noland was Arkansas' 1840-50s contribution to the Humorists of the Old Southwest; the Batesville lawyer's articles to the Spirit of the Times were nationally read; and his "Pete Whetstone" character became a voice of traditional Arkansas culture. Quincy's paper was an early recognition of the importance of Noland both in American literature and folklore.
Quincy's fidelity to his Ozark roots continued through the years. He published brief articles on local history in Arkansas newspapers and in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly. When the Independence County Historical Society was formed in his native Batesville in 1959, Quincy was an early member. Early historical publications revealed his collaboration with Pop and Pop's memoirs. "Some Early Arkansas Ferries" appeared in 1942, 3 and 1946 saw both "Memoir of Early Days in Mountain Home" 4 and "Medical Science in the Leatherwoods." 5 In 1958 came a fascinating tale of the "Rock-Throwing Champion" in the Batesville newspaper, later reprinted in the Independence County Chronicle. 6 At his death in 1972 one of his unfinished projects was an onomastic collection: all the names on the land in Independence County. His map of the county bore his notes on names collected through the years. As with most folklorists in traditional culture areas, his studies tended toward the historical.
An idea of how his life as a collector of folk music was proceeding can be gained from his 1963 article on "Three Spring Pilgrimages" in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. 7 The three "pilgrimages" were to the Rackensack Folklore Society's folk festival in Mountain View, Arkansas, to the shaped-note singing at Ebenezer Methodist Church in Tull, Arkansas, and to the Southern Harmony singing in Benton, Kentucky. The year after his article was published, he was elected vice-president of the Tennessee Folklore Society.
As Quincy passed into his early sixties, his publications revealed more and more the conclusions of the mature scholar. His collection of audio tapes having grown to a large size, he became more interested in pursuing single themes. He again published one of his father's memoirs, "A Country Dance in the Ozarks in 1874," but this time it was as folklore rather than history and appeared in Southern Folklore Quarterly. 8
When a German diary was found in the papers of the Batesville Presbyterian Church, a workman saved it from destruction and turned it over to Quincy for scholarly examination. He had it translated by a colleague at Southwestern at Memphis, then published it in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 9 The "Journal of Charles Heinrich" turned out to be a major source for historical and folkloric study of Batesville in 1850; the diary is an outstanding look at an Arkansas town through the eyes of a lonely German immigrant before he succumbed to tuberculosis. That same year, 1965, Quincy was advertising in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin for information on the song "Old Joe." 10 The Bulletin the next year published his note on folklore collected from hospital emergency rooms, "Two Unusual Negro Notions Pertaining to Death." 11 In 1967 two of his students in folklore at Southwestern gave a paper on the blues to the Mississippi Folklore Society, 12 and he ran ads in the Arkansas Gazette and the Memphis Commercial Appeal inquiring about wart doctors. In 1965 Western Folklore published Quincy's most significant study of folk music, "Folksingers and the Re-Creation of Folksong." 13 Tackling the classic problem of how change occurs in folksongs and whether the performers are aware of it, Quincy presented new data drawn from his own collecting in the Ozarks. He dealt with eleven performers, all of whom admitted under Quincy's questioning that they felt free to change lyrics.
The Wolfs' other musical interests included the blues and the shaped-note tradition. In 1968 their years of attending "singings" across the South produced an article in the Journal of American Folklore. 14 "The Sacred Harp in Mississippi" was a correction of George Pullen Jackson's classic 1933 study of shaped-note singing. 15 Jackson had claimed a dearth of shaped-note activity in Mississippi, but Quincy produced ample evidence that Jackson had simply missed it. The Wolfs were clearly no longer just local collectors, but now had the breadth of knowledge which made them critics and correcters of other collectors. Their interest in the shaped-note tradition led to yet another brief article. "The Sacred Harp in Northeast Mississippi," which appeared in the Mississippi Folklore Register in 1970, 16 was a refinement of the earlier study.
Quincy's health had been deteriorating for some years. A victim of arthritis, he became less and less physically active. His students more frequently gathered at his house for class, and he sometimes found it necessary to teach from his bed. This enforced inactivity may have been partially responsible for the flood of publication from the late sixties until his death. He reviewed books on folk music for the Tennessee Folklore Society. 17 He made four videotapes of folklore for educational television. He communicated with local newspaper and magazine columnists about folk traditions. His publications continued. Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin published the results of his interest in wart doctors and water witching, "Two Folk Scientists in Action." 18 His interest in black music saw print as a note on a local historical figure, the Newport, Arkansas, seer known as "Aunt Caroline Dye: The Gypsy in the 'St. Louis Blues'." 19 His search for texts of "Old Joe" led to another historical study, "Who Wrote 'Joe Bowers'?" Published in Western Folklore in 1970, the article demonstrated the professionalism of the seasoned folksong scholar in pursuit of the lineage of a song. 20
In 1971 Quincy accepted the reality of his illness and retired from Southwestern to the applause and in the affections of generations of students and faculty whom he had served. In addition to completing various research projects in progress, including a volume of Pop's memoirs, he planned to work with Bess on two tasks: continuing their summer workshops in Ozark folklore for Arkansas College at Mountain View; transcribing and annotating their vast collection of folksong recordings. Unfortunately, death intervened unexpectedly in March of 1972. Bess received in his stead the first Distinguished Alumni Award offered by Arkansas College.
She moved back to the Wolf home in Batesville, where she picked up several strands of their work together. She completed the publication of Pop's memoirs and continued their work to support the Mountain View Folk Festival, which was shortly to result in the creation of the Ozark Folk Center. She began to organize the retaping and indexing of the aging tape collection, and she continued the summer folklore institute at Arkansas College which they had theretofore led as a team. Family responsibilities and her own failing health have forced her to turn curation of the collection over to others. In 1983, Bess donated the collection to the Arkansas College Regional Studies Center. Nana Farris, then Director of the Center, worked with her to complete organization of the material, and scholars will soon be able to use the data. The collection consists of 476 reels of tape, largely ballads and string bands from the Ozarks and blues and shaped-note singing from the Delta.
How does one assess the folklore career of a man like John Quincy Wolf? He preceded the day of widespread college teaching of folklore, and he was thus, like most of his generation, completely self-taught. His path ran from liking the traditional music he heard in his youth to careful collection of it in his young adulthood to teaching it in his maturity. Yet his role as folklorist was but a minor one in his professional life. He was, after all, a professor of English literature, and his courses in folklore were only a few among the many he taught. All of those courses received high ratings from his students, and the combination of his teaching and Bess' hostessing, discussing with, and comforting of students made the Wolf team a much-loved faculty family. To this day Bess continues to receive letters, calls, and visits from former students, all of whom remember Quincy as something of a "Mr. Chips" who had a major influence on their lives. Ultimately, Quincy's contributions to the analytical side of the discipline of folklore were solid, but small, represented by a few articles. His contribution to the collection of folk music data is greater, but even the Wolf Collection pales by the side of collections like those of Belden and Randolph. Folk music was not even his only passion as a collector; he collected old coins and antique glass, among other items. Although he corresponded with Alan Lomax and other important figures in the study of folk music, he was a folklorist in only a portion of his life, and his claim to greatness thus cannot stem from that role.
The greatness of John Quincy Wolf lies, instead, in his role as teacher. His students
knew well his importance to them, but many others besides his official students had cause
for love and respect. Those he met and recorded responded well to him because of both
his love for their art and his regard for them as people. He encouraged Jimmy Driftwood
and Bookmiller Shannon to become music professionals, and Almeda Riddle followed his
guidance into national prominence as a traditional singer of Child and native American
ballads. He "discovered" Gus Cannon in Memphis, but was unable to prevent the
bluesman's victimization by record companies who knew how to take the art of black
performers for a pittance. He became personal protector of Cannon and other blues
singers to prevent recurrence of such happenings. The Wolf home is still decked
with the various gifts-musical instruments, sheet music, carved objects-brought
him by the multitude of people who called John Quincy Wolf "friend."
George Lankford is Professor Emeritus of Folklore at Lyon College.