Life Remembered: McCulloh a devoted scholar, folklorist

Life Remembered: McCulloh a devoted scholar, folklorist

URBANA — After Judith McCulloh moved to Urbana in 1962, she found a burgeoning folk-music scene here and met Archie Green, a musicologist, folklorist and scholar of labor lore.

Eventually, she helped Green, who became a friend, transcribe the songs and create the index for his book "Only a Miner," about coal-mining songs.

It became the first title in the University of Illinois Press' Music in American Life series, started by then-UI Press director Dick Wentworth.

After more manuscripts came in, he looked for someone to help with the series.

Green recommended Mrs. McCulloh. When Wentworth offered her the job, she kept a straight face to mask her excitement, she told The News-Gazette in 2010.

Mrs. McCulloh, who was 78 when she died Sunday at her home, ended up spending 35 years at the UI Press, where she helped develop the Music in American Life into the leading academic press series on that topic.

Under her leadership, the series — which continues today — published 130 titles on all aspects of American music.

"Each one is very special for its own reasons," said Mrs. McCulloh, who retired in 2007.

"If I had to pick one, I think I would go back to Archie's 'Only a Miner.' It's exceedingly rich and provocative and utterly compelling in terms of scholarship and very comprehensive in its approach to subject matter."

Mrs. McCulloh also helped create the UI Press' Folklore and Society series; the National Endowment for the Arts calls it a model of folklore scholarship.

Wentworth, who retired in 2000 from the UI Press, said Mrs. McCulloh was a marvelous employee who was a pleasure to work with and who would do what was asked of her — and more.

Bruno Nettl, a retired UI ethnomusicology professor and friend, said Mrs. McCulloh also had great integrity.

"I think she was quite incorruptible as an editor and as a member of the Press who might have done people favors," he said.

As a result of her work at and outside the UI Press, she received several honors, among them the 2010 Bess Lomax Hawes Award, a National Heritage Fellowship given by the National Endowment for the Arts.

On Monday, the NEA issued a statement recognizing Mrs. McCulloh's life work as a devoted scholar, folklorist and folk arts advocate.

It also credited her for helping to save the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress from dissolution when she was a trustee of the center in the '90s.

She at one time also was president of the American Folklore Society.

"Folklore is what people absorb, carry and transmit, often without ever thinking about it," she said in 2010. "It's such an ingrained part of human experience. It really helps give people their identity.

"In a larger sense, if we understand the people immediately around us — if we can understand what's important to people — I think we would be better off."

Mrs. McCulloh also was known for her kindness and for nurturing younger people.

After Nettl posted on Facebook news of her death, several younger scholars called her passing the end of an era.

"She served as an adviser to an awful lot of younger people who were trying to get things published — even if not at the UI Press," Nettl said.

Mrs. McCulloh, who was a constant presence at musicology and folklore meetings, had become interested in traditional music while studying at Cottey College, Ohio Wesleyan University and Ohio State University.

She transferred from Ohio State to Indiana University to obtain a Ph.D. in folklore after attending a Folklore Institute at IU.

While at Indiana, in 1961, she married Leon McCulloh, a mathematician. He survives.

Renner Wikoff Chapel, Urbana, is in charge of arrangements.

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