Charles Wolfe Obituary
Charles Wolfe Obituary
Writer Bill Malone
Michael Gray (historian at CMHFM
Alan Jabbour (former director of the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress)
Mike Seeger (musician)
He was a college professor, a renowned historian, a tireless researcher and a prolific writer. Charles Wolfe died last week in Murfreesboro of
complications from diabetes. But scholars say his exploration of the roots of traditional American music has created a legacy which will be
used for decades to come. WPLN’s Rebecca Bain reports.
I’ve always thought that one of the best things you can do is come up with the right anecdote. And I’ve been a great person for anecdotes.
It was in 1973 that Charles Wolfe first began turning those anecdotes into a fact-finding scavenger hunt which literally changed the way the
world views country music - turning it from “poor people’s songs” into a legitimate art form worthy of scholarly research. Charles’s original
project was to write a short history of the Grand Ole Opry. So he contacted a handful of the people who were regulars on the Opry’s stage in
the nineteen-twenties and thirties.
And I started talking to a few of the old timers and they led me to more and led me to more and I realized there was this wonderful story to be
uncovered but that it was a race against time. And indeed it was. Of all the people I talked to, virtually all of them are gone now.
Charles Wolfe spent the next thirty years collecting those stories, eventually publishing his award-winning book on the early history of the
Opry, titled “A Good-Natured Riot.” He also wrote Classic Country, Tennessee Strings, biographies of Deford Bailey, Grandpa Jones and the
Louvin Brothers, and The Devil’s Music Box. Alan Jabbour is the former director of the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress.
He knew more about the subject than anyone alive, I swear, and how he found the time to learn all that he learned but to write all that he
wrote is beyond me. He was just an amazing scholar and I think genuinely helped us understand country music better by anchoring it in its
His death is just a great, great loss.
Bill Malone is another acclaimed authority on the history of country music, author of the landmark book, Country Music, USA. He holds Wolfe
up as an example of a truly dedicated scholar, and not just in country music. Charles published seventeen books and hundreds of articles on
the roots of traditional American music, expanding his research into the blues and gospel, Tennessee string music and Negro folk rhymes.
But the majority of his work was on country music.
He was always ready to share what he had learned from other people. Not only with scholars, who he considered to be his colleagues, but
young students. I think today the whole range of young students who are interested in country music and blues music, the whole realm of
vernacular will probably tell you that Charles Wolfe was one of the persons who inspired them.
Michael Gray was one of those students, taking Wolfe’s classes in the early eighties at MTSU. Now a historian at the Country Music Hall of
Fame and Museum, Gray says Wolfe showed him that research into traditional American music was worthy of study – something Wolfe
encountered unsuccessfully while in graduate school some twenty years earlier.
He told me that he tried to do his dissertation on Robert Johnson and Jimmy Rogers and some of these country and folk musicians and the
academy just wouldn’t have it. At that time it just wasn’t considered legitimate research.
And no one understood that better than Charles Wolfe. He knew that one of the reasons why country music acquired its hick, po’ folks image
was the way it was marketed, as early photographs of the musicians reveal.
In the very earliest pictures I was able to find of the bands, they were all dressed up in their very best, Sunday best suits. To them this is
important, this is like going to church. But after they began to merchandize the Opry in the early thirties, they had the same bands trooping
out in corn fields, posing with hound dogs, and a pig in a pig pen, to really hoke up the image.
Today most scholars credit Wolfe’s work as one of the main reasons country music is taught on the university level. But Bill Malone feels it
goes beyond that.
One of the wonderful things about Charles and his scholarship is not only did he lend dignity to the field of vernacular music, but I think he
lent dignity to the people who made that music, the culture that surrounded it. Charles was able to treat that culture with greater respect.
He was also just a wonderful guy.
Musician Mike Seeger is a founding member of seminal folk group the New Lost City Ramblers and one of the cornerstones of old time music,
winning numerous awards and honors for his tireless efforts to keep traditional music performances before the public.
I loved talking with him, it was always interesting talking with Charles Wolfe. You come away thinking more and just elated at being able to be
around him. He was a tireless advocate. That’s for sure. We’ll miss him.
Charles Wolfe is survived by his wife, Mary Dean, two daughters, and a granddaughter. He also leaves a lifetime of work which will forever
enrich the study of American music.
For Nashville Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Bain.