Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jeff's Corner - Dr. William K. McNeil

One of the main reasons the Ozark Folk Center Collections (OCRC) was originally donated to the Arkansas History Commission was the work of the longtime folklorist at the Ozark Folk Center, W.K. “Bill” McNeil. Dr. McNeil willed a large portion of his records and research to the Arkansas History Commission after his death in 2005. In the years to come, the rest of the contents of the Ozarks Cultural Resource Center, including the archives and research library at the Folk Center in Mountain View were also donated to the AHC. It was Dr. McNeil and the staff of the Folk Center that developed and organized the OCRC.

The materials in both acquisitions contained audio visual material, written files, CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes concerning folk music and also folk crafts in Arkansas and the Ozark region. Included in this were CDs containing live performances at the Folk Center from 1973 to 2002, folders of material on craftspeople and musicians, as well as interviews for various oral history projects and administrative papers. Together, the materials from the Ozark Folk Center constitute one of the largest collections we have at the Arkansas History Commission. Patrons can access these materials by contacting the archivist on duty in the research room.

W.K. “Bill” McNeil was born in Canton, North Carolina on August 13, 1940. Dr. McNeil received a B.A. in History from Carson-Newman College in Tennessee in 1962. He earned a Masters in History at Oklahoma State University, and in 1966 he enrolled in the Cooperstown Graduate Program in American Folk Culture at the State University of New York, where he received a Masters in 1967. He earned his PhD in folklore from Indiana University in 1970.

In 1975, Dr. McNeil was hired as the folklorist at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View. He served in that position until his death in 2005. Throughout his career there, he focused on the academic analysis of the folklore materials and research surrounding the public programming at the Folk Center, where he organized the Ozark Cultural Resource Center, one of the largest regional folklore libraries and archives in the country. He also often served as MC at public concerts, helped establish many educational public programs, and participated in field research projects in the region. He personally collected large numbers of books and recordings for his private collection, 16,000 of which were donated to the Arkansas History Commission. He also published books and many articles for folklore and history journals as well as publications concerning Ozark and Appalachian culture and folklore. 

Bill McNeil gave his definition of bluegrass, saying “We’re going to begin with a bluegrass group. And since we are a kind of educational organization, maybe I’ll say a few sentences about what bluegrass is. It’s a type of traditional music, American music, that got named about 40 years ago, but actually was just kind of a new way of combining a bunch of traditional elements that had been around in American music a lot longer than that…the instrumentation of the old string bands of the Southern Mountains, and the high tenor vocal, which is frequently found in bluegrass [and] which is something that has been around for quite a long while. The three-finger style of banjo picking, which is a roll of involving picking up on the banjo strings as opposed to striking down as in the old, or older, style, flaying style of banjo playing. And all of this was the type of thing that combined with some with some of the jazz and blues sounds that were around in the early 20th century.”

McNeil was passionate about folk and bluegrass music.  He dedicated his life and career to collecting, learning about, exploring and sharing the cultural uniqueness of bluegrass and folk music in Arkansas.  As a result, we have a wonderful collection of material available to the public here at the AHC.