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Folklorist Chuck Perdue dies at 79

Washingtonians who enjoy folklore and folk music -- indeed, the very traditions that are passing before our eyes -- owe a debt of gratitude to Chuck Perdue, 79, of Madison, Va., who died Sunday, Feb. 14. Perdue held a doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, where his fellow folklorists included Ralph Rinzler, who directed the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, and Bill Ferris, who headed the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.

Dr. Perdue was brought to the University of Virginia department in 1971 for his expertise in socio-linguistics. If the field sounds dry and theoretical, Dr. Perdue's books, with such titles as "Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves" and "Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression," were anything but.

The latter, a book of hardscrabble life stories recounted as part of a New Deal writer's project, won a National Oral History Association Award in 1997. Dr. Perdue found the texts hidden in the Virginia State Archive and copied them even as the ink was disintegrating the pages.

Blues fans owe Perdue a debt of gratitude for begging a song out of John Jackson, a guitar player he met at a gas station in Fairfax. Perdue brought Jackson, a full-time gravedigger, to the coffeehouses of Washington. Jackson, who had a vast repertoire of traditional Piedmont blues and his own unique guitar style, embarked on a second career as a professional blues singer.

But perhaps his greatest contribution for Washingtonians was his involvement in the National Folk Festival when it was held at Wolf Trap in the 1970s and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, which he helped found.

If you have reminiscences or stories about Dr. Perdue, we'd love to hear them.

--Terence McArdle

By Emma Brown  |  February 19, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
Categories:  Musicians , Terence McArdle  
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I took a couple of folklore courses from Chuck, one of which was a once-a-week, 3 hour evening session. After seeing how other students brought sodas to the class, I started bringing beer in my knapsack as the libation of choice...the first time I popped one open, Chuck glanced over, raised an eyebrow and continued teaching the class...every now and then, he would bum a Winston from me during breaks ("Don't tell Nan!", he would say). The last time I saw him was at John Jackson's funeral, where he delivered a moving and humorous elegy for his dear friend. He expressed a bit of good-natured peevishness at the popular notion that he had "found" John Jackson...
"Let me tell you all something...John didn't need finding, because he was never lost and he always knew exactly where he was."
Chuck Perdue...gentleman, scholar and gifted musician.
He will be dearly missed.

Posted by: munkle | February 20, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

I met Chuck Perdue but once, when he was visiting the Baltimore area enjoying some bluegrass music. It was at the Cub Hill Inn, and Walter Hensley and the Dukes of Bluegrass were playing. Walter was- is, I suppose- a consummate banjo picker, The Dukes were a great band. The only other name I remember is Frankie Short, the mandolin player. Anyway, the people I was with were in awe of Chuck, as the man who discovered John Jackson, among other things. he had a reputation as a latter day Alan Lomax- big shoes, I'd say. They were consternated by the rumor they had heard that Chuck didn't like bluegrass particularly, but there he was, slapping his leg in time, singing Rocky Top along with the rest of us. It came out later that he had helped the organizers set up The Deer Creek Bluegrass Festival.

Posted by: jacquescustodian2 | February 20, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

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