Charles K. Wolfe

Jim Ridley over at Pith in the Wind is reporting that Charles Wolfe died last night.

I am distraught.

Charles was one of my favorite people in the world. Though, I suppose, that’s true for just about everyone who knew him. He was one of those professorly types who always had an office full of chaos–records, books, papers piled everywhere–but he could put his hands on whatever he needed to show you the second he thought to show it to you.

He also was constantly full of ideas. Whenever he saw me, he’d pull me aside and say, “Now, I’ve been thinking and I wonder what you think about doing a book about…?” or he’d say “You need to get in touch with this person” and scribble down a name.

For as long as I’ve known him, I’ve heard people whisper “You know, his health’s not good,” but it felt like we could all will him to live forever, if we just never spoke too loudly about what we all knew was the truth.

And we needed him to live forever because so many of us had come to rely on him. Because Charles knew everything there is to know about music. You could play some obscure song cut by some hillbilly band in 1926, and he could, just by listening, tell you who the musicians were and a little bit about them. The same with country blues artists. With any music worth listening to.

And he was generous with his time, too. He’d look over manuscripts for folks or listen to their home made tapes or just stand around Uncle Dave Macon Days and chat.

He loved music and he loved people.

Probably, you don’t know him, though if you’ve watched enough documentaries about roots music, you’ve seen his walrus-like visage once or twice. So, for you, the loss will hurt less. You don’t know how he sat down with everyone he thought knew anything and listened as they told their stories and then carefully wrote them down and told them back to us.

So, for you, when someone says, “I wonder who that is, playing piano on that song” and no one knows, you’ll be a little worse off for it, because that knowledge is gone. But the sharp pain of knowing that, until yesterday, there was someone who could answer that question won’t hit you.

We are all worse off, though. Each and every one of us who loves American music.

I don’t know how to explain it. It’s as if our greatest library has burnt down and all those rare books lost. He was one of our greatest resources on our music and the people who made it.

And he was a kind and generous man.

Every good thing that has happened to me professionally in Nashville happened because of him. I’m indebted to him, forever now, and I miss him already.

2 thoughts on “Charles K. Wolfe

  1. It sure sounds like he was an amazing man. You were fortunate to have known him. We are all the worse off for the loss of such a person and his knowledge, even if we didn’t know him personally, and the history that he embodied. I’m sorry.

  2. I took his folklore class at MTSU back in ’97. The sections on the history of country and blues were worth the price of tuition that semester. The great thing about Dr. Wolfe was that he never failed to make you want to rush out and learn more about any given subject he was dealing with in class.

    He did seem in constant state of poor health but was always eager to stick around after class and discuss Robert Johnson or any number of far more obscure musicians. He also loved to try out every new barbecue restaurant and give his impressions in class.

    I didn’t really know Dr. Wolfe, but he was certainly one of the most interesting people I’ll ever have the honor of being around. He is irreplaceable.

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