Donald Knight Wilgus was born in West Mansfield, Ohio on December 1, 1918. He graduated from East High School, Columbus, in 1935, and then attended Ohio State University, where he earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. (1954). Wilgus was employed as educational administrator at Purdue University (1941 – 1942), and then served in the U. S. Army from early 1942 until December 1945. While completing coursework for the doctorate he was an English instructor at Ohio State University. In 1950, Wilgus left Ohio State University for Western Kentucky State College (now University) where he became Associate Professor (1950 – 1961), and then full Professor (1961 – 1963) of English. He founded the Kentucky Folklore Record in 1955 and served as its editor through 1961. Wilgus left Western Kentucky University in 1963 for UCLA, where he was professor of English and Music until his death in 1989.
Wilgus and Wayland D. Hand established Folklore studies at UCLA, and together founded the Folklore and Mythology Program in 1965. Wilgus was the Program’s first chair and served in that position for 17 years. During his tenure at UCLA, Wilgus built an archive of folksong and folk music of over 8,000 commercial recordings and 3,000 field recordings. These recordings are now part of the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.
Click here to listen to field recordings from the D. K. Wilgus Collection on the UCLA Digital Library. Digitization of the field recordings was made possible by a generous grant from the Grammy Foundation.
Wilgus held numerous offices in national and state folklore societies: Secretary-Treasurer of the Kentucky Folklore Society; Editor of Western Folklore for the California Folklore Society; President of the California Folklore Society; Vice-President and President of the American Folklore Society. Demonstrating his commitment to the performance as well as to the academic study of folk music, Wilgus organized and directed five folk festivals at UCLA–in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1978 and 1979–and he played prominent roles in festivals in other parts of the state and country.
Wilgus was a folksong and ballad scholar, indefatigable fieldworker, and renowned authority on Anglo-American folksong, “race” records, and “hillbilly” music. He was a pioneer in the teaching of Anglo-American folksong as a rigorous academic subject, in identifying the blues ballad as a legitimate form of narrative song, and in developing the “narrative theme” approach to ballad classification.
At the time of his death, Wilgus’ scholarly biography consisted of more than 250 items, including three books and innumerable groundbreaking essays on folk music. His edition of Josiah Combs’ Folk-Songs of the South (1967) is an important translation and interpretation of a work first published in Paris in 1925 and his critical study, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898 (1959, reprinted 1982), is a classic in the field.