Josephine Wright

Josephine Wright received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for American Music earlier this month in Sacramento. 


Josephine Wright Receives Prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award

Professor of music and The Josephine Lincoln Morris Professor of Black Studies at Wooster honored by Society for American Music

16 March, 2015 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Josephine Wright's remarkable career as a scholar has been recognized by the Society for American Music, which presented her with the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual conference in Sacramento on March 7.

The award, which is given by the Society's Board of Trustees, recognizes "significant and substantial lifetime achievement in scholarship, performance, teaching, and/or support of American Music." Wright was also lauded for "her tireless efforts to help the Society reflect — in both its membership and scholarship — the full range of the American musical experience." The award was established in 1999. Previous distinguished recipients include nationally known folk singer Pete Seeger, who was chosen last year, as well as Eileen Southern of Harvard University and H. Wiley Hitchcock of The City University of New York.

"This is a huge honor," says Peter Mowrey, professor of music and chair of the department at Wooster. "This award has been won by several very prestigious people, and now Josephine is part of this illustrious group, deservedly so. Even though she is at home teaching the canon — Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms —Josephine is also very forward thinking in her efforts to promote and teach music from underrepresented groups. She is such a distinguished scholar and teacher."

Wright, a professor of music and the endowed Josephine Lincoln Morris Professor of Black Studies at The College of Wooster, joined the faculty in 1981. She is the only recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from a small liberal arts college in the 17-year history of the honor. An expert in African-American music, 18th and 19th century American music, women in music, Black women's history, and Western music history, Wright received her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Missouri, her Master of Music degree from the Pius XII Academy in Florence, Italy, and a Master of Arts degree from Missouri before earning her Ph.D. in historical musicology at New York University.

Wright was the first woman to edit the quarterly journal American Music (1994-97), also becoming the first African American in the United States to be appointed to such a position by a national musicological organization. She previously served as book series editor of Music and African-American Culture for Garland Publications. In addition, she was a recipient of a 1999 Distinguished Alumna Award from the University of Missouri, and received a number of grants, including the Henry Luce Award for Distinguished Scholarship.

Other notable achievements include her selection as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music, and her membership on the editorial board of each society. She is also a member of the Upsilon Chapter of Pi Kappa Lambda national music honorary, and a former Trustee and member of the National Artistic Directorate of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and the Museum of Cincinnati.

Along with Eileen Southern, Wright co-authored African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s-1920 (1990) and Images: Iconography of Music in African-American Culture, 1770s-1920s (2000). She also was principal editor of New Perspectives on Music: Essays in Honor of Eileen Southern (1992), and has contributed approximately 80 articles and reviews to scholarly journals and encycolpedias of music.

"You do what you think is right intellectually, and people take notice," says Wright in describing the impact of her work. "I believe very much in what I do."

What Wright does is mentor young scholars, particularly women in the field of musicology. "I can't tell you how many young women I have mentored over the years," she says. "It has been very gratifying."

Wright credits four people in particular with her success in music education, beginning with her late mother, Eva G. Wright, whom she described as a strong woman who raised her alone after her father died suddenly when Wright was 12.

"My mother was always pushing, always encouraging me," says Wright. "She did the very best she could with limited resources. I am very grateful to her."

Wright also listed former colleague Southern and former teachers and mentors Jan LaRue and Victor Yellin at New York University as being strong influences well beyond graduate school. In addition, she noted the support she has received from The College of Wooster, which provided resources that enabled her to work at her own pace and gave her the space to become an activist teacher-scholar. "I was able to champion particular issues, and teach what I wanted to teach because of Wooster," she says.

One of Wright's greatest strengths, among many, is her ability as a researcher. "When you work as an archivist, you learn how to develop leads and sources, and then take large amounts of material and make sense of it," she says. "That has helped me as an editor and a teacher, both in the U.S. and abroad."

Given her lengthy list of accomplishments, one might expect Wright to begin slowing down, but that's just not her style. In fact, she even chaired a session at the annual conference in Sacramento earlier this month, and this summer she has been invited to The University of Pittsburgh's NEH-sponsored (National Endowment for the Humanities) "Voices Across Time" Project, where she will provide guidance to K-12 educators about how to teach slave music in the classroom. After that, she is hoping to continue a study of Black maritime music during slavery, which is an outgrowth of research findings she presented to graduate students and faculty at a recent residency in American Music at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa. "I was stunned to learn that there is a completely different culture of blacks who worked on the waterfront," she says. "I'm interested in looking at their songs as an overlooked precursor to the Blues. It's a history that really needs to be told."

And who better to tell it than a lifetime learner with a newly minted Lifetime Achievement Award from the world's premier organization for promoting "the appreciation, performance, creation, and study of American music of all eras and in all their diversity."