Professor and Folklorist Charles L. Perdue Dies

February 16, 2010
February 16, 2010 — Charles L. "Chuck" Perdue, professor emeritus of anthropology and English, died Feb. 14 in his Madison County home. He was 79.

Born outside Atlanta, Perdue came to the University of Virginia in 1971 and retired in 2007.

Funeral services will be held 3 p.m. on Friday at Preddy Funeral Home Chapel, 59 Edgewood School Lane in Madison, with visiting hours beginning two hours before the service.

Growing up during the Depression on a Georgia farm had a profound effect on Perdue's eventual academic career, albeit by a circuitous route. He was a cryptographer in the U.S. Army Security Agency in the early 1950s. He earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of California, Berkeley and worked for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1960 to '67.

Perdue then changed careers and received his Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. His scholarship ranged from editing narratives of ex-slaves and Depression-era workers to writing and speaking about the folk cultures of the South, both white and African-American. He taught courses on American and Southern folklore, ethnohistory and oral history.

Said Susan McKinnon, chair of the anthropology department: "He taught us important lessons about the richness of the folk life and music of Virginia and beyond, about the New Deal programs in Virginia during the Great Depression, about the displacement of people in the creation of the Shenandoah National Park, and so much more."

His wife of nearly 56 years, Nancy J. Martin-Perdue, became his best collaborator and was a scholar-in-residence at U.Va. until her husband retired. Together they edited "Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression," published in 1996, and for almost 20 years they researched the displacement of residents from the area where the Shenandoah National Park was established.

"Talk About Trouble" won the National Oral History Association Award for best book on oral history in 1997, and the Perdues were honored by the Virginia General Assembly for the work in 1998. The book consists of life histories recorded by members of the Virginia Writers' Project, which they discovered hidden in the Virginia State Archives, and as far away as the University of Pennsylvania Library.

Perdue's other publications include "Pigsfoot Jelly & Persimmon Beer: Foodways from the Virginia Writers' Project," "Outwitting the Devil: Jack Tales from Wise County, Virginia" and "Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves."

He and his wife received a research grant and then had a residency at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in 1984 and 1988, respectively, working on the topic of the New Deal and folk culture in Virginia. They were instrumental in the foundation's development of the Virginia Folklife Program.

"Many of us will remember when Chuck and Nan proposed and championed creating the Virginia Folklife Program at VFH, one of their many legacies, as well as unique contributions to the Virginia Foundation," director Rob Vaughan said. "It transformed us." Their work has enriched the commonwealth, he added.

Chuck played guitar and sang folksongs with Nan in coffeehouses from California to the nation's capital.

In 1964, the Perdues helped found what is now the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. Encouraged by English professor Arthur Kyle Davis, the Perdues helped revive the Virginia Folklore Society, with Chuck publishing its first newsletter in 1974, and continued to lead the group into the 21st century. In the '70s and '80s, Chuck and Nan were founding members of the Middle Atlantic Folklife Association. Chuck was also a member of the American Folklore Society and served on its executive board as its journal editor. In addition, he was a board member and president of the National Council of the Traditional Arts.

In the basement of Brooks Hall, where U.Va.'s anthropology department is located, they created folklore archives, which are now housed in the Harrison Institute/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and named in honor of their two late sons: the Kevin Barry and Kelly Scott Perdue Archive of Traditional Culture.

McKinnon said the office in Brooks Hall "soon became not only a home for the remarkable archives of American folklore and music that they built over the decades, but also a warm and welcoming home for faculty, students and staff from diverse backgrounds in the department and the University."

Perdue's impact on teaching others was arguably as important as his research.

"Blessed with a delightfully wry sense of humor, the superb timing of a skilled storyteller and a magical singing voice, Chuck kept our faculty and generations of students enthralled through the years," McKinnon said.

Nan Perdue recently received an e-mail from a former student, now a dentist, who took the couple's Life History course in 2006 and wrote his life history project about his grandfather. The student's grandfather died last month, a few days before his great-grandson was born.

"Because of your class, I have an excellent life history of my grandfather that Cooper, my son, will one day be able to read. ... This project means more to me than any personal accomplishment or stage I conquered to get into dental school during my years at U.Va."

Perdue was preceded in death by sons Kevin Barry (1960-1979) and Kelly Scott (1960-2005). In addition to his wife, Nan, surviving family members include two sisters in Georgia; two sons, Martin and Marc; three daughters-in-law and six grandchildren.

— By Anne Bromley

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