Chief, Music Division, Library of Congress
Professor of Music, UNC Chapel Hill
Photo: Arthur Feller
NOTE: I post this essay, adapted from the August 2014 Newsletter of the American Musicological Society, p. 39, owing to our blog's interest in exploring career paths, and in what has come to be known as "public musicology." Archivists and librarians, after all, hold the keys to the warehouses of knowledge, and both Pruett's libraries (UNC Music, Library of Congress) are, in part because of his work, avatars of basic research and its dissemination to the public at large. Also the stirring photograph, by Arthur Feller, is to be savored. —DKH
He was born in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the youngest of six children. The family recalls:
His father, who had a small grocery/meat store, taught him to properly carve a turkey, swing a hammer, and to be a good man unafraid of challenges. His mother’s love of music and reading would greatly affect Jim—to the end of his life he kept his mother’s 19th-century chaise lounge on which he used to read as a young boy. ...
In Jim’s own words, “the musical life in Mt. Airy was wonderful: oratorio, opera, drama, musical comedy, church and school music all were extraordinary for such a small town.”
His older brothers and sisters went into law, nursing, ministry, the Army, and business. For Jim, Mt. Airy’s influences and his family’s belief in education led to a life of music, books, and learning. Over the years he sang in choirs, performed in a radio quartet, learned to play the piano, played French horn in the Moravian church band, and spent summers acting in Horn in the West (Boone, NC) [an outdoor summer drama that figures in North Carolina's rich legacy of such pageants].Mt. Airy is the model for the mythical Mt. Pilot in the Andy Griffith television series, and Griffth and Pruett were childhood friends. (And the points of cross over do not stop in Mt. Airy: Griffith worked as a page in the UNC Music Library as an undergraduate student and later starred in another outdoor drama, The Lost Colony.)
Pruett attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he earned the BA (1955), MA (1957), and Ph.D. (1962); his doctoral dissertation was titled The Hymns of Filippo Vitali. While a student, he met his future wife, Lilian Pibernik-Benyovszky, from Zagreb, a pianist and musicologist; they were married in 1957.
From 1961 to 1976, Pruett was chief music librarian at UNC. He was also a faculty member of the Department of Music, teaching mostly classes in Renaissance music. Particularly challenging was his “Introduction to Research” class, required of all musicology students. It was equal parts bibliography and problem-solving. (His first assignment to me was a report on a two-volume encyclopedia of music in Hungarian; no, I do not read Hungarian.) He was an ideal dissertation advisor, insightful, fast, and a wonderful editor, often returning chapters the day after they were submitted to him.
From 1974 to 1986 he was chair of the Department of Music. He was offered the position of chief of the Music Division at the Library of Congress in 1977, but he turned it down for family reasons. In 1987 he was offered the position again, and this time he accepted, serving in that capacity until 1995. While at the LoC, he oversaw publications, acquisitions, public concerts, exhibits, and the development of new programs, among many other things. He wrote that he particularly liked “assembling knowledge and art for the future without any certainty as to how it will affect the minds and souls of people to come.”
Upon his retirement, the department at UNC held a day-long conference in his honor, at which many of his former students presented papers. Somehow, Lilian managed to hide the conference from him and get him to campus on a Saturday without his knowing what was to take place. In 1993, he was honored by UNC as a distinguished alumnus.
Jim was active in the American Musicological Society and Music Library Association, of which he was president (1973–75). He also served as editor of the MLA’s journal, Notes (1974–77). He was editor of Essays in the History, Style, and Bibliography of Music in Memory of Glenn Haydon (UNC Press, 1959; rpt. Greenwood Press, 1976) and author of Research Guide to Musicology (American Library Association, 1985) as well as a number of articles.
In 2001 Pruett was presented a Festschift, Res Musicae: Essays in Honor of James W. Pruett, ed. Paul R. Laird and Craig H. Russell (Harmonie Park Press). In 2007 UNC established the James Pruett Summer Fellowships in his honor, allowing graduate students to work at the Library of Congress on major manuscripts and perhaps to find dissertation topics, particularly in American music. The more recent James W. Pruett Lecture in Music and Culture is a constituent of the Carolina Symposia in Music and Culture: the first speakers were Kate Van Orden (2013) and Jann Pasler (2014).
- Brief autobiography for Creativity Foundation
- Daily Tar Heel obituary, 4 March, 2013, by Samantha Sabin
- Family obituary, Chapel Hill News, 9 March 2013 (and other newspapers)