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What's a Musicologist?

As he tells the story, Ron Pen, a 1973 Washington and Lee alumnus, was enrolling in graduate school at the University of Kentucky in 1983 and was interested in pursuing music composition. But after his entrance exams, Ron was told that he’d done exceptionally well on the history portion. “They said, ‘You should be a musicologist, and we’ll give you a fellowship and throw money at you if you do that. ‘ I said, ‘What’s a musicologist?'”

That story was part of a feature about Ron that appeared last week in the Lexington Herald Tribune. Although the story heralds the publication of Ron’s long-awaited book on balladeer John Jacob Niles, it also captures the way that Ron has approached his work on Niles over the years since he became a musicologist.

The book is titled (The University Press of Kentucky, $35) and is, as one of Ron’s U.K. colleagues said, the product of a lifetime of work. Ron wrote his doctoral dissertation on Niles and used the next 25 years to look at the world through Niles’ eyes.

An associate professor of musicology at Kentucky, Ron directs the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music and is coordinator of the Division of Musicology and Ethnomusicology. While at U.K., he has won both the University of Kentucky Great Teacher Award and the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.