Did you ever wonder why U.S. government institutions like the Library of Congress use the word “folklife” rather than the more common “folklore?” Largely, we can thank the influence of Don Yoder, the eminent Pennsylvania folklorist, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 93. Long before the founding of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center (or for that matter the Smithsonian Folklife Festival), Don Yoder brought the idea of folklife to the United States.
Don Yoder was the ninth generation of a proud Pennsylvania German lineage. His ancestor, Hans Joder, was an emigrant from the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland to the Palatinate in Germany, who came to Pennsylvania in 1709. When Don was a little boy, summer visits to his grandmother’s farm exposed him to Pennsylvania Dutch language, religion, foodways, folk medicine, and other traditions, in the context of the daily life of a beloved elder. This experience sparked a strong interest in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture that stayed with him throughout his life and led to groundbreaking research and writing. (For the uninitiated, I should add that “Pennsylvania German” and “Pennsylvania Dutch” mean exactly the same thing, since “Dutch” comes from the German word for “German.” Some see one or the other term as preferable, but Dr. Yoder used both, often within the same sentence!)
Yoder earned his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago in 1947, and taught at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and at Muhlenberg College before being hired by Franklin and Marshall College in 1949. There he joined with Dr. Alfred Shoemaker and Dr. William Frey to found the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center and the journal The Pennsylvania Dutchman, both in 1949. The following year, the three founded the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, which has changed its name over the years, and is now the Kutztown Folk Festival. It is the oldest continuously operated annual folklife festival in the United States, and the 67th annual edition was held last month.
It was in the context of running the Festival and the Folklore Center that Dr. Yoder developed his approach to folklife. Folk festivals go back in the United States to the 1930s, but until 1950 they tended to focus narrowly on music, crafts, and storytelling; what we would today call “folk arts.” Dr. Yoder and his colleagues went in a different direction, as he explained in the Folk Festival Supplement to Volume XXIII of Pennsylvania Folklife in 1974:
What made the festival different from most other events called folk festivals was its rounded approach to an entire culture. The professors who founded it in 1950 attempted to put an entire rural culture–the Pennsylvania Dutch culture–on display to the public in ways that cannot be done in the usual museum format. Emphasis was on participation by living practitioners of all the arts, crafts, and techniques of the culture. Emphasis was secondly on informality–what the visitor saw was not a closed museum exhibit but a living demonstration, with tools he could touch and handle, and a demonstrator with whom he could chat and exchange techniques as well as lore. A third emphasis was instruction–beginning with the first festival we offered “seminars” and “panels” on various subjects, folk art (especially fraktur), cookery, religion, folklore. Each year experts in these fields were brought to Kutztown to participate in the seminars, which are still held after twenty-five years in a special Seminar Tent. Here the visitor, during the course of the afternoon, can take a short “course” in Pennsylvania Dutch culture–see “plain” costumes and learn the reasons why the Amish and Mennonites wear them, learn the great differences between the “Plain” and the “Gay” Dutch, hear a row of craftsmen explain their products, see a vast range of Pennsylvania Dutch antiques at first hand and hear explanations of them with hints on collecting, learn how funerals were conducted in the Pennsylvania past, and end up the afternoon with a hilarious program of Pennsylvania Dutch humor, featuring several Dutch-English comedians famed from one end of the Dutch Country to another.
The festival then, has been an experiment in adult education, an adjunct museum program, in a sense a new museum technique–a temporary living demonstration of a culture not possible in the usual museum context, and–for adults and children alike–an adventure in discovering Americana.
Dr. Yoder and his colleagues eventually adopted a new name for this approach of focusing on the entire way of life rather than just expressive culture. They called it “folklife,” taking the word from Germanic and especially Scandinavian scholarship and museum practice. (This shift of emphasis was only natural considering Yoder’s grounding in German folk culture; as I’ve discussed here before, folklore is a specifically English word and concept.)
With characteristic modesty, Yoder neglected to mention his own influence when he explained this in the same 1974 article, attributing agency instead to the society he helped run and the publication he edited at the time:
The term “folklife”–which means the total range of traditional culture as researchable in the regional or ethnic context–was introduced into the United States by the Pennsylvania Folklife Society in the 1950s. In 1958 the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center was changed by charter into the Pennsylvania Folklife Society, and the journal, The Pennsylvania Dutchman, became officially Pennsylvania Folklife. […] Since then the term folklife has spread widely in the American academic world.
The shift from The Pennsylvania Dutchman to Pennsylvania Folklife coincided with Dr. Yoder assuming the editorship, and signaled not only the adoption of “folklife” as the journal’s stated subject matter, but a more serious drive to be inclusive of the other cultures of Pennsylvania. It was emblematic of Dr. Yoder’s personal ethic of neighborliness and curiosity about all cultures, not just his own. Although he shared these traits with his predecessor and mentor Alfred Shoemaker, one could argue that Don Yoder’s ascension to the leadership role of the journal brought the idea of multi-ethnic, regionally-grounded folklife studies into its own. According to Simon J. Bronner, writing in the Winter 1999 issue of the Journal of the Center for Pennsylvania German Studies, from this time until it ceased publication in 1997, Pennsylvania Folklife was the folklife journal with the highest circulation of any in the United States–higher even than the prestigious Journal of American Folklore.
Yoder left Franklin and Marshall College in 1956 to teach religious thought at the University of Pennsylvania. When the faculty interested in folk culture at Penn founded a graduate group and then eventually a department, Yoder’s influence ensured that it was called the Department of Folklore and Folklife. During his forty-one years at Penn, Yoder remained affiliated with the Pennsylvania Folklife Society, the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, and Pennsylvania Folklife.
As I suggested at the outset, Yoder’s influence was also felt within the government. In 1968, the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival was routinely drawing crowds in excess of 100,000 people over its week-long run. The creators of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (then called the Festival of American Folklife), paid close attention to their methods, and invited Dr. Yoder to contribute to their first festival program book, where his essay explained the meaning of “folklife.” Yoder was similarly influential in the creation of the American Folklife Center; in the 1970 hearings on the idea of an American Folklife Foundation, out of which AFC eventually grew, Yoder was a witness before Congress, testifying to the advisability of such a foundation, alongside Alan Lomax, Theodore Bikel, and others. Six years later, when the American Folklife Center was founded, Don Yoder was one of its original Board of Trustees.
Don Yoder was an important donor to the Library of Congress’s folk archive both before and after its move from the Music Division to the American Folklife Center. In 1950 he donated 21 spools of recording wire with field recorded spirituals and other folksongs. In 1951 he followed this with 152 reels of tape. Dr. Yoder also came to speak at AFC on several occasions, including on folk customs in 1980, on the illuminated manuscript tradition known as fraktur in 1986, and on Pennsylvania German culture in 2011 (see below).
Like his work on regional and national public folklore projects, Yoder’s academic work broadened from folklore to folklife. His initial interests in folksongs and spirituals led to studies of material culture, foodways, magical practices, and calendar customs. His many publications include Songs along the Mahantongo, Pennsylvania Spirituals, American Folklife, Discovering American Folklife, Hex Signs, and Groundhog Day. His particular interest in folk spirituality and religion led him to publish a color facsimile edition of The Picture Bible of Ludwig Denig, and his love of fraktur and other decorative and visual arts led to his book The Pennsylvania German Broadside, and his introduction to AFC’s guide to fraktur and Pennsylvania German broadside collections at the Library of Congress.
Yoder’s approach to folklife was passed down to generations of students who became leading scholars of in the field. Some of these influential folklorists include Henry Glassie, Diane Goldstein and David Hufford. Still more leaders were influenced by Yoder’s writings and lectures, including John Vlach, Simon J. Bronner, and AFC Director Betsy Peterson. On the AFC staff, several of us were privileged to take Yoder’s classes from the 1970s through the 1990s, including Peter Bartis, Stephanie Hall, Maggie Kreusi, and me. All of us will miss his intellectual brilliance, his reserved warmth, and his gentle wit.
In 2011, Yoder visited AFC to give a Botkin Lecture on The Two Worlds of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Please enjoy the webcast of that lecture below.
If you have a favorite memory of Dr. Don Yoder, or anything you’d like to say, please consider sharing it as a comment on this post. It will make a nice tribute to this wonderful scholar, teacher and public folklorist.