Top of page

Don Yoder (1921-2015): The Man Who Put the “Life” in “Folklife”

Share this post:

AFC staff members Todd Harvey, Maggie Kruesi, and Nancy Groce with Don Yoder in the AFC Research Center, 2011. Photo by Dale Phillips. AFC 2011/067.
AFC staff members Todd Harvey, Maggie Kruesi, and Nancy Groce with Don Yoder in the AFC Research Center, 2011. Photo by Dale Phillips. AFC 2011/067.

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.

J. William Frey, Don Yoder, and Alfred Shoemaker, founders of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center and Folk Festival at Franklin and Marshall College, C. 1955. Photo from the 6th Annual Pennsylvania Folk Festival Program, AFC Subject Files.
J. William Frey, Don Yoder, and Alfred Shoemaker, founders of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center and Folk Festival at Franklin and Marshall College, C. 1955. Photo from the 6th Annual Pennsylvania Folk Festival Program, AFC Subject Files.

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.

Don Yoder receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Kutztown University in 2011. Photo by Dale Phillips. AFC 2011/067
Don Yoder receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Kutztown University in 2011. Photo by Dale Phillips. AFC 2011/067

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.

This large group of folkorists, including Don Yoder (front left), and Wayland Hand (front right), as well as David Hufford, Bess Lomax Hawes, Steven Zeitlin, Bill Wiggins, Beverly Stoeltje, and others, visited the Library for a conference on Folk Customs in 1980. AFC staff member Peter Bartis is in the back! Personal collection of Peter Bartis.
This large group of folklorists, including Don Yoder (front left), and Wayland Hand (front right), as well as David Hufford, Bess Lomax Hawes, Steven Zeitlin, Bill Wiggins, Beverly Stoeltje, and others, visited the Library for a conference on Folk Customs in 1980. AFC founding director Alan Jabbour and young staff member Peter Bartis are in the back! Personal collection of Peter Bartis.

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.

Don Yoder wrote an introduction to fraktur for Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Printed Broadsides: A Guide to the Collections in the Library of Congress.
Don Yoder wrote an introduction to fraktur for Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Printed Broadsides: A Guide to the Collections in the Library of Congress.  This is the front cover (left) and page 15 (right).

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.

Comments (14)

  1. My gratitude to Don Yoder for teaching me a new way of reading the American landscape and its vernacular architecture. As a very aural and oral person, I am forever indebted to him for showing me how to use my eyes as an analytical tool. He was beloved by his students at Penn.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on Don Yoder. He was multifaceted, to be sure, and another aspect worth mentioning is his work on Quaker culture in addition to Pennsylvania Germans. He was particularly interested in cultural exchange in early Pennsylvania history that shaped the hybridized culture we know as the “Pennsylvania Culture Region.” With his conception of folklife, I believe, was another kind of fusion–between history and ethnography–that is valuable to follow still. Although quiet, he could be effusive when talking about field work and amazing people to whom he drew attention. That is why I think when we discussed anthologizing his essays for a folklife series I was editing, he was so happy with the title “Discovering American Folklife.” He had a sense of discovery in his work that he wanted to pass on to his students and colleagues. This was especially evident to me as a fellow member of the Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission board, yet another example of his public governmental involvement. He saw the big picture and rather than representing the “Dutch,” he encouraged scribes of all cultures. In the Pennsylvania German field, he was influential as editor not only of PENNSYLVANIA FOLKLIFE, but also the Pennsylvania-German Society. I still think that his publication of THE PICTURE BIBLE OF LUDWIG DENIG in fascimile color is a publishing as well as scholarly milestone. I worked with him most closely on THE PENNSYLVANIA GERMAN BROADSIDE that he published at the age of 84. I think it was a culminating project in many ways for him. It was part exhibition, part essay, part personal experience narrative. It dealt with visual culture, and documents that went from fraktur to modern posters for a pig stomach’s dinner at a church in the Mahantango Valley. With every item in the book, he told a personal experience story of discovery that I struggled to incorporate into the text. The publisher wanted him to keep the analytical tone, but I am glad we preserved many of those stories as testimony to his love of the material, adoration of the people and culture, and most of all, the expressive “life.”

  3. Dr. Yoder was the Keynote speaker for The Pennsylvania German Society 125th Annual Meeting on June 6, 2015 in Lancaster Pennsylvania. He spoke on the Pennsylvania German culture from 1900-2000 with the passion and heart of a young man. His contribution to the Pennsylvania Dutch culture will teach future historians and students. Dr. Yoder was editor of The Pennsylvania German Society from 1992-1996 and wrote two books which continue to sell to this day. As Dr. Yoder always said “Hold on to what you have.”

  4. It is rare when the measure of one’s impact on the lives of others takes on a dimension that is vastly greater than that which is normally allotted to a single human lifetime. Such is the case with Dr. Don Yoder, who was a visionary, the leading cultural advocate for the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the father of the folklife movement in America.

    Dr. Yoder was admired for having a rare, crystal-clear memory, with nearly absolute recall of faces, names, and the most detailed information – a precision that made him a favorite, not just of his academic colleagues, but also of his community. Known for his gentle spirit, and a playful sense of humor that even found its way into his most serious of work, Dr. Yoder’s generous sharing of energy was interwoven through his personal and academic life, and affirmed the integrity of his vision and work.

    Even at the age of 93, Dr. Yoder was still persistent in his research. Not only had he released the 25th-Anniversary edition of his folklife opus “Discovering American Folklife” this past summer, but even as of last Friday, the 7th of August, I had the pleasure of reviewing with him the manuscript for his most recent work, “The German Bible in America” – an exploration of the cultural and religious legacy of the first language in North America to produce a full-length, printed bible. This work is still slated to be published by the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, and available by the summer of 2016.

    A friend of the Heritage Center since its inception in 1991, Dr. Yoder saw the Heritage Center as the fulfillment of the mission initiated by the Pennsylvania Folklife Society to establish a folklife center for research and preservation of folk culture in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. At the Heritage Center, we are grateful to have received a heaping measure of the momentum and enthusiasm that characterized the work of Dr. Yoder and his colleagues in reviving and maintaining the spirit of the Pennsylvania Dutch, in both a popular and academic sense.

    A self-declared “incurable Pennsylvanian,” Don Yoder’s legacy continues to water the deep roots of our folk, and we must be eternally thankful for his steadfast devotion to the exploration of the heart and soul of his native people, rooted in the fertile soil of the past, and spreading branches into the farthest reaches of a fruitful future.

  5. What a great post. Thanks for honoring Don Yoder.

  6. I was lucky enough to have taken four graduate courses from Don Yoder in the early 1970s. In a department full of strong personalities, he stood out in part because of his quiet, but intense, manner. I can’t think of him without remembering his enthusiasm and passion. He wanted to show us things–via slides and via the towering piles of books he’d carry to class–and his deep and wide-ranging knowledge was often embodied in the beautiful examples of objects and practices that mattered to him. In some ways, his ways of thinking seemed old-fashioned in those heady days of performance theory, but in reality he was a leader, a visionary whose work and ideas have an enduring presence in our field and beyond.

  7. When I came to the Department of Folklore & Folklife I took every course Don Yoder offered and was fortunate to continue working with him as my dissertation committee chair. He was an inspirational teacher with an advanced notion of tradition in its expressive dimensions. In class and after I brought up things I knew about from my age and upbringing in the industrial Midwest – drag racing, paintings on velvet, the sublimation of (Greek) ethnicity in diner food. I could never tell if his knowing nod indicated prior knowledge of the subject or a positive response to a new suggestion. But the next time I saw him he would inevitably have a reference for me to check – not always in English.

    Professor Yoder (yes, he asked me to call him “Don,” but I never did) had an implicit – and rare – understanding of the connectedness of research, presentation, and application in folklife studies. He was reluctant to reference his own research in class, preferring extensive bibliographies of others’ work. Such modesty is rare in academe, but a hallmark of Professor Yoder’s scholarship. His is a rare but useful example of how we should attempt to conduct our business. I am sad at his passing.

  8. “Dr. Yoder” (only much later “Don”) introduced me to discovering and culling historic documents while a fledgling graduate student in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. By his initiative, he ushered a course research paper on “Chester County Widows’ Wills as a Folklife Source” into my first publication, for his edited journal about Pennsylvania Folklife (1968). The gratification seeing such appearance did much to confirm resolve to become a folklorist. His courses introduced me to material folk culture, folk art, and folk religion, ever mindful of multicultural and historic dimensions linking such. To this day, in memory, I thank him, admired scholar and teacher. My home here and there contains folk religious and folk art artifacts collected, and probably in important ways indebted, as much to Don Yoder as anyone else.

  9. Dr Yoder’s book Pennsylvania German Immigrants 1709-1786 was the key to the discovery of two of my German ancestors who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1749, and then moved on to Nova Scotia in 1766. The first one was found by a cousin in 1997. The second one is the result of research in the past year. In both cases, Dr Yoder’s book was the critical first step in the search.

    I had the privilege of meeting with Dr Yoder for the first time at his home in Devon on the day before his death. We spent an hour together and he was completely sharp, his encyclopedic memory in full force. He was quite interested in my findings, and he confirmed that I had indeed found the right man. He was eager to go through some additional material I had brought him about these two fellows who, together with six other German-American families, moved to Canada ten years before the American Revolution. He was, of course, as physically frail as a 93-year old man would be, but he was in no obvious distress. Learning of his death the following day was a shock–as Dr Weaver who lived with him said, “totally out of the blue.” I’m sure his legion of followers will be comforted to learn that he was genealogically active right up to the end, and that his death was in no way prolonged or uncomfortable.

    He signed my copy of his book, probably the last time he penned his signature. I feel unusually honored to have been the last German-American descendant he helped to succeed in my search for my ancestor, based upon first his seminal book, and then his in-person confirmation. His was a marvelous, gracious and inspiring life. God rest his soul.

  10. Suppose you have known someone for 39 years; that is the number of books in the Old Testament. Dr. Don Yoder from that first day was my friend and always saw me as a colleague and gave his complete attention to my occasional outbursts of authority without reservation. While all reflect upon his magnificent recall which in itself conditions everyone’s respect, I have continually been dumbfounded by his profound willingness to listen to every syllable of every word offered to his ears. Wisdom, perhaps divine, married with a certain depth of thought, secured an offspring sometimes bearing the fruit of a little pride but clearly one of pure and selfless encouragement. Were there a hint of difference in idea or misdirected sense of direction, there was never room for discord or a failure in consideration. It was always my pleasure to expose him to new discoveries, and his readiness to examine a fractur or other previously unknown manuscript was often expressed as though he were a child consumed by the so many colors flowering in a never ending garden. I had the privilege to drive him from time to time here and there. Our conversations were of the latest happenings and of his current writing endeavors but always as well of deeper matters that were mutually provocative. On introducing him to new friends his charm was without equal. Not once did he share the least sense of superiority but always maintained a manner of proper Quaker humility. Could there have been a greater privilege to forever serve one’s memory with? You know the answer.

  11. I was honored to be one of Don Yoder’s “dissertation children” at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a scholar of great depth, wisdom, brilliance, and compassion. On the latter: comprehensive exams at Penn were quite grueling. Like my peers, I studied for them for six months, and then I wished I had taken twelve. Aspiring to become Ph.D.s, we white-knuckled through four days of demanding writing. I was one of numerous Penn doctoral students who–on encountering a recognizably DY exam question requiring that one write a material culture bibliography–quietly uttered the words, “Bless you, Don.” Beyond the exams, his scholarship and breadth of knowledge inspired us to seek the excellence reflected in his own research, writing and teaching.

    Let me not overlook Don Yoder’s delightfully droll wit. One of the required textbooks in his belief seminar was Joshua Trachtenberg’s As I recall, I was the only Jewish student in that course. I hadn’t ploughed all the way through Trachtenberg the day Don discussed it in class. Mid-lecture Don focused on the book before him and remarked that Trachtenberg had identified a 14th century Jewish charm for finding a bargain. I never imagined that my drive to get the best deal possible had roots so deep–and that there might even be an amulet or incantation for it! I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Don Yoder barely glanced my way, smiled as calmly as the Cheshire cat, and then proceeded with class. But I knew we had enjoyed the moment equally.

    On many levels, Don guided me through, and inspired me to many grad school and professional projects: Pennsylvania redware pottery (the dissertation); a deep appreciation for folklife–including the open air museums of Europe and the US; and research on Alsatian French Jews (a Fulbright). He truly was a warm, generous, and unique scholar.

    Bless you, Dr. Don. You are deeply missed, not only by your dissertation children, but by the scholars, students and many other people around the world whose lives you touched.

  12. Arriving in Pennsylvania in 1959 as a displaced Irishman from New York State, it took me some time to realize the wonderful culture of the Pa. Dutch. I bumped into Alfred Shoemaker quite by accident in 1963 and he soon corrected that. I began attending the Folk Festival with my family on a regular basis. Then I began collecting the Pennsylvania Dutchman and the Folklife Magazines. When that was not enough I put together a complete run of ‘S pennslyvaanisch Deitsch Eck. Of course I then had to have a complete collection of the Pennsylvania Folklore books.
    All this time I was finding the writings of Don Yoder to be also quite fascinating and soon his books arrived. I finally got to meet the grand old gentleman during a book signing at the Moravian Book Store in Bethlehem.
    As Weygandt wrote I am now at “The Edge of Evening” and find myself so very thankful for the teachings of these special old men.
    Thank you Don and all the others that have left a magnificent legacy. Jim Farley Oct. 13, 2015

  13. I went to Germany and Switzerland on Don’s Hepler Family Heritage Tour in 1999. He’s my first cousin, once removed, so I’ve know him since I was a child but hadn’t seen him in 30 or so years. I knew he had become a distinguished scholar, professor, and writer, so wasn’t sure what to expect when I met him at the airport in Philadelphia to begin our trip. I found that he was still a Yoder, entertaining us on the long drive through the land of our ancestors with a rich collection of jokes, some on the edge of naughtiness, with great aplomb. “Habt ein gut fahrt” was an expression he especially relished. We shared a cone with him at his favorite ice cream shop; watched him stare down a bakery shop owner who watched as our bus driver struggled to maneuver our enormous bus around a hairpin corner in a small town, backing up and inching forward within a hair of the baker’s display window; and did our best to absorb as much as we could the rich history of the Hepler/Yoder family with the most fabulous visual aids and the best teacher possible. It was a privilege to have known him.

  14. I hadn’t realized how important Prof. Yoder was to the development of the term, “folk life,” when I responded to my wife’s request for a name for our new mega-paper in 1976 at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. The name just… popped out! We pick up so much, forget so easily where we learned or at least first heard a scholarly term, don’t we? A belated thank you to Prof. Yoder, and a tip of the hat — as always — to Simon Bronner The Indefatigable… – John.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *