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A Letter from Don Yoder

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

Last month I had the sad duty of reporting the death of one of my mentors, the late folklorist Don Yoder.  By coincidence, a couple of weeks after Dr. Yoder’s death, another of his former students came across new documents pertaining to his career as a folklorist.  When going through old records of the Center dating back over sixty years, AFC Senior Folklife Specialist Peter Bartis uncovered two letters, which I thought I would share on the blog.

The earlier letter gives new insight into Don Yoder’s career, reminding us that there was a time before he considered himself a folklorist. Dr. Yoder’s degrees were in religious history, and until the late 1940s he considered folklore only a side interest. However, that interest was strong enough that he took note of the existence of a Folksong Archive in the Library of Congress’s Music Division, one of the direct predecessors of the American Folklife Center.  In 1947, worried (as all post-docs are) about the academic job market, he sent a letter to the head of the Archive, Dr. Benjamin A. Botkin, inquiring whether there were any jobs in the division.  The letter ran:

Dear Dr. Botkin,

I am writing to inquire whether there might be any positions open in your department which a person of my training could fill. I have a B.A. from Franklin and Marshall College, where I majored in American History, and a B.D. and a Ph.D. (August, 1947) from the University of Chicago, where I majored in Church History, especially American Church History. At present I have an instructorship in Church History here at Union Theological Seminary, but the position is not permanent, in fact, it is little more than a post-graduate fellowship, and I am anxious to get a permanent position, if not in teaching, then in research, or archival or library work.

The reason I write you is my strong avocational interest in American folklore. If you get the weekly ‘S Pennsylfawnisch Deitsch Eck, edited by Dr. Barba of Muhlenberg College, and published in the Allentown Morning Call, you will know that I have recently had published an eight-issue article giving a lot of unpublished Pennsylvania Dutch folklore from Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties, Pennsylvania. I also am writing an article on the English folklore of Bald Eagle Valley in Central Pennsylvania, and have some notes for one on Dutch Folklore of the Hudson Valley. Such work has so fascinated me, that if the chance offered, I could easily do it all the time! I’m hoping to see the day when a Pennsylvania Folklore quarterly or monthly will appear — Texas, New York, Indiana and other states are getting ahead of us. So kindly let me know if there are any openings in your department.


Don Yoder


Don Yoder's 1947 letter to B. A. Botkin

Don Yoder’s 1947 letter to B. A. Botkin

The reply to Dr. Yoder’s letter was sadly not very encouraging. However, it is interesting and reflects the changes occurring at the Library at that time. Unbeknownst to Yoder, Botkin had left the Library and had been replaced by Duncan Emrich, and the “Folksong Archive” had been renamed the “Folklore Section.” Both of these changes may have been affected by the political climate at the time.  Although it was the great success of Botkin’s Treasury of American Folklore that gave him the luxury of leaving the Library to write full-time, some have always suspected that he also feared being accused of communism and blacklisted, due to his association with left-leaning folksingers. “Folklore Section,” likewise, verbally distances the archive from folksingers and from organizations such as People’s Songs, Inc., which were coming under increasing scrutiny by anti-communists.

Certainly, as Peter pointed out in his 1982 dissertation on the history of the archive, Emrich’s arrival at the Library of Congress represented a turn away from the social activist side of folklore, and toward the purely academic side. In his letter to Yoder, Emrich played this academic role to the hilt, employing the formal, academic “we” when referring to himself.  He seemed to have an aversion to acknowledging Yoder’s doctorate (but not Botkin’s), referring to them as “Mr. Yoder” and “Dr. Botkin,” respectively.  He was also vague about Botkin’s departure, saying only that the previous head was “no longer here.” All this gives his letter a distant if not disrespectful tone:

We are taking the liberty of answering your letter of December 16, addressed to Dr. B. A. Botkin, since we feel that your letter is concerned with a position in the Library of Congress. Dr. Botkin is no longer here and is devoting his time to writing and should you wish to reach him, his address is 45 Lexington Drive, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. We regret that there are no positions open in the Folklore Section at the Library of Congress nor does there seem to be any probability of there being any in the near future. We are sending you herewith an application blank which we hope you will fill out and return to us. We appreciate your interest in our work and will be glad to keep your name on file should something open at a later date.

Sincerely yours,
Duncan Emrich
Chief, Folklore Section

Sadly, then, there was no job for Dr. Yoder at the Library of Congress in 1947.  But the story has a happy ending.  Yoder got a short-term job the following year at Muhlenberg College, and then a permanent position at Franklin and Marshall, where he co-founded the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center and the journal The Pennsylvania Dutchman, both in 1949. The following year, he co-founded the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, which has changed its name over the years, and is now the Kutztown Folk Festival.  As my previous blog post details, he was thus a pioneer in academic and public sector folklore in the United States.  Dr. Yoder and his colleagues eventually adopted a new name for their 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 influenced the entire field of folklore studies, including at the University of Pennsylvania, where he eventually taught for 41 years and co-founded the Department of Folklore and Folklife.

His “folklife” approach was also particularly influential among government organizations. As I pointed out in my previous post:

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.

Ironically, then, the organization that had once turned him down for a job later sought his advice as a trustee.  But true to form, Dr. Yoder never gloated over his success, saving his pride for his students’ accomplishments rather than his own. So while we knew that Dr. Yoder was proud of his students who found jobs at the Library of Congress, we never knew until now that he had once sought to work here himself.

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