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Alan Jabbour 1942 – 2017

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Alan Jabbour sits in a chair surrounded by recording equipment
Alan Jabbour, Head of the Archive of Folk Song (now Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress, reviewing sound recordings of folk music from the Archive’s collections, July 1972. Jabbour is pictured in the Library’s Recording Laboratory in the Library’s main building (now called the Thomas Jefferson Building). Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

On behalf of the American Folklife Center, I’m very sad to pass on the news of the death of our founding director, Alan Jabbour. Alan was a folklorist, fiddler, fieldworker, and friend of the highest caliber, and he will be missed at AFC and around the world. AFC’s current director, Betsy Peterson, expressed the feelings of the staff beautifully:

Our thoughts are with Alan’s wife Karen Jabbour and Alan’s family. We are grateful for Alan’s contributions, vision and commitment to the Center as founding director, dear friend, and colleague and we are honored to carry on his legacy.

Alan Jabbour performs at a festival at Don West's Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia, August 1973. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.
Alan Jabbour performs at a festival at Don West’s Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia, August 1973. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Alan Jabbour was born in 1942 in Jacksonville, Florida, and was educated in Jacksonville public schools and at the Bolles School, where he graduated from high school in 1959. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami in 1963 and received his M.A. (1966) and Ph.D. (1968) from Duke University.

A violinist from the age of seven, Alan was a member of the Jacksonville Symphony, the Brevard Music Festival Orchestra, the Miami Symphony, and the University of Miami String Quartet. While a graduate student, he became interested in American fiddle styles and traveled in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia to record instrumental folk music, folksong, and folklore on tape. This collection, particularly rich in traditional fiddle tunes from the Upper South, is now in the American Folklife Center Archive at the Library of Congress.

The documentation trips merged into a process of apprenticeship, and he began playing the fiddle under the influence of new masters, particularly Henry Reed, who was then in his eighties. Out of this interaction came one of Alan’s most important projects as a fieldworker, the documentation of Reed’s repertoire.

At the same time, Alan joined a band of young musicians, the Hollow Rock String Band, which became the core of the old-time music scene that blossomed in Durham and Chapel Hill in the later 1960s. In 1968, the year that Henry Reed passed away, the band released a long-playing record, The Hollow Rock String Band: Traditional Dance Tunes, which became a classic source of tunes throughout the old-time revival. (Alan later reissued it on CD.)

In 1968 Alan Jabbour became an assistant professor of English and folklore at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1969 he was appointed head of the Archive of Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center Archive) at the Library of Congress. He edited a long-playing record drawn from earlier recordings in the Archive, which was published in 1971 as American Fiddle Tunes–another album that has become a standard. AFC reissued that as a CD, and then finally placed it online. You can listen and download the tunes at this link, and the pdf of Alan’s liner notes here.

Alan Jabbour and Sherman Hammons in Stillwell, near Marlinton, West Virginia, July 1972. The pair are on the back porch of the house where Sherman's brother Burl and sisters Maggie Parker, Ruie Hammons, and Emmy Roberts lived. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.
Alan Jabbour and Sherman Hammons in Stillwell, near Marlinton, West Virginia, July 1972. The pair are on the back porch of the house where Sherman’s brother Burl and sisters Maggie Parker, Ruie Hammons, and Emmy Roberts lived. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

In the same period, Alan teamed up with Carl Fleischhauer on a three-year project to research, record, and photograph the history and traditions of a single Appalachian family, from which came the 1973 Library of Congress double record album The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions. This was also reissued on CD, and we hope to make it available again soon.

In 1974, Alan moved to the National Endowment for the Arts to become founding director of that agency’s grant-giving program in folk arts. But in 1976 he returned to the Library of Congress as the founding director of the American Folklife Center, continuing in that position for twenty-three years before retiring from federal service in 1999.

When Alan retired, many of his friends wrote tributes, which we collected in this special issue of Folklife Center News. In the coming weeks, we’ll feature more reminiscences of Alan from people who worked with him. His own memories of most of the time he spent at AFC were published in two special double-issues of Folklife Center News in 1996, which you can find here and here.

Alan also contributed reminiscences on the occasion of AFC’s 40th Anniversary, in a panel discussion with his successors Peggy Bulger and Betsy Peterson.  View that video in the player below. (Full collection information and a transcript are available here.)

To mark his retirement, Alan Jabbour established the Henry Reed Fund for Folk Artists, named for his mentor and dedicated to projects in support of folk artists, especially those represented in the collections of the American Folklife Center. In in lieu of flowers, his wife Karen asks that friends donate to the Henry Reed Fund in Alan’s honor.  (See the bottom of this post for instructions on how to donate.)

Alan also served as guest curator of Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection, an online presentation of the Library of Congress published in 2000.  The collection makes available online the entire field collection of recordings and manuscripts created during his visits with Henry Reed in 1966-67.

Jabbour Neptune
Alan Jabbour Provides an Introduction at the Library of Congress Neptune Plaza Concert. Pictured from left to right are Alan Jabbour, Rudi Mitchell, Charles Lonewolf, Issac Caramony, Morgan Lovejoy, and Hollis Stabler, Sr. Hethu’shka Society concert. Neptune Plaza, Library of Congress, Washington DC. Photo by Reid Baker.

Throughout his career, Alan served on numerous panels and boards, including the D.C. Humanities Council, the Fund for Folk Culture, the National Coalition for Heritage Areas, the European Center for Traditional Culture, and the Alliance for American Quilts. He was president of the American Folklore Society, a Fellow of the American Folklore Society, and even a president of the Fellows of the American Folklore Society.  In 2003 he received the Benjamin A. Botkin Prize from the American Folklore Society for outstanding achievement in public folklore.

Alan published widely on the subject of folklore and folklife, and has also been featured on recordings and in festivals and concerts as a fiddler. Since retiring from the government, he continued his twin passions of folklife research and fiddling. His research included a multi-year project with his wife Karen Singer Jabbour, in which they documented the Upland South’s tradition of decorating graveyards on “Decoration Day.” That led to an engaging and thoughtful book, Decoration Day in the Mountains, as well as a lecture in our Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series, which you can watch in the player below. (Full Collection information and a transcript can be found here.)

Alan also returned to performing as a fiddler, often with his musical partner Ken Perlman.   In 2002 he released a new CD of his own fiddling, joined by Bertram Levy and James Reed, entitled A Henry Reed Reunion. He has since released  Southern Summits, with Ken Perlman on banjo, and You Can’t Beat the Classics, with Ken Perlman on Banjo and Jim Watson on guitar.  Ken Perlman has written a lovely appreciation of Alan, which you can find on Facebook at this link.

Many more of Alan’s friends will wish to express their feelings and share their memories. Discussions are underway about how best to memorialize Alan. Once again, in lieu of flowers his wife Karen asks that friends donate to the Henry Reed Fund in Alan’s honor.  To do so, follow the instructions below.


How to Donate

Option 1 (mail):

Just write a check and make it out to American Folklife Center.  In the memo line, write “Henry Reed Fund.”  Send it to us at American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE, Washington DC 20540-4610.  ATTN: Henry Reed.

Option 2 (online):

1. Follow this link to the donation page.

2. Type or copy into the “Name of fund” box the name of the fund: “The Henry Reed Fund for Folk Artists, Trust Fund 720850.”

3. Check the square next to “I’d like to make the donation in honor or in memory of someone,” and a box will appear in which you can type “Alan Jabbour.”

4. Then just fill out the rest of the form and submit!

Comments (8)

  1. Our sincerest condolences to you all at the American Folklife Center.

    With love to you,
    Dave and Stephanie Cofell

  2. I am so saddened by this news. I was an intern and employee at the AFC in the early 1980s. I remember how kind and encouraging Alan was to me, fresh out of college and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I was just learning clawhammer banjo, which I have continued to play ever since, and it is a deep regret that I never played with Alan, although his recordings of himself and others have inspired me ever since. Deepest condolences to his family and friends.

  3. A credit to the species and a First Class person!
    A privilege to have known him!

    RIP, old friend.

  4. Alan Jabbour was American folklore’s royal fiddling prince.
    I first heard him play fiddle with Tommy Thompson playing banjo on a Hollow Rock String Band vinyl during the late nineteen-seventies.
    My life was forever changed when I took a detour off my path to follow the call of their music. Those vibrations became an essential, indelible piece of my spiritual soundtrack.
    Happy Trails, Alan.
    Thanks for the Legacy.

  5. Steve, thanks for this tribute to Alan, a friend and colleague, whose contribution to public folklore was immense. We met as fellow scholars and fellow old-time string band musicians, enjoying that special bond musicians have, beyond words. He tilted backward a little when standing, and I always attributed that to the years he spent bending over backwards to help others. Rest in peace, Alan.

  6. I was very saddened last week belatedly to read of Alan’s death while I was at a friend’s cabin near Marlinton, WV, one of the places of Alan’s early recordings. I treasure the photos that I took of Alan’s playing in the Hollow Rock String Band on the outdoor quad at Duke while I was an undergraduate there in 1967 or 1968. He was a kind and humble spirit.

  7. Went today to play a tune at the Henry Reed Memorial Fiddlers Convention. Have to say it wasn’t the same without Alan under the tent. RIP

  8. Met Alan at the CTMS festival in the ’90’s — guest of honor. Didn’t hear of his passing until a week ago. Our great loss; we feel great sadness when we hang up the fiddle and the bow.

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