This recollection is in memory of the Center’s founding director, Alan Jabbour, who died on January 13, 2017, and whose career and contributions are described in this blog post. Today’s text and photographs are by Carl Fleischhauer, a retired American Folklife Center staff member and a colleague of Alan’s for 46 years.
Alan Jabbour and I first met face to face at the Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society in Washington, D.C., in November 1971. At the time, Alan was the Head of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive) at the Library of Congress and I worked at the public television station then licensed to West Virginia University in Morgantown. Although they were not the agents who set up the meeting, we were brought together by the Hammons family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
In 1970, I had joined Dwight Diller, a native West Virginian (and then a student at WVU) to document the rich musical and narrative traditions of Burl Hammons, Maggie Hammons Parker, Sherman Hammons, and other relatives and friends.  Saying it that way makes the matter seem arid and academic. The truth is that visiting the Hammons was an immersive experience for all who came: visitors were enveloped in hospitable friendship and electrified by the endless stories and music, as well as nourished by biscuits, pinto beans, homemade applesauce, and (on occasion) pork chops.
This documentation was not part of my official duties although, on behalf of the television station, I had done a bit of filming of the family a few months earlier. Meanwhile, in the year before my arrival on the scene, Dwight had made extensive sound recordings of the family, as well as numerous still photographs, and he had passed the word about the family to other Appalachian folk music enthusiasts, including some from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These were friends of Alan’s from his days at Duke, some of whom had been fellow members of the Hollow Rock String Band, which had flourished the in the late 1960s. They told me about Alan’s separate visits to the family and encouraged me (armed as I was with my Nagra tape recorder and Nikon cameras) to get in touch with Alan to compare notes. No doubt, we phoned or exchanged letters prior to the AFS meeting.
Memory fails me concerning our initial discussions. I do not recall developing a fieldwork plan or even that, at first, we foresaw a future publication. Nevertheless, Alan’s prior extended documentation (and friendship) with Henry Reed provided a template for the visits. One obvious goal was the production of well-rounded materials that would enrich the ethnographic collections of the Archive and the Library. Soon, however, Alan said that the extent of the family’s cultural expression and knowledge warranted publication. My background in journalism and photojournalism meant that I could contribute documentation of family life and the regional context. Alan’s easygoing and friendly manner, together with Hammonses’ hospitality, ensured that the visits were comfortable and productive.
Living in different cities, Alan and I tended to visit the family at different times. He made recordings during his visits, with my help when I could make it, while Dwight and I produced recordings during our visits. In 1973, Alan and I drew on ten field sessions recorded from 1970 to 1973 in order to assemble a pair of record albums: the Library of Congress double album The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions and Rounder LP 0018 Shaking Down The Acorns, both released in 1973. Family members received royalty payments from Rounder and a cash honorarium from the Library. In 1998, since Rounder had become the label for reissuing the AFC’s releases, the content from the two albums was brought together as a single two-CD package, now out of print.
The Hammons family’s stories evoke the American frontier, including a tale of an encounter with Indians, stories of a wilderness still populated by panthers (mountain lions) and wolves, difficulties with foraging Civil War soldiers, a feud on the Kentucky-West Virginia border, and more. Alan encouraged me to arrange selected narratives in more or less chronological order, several of which came from the recordings Dwight had made prior to Alan’s and my visits. This account, buttressed by supporting documentary evidence, provided the publication with a family history and a picture of the region, the mountainous-to-hilly terrain from eastern West Virginia back to Eastern Kentucky, where family members had lived in the mid-nineteenth century.
Terrain and topography also figured in the family’s more recent history. As children in the 1920s, the family members we visited had lived with their parents along the Williams River, an area then in its last days as wilderness; destructive clear-cutting was even then moving through the eastern mountain forests. In the wake of the logging, family members moved a short distance away: Sherman to an area still in the Williams River watershed and Maggie and Burl to a spot near the Greenbrier River at the edge of the county seat of Marlinton.
The site of one (and perhaps two) of the old Williams River homesteads is now in the Monongahela National Forest. Burl and Maggie took Alan and me back to the area in order to give us a sense of the settings for the family’s stories of panthers, the Sasquatch-like yayho, and later friendly encounters with the Italian immigrants who built the logging railways.
The visits were also punctuated with musical exchanges, in which Alan played his fiddle for or with family members. I suppose there was a bit of what ethnographers call participant observation at work; the exchanges helped Alan sharpen his sense of, say, Burl’s fiddle style. In making the recordings, however, we generally drew a line: we were documenting the Hammonses’ art, not the Hammonses-and-Alan’s art. Some of Burl’s tunes were added to Alan’s fiddle repertory, although my impression is they were fewer in number than what Alan had adopted from Henry Reed and various North Carolina musicians. Alan tended to be an ensemble player and, as he writes of Burl’s rendition of “Camp Chase,” that performance “is characterized by introduction of additional beats and measures (a widespread trait in the area, fostered by the persistence of solo performance in the region).”
Alan’s musicological insights are presented in his published notes to the musical selections, available at this link. His analysis of Burl’s playing offers a single-fiddler case study that provides a nice counterpoint to the analyses of multiple fiddlers’ styles in Alan’s 1971 album American Fiddle Tunes (AFS L62), a work that can now be downloaded from the Library’s website at this link. (Download Alan’s American Fiddle Tunes liner notes here. )
After the albums were published, Alan and I continued to pay intermittent visits to the Hammonses in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of these visits coincided with the establishment of the American Folklife Center, with Alan as founding director, and its carrying out of a series of field research projects, now being digitized and placed on the Library’s website. The new staff included me, hired in 1976. Alan guided the planning of these projects, which featured teams of field researchers with complementary skills, and some ideas and methods from the Hammons family documentation were again in play. Meanwhile, Alan and I paid our final visits to the Hammonses in 1987, for Maggie’s funeral, and in 1988, for Sherman’s.
1 For more about Dwight, see Lewis M. Stern’s book Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician. (Here it is in the Library’s Catalog!)
Steve, Really fine piece–wonderful images and writing from Carl. That photograph of the funeral is completely perfect in every and all ways. Carl and Alan did some fine work, setting a very high bar for us all. Love seeing this. Best, tom
Thanks, Tom. I’ll let Carl know to look for your comment too!
Thank you for posting this. I’d vaguely heard of Jabbour, though I’m not a folklorist by profession, only a social-cultural historian. Being of Appalachian descent, and wanting a deeper look into the culture, this fine article allows for that. The family looks especially relaxed and enjoying Jabbour, making everyone’s work the finst it could be, including the children. I agree, the look on little boy Lee’s face (and Jabour’s) tells us he may have been listening to his voice. Carl’s photography not to been oversighted, it’s grand!
Carl and Steve – a perfect way to remember Alan by focusing on one vital slice of his great work. Thanks for sharing this with us.
I was a teen when Alan came to visit my
Granddad Henry Reed. Gene Wright & his dad told him about grandad. We were working in the garden
when my granddad saw him getting out of the car.
He said “say now” looks like one them bible salesman
Our family will always be grateful to Alan & his wife Karen & Carl their time & dedication to restore what may have been lost forever. When Alan played at my dads funeral, Gene Reed, I told him I was still working on grandads book & fiddle tunes I’d recovered never heard. He advised me to not clear them up. Keep org. Sorry he never got a chance to hear them.
On a trip to the Library of Congress, Folklife Dvision gift shop decades ago, I bought the Hammons Family LPs, a wonderful look at rural music in context. Alan Jabbour is revered because of that work, and for many other projects We are the beneficiaries of his life’s work. RIP
Thanks for the remembrance, Carl.
Many thanks to Carl, Alan and Dwight, who were the right guys to visit the Hammons family at the right time. I’m a musician from West Virginia, yet might never have known about this resource without their help.
What a wonderful revisiting of those early days of full engagement in exploration, fieldwork, and formulating the methods for insightful presentation! Carl, your photo captions are particularly useful in their sensitivity to the circumstances triggering the events. Thank you and Steve for guiding us back through the evolution of a project that would set the foundation for the fieldwork of the American Folklife Center.
What a wonderful revisiting of those early days of exploration, field work, and formulating the methods for insightful presentation! Carl, I find your photo captions particularly useful for setting the circumstances behind the event. Thank you for these sensitive reflections on the process that eventually became the basis for the inspired studies that the American Folklife Center produced.
The writing and photographs really mirror Alan’s style. He was one of the most genial people I’ve ever known, and perhaps one of the smartest – also perhaps the person I most enjoyed playing fiddle tunes with. I miss him a lot.
This is my family miss them so much (hammonsfamily) thanks for sharing
Thank you, Carl. As I once told you, I think the work you and Alan did is one of the greatest works of scholarship that folk studies has ever seen. It was as thorough and informative as the best work in many other fields. And as for Alan himself, I found him as genial and unassuming as the others who weighed in here. He was a very good man and a great scholar.
Thank you Steve Winick, for this nice remembrance of Alan Jabbour.
I didn’t know Alan beyond an e-mail exchange or two about Henry Reed’s fiddle tunes, but he was gracious and generous with his knowledge–someone happy to help give others a leg up into this music.
Carl Fleischauer’s photos are a treat. They reveal so much, simple as they may look at first. There’s an old banjo instruction book with photos by him, including some of Hammons family members, and they give the volume a unique, local resonance.
I JUST WANT TO SAY THAT I BECAME A CLOSE FRIEND OF MIKE RISCH – AS SEEN IN THE LAST PIC. I MET HIM HERE ON CAPE COD. HE WAS ALWAYS A PROPONENT OF THE “DEEP SITTING” STYLE. I KNEW VERY LITTLE OF THE TRADITION OF MOUNTAIN FIDDLING OF WHICH HE SPOKE. BUT AS TIME WENT ON I BECAME ONE OF HIS BEST LISTENERS…. HE LIVED WITH ME AT TIMES FOR AWHILE. AND I HEARD HIM DO THINGS WITH THE BANJO AND FIDDLE THAT I NEVER THOUGHT POSSIBLE. AND HE LEARNED FROM BURL AND MAGGIE, BUT SHERMAN WAS THE ONE HE ALWAYS SOUGHT TO EMULATE. HE TOLD ME HOW HE LEARNED BY TOUCHING SHERMAN’S ARM WHILE HE PLAYED SUCH THAT HE COULD FEEL WHAT SHERMAN WAS DOING…HOW HIS ARM MADE ALL THOSE SOUNDS…MIKE IS NOW 77 AND LIVING IN GALAX VA, VERY MUCH A PART OF THE FIDDLING SCENE.NOT YET “POPULAR” HE IS CERTAINLY TRUE TO WHAT SHERMAN TAUGHT HIM… HE HAS EXTENDED ALL THOSE SOUNDS AND HAS HIS OWN “HIGH,HOLLOW” STYLE THAT WORKS ITS WAY DEEP INSIDE… AN AMAZING MAN WITH AN AMAZING STORY…JUST THOUGHT SOMEONE WOULD LIKE TO KNOW.