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Alan Jabbour and the American Folklife Center

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This is a guest blog post by Carl Fleischhauer.  It presents a version of the talk he gave at our Alan Jabbour tribute event earlier this year. It has been edited for presentation in this blog.

Alan Jabbour in his office at the National Endowment for the Arts, Columbia Plaza, June 1974. Alan was the director for the new Folk Arts program. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

These remarks are about Alan Jabbour as founding director of the American Folklife Center: his thinking, activities at the Center, and policy development in the federal cultural sector.  Other speakers at the memorial event discussed Alan’s role as a musicologist and performer.

Thinking back about the dozen years I spent at the American Folklife Center, starting in 1976, I find myself musing on Alan and strategic planning.  This is a bureaucratic exercise that repeats at regular intervals: I should know, I spent another 28 years at the Library after I left the Center and served on the boards of some non-profits.  All too often, staff or board members are put through agonizing committee discussions that yield impenetrable documents written in bureaucratese.

AJ in his office at the National Endowment for the Arts, Columbia Plaza, November 1974. AJ was the director for the new Folk Arts program.

Not so with Alan. Even as the Center first took shape, planning moved forward via semi-formal, two-way conversations with the Center’s staff and the Folklife Center Board. Alan listened as much as he imparted insights and information.  He was an inveterate telephone caller, especially before email was prevalent.

As ideas took shape, Alan had two advantages over most of his conversation partners: solid experience at the Library, gained when he was head of the Archive of Folk Song from 1969 to 1974, and a sense of the federal context for cultural activities, resulting from his work at the Library and as the head of the new Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, from 1974 to 1976, under the estimable chairman Nancy Hanks. (I remember a conversation from that period: “Here’s how it works, Carl,” Alan said, “if the letter awards a grant, Nancy signs it.  If the letter says sorry, then I sign it.”)

Translating plans into action sometimes required staff members to read between the lines. For important matters, Alan conferred with the Center’s Board and with Library chain of command, often but not always aligned with one another.  For staff like me, some actions seemed to just happen, and you could be surprised.

To be fair, it is the case that the actions had usually been heralded by earlier discussions and marched in step with the Center’s mission, as articulated in the excellent wording that Archie Green guided the U.S. Congress to embed in the Center’s enabling legislation.  (Archie was a folklorist who taught at the University of Texas and, later, at Illinois University, and he led the lobbying effort that resulted in the establishment of the Center.)

Here’s an example of an action that “just seemed to happen.”  Alan’s academic background was rooted in music and ballad scholarship, and he wanted to be sure that the Center’s program was as broad as the term folklife.  The advancement of this goal popped into view in Alan’s early hiring of new staff members: adding Rusty Marshall, a former student of Henry Glassie, immersed in folk architecture and other aspects of material culture, and Elena Bradunas, a Lithuanian American with great insights into the evolving expressive culture of those who came from Europe.

Elena Bradunas (left) interviews weaver Aldona Veselka in Chicago on June 6, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. [Find it online]
There was also carryover from a project that Alan helped launch when at the Archive: Dick Spottswood’s Folk Music of America record albums, a series of 15 LP records published by the Library of Congress between 1976 and 1978 to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution, curated by librarian/collector-cum-discographer Richard K. Spottswood. This work flowed into one of the new Center’s first public events: the symposium (and book) Ethnic Recordings in America.

Volume 1 of the Folk Music in America Series

Speaking of ethnicity, Alan rarely talked about his own family history.  In 2007,  Catherine O’Neill Grace, writing for Duke University Magazine, picked up Alan’s remarks about his fieldwork with the Virginia fiddler Henry Reed.  Reed’s father had immigrated from Ireland, while Alan’s had come from Syria. “Your family storytelling creates a felt connection between your past and your present life in America,” Alan said, “It’s curious that my father was an immigrant, and I ended up the most attentive person to certain cultural traditions here.”

Regarding communication: Alan’s descriptions of the Center’s accomplishments showed a real knack for putting a range of events and activities into a coherent statement.  On two occasions, Alan drafted reviews of the Center’s accomplishments: a short one at the five-year mark in 1981, and a 17,000-word offering for the twenty in 1996, published in two parts, here and here.  Free of bureaucratic jargon, these reports paint a picture of a successful program, upbeat and affirming, to be sure.

The quarterly newsletter, edited and published under the sharp eyes of, first, Brett Topping and, later, Jim Hardin, was an excellent vehicle for these and other topics.  During the Center’s first decade, Alan made good use of the Director’s Column.  He once said, “The newsletter gives you news and views, and people tell me that the views are the most interesting.”

Overall, the Center’s agenda reflected a range of advice, from multiple voices. Nevertheless, Alan was the nerve center for the ideas that were translated into action.  Some were topical, like ethnic groups and material culture, while others concerned activities — for example, exhibitions, publications, and concerts.

The first concert was staged within weeks of the Center’s establishment.  When Alan wrote about the series twenty years later, he signaled its value not only in terms of artistic expression and the celebration of community arts, but also in terms of support for institutional and congressional relations.  The audience, Alan said, was “dominated by Library and Capitol Hill staffers, making it for years the Center’s public face on the Hill.”

At the opening of the Folk Art and Folklife exhibition at the Library of Congress, January 26, 1978. Left to right at the podium: Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, First Lady Rosalind Carter and daughter Amy, Alan Jabbour, and Mary Beth Busbee, the wife of the Governor of Georgia. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. [Find it online!]
Alan guided the Center to other forms of public communication, such as a CD-publishing venture with Rounder Records.  During Alan’s final decade as director, the Center began to provide access via the Internet: finding aids before the emergence of the World Wide Web and, after 1994, online multimedia collections accessed via the web.

Exhibitions illuminated subjects ranging from ethnic recordings to Nevada buckaroos (with the Smithsonian) to folklife in Rhode Island, where the Center staged a photo display in a U.S. Senate office building.  Exhibits provided visibility not only for the Senate but also with the White House.  First lady Rosalind Carter (and daughter Amy) opened an installation on Georgia’s folk art and folklife in 1978, while President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan opened the American Cowboy exhibition in 1983.

During the 1980s, as Center director, Alan attended meetings of the World Intellectual Property Organization to discuss intellectual property and folk expression.  His article in UNESCO’s Copyright Bulletin (also published in other venues) noted that copyright law focused on the rights of an individual or incorporated entity, in contrast to the way that many traditional communities possess creative expressions as groups. “Protecting folklore,” Alan wrote in Copyright Bulletin 17 (1) 1983, means “acknowledging an intermediate sphere of intellectual property rights between individual rights, on the one hand, and the national or international public domain on the other. In terms of legal history and legal frameworks, this is a radical idea.”

Alan Jabbour interviewing Eddie Harris at Harris Smoked Meats in Lenox, Georgia, during the South-Central Georgia Folklife Project, August 5, 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. [Find it Online]
As we look back, our attention is often drawn to the Center’s fieldwork projects.  Alan staged more than a dozen, from 1977 to 1994, rural and urban, and the documentation from these projects is now finding its way online.  Examples on the web today include:

These were team projects, generally carried out as surveys that lasted lasting a month or two, some cooperatively with the National Park Service, some with state arts councils. Alan often visited and participated.

The field projects were integrated into the Center’s program.  In addition to exhibits and websites, products included David Taylor and John Alexander Williams’s book Old Ties, New Attachments: Italian American Folklife in the West, from a multi-state survey, and Charles Wolfe’s double album of Blue Ridge religious music, Children of the Heav’nly King.

Meanwhile, for Native American music, the Federal Cylinder Project–devoted to the preservation of these old sound recordings–came first, fieldwork second.  Cylinder recordings of the Omaha tribe were created by Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche between 1895 and 1905.

In 1983, Alan visited the Omaha Indian Reservation in Macy, Nebraska, to share copies with the tribal council, and to seek agreement on selection and publication.  When he played some examples, two elderly men were present. “When John Turner began singing along,” Alan wrote, “I knew we were home free.”  Soon the Center published an album, documented two Omaha Powwows, created a website and, co-hosted by the tribe’s cultural representative, staged a performance at the Library.

Alan Jabbour, at left, and other members of the audience join Hethu’shka dancers from the Omaha Tribe at a concert at the Library of Congress, August 22, 1985. The Hethu’shka performers included Rufus White, James Walker, Charles Lonewolf, Isaac Caramony, Rudi Mitchell, Morgan Lovejoy, and Hollis Stabler Sr. Photo by Reid Baker. [Find it online]
The fieldwork projects contributed to policy development, most strikingly in relation to historic preservation, where the federal legal apparatus expanded from the 1960s to the 1990s, with a fresh interest in what was called intangible elements of cultural heritage.

In 1977 and 1978, National Park Service director William Whalen was on the Center’s Board, and Alan worked with Park Service representatives to frame up a field project focused on the Blue Ridge Parkway to provide material for park interpretive programs.  In later cooperative projects, like the 1983 Pinelands Folklife Project in New Jersey, the Center provided not only support for interpretation but also for Park Service planning efforts, including land use concepts that were sensitive to neighboring communities.

By the 1980s, Alan wrote in a 1996 Folklife Center News article, National Park Service planners “represent a new generation of park professionals who have been gradually abandoning the acquire-control-and-manage model for national parks and exploring models for cooperation with local communities, operating on the premise that local people should be enlisted, not evicted.”

Cultural Conservation and Ethnic Recordings in America are just two of the publications Alan shepherded through the process while director of AFC. “Shelfie” by Stephen Winick.

In 1985, the Center joined Utah’s historic preservation agency to carry out a field project in Grouse Creek, and in 1987, a National Park Service project in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Meanwhile, the impact of the early field projects influenced the Center’s recommendations concerning historic preservation policy in Ormond Loomis’s 1983 report Cultural Conservation: the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States.

The field projects added to the Library’s holdings of archival collections. Their organization, description, and preservation received a boost in 1978, when the folk archive was brought into the Center.  Founded by Robert Gordon in 1928, the archive had long been part of the Library’s Music Division.   Alan used his skills as diplomat and negotiator to find an acceptable arrangement for that administrative move.

Jack Cable decorates a Cable family grave, Cable Branch Cemetery, August 1, 2004. Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour. [Find it online]
When Alan talked about the fieldwork projects, he emphasized their debt to the New-Deal era: the Federal Writers Project, photography from the Farm Security Administration, and of course the work of John and Alan Lomax and their cohorts: Herbert Halpert, Sidney Robertson Cowell, Ben Botkin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Charles Seeger (a personal favorite).  These predecessors, Alan wrote, modeled a “documentary cycle”: fieldwork, collection-building, and subsequent public outreach.  As we have seen, Alan pushed the Center to “recycle documents back into cultural use.”

Alan continued to enact this cycle in his retirement years.  In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Alan, with Ted Coyle and Karen Singer Jabbour, documented cemetery traditions, especially the celebration of Decoration Day.  The work was initially for an Environmental Impact Statement, a push for the recognition of non-Native American Traditional Cultural Properties in the Environmental Impact process.

Rebecca, Alan, and Karen Jabbour at their home in Washington DC, 1974. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Alan’s work with Karen Singer Jabbour, his wife of 55 years represented “documentary recycling” of another sort, repeating their teamwork from the 1960s, when Karen and Alan visited the Virginia fiddler Henry Reed, and other folk musicians.  Their joint effort in the 2000s yielded their engaging and thoughtful book Decoration Day in the Mountains. In July 2011, they came to the AFC as guests in the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series, to present their research on the topic, which you can see as a webcast here.

I’ll close with a paraphrase of Alan’s own tribute to Ben Botkin — the man for whom this lecture series is named — adjusting the words a bit to celebrate Alan’s final phase of life:

His official Washington career was over . . .  Neither his personal accounts nor those of others suggest any deep unhappiness with the tensions of administrative life in the federal maw.  . . .  He continued to be a public folklorist – but now in a private capacity.  [It had been a vigorous] period in the American cultural enterprise, and both Alan Jabbour as an individual and the American Folklife Center as a cultural institution were at the very epicenter of the enterprise.”


Comments (2)

  1. Well done, Carl, and many thanks! I recall with fondness when, as Reference Librarian in the LC Archive of Folk Song, I attended a folklore conference in April 1964 at Duke University. I met Alan Jabbour, a graduate student who spoke of his recent fieldwork among fiddlers in the area. I urged him to visit the LC Folk Archive to explore our fiddle collections and to loan us his tapes for duplication. After a while he did, and the rest, as they say, is history. And folklife too!

  2. It was wonderful seeing this. Alan was at The Henry Reed Fiddle Convention and I got to see him several times. Henry Reed was my Uncle and when I was growing up, the family would go to one of our family homes every Saturday night to play and sing. I was very young, but they always let me sing along with them. Henry’s mother and my great grandmother were sisters. Henry’s grandmother was Native American. She was captured at an Indian camp and taken to William Underwood when she was a young girl. He had a trading post in Virginia and William’s wife was Indian. She raised my grandmother and I was told every detail. Thanks for sharing.

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