Academic journal article Western Folklore

A Portrait of a Folklorist as a Young Man: A Chapter in the Urban Biography of Roger D. Abrahams

Academic journal article Western Folklore

A Portrait of a Folklorist as a Young Man: A Chapter in the Urban Biography of Roger D. Abrahams

Article excerpt

In the fifties and the sixties of the twentieth century two folklore currents, the academic and the folksong revival movement, came into contact with each other on college campuses. By that time, both trends already had a prominent, but mainly parallel, presence in American public culture (Atkinson 2004; Ben-Amos 2014; Bronner 1986; Cantwell 1996; Clements 1988; Cohen 2002; McNeil 1980; Mitchell 2007; Rosenberg 1993; Utley 1970; Zumwalt 1988). But at that decade, their courses intertwined, impacting students in their formative years. This was not the first time folksongs entered the halls of the academy. Already in the second half of the nineteenth century Francis James Child (1825-1896), the first president of the American Folklore Society (1888-1889), who grew up in a working class family (Kittredge 1882:xxiii; Norton 1897:334) researched and prepared his monumental volumes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898) at Harvard University, but he "did not pioneer in the development of formal instruction on oral literature" (Brown 2011;Bynum 1974:9; see also Bell 1988; Dugaw et. al 1997; Harker 1981; Hart 1906; Reppert 1974; Rudy 1998). It was left up to his disciple and colleague George Layman Kittredge (1860-1941) (Hyderl962; Rudy 1999) to establish the connection between the English and Scottish ballads and the singing traditions of regional America. He offered the academic approval for his students who brought with them their regional singing traditions. Such was his influence upon John Lomax (1867-1948) who came to Harvard in 1907 and, though already in his forties, even at that mature age, Kittredge's encouragement was a life turning point for him (Abrahams 2000; Lomax 1947).

But during the first half of the twentieth century the wheels of culture turned demographically and geographically. They shifted the center of gravity of folksongs from their rural habitat to urban and academic America. The transition was not sudden. It occurred over several decades along several social-historical and literary-political routes that comprised into what was later labeled as "the folk song revival" (Cantwell 1996. Cohen 2002; Eyerman, and Baretta 1996 Mitchell 2007; Rosenberg 1993; Scully 2008; Stamler 2012a; Stekert 1993.). Among the highlights of this process were the discovery of vestiges of British ballads and folksongs in the United states (Fox Strangways and Karpeles 1955:122-177; Karpeles 1967:123-171 ;Sharp 1954; ), the foundation of the Archive of Folksongs in the library of Congress, in 1928 headed first by Robert Winslow Gordon (1888-1961) (Kodish 1986; Stamler 2012b), the WPA projects (Brewer 1994; Hirsch 2003; Mangione 1972; Penkower,1977), and rise of radio broadcasting the recording industry and mass-media in general. By the fifties the folk music revival had all the symptoms of a popular cultural movements with its stars, and dedicated followers. The students who were exposed to the folksong revival in their teens, entered the academic campuses marching to the tunes that Pete Seeger( 1919-2014)1 and Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)2, and many other urban folk-singers made popular. But at the course registration tables, the academic study of folklore and folksongs ambushed them. The possibility that the songs they enjoyed so much could be an academic subject was both intriguing and frustrating. Which path should they follow?

As Roger Abrahams, a native Philadelphian, enrolled at Swarthmore College, founded 1864 (Walton 1986:3), he walked right into a crossroads that Robert Frost ( 1874-1963) made classic in his poem "The Road Not Taken" that was originally published in the August 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as 1 could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black. …

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