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Friday, January 20, 2017

Alan Jabbour (1942-2017), Sustainability Champion

    Alan Jabbour, who died on Friday the 13th of this month, was a leader in the cultural sustainability movement before the term sustainability came into fashion. Based in Washington, DC, from 1969-1999 he led three important federal organizations involved with musical and cultural conservation. In addition to his main work as an organization leader and administrator, he was a musician and a scholar. Besides, he was a loyal colleague to hundreds of public folklorists, and dozens of ethnomusicologists, who were active from the 1960s until now.
     As a graduate student in the 1960s at Duke, Jabbour was exposed to traditional fiddle music and eventually met Henry Reed, an octagenarian fiddler from Virginia whose music represented a 19th-century upland South fiddle repertory and style of playing. For Jabbour, who had been trained as a classical violinist from childhood, Reed became a mentor and his music a revelation, a window on an elegant era prior to commercial recordings, an era when amateur musicians played in their family circles and supplied music for community gatherings. Jabbour’s field recordings of Henry Reed’s fiddling may be enjoyed at https://www.loc.gov/collections/henry-reed-fiddle-tunes/about-this-collection/.
    After a brief period as an English professor at UCLA, Jabbour left to work in Washington as head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (1969-74). In 1974 he moved to the National Endowment for the Arts, leading their newly formed Folk-Jazz-Ethnic division. In 1976, he returned to the Library of Congress to direct the newly-formed American Folklife Center (AFC), now incorporating the Archive of Folk Song. In these positions, he initiated, coordinated, and administered various projects to conserve traditional cultures, their music and folklore. Notably, the AFC undertook field documentation surveys of folklore in various regions of the US, from the late 1970s through the end of the 20th century. These constitute an important snapshot of folklife in the last 25 years of the last century. These were professionally done, by folklife specialists trained in interviewing, recording, photographing, and so on. They are appropriately preserved in the AFC’s archives, while some of the highlights are available today on the AFC website. Decades hence, I believe, they will be recognized as a contribution as important as the FSA photographs and other cultural documentation undertaken at the Roosevelt Administration’s initiative during the late 1930s.
     None of this would have happened without Alan’s skillful leadership from the AFC, where the decisions were made concerning which regions of the US would benefit from surveys, where the negotiations were undertaken with the Congressional representatives from those regions, and with the local community leaders; where the teams of folklorists were assembled and instructed—always accompanied by some of the folklife specialists from the AFC—and where the materials collected were taken, inventoried, where the exhibits were designed, and where all the documentation eventually was housed. The results of these were exhibited in their regions and are housed permanently in the Archives of Folk Culture at the AFC, which incorporates the older Archive of American Folksong.
    Under Jabbour’s direction, the Center also sponsored conferences, where practitioners at the cutting edge of cultural conservation gathered to exchange ideas and information. At the same time, the Archive of Folk Song grew to become by far the leading repository of field-recorded traditional music from regional and ethnic groups throughout the US, at the same time encouraging the publication of the best of this music. Much of their work was documented in the Center’s Newsletter, which is now available on line.  As an administrator, he did not have as much time to work on his own projects that he would have, had he continued as a professor at UCLA. But he directed an organization that left an unparalleled cultural sustainability legacy, and many young folklorists who worked on AFC projects acknowledge their debt to Jabbour and the permanent staff of folklife spcialists who worked for him at the Library of Congress. He retired in 1999 for the next seventeen years pursued a career both as an independent folklorist and consultant, and also as a fiddler, appearing in concerts and teaching workshops at old-time music camps, always championing the music of his mentor, Henry Reed.
    In person, Alan—I will call him Alan from now on, because we knew each other—was a very tall, gentle man with a noticeably deep, echoing bass voice, a southern drawl acquired in his native Florida, and a courtly manner. He directed with a light hand, understanding that people did their best work when they could add their own ideas to the mix. He was very supportive of those whose work he admired, and quick to appreciate it. He bent over backwards to help those in need—so much so that when he stood up, he even appeared to be bending backwards.

Alan Jabbour with Gene Reed at Henry Reed's grave
    My own relationship with the American Folklife Center goes back to the 1960s, when I began depositing my field recordings of blues and African American preaching in the Archive of American Folksong. After the Archive became something more encompassing, a Center that initiated projects rather than chiefly acting as a repository for recordings and related material, I borrowed field equipment from them to make high quality recordings, contributed essays to several of their publications, worked as a consultant with Alan and some of the other folklife specialists on various projects, and continued to deposit field recordings. Most of my original field recordings are now in their archives, except for those I made in Kentucky. My Kentucky recordings are in the Sound Archives in the Special Collections of the Hutchins Library, at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky.  
     Alan and I met, also, as fellow old-time string band musicians. I’ve written here, before, about Breakin’ Up Winter and the special musical community surrounding the old-time string band revival; and I’ve written elsewhere about the special bond that can occur among musicians who, on account of achieving musical rapport, feel as if they’ve come to know one another more deeply than otherwise. We also became interested in each other’s scholarship on the subject—something that was an old interest of Alan’s and that gradually became an interest of my own. One of Alan's most important observations was that the main reason for the differences between the fiddle styles of Yankee New England and the upland South were the syncopated rhythms that the southern fiddlers had incorporated into their bowing technique, specifically the way they placed a strong accent on the back-beat, or offbeat, or upbeat, as it is variously called. African American fiddlers had originated it, he thought, and by the Civil War white fiddlers were also doing it.
    After Alan retired, I saw him less often, but he still came to American Folklore Society (AFS) conferences, and I can recall playing with him at the jam session when AFS was in Quebec City, and again at Breakin’ Up Winter only a couple of years ago. He also had begun to speak about the early phase of the old-time string band revival, in which he’d played such an important role, from the perspective of his own experiences with Reed and with the Hollow Rock String Band.
    I’m sure Alan left several unfinished scholarly projects at his death, as well as recordings that he made with his musical partner, Ken Perlman, and others. There may even be recordings of his fiddling along with the incomparable banjo of Blanton Owen, a feature of the AFS conferences in the 1970s. Probably he wouldn’t have wanted some of these to appear in the form he left them, but others—for example, papers that he presented publicly—will, I hope, be gathered in a collection and published by a university press or, perhaps, by the AFC that he loved and served so well for nearly 25 years.