Alan Jabbour, fiddle tunes, freedom and confidence

Alan Jabbour, fiddle tunes, freedom and confidence

8:16am Jan 28, 2017
Alan Jabbour
Alan Jabbour was an impassioned collector, documenter and performer of traditional fiddle music, and a folklorist who inspired Across the Blue Ridge host Paul Brown and many others.
courtesy Alan Jabbour

This week's Across the Blue Ridge profiles Alan Jabbour, the founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, who recently died at age 74.  You can find out much more about Alan's life through this appreciation by Stephen Winick.  Alan maintained an active Facebook page where you can see photos of him and learn more about his love of music, folklore and teaching.  His website offers more information, and opportunities to buy his recordings. He published widely. In 2011, the book he co-created with his wife Karen Singer Jabbour, Decoration Day In The Mountains, was released following a significant period of fieldwork in the southern Appalachians.  Many Across the Blue Ridge listeners will be interested in this book, with its careful explanations of a mountain tradition and its magnificent photographs.  I produced a brief story on the book and the tradition for NPR, where I worked at the time.  Alan was my interview guest, and his deep interest and devotion to the topic show through his every word.  

My personal memories of Alan Jabbour are too numerous to recount.  But perhaps the most significant is also the earliest. In the late 1970s, shortly after Alan began his tenure at the new American Folklife Center, I made a trip to the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song to listen to old field recordings from southwest Virginia. I was interested in finding connections to songs my mother had taught me from her childhood days in piedmont Virginia -- the songs that had kindled my interest in old time and bluegrass music.  I was young, and inexperienced, and perhaps I did not communicate as well as I might have. But at the Archive, I felt I was being urged not to bother to find out much in communities I was hoping to visit, because they had been previously documented by folklorists. That reaction to my curiousity frustrated and upset me.  So I walked down the hall to the American Folklife Center.  I had read of its creation. And I had the vague knowledge that Alan Jabbour, once of the Hollow Rock String Band and the editor of one of my favorite fiddle tune albums (a collection from the Library of Congress) was in charge.  

I asked the AFC receptionist if there was anyone I could speak with about my ideas.  She immediately responded, "You should speak with our director, Alan Jabbour. Let me show you in to his office."

To be honest, I hadn't expected anything like that. But suddenly there I was, sitting across the desk from an obviously intelligent man about ten years my senior -- quite young enough for me to relate to, but someone of real accompishment. You may imagine it was a little intimidating. I explained what I wanted to do and also my disappointment at possibly being discouraged from doing so. 

Alan listened with the hint of a smile on his face.  And then he leaned forward slightly and said, quietly and with clear sincerity, "You are trying to learn." He added that no community or tradition has ever been documented completely, and that I would certainly uncover music, elements of tradition, and understandings that had been missed. 

In that brief, gentle meeting, Alan Jabbour seemed to set me free in a way that I'd never felt free before. He also showed me the license to believe in myself and have the confidence to follow my interests and intuitions, wherever they might lead, and no matter what others might think.  Each one of us has such a license by the fact of our existence.  But sometimes we need to be shown or reminded that it exists. In less than ten minutes, that's what Allan Jabbour did for me. I've tried to pay this gift forward ever since, through my work and in my interactions with other people considering what they want to do. 

Among Alan Jabbour's performance recordings of interest are The Hollow Rock String Band; A Henry Reed Reunion; Southern Summits with Ken Perlman; Sandy's Fancy; and You Can't Beat The Classics, with Ken Perlman and Jim Watson

Among his documentary recordings are The Hammons Family and Fiddle Tunes from the Library of Congress Collection.  Both may be out of print, but it is possible to find copies. 

-- Paul Brown