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Obit: Folklorist Roger Abrahams (1933-2017)

Joe Offer 03 Jul 17 - 02:36 AM
Joe Offer 03 Jul 17 - 02:53 AM
GUEST,Mike Yates. 03 Jul 17 - 05:39 AM
EBarnacle 03 Jul 17 - 08:31 AM
Deckman 03 Jul 17 - 08:46 AM
Waddon Pete 06 Jul 17 - 07:12 AM
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Subject: Obit: Folklorist Roger Abrahams (1933-2017)
From: Joe Offer
Date: 03 Jul 17 - 02:36 AM

Here's the New York Times obituary:

    Roger D. Abrahams, Folklorist Who Studied African-American Language, Dies at 84

    JUNE 29, 2017

    Roger D. Abrahams, one of the first folklorists to study the language and performance styles of black Americans as reflected in songs, proverbs and riddles both old and new, died on June 20 in Sunnyvale, Calif. He was 84.

    His son, Rod, confirmed the death without specifying a cause, but said that Professor Abrahams had been treated for heart problems.

    Professor Abrahams (pronounced Abrams) cast his net wide, exploring Anglo-American folk songs, jump-rope rhymes and counting rhymes, but devoted most of his scholarly energies to the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the United States.

    In "Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia," published in 1964, he analyzed the street rhymes and repartee he observed and recorded in South Philadelphia.

    Earlier folklorists had focused on black religious expression, the language of the church and pulpit. Professor Abrahams described a new and vibrant verbal world, exuberant, profane and endlessly inventive. He explained the fine points of the dozens — a street-corner battle of wits in which participants traded insults — and analyzed traditional poems like "The Signifying Monkey," whose opening line provided Professor Abrahams with the title of his book.

    His purpose, he wrote in his introduction, was not merely to transcribe but "to show how much insight can be attained into the life of a group through the analysis of its folklore."

    In "Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South" (1992), he turned back the clock to study the corn-shucking ceremony, a ritual with songs and chants that he reconstructed through newspaper accounts, travelers' tales and diaries as a means of understanding the social dynamics of plantation society.

    The historian Wilson J. Moses, reviewing the book in The Historian, called Professor Abrahams "probably the most celebrated living preservationist of African-American secular oral traditions."

    John F. Szwed, Professor Abrahams's collaborator on "Discovering Afro-America" (1975) and the essay collection "Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul" (2006), said of him: "He redefined what folklore was, in every sense. He moved it from the written text toward performance, and put the material into a political and cultural framework."

    Roger David Abrahams was born on June 12, 1933, in Philadelphia, where his father, Robert, was a prominent lawyer and sometime novelist. His mother, the former Florence Kohn, was a homemaker and philanthropist.

    He enrolled in Swarthmore College, where a campus concert by Pete Seeger in 1953 proved to be a transformative experience for him and his friend Ralph Rinzler, the future folk-music scholar and a fellow Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast. Together they began performing locally, with Mr. Abrahams on guitar and Mr. Rinzler on banjo.

    After graduating with an English degree in 1955, Mr. Abrahams began studying law at the University of Pennsylvania. He failed his exams, but a course on English and American folklore taught by the eminent folklorist MacEdward Leach opened a new door.

    He moved to New York and plunged into the emerging folk music scene, performing at the Café Bizarre and singing with Paul Clayton and Dave Van Ronk on the Folkways album "Foc'sle Songs and Shanties," released in 1959. He later recorded his own album, "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor and Other Folk Songs" in 1962. For a time, he was an editor and writer at the folk-music magazine Caravan.

    After earning a master's degree in literature and folklore from Columbia University in 1959, Professor Abrahams returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where, under the direction of Professor Leach, he was awarded a doctorate in literature and folklore in 1961.

    His dissertation, "Negro Folklore From South Philadelphia," formed the basis of "Deep Down in the Jungle." It also led to the creation of a separate department of folklore and folk life at the University of Pennsylvania.

    "We cannot have a dissertation with such foul language in the English department," Allan G. Chester, the chairman of the English department, told Professor Leach. "If you want to approve it, go and have your own department."

    To better understand the African roots of African-American folk practices and verbal styles, Professor Abrahams did extensive field research in the Caribbean, beginning with a week on St. Kitts and Nevis in 1962. With the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, he recorded sea chanteys and the songs performed at tea meetings, a combination variety show and church fund-raiser. After buying a house on Nevis, he went on to explore verbal styles throughout the islands in the Lesser Antilles.

    His Caribbean studies were enshrined in the two-volume "Afro-American Folk Culture: An Annotated Bibliography of Materials from North, Central and South America, and the West Indies" (1977), and in "The Man-of-Words in the West Indies: Performance and the Emergence of Creole Culture" (1983), a study of Caribbean vernacular traditions.

    Professor Abrahams pursued his interest in black speech and street culture in the United States in several works that, like "Deep Down in the Jungle," rejected the current argument that black Americans suffered not only from poverty but from a deficient culture. These included "Positively Black" (1970) and "Talking Black" (1976).

    His interest in the humblest forms of social expression led him to produce two indispensable compendiums, "Jump-Rope Rhymes: A Dictionary" (1969) and "Counting-Out Rhymes: A Dictionary" (1980), edited with Lois Rankin.

    Professor Abrahams taught for many years in the English department of the University of Texas in Austin, where he also served as the director of the African and Afro-American Research Institute. In 1985 he joined the folklore and folk life department at the University of Pennsylvania. When the university eliminated the department in 1999, he was named the inaugural director of the university's Center for Folklore and Ethnography. He retired in 2002.

    Professor Abrahams's first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Janet Anderson Abrahams; a daughter, Lisa Abrahams; and a sister, Marjorie Slavin.

    His many books also included "Between the Living and the Dead: Riddles Which Tell Stories" (1980) and "Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices" (2005).

    A version of this article appears in print on July 2, 2017, on Page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Roger Abrahams, Folklorist of Black America, Dies at 84

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Subject: RE: Obit: Folklorist Roger Abrahams (1933-2017)
From: Joe Offer
Date: 03 Jul 17 - 02:53 AM

The American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress posted this obituary on Facebook:

Roger D. Abrahams 1933-2017
AFC is sad to pass on the news that folklorist Roger D. Abrahams has died. Roger recently celebrated his 84th birthday. We heard the news from his children Lori Ann Wilson Abrahams and Rod Abrahams.
Roger was a mentor to many staff members at AFC. In addition to his formal teaching, his thoughts on the importance of folklore inspired generations of students, ethnographers, and folklorists.
Roger spent over 30 years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the Hum Rosen Professor of Humanities and taught in the Department of Folklore and Folklife. He taught previously at the University of Texas and at Scripps College and Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Roger was awarded the Kenneth Goldstein Award for Lifetime Academic Leadership by the American Folklore Society (AFS) in 2005, and was also an AFS Fellow.
In a series of classic articles, Roger helped re-theorize the discipline of folklore in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, he published brilliant analyses of traditional culture, in particular African American verbal culture. He was the author of many books, including "Deep Down in the Jungle," "African Folktales," "Afro-American Folktales" (later retitled "African American Folktales), "The Man-of-Words in the West Indies," "Deep the Water, Shallow the Shore," "Singing the Master," and "Everyday Life." Roger was also a folksinger and a student of folk music, and wrote "Anglo-American Folksong Style" (with George Foss) and "Almeda Riddle: A Singer and her Songs."
AFC has several collections associated with Roger. Of special significance is documentation of the Swarthmore College Folk Festivals in 1958 and 1959, donated to AFC by Lee Haring. Roger was a performer at the festivals, and wrote a reminiscence which we preserve in his file, which identifies the festivals as the turning point that made him a folklorist. Roger also collected with Alan Lomax in the the Caribbean in the 1960s, and those recordings are in AFC's Alan Lomax Collection.
Above all else, Roger loved to talk about folklore, so we are delighted to preserve one of his engaging lectures, which he gave at AFC in 2007. Follow the link to hear Roger talk about one of his own inspirations, Benjamin Botkin.

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Subject: RE: Obit: Folklorist Roger Abrahams (1933-2017)
From: GUEST,Mike Yates.
Date: 03 Jul 17 - 05:39 AM

Very sorry to hear this. Over the years I have listened to many of the recordings that he made and have read many of his books and articles.He was at the top of his game and he will certainly be missed.

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Subject: RE: Obit: Folklorist Roger Abrahams (1933-2017)
From: EBarnacle
Date: 03 Jul 17 - 08:31 AM

I met him a few times over the years and was planning to visit him this Summer. When last we spoke he complained of his increasing blindness and diabetes.
We first met at a Mystic Sea Chantey weekend, when I was assigned to bring him to the train. He spotted the used bookstore opposite the train station and, while he was checking out, almost missed the train.

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Subject: RE: Obit: Folklorist Roger Abrahams (1933-2017)
From: Deckman
Date: 03 Jul 17 - 08:46 AM

Another irreplaceable sad loss. bob(deckman)nelson

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Subject: RE: Obit: Folklorist Roger Abrahams (1933-2017)
From: Waddon Pete
Date: 06 Jul 17 - 07:12 AM

An amazing man now no longer with us. His work will live on into the future. I have added his name to the "In Memoriam" thread. Rest in peace Roger.


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