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Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012

Desert Dancer 15 Feb 12 - 10:16 AM
Desert Dancer 15 Feb 12 - 10:31 AM
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Subject: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 10:16 AM

Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist, Dies at 89

By MARGALIT FOX
New York Times
February 13, 2012

Tristram P. Coffin, a folklorist who unearthed worlds of meaning in the ordinary rituals of which nearly every American partakes, including holidays, baseball and sex, died on Jan. 31 in Wakefield, R.I. He was 89.

The cause was pneumonia, his family said.

Professor Coffin, a retired member of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote many books for a popular readership. They include "The Book of Christmas Folklore" (1973), "Uncertain Glory: Folklore and the American Revolution" (1971) and "The Old Ball Game: Baseball in Folklore and Fiction" (1971).

If folklore, as Professor Coffin cheerfully wrote in the introduction to "Our Living Traditions" (1968), a volume he edited, is "a bastard field that anthropology begot upon English," then he came at the field unequivocally from the English side, mining literature high and low — novels, plays, poems, folk songs — for what it revealed about ritual and belief of all kinds.

Little escaped his scrutiny, from "The Great Gatsby" (Daisy Buchanan, he argued in a 1960 article, is a Jazz Age incarnation of the beautiful, seductive Fairy Queen of Celtic lore) to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (an evocative scene, he pointed out, centers on the old folk belief that loaves of bread, filled with quicksilver and floated along a river, will locate a drowned body).

Professor Coffin was a particular authority on English, Scottish and American ballads, which together are a glorious narrative riot of love, war, sex, death, jealousy and superstition. These themes, as he said in a 1957 essay, reveal much about the minds and mores of the "folk" who transmit the ballads.

"A ballad survives among our folk because it embodies a basic human reaction to a dramatic situation," he wrote, adding: "Ballads resemble gossip. They are transmitted like gossip, and their variation comes about in much the way gossip variation occurs."

Professor Coffin trained his eye not only on word but also on deed: the celebratory rituals and everyday rites that to folklorists are suffused with meaning.

He wrote about holidays, including official ones, like Thanksgiving (possibly descended from Lammas — "loaf mass" — an ancient British festival celebrating the harvest), and unofficial ones, like Groundhog Day (heir to a similar European rite involving a badger).

He wrote about sports, arguing that as depicted in news accounts of the 1910s and afterward, Babe Ruth — with his prodigious public abilities and private appetites — was an archetypal "prowess hero" in the tradition of Paul Bunyan.

In "The Proper Book of Sexual Folklore" (1978), Professor Coffin took on a subject of universal interest, ranging over its manifestations in literature and in games like spin the bottle, in which children began to enact adult social roles.

Tristram Potter Coffin was born in San Marino, Calif., on Feb. 13, 1922, the son of Tristram Roberts Coffin and the former Elsie Potter Robinson. His was a distinguished family: a 17th-century forebear, Tristram Coffin, was among the first settlers of Nantucket.

Tristram P. Coffin received a bachelor's degree in English from Haverford College in 1943. After wartime service in the Army Air Forces and the Signal Corps, he earned master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the distinguished folklorist MacEdward Leach.

Professor Coffin taught at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, before joining the Penn English faculty in 1959. After Professor Leach established the university's graduate program in folklore in 1962, Professor Coffin held joint appointments in English and folklore.

In the mid-1960s Professor Coffin was the host of "Lyrics and Legends," a series about folk songs, broadcast nationally on public television.

A resident of Wakefield, Professor Coffin is survived by two sons, Mark T. and Jonathan P., known as Jock; two daughters, Patricia C. Fry and Priscilla C. Widlak, known as Ricki; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Ruth Anne Hendrickson, whom he married in 1944, died last year.

Professor Coffin returned often to his great scholarly love, the Anglo-American ballad. In his academic writings he argued that many ballads, especially those about the death of the hero, had arisen out of narrative obituary verse, a curious type of folk poetry for which he had great affection.

Printed on broadsides and read or sung at funerals, narrative obituary poems flourished in 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century America. They were graphic, purple and obsessively interested in the particulars, as in this verse from 1910:

The car came rushing down the line,

The motorman saw him, but not in time,

Then quick as a lightning flash, not long,

Which hurled him into the great beyond.

In deference to norms held dear, the like won't be attempted here.

~ Becky in Long Beach


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 10:31 AM

The obituary says, "In the mid-1960s Professor Coffin was the host of "Lyrics and Legends," a series about folk songs, broadcast nationally on public television." I've never heard of this one. Anyone remember it?

The top Google hit is a current American Public Television show about singer-songwriters that is now in its third season.

There is a reference to it in the notes to Archie Green's article "Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol", which is freely available online. Referring to a recurring anecdote, Green says, "One "folk" variant by Clarence Ashley has already appeared in an educational film The Roots of Hillbilly Music in the "Lyrics and Legends" series produced in 1962 by WHYT-TV, Philadelphia."

~ Becky in Tucson


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 10:34 AM

Tristram Potter Coffin

Posted by Renee Parker
South Kingstown (R.I.) Patch
February 2, 2012

    Deceased's name: Tristram Potter Coffin
    Age: 90
    Date: January 31, 2012 i
    Hometown: Wakefield

Tristram Potter Coffin has peacefully passed away. He was born February 13, 1922 in San Marino, CA, the son of Tristram Roberts and Elsie Potter Robinson Coffin of Edgewood Farm, Wakefield, RI. Coming to Rhode Island after his father died, he was educated at the Providence Country Day School, Moses Brown School ('39), and Haverford College ('43).

After three years in the old Army Air Corps and the Signal Corps during World War II, he took an MA and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught at Denison University for nine years (1949-58), where there is a Fellowship set up by William G. Bowen of the Mellon Foundation to honor him and his wife. In 1959 he returned to the University of Pennsylvania where he taught until his retirement. With MacEdward Leach, he co-founded the Department of Folklore at Penn, and was a full professor in both the English and Folklore departments. During his career he was also a guest professor at UCLA, the University of Rhode Island, Providence College, and in 1962 and 1963 at the US Military Academy at West Point.

Dr. Coffin was an internationally known folklorist, and the top scholar of ballad texts in the 20th century. His book, The British Traditional Ballad in North America, has been a standard reference text for over 50 years. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he also published several more commercial works. His The Book of Christmas Folklore was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and The Old Ball Game: Baseball in Folklore and Fiction, Uncertain Glory, The Folklore of the American Revolution and The Female Hero were widely read. With Hennig Cohen, he also published Folklore of the American Holidays, another standard reference. Altogether Dr. Coffin published 20 books and over 100 articles, encyclopedia entries, and reviews. He was Secretary-Treasurer of the American Folklore Society for four years and was elected a Fellow of that group. While in Philadelphia, he was active in educational television, appearing in over 100 shows on folklore and Shakespeare. He was also host of the PBS show, "Lyrics and Legends", which was shown nationally, and was in charge of editing the "American Folklore" series for Voice of America.

Tris Coffin loved sports. Besides serving as assistant and head tennis pro at the Point Judith Country Club for 23 years, he coached the Denison University tennis team to five titles in the old Ohio Conference. He authored two books about tennis: a novel, Great Game for a Girl, and a handbook for club players, How to Play Tennis with What You Already Have. He also coached soccer at Denison and refereed soccer for 15 years in the Philadelphia area. He always felt the most satisfactory accomplishment of his life was, without ever having played soccer, taking over the Denison University varsity which had gone 0-10 in 1955 and, with the same squad, winning the Ohio Conference league in 1956 with a 6 -2-2 record. He was elected in 1986 to the Denison University Athletic Hall of Fame.

Tris Coffin was a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Delta Upsilon fraternity. His club memberships included the Merion Cricket Club (Haverford, PA), the URI University Club (Kingston, RI), and the Dunes Club and the Point Judith Country Club (both Narragansett, RI). His name is in Who's Who in America (Millenium Edition).

He was married to the late Ruth Anne ("Rusty") Hendrickson Coffin for over 67 years. He is survived by daughters Patricia C. Fry (Tim) of New York, NY and Priscilla ("Ricki") C. Widlak (John) of Port St. Lucie, FL, sons Mark T. Coffin (Beth-Ann) of Gates Mills, OH and Jonathan P. Coffin (Nancy) of Greenwich, CT, 11 grandchildren, 2 great-grandchildren and nieces, nephews and cousins.

A private memorial celebration of his life will be held at a future time.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 11:25 AM

A digital version (in various formats) of "The British Traditional Ballad In North America (American Folklore Society, 1950) is available at The Internet Archive.

~ Becky in Long Beach


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Cool Beans
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 11:27 AM

I remember watching his TV show on Channel 13 in New York as a kid in the 60s.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 12:42 PM

(I've started a separate thread about the "Lyrics and Legends" public TV series here.)

~ Becky in Long Beach


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Charley Noble
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 08:00 PM

I'm wondering if he was related to our famous Maine poet Peter Tristram Coffin and, if so, how.

Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Charley Noble
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 08:02 PM

Checking with Wikipedia I find this information for Robert Peter Tristram Coffin (March 18, 1892 – January 20, 1955).

Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Rapparee
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 08:27 PM

Damn shame. He did good work; I can see him, Vance Randolph, and the others sitting around swapping songs and lies.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Nerd
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 09:52 PM

Yes, Rapparee...he's arguing with Kenny Goldstein right now!


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: ChanteyLass
Date: 15 Feb 12 - 11:40 PM

I wonder if he was related to musician David Coffin.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: GUEST
Date: 28 Feb 12 - 05:22 PM

Tristram P. Coffin and Peter Tristram Coffin are both said to be descendents of Tristram Coffin of Nantucket (1609-1681). I have not yet found a Coffin the states who is not.   David Coffin might be the exception. Bob Stake, son of Nelle Coffin Stake.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: Charley Noble
Date: 28 Feb 12 - 07:37 PM

Thanks, Bob.

Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: GUEST,Ricki Coffin Widlak
Date: 03 Mar 12 - 06:35 PM

I am Tris's daughter. All Coffins in the US are related, but the people mentioned above are distant relations only. Our family is actually more closely related to Indiana Coffins than the Maine ones. The original Tristram Coffin of Nantucket mentioned above apparently has more descendants than anyone in the country. And whoever mentioned Kenny Goldstein knew Dad.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist 1922-2012
From: John on the Sunset Coast
Date: 03 Mar 12 - 07:15 PM

This is one of my "I didn't know Tristram Coffin was still alive moments." I remember reading from his works back around 1962 when I took a folklore course at UCLA.

I just look at his obit online. The picture, therein, of a younger Coffin shows a scholar with movie star good looks, better even than his (perhaps) cousin Tristram (Tris) Coffin, who was a film and TV actor. In fact, every time I saw the folklorist's name, I conjured up the image of the actor.


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