Folklorist, banjoist talk at MU about digitizing humanities

Monday, April 16, 2012 | 10:40 p.m. CDT; updated 11:38 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 16, 2012

COLUMBIA — Folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Jabbour walked into an almost-full room of MU's Reynolds Journalism Institute with banjoist Ken Perlman, a wine bottle sticking out of Jabbour's fiddle case.

Jabbour, a world-renowned folklorist, and Perlman, a world-renowned musician, were brought to MU on Monday afternoon by Mizzou Advantage, an interdisciplinary program designed to network people involved in research and create opportunities that further the university's position in higher education. He and Perlman were in town following the weekend's Big Muddy Folk Festival, at which they both appeared.


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The pair's visit was not just for the enjoyment of local artists, but also for the benefit of collaborators who came to learn creative techniques for archiving humanities in Missouri by hearing about Jabbour and Perlman's experience recording folk music and the traditions surrounding it. Jabbour has been recording folk music throughout eastern and southern America off and on for more than 30 years, while Perlman spent time in the 1990s recording folk music in the far eastern Canadian islands.

They were invited to speak by Berkley Hudson, a magazine journalism professor at MU and co-principle investigator of Mizzou Advantage's "Gateway to the West" project, an effort to digitize the university's humanities archives by creating websites that document culture unique to Missouri.

Hudson said he hopes visits like this one can help those working on the project create public scholarship — that is, free public knowledge available to everyone via the Internet.

Stories and song

Jabbour and Perlman introduced each song they played Monday afternoon with a story about the tradition behind the tune or the way it was passed on to them, sometimes tying in lessons to be learned from recording cultural traditions.

"You don't have to know about the history of the banjo and fiddle to appreciate (the music), but you can gain a deeper understanding of the music with that knowledge," Hudson said. "People like Alan Jabbour can help us appreciate."

Jabbour and Perlman set the pace for their talk with "Stoney Point," a tune passed down to Jabbour by Henry Reed, a Virginian folk musician who mentored him on the fiddle. Jabbour said that he in turn passed the tune on to another folk musician, further influencing the tradition. He described the complexity of the relationship between the collector and what is being collected by referring to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics: "You can't observe something without being a factor in what's being observed."

Jabbour said he first started tromping around the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of folk traditions that would be lost in lore if not for his recorder while earning his master's degree in English at Duke University. He later founded the American Folklife Center — an ongoing organization of his findings — for the Library of Congress and spearheaded their Archive of Folk Song. He was also the first director of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment of the Arts.

Perlman is also a connoisseur of recording folk traditions. In the 1990s, he spent time in an extremely isolated island community in Canada that he described as at least a generation behind in terms of culture and technology. There, Perlman said, the fiddler was the center of entertainment and the third most important person in the community — behind the clergy and local government.

When EarthWatch, an environmental nonprofit, began organizing Perlman's recorded items, the banjoist insisted that the website include not just collected music and photography, but also the stories about how integral the fiddler was to the society.

Wrapping up the event, the duo played "The Fiddler's Drunk and the Music is All Over," but not before Perlman explained that, in those Canadian islands, fiddlers were fed alcohol to keep them playing, though it was a fine line before the fiddler would be no longer able to play.

Later Monday evening, Jabbour and Perlman gathered again at RJI for a jam with other local musicians playing banjos, fiddles, accordion and stand-up bass. The 15-person jam featured many local music legends. Most were grey-haired, save a young blond boy brave enough to step up and play the fiddle. Among them was Dave Para, artistic director of the weekend festival. Halfway through the jam, he appeared in a pre-recorded interview on a TV in the room.

They pointed and laughed at the TV, but kept playing on.

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