RIP Writing (and remembering) Roger Abrahams; the Folklore Master

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

Mr. Abrahams cast a wide net, from folk songs to street rhymes, chants, proverbs and other oral traditions, in the United States and the Caribbean.


Writing (and remembering) Roger Abrahams–the Folklore Master

As many of you know, folklorist and “Man of Words” extraordinaire Roger Abrahams passed away June 21st in Santa Clara CA. According to Roger’s son Rod, his father died in peaceful sleep during the wee hours of last Wednesday morning. Born in Philadelphia in 1933 into a German Jewish American family, Roger celebrated his 84th birthday on June 12. He was a driving force in our field for a performance-centric view of folklore that recognized both its literary and historical interests and how creative carriers of oral tradition might be better understood in anthropological terms of immediate contexts and wider cultural settings and significance. Roger Abrahams–along with colleagues Richard Bauman, Del Hymes and Dan Ben-Amos–led the field away from folklore as primarily a poetic text traveling and varying through time and space to current fixity, to its performance in a particular cultural place and moment. He did this with a discerning eye and ear to the aesthetics and structure of performances in African American and African Caribbean communities providing new observations and interpretations of everything from “conversational genres” of verbal art to young girls’ jump-rope rhymes, the dozens and toasts of “corner men” in Philadelphia, the role of the bluesman and preacher, “tea meetings” in the English-speaking West Indies and historic “corn shucking” work and songs in the Carolinas. He also worked on many other subjects and people from the “poetics of everyday life” (an enduring topic for him) to the life history and songs of Ozark ballad singer Almeda “Granny” Riddle.

Roger grew up during the Folk Revival, was a college roommate of Ralph Rinzler’s at Swarthmore, recorded his own LPs of whaling songs, blues and ballads. Regarding his arrival in academic folklore, he once told me, “I made the short trip across 34th street from the Penn Law School to the English Department in Bennett Hall … and never looked back.” To suggest that Roger might have made a great lawyer–especially in oral argument–would be like what the shop master at Crown Electric in Memphis said of Elvis when he left an apprenticeship to go on tour with his new band, “That boy would have made a fine electrician.” Roger electrified the field of folklore studies much as Elvis did the realm of rock and roll. I hear him laughing somewhere at this remark.

A more formal brief academic obit has been prepared for the AFS Fellows, and I expect that will be shared soon. NY Times and other obits are in the offing. Roger’s dear friend and colleague at Penn, John Szwed,wrote a wonderful essay “Working with Roger: a Memoir “ (Western Folklore 75.3/4, 2016: 421-433) about how they met, the formation of the Dept of Folklore and Folklife at the Uniniversity, their shared work on folklore of African diaspora communities in North America and the Caribbean as well as Old World cultural sources. I urge all friends and colleagues of Roger to add their own tales and reflections to the cycle as have Eric Miller and others. Here are a few of mine.

I became aware of Roger’s work as a senior at Penn in Fall 1971 when I took Kenny Goldstein’s graduate “Introduction to Folklore” class. I had enrolled in John Szwed’s “Jazz and Blues” class two years earlier and been drawn to African American music in Philadelphia by that and my growing engagement with jazz, blues and broadly the music of the Caribbean and Africa in the WXPN FM music library and on air. I suddenly realized how much more the music in those record grooves meant to my aesthetic and intellectual growth than the Anthropology Dept’s collection of Human Relations Area Files’ well-thumbed 3×5 comparative cultural traits index cards. I was propelled forward closer to home by a singular book on Goldstein’s syllabus: Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (1964). The book grew from Roger’s graduate student life on the boundary between black and white neighborhoods and his resulting seminal dissertation. African American culture was in constant public denigration by politicians, police and even educators. Yet, going to jazz clubs like West Philly’s Aqua Lounge to see and hear the late John Coltrane’s bandmates playing free form jazz and, likewise, hearing African American and Sicilian doo-wop singers on opposite corners of South Street, I was witnessing extraordinary spirituality and social critique, joy and hope in public places from black avant-gardists and traditionalists alike.

In Roger’s writing was, at last, an account of performance and personal worth expressed in urban oral tradition and based in his fieldwork of the power of performance among the unsung. In contrast the sociology dept at Penn offered only descriptions of trouble and trauma of African Americans as pathological members of society with a poverty of culture, or a culture of poverty. Anthropologists seemed at best interested only in Africa: Nuer cattle wealth and “Bantu Bureaucracy,” but nothing about the New World diaspora and its cultural significance, much less life in the “City of Brotherly Shove,” as jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley memorably called it. The American civilization dept. seemed fixated by Mark Twain, weather vanes and grand surveys of U.S. historical experience from the top to the middle. In contrast, Roger advocated and celebrated folklore’s continuity and modernity from the ground up with the possibility that performance could reflect and affect the here and now. In doing so, it provided hope for transforming social conditions at individual and collective levels to all who would listen on the streets and in churches, on radio and television, and in the classroom.

At Goldstein’s urging I left Penn’s halcyon era of folklore studies in 1974, after two years hosting “underground progressive” radio, and journeyed to Texas seeking work under Roger who was now surrounded by amazing Austin colleagues like Américo Paredes, Dick Bauman, Joel Sherzer, Ian Hancock and, soon, Archie Green. All shared a deep concern in their scholarship and lives about the past, present and future of vernacular cultures in national and global society My first encounter with Roger was a sort of tough love warning to a young romantic–like a stern uncle or concerned rabbi–“We expect a lot from you….” He said almost offhandedly. “We don’t want people who just look good on paper.” Roger accepted my infatuation with blues (and country music), but he reminded me that I should not ignore the sacred words of preachers, or the totality of families and communities struggling with an American officialdom happy to live under the regime of Moynihan and others’ “benign neglect,” not to mention the less benign “Jim Crow,” and especially the experiential and expressive lives and work of black Americans–their power in shaking and shaping, even liberating, this clamorous society to realize its potential.

Roger was to me the primary scholar who gathered the sometimes inchoate ideas and auras of change and experimentation, social disruption and hope of the 1960s and actually created rigorous new scholarship that embodied what was being learned at the granular level of communities and now applicable to other places and times to come. Abrahams’ work on “Sense and Nonsense in St. Vincent” (with Dick Bauman, in American Anthropologist 1971) showed how the continuity and creativity of co-mingled West African and English traditions in the “Tea Meetings,” where apparently high-minded recitations and lectures could be subverted by the rude “pit boys,” embraced a Creole emergence of dual and dueling sources of two Old World’s values, symbols and styles. I was amazed that a folklorist could be chair of the Texas English Dept. and write comprehensively (“The Complex Relations of Simple Forms”) about genres from jokes, proverbs and tales, to blues and calypsos alongside belle lettres novels or modern sculpture, also not ignoring material forms inclusive of folk crafts and fine arts as performances with audiences present or not in the moment of creation. High oral literacy was as valued as written and learned forms… all of which transcended fixed poetic or provenance ideas about any kind of genre and its transformations.

As his student and later research assistant, I reveled in tracking down sources on world Carnival or California motorcycle gangs. I eventually ginned up the courage to respond to “Abes” with my own new interest in public folklore and later assertions of “genres of representation” inclusive of scholarship, but also festivals, museum exhibitions, sound recordings, radio programs and films produced collaboratively with tradition “bearers.” He always offered robust and humorous critique and agreement where appropriate. In his foundational support for both my M.A. on classic blues women–influenced by his descriptions of powerful women as family leaders and or Caribbean marketplace venders–and later for engaging Louisiana African French communities with the dialogic reciprocity of making zydeco records and films in Louisiana, I credit Roger for helping me see and seek the importance of Creole family matriarchs as much as the renowned zydeco accordion men.

When some questioned the merit in 1978 of my going to work for the State of Louisiana rather than finding an academic position, Roger (along with Archie, Dick and Dr. Paredes) were in harmony with the centrality of public service, enhancing public discourse and cultural policy. The latter was no surprise, as Roger had worked closely with Archie in lobbying for creating the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress in 1976, and had served on NEA Folk Arts panels and the Smithsonian Folklife Center’s board of advisors over many years. And, let’s face it, back in his earlier folkie days, he wanted to share all those songs.

I loved the idea of an urbane guy from a high-caste Philadelphia Jewish family singing whaling songs! Robert Zimmerman thought enough of Roger’s essaying reach as both singer and scholar to mention the impact of his work on the vernacular Nobel Laureate to be in Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1. Though Roger was at times chagrinned about his folk-singing days, he mostly grinned when I told him I found his LPs in cut-out bins for $5.00.

Roger could be provocative and feisty, tender and mellow, cool and brainy. We had our tussles, but always stayed close. Anger never lasted long and collegial friendship grew over the years. In 2005, at his insistence, we worked closely (with John Szwed and Robert Farris Thompson) on the need to convince Americans that New Orleans and Mardi Gras were essential in understanding of the power of an African and Caribbean-derived Creole society that had created jazz and long recreated both music and carnival traditions that could rebuild the city in the wake of Katrina’s toxic waters. Working at Roger’s urging during the crisis brought fresh air to my near drowned sense of life as I had known it. It energized me to make the cultural argument for disaster recoveries and cultural resilience of all sorts … provoking the 15 program American Routes “After the Storm” series that stretched over the next decade as well as looking at Detroit and Philadelphia and other places in terms of cultural recovery from economic disaster.

Roger had been a primary supporter and advisor of American Routes in its 1998 beginnings and our hoped for extension of oral traditions to a wider audience, drawing listeners to hear the sounds, sentiments and aesthetics of many vernacular voices from a creolist perspective singing our country at its plural democratic best, distinguished, shared and creatively synthesized expression. We did co-lectures, policy seminars, and mainly long e-mails in the wee hours between a night owl (me) and dawn patroller (him) sharing ideas over the miles and years. No topic was off limits and laughter at the ludicrous, mysterious and hopeful aspects of the human condition was a necessary spiritual balm.

In the last few years Roger dodged some bullets in his health, and after heart surgery attended the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2014 for an oral history workshop on his late friend and Festival founder Ralph Rinzler. He plunged into visiting many of his former students including myself and my friend and co-editor Robert Baron. Later, in 2015 at AFS in Long Beach, Roger showed up to hear his deepest colleague John Szwed give a masterful talk on songs and song-makers, playing both “rude boy” and senior scholar with aplomb. A late uproarious dinner followed with John, Roger’s estimable son Rod and others. I have never seen Roger so happy and at ease in the company of his folklore collaborators and larger family.

Until his final sleep last week, Roger was editing work for Dan Ben-Amos, gathering and rewriting old essays, and streaming out new prose on the world of folklore and vernacular culture that continued to thrill him… and others. Writing these thoughts, I’m frustrated that I can’t bring his voice in more. It was so powerful–quotable yes, but his improvisations on ideas had to be heard as much or more than read. Like most friends of Roger I’ve spoken with these last days, it’s hard to imagine the big man gone down the road of life. As we are “processing” this loss, I say that in his spoken words as much as his voluminous writings, Roger passed on his own traditions of loving ideas about human cultural relations, folklore and performance to a lot of people in different ways–ones we will remember and act upon for the rest of our lives.

Nick Spitzer

American Routes and Tulane University
New Orleans, Louisiana


As mentioned the other day, links to 10 of Roger Abrahams’ early essays are at

“Introductory Remarks to a Rhetorical Theory Of Folklore.”
1968. Journal of American Folklore 81 (319): 143-58.

2) “A Rhetoric Of Everyday Life: Traditional Conversational
Genres.” 1968. Southern Folklore Quarterly 32: 44-59.

3) “The Complex Relations of Simple Forms.” 1976.
In Folklore Genres, Dan Ben-Amos, ed., Austin:
U. of Texas Press, pp. 193-214. Originally printed in
Genre 2, 2 (June 1969): 104-28.

4 ) “Toward an Enactment-Centered Theory of Folklore.”
1977. In The Frontiers of Folklore, William Bascom, ed.,
Wash., D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

5) “Towards a Sociological Theory of Folklore.”
1978. In Working Americans, Robert Byington, ed.,
Los Angeles: California Folklore Society, pp. 19-42.

6) “Folklore.” 1980. In Harvard Encyclopedia of American
Ethnic Groups, Stephan Thernstrom, ed., Cambridge:
Belnap Press, pp. 370-9.

7) “In and Out of Performance.” 1981. In Folklore and
Oral Communication (special issue of Narodna Umjetnost,
Yugolsalvia), pp. 69-78.

8) “Ordinary and Extraordinary Experience.” 1981. In
The Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner, ed.
Chicago: U. of Illinois Press, pp. 45-72.

9) “Play and Games.” 1982. Motif: International Review
of Research in Folklore and Literature (Columbus, Ohio),
3 (June): 4-7.

10) “Our Native Notions of Story.” 1985. New York
Folklore 11 (1-4): 37-47.

Dr R used to say to us in class (in 1998/1999/2000)
something like (I paraphrase), “Who was I writing
these articles for in the 1960s and 1970s? There
was a community of people who were interested in folklore — the activity, and the academic discipline.
These people came from all over. I was trying to help bring this community together.”

Best regards,

— Remembrances RIP Roger

Long Story Short:

I first became aware of Roger from my teacher and friend Tossi Aaron
Back in the day Tossi was his friend and like Roger was also cutting an album, singing Labor Songs, collecting folk songs, then she studied and started teaching Orff Shulwerk. I also got my certification in Orff Shulwerk around 1973. My first Orff Teacher was Fannabell Kremins who studied with Orff and Keetman then came to the US and started teaching me at Oak Lane Day School when I was in 5th grade.

Tossi Aaron: Orff Teacher, Founder of Orff Schulwerk PAOSA chapter, Author, Publisher, Folk singer, and one of the founders of the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1962 along with Kenny Goldstein who was the chair of the Dept. of Folklore and Folklife at Penn. She was the one who told me all about Roger and Kenny etc.

Living on St. Croix in 1976  introduced me to Creole and Dialect speakers. So … while teaching in the in the U.S. school system – I collected  collected the children’s playground songs, games and chants which I used for a successful reading curriculum .  {Integrate Music and Reading}

Got my first MAC and published all that material in a book titled  DOMINO
Childrens Songs, Games and  Chants collected in 1976 – 1978 from the American Virgin Islands from St Croix USVI
This is the only live field recording from that area and both went into the Folklore Archive at the Library of Congress in 1979 when Joe Hickerson ran it. That is how I first talked with Roger when he was at Penn and wanted a copy of everything I had then bought my work for his own collection.

see “Domino” by Karen Ellis Down In The River Song / Four White Horses collected from St. Croix in 1978. and Ding Dong played by the children at Ricardo Richards School 1978 St. Croix, USVI

“Language is Music, Music is Language”
I reason I collected and used their own playground poetry to teach my kids how to read write, and spell in Standard English was because  they were Creole and dialect speakers  and I was the only Standard English speaking person in the room.

Because of my interest in Creole / Dialect speakers I happened to go to Penn and met Dr. Labov in the 90’s
January 23, 1997 Testimony submitted by William Labov, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, Past President of the Linguistic Society of America, member of the National Academy of Science. I am testifying today as a representative of an approach to the study of language that is called “sociolinguistics, ” a scientific study based on the recording and measurement of language as it is used in America today.
Raising Inner – City Reading Levels by Dr. William Labov

That’s where  I met up with some other grad students of his  like John Rickford expert in Creole and AAVE. Only after that did I start running the @CreoleTalk  mailing list for Linguists, which at one point was the only one on the net for this purpose.

Living on St. Croix allowed me to learn all about the Creole Kings and Queens  – their spontaneous song fights that erupted in the bars and the endless creativity of language.

About Dialect and the Roots of Rap – Roger Abrahams

The journey led from the playgrounds of St. Croix where I was living in 1976 teaching in the elementary classroom – then getting a Mac to publishing Domino in 1990.  After that I was online in 1991 long before there was a world wide web and watched the first websites come online. Naturally I published the first iteration of the CyberPlayGround site in 1996. It was just a natural progression for me to go from publishing in the meat space to cyberspace and where there is a folklore projects to collect children’s songs

At some point and now I can’t really remember which decade this was,  I connected with Roger again and went over to his home in Laverock PA to find what seemed like dozens of containers – piles of his papers spread out all over and asked / suggested that he find someone to help him digitize everything, to get it all preserved and organized. I hope that got done on his behalf  ……


Educational CyberPlayGround, INC.


About Educational CyberPlayGround, Inc.®

Educational CyberPlayGround, Inc. strives to help Teachers, Parents, and Policy Makers Learn about: Music, Teaching, Internet, Technology, Literacy, Arts and Linguistics in the K12 classroom.
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