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George D. Foss (1932-2002)
W. K. McNeil
The Ozark Folk Center
George D. Foss died in a Little Rock hospital on Sunday morning, July 21, two days after his seventieth birthday, of complications resulting from a hiatal hernia operation. He had recently returned from a trip to Africa, a continent he had wanted to see ever since he read adventure stories about it as a young boy. On the trip, he developed some problems but thought they were minor. When his condition worsened, he checked into a hospital and on July 16 underwent an operation from which he never recovered. He is survived by his wife Nancy, daughter Tove, two sons Jason and Forrest, and three grandchildren.
Foss will be primarily remembered by folklorists as the coauthor, with Roger D. Abrahams, of Anglo-American Folksong Style (1968) and as music editor of A Singer and Her Songs: Almeda Riddle's Book of Ballads (1970), the biography of the famous Ozark folksinger. He also wrote numerous articles on American folk music and instruments, such as the autoharp and the Native American flute. A native of Miami, Florida, he attended both the Eastman School of Music and the Mannes School of Music, graduating from the Juilliard School of Music and America University, both in New York City. In 1955 he became a trumpeter with the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington, D.C. A short time later he started making field trips into the nearby Blue Ridge section of Virginia, recording ballads, folksongs, and instrumental numbers from the people in that region. Some of this material appeared in Anglo-American Folksong Style and later in Southern Folk Ballads (McNeil 1987-88). He soon expanded his collecting to include the Cumberlands of Kentucky, the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and the Ozarks of Arkansas.
In 1964, Foss began a twenty-five-year association with Louisiana State University, where he taught trumpet, music theory, music history and appreciation, and folk music. Aided by grants from the American Philosophical Society and Louisiana State University, he continued to collect material. Although an academic himself, he had little use for the ivory tower professionals. He loved to perform folk music and songs and was quite good at it. But for the scholars who wrote exclusively for other scholars, he had a special dislike. He once said, "Hell, they might as well be writing a letter and send it down the hall to each other, for all the good their work does." Also, unlike some other collectors and academics, he did not have a proprietary attitude toward the data he collected. Rather, he reasoned that someone else had taken the time to record material for him and, thus, it was his obligation to share the items with anyone having a serious interest in them.
Lest the above remarks give the wrong impression, Foss was not interested in only music and folklore. He was a man of wide-ranging interests, so many that several of the speakers at his memorial service referred to him as a Renaissance man. One person, noting that, like all of us, Foss had an ego, said it was justified because, "He was one of the few men I have ever met who really was as smart as he thought he was." Some of his many interests included demonstrating his abilities as a raconteur, and they were considerable as anyone who ever heard him tell about an evening spent with John Jacob Niles can testify. Other passions included astronomy, nature, aviation, boating, reading, adventure, and dogs. He was a firm believer that all those who love dogs are going to Heaven and that everybody else is going to Hell. He was extremely proud of three Rhodesian ridgebacks that he and Nancy had. One other interest was travel. Foss has now set off on the last great trip that we will all take. May he find it exhilarating.