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  • Roger D. Abrahams (1933–2017)
  • Dorothy Noyes

Roger D. Abrahams died June 20, 2017, in Sunnyvale, California, at the age of 84.1 Born in Philadelphia in 1933, Abrahams graduated from Swarthmore College in 1955, then earned an MA in Literature and Folklore from Columbia in 1959 and a PhD in English and Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961; during his student days, he also performed as a singer in the folk song revival. He began teaching in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin in 1960 and chaired that department and also directed the new African and Afro-American Research Institute before leaving in 1979 to become Kenan Professor of Humanities and Anthropology at Scripps and Pitzer Colleges. In 1985, he returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was named Hum Rosen Professor of Folklore and Folklife in 1989; he retired from Penn in 2002. Abrahams’ extensive national service included lobbying for and advising on the creation of the major public folklore institutions in the United States: the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife (1967), the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts (1977), and especially the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress (1976). He also served for many years on the selection committee for the Guggenheim Fellowships and chaired the editorial board of Penn Press. A longstanding Fellow of the American Folklore Society, he served as the Society’s president in 1979, and in 2005, he was given its Kenneth S. Goldstein Award for Lifetime Academic Leadership. Upon his retirement, Abrahams was honored with the symposium “Voice/Over: Cultural Transmission as Translation, Exchange, Reproduction” at Penn’s Center for Folklore and Ethnography. In 2015, Dan Ben-Amos organized a celebration with two panels in Abrahams’ honor at the annual meeting of the Western States Folklore Society, followed by a Festschrift published in Western Folklore (Ben-Amos 2016a).

The most fertile mind of the grand generation of American folklorists, Abrahams was [End Page 212] correspondingly the most difficult to pin down. His publications are scattered, voluminous, and interdisciplinary.2 Much of his influence was oral and collaborative, disseminated across a huge network of folklorists, Americanists, educators, and public intellectuals. Through a career-long exploration of African diasporic expressions, he became a pioneer of the performance approach, also contributing to our understanding of folk song, narrative and speech play, proverb and riddle, folk drama and festival, creolization, folklore and literature, folklore theory, and the intellectual history of folklore studies. His writings demonstrate a practitioner’s grasp of vernacular aesthetic form, but the key to his thought is its reliance on the concepts and concerns of ordinary people. From his field interlocutors, Abrahams learned to privilege play over performance, flux over stability, and contestation over consensus.

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Figure 1.

Roger and his sister Marjory Abrahams Slavin en route to a folk festival, 1953. Photo courtesy of Rod Abrahams.

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Figure 2.

Roger examines the proofs of his Festschrift in Western Folklore, Santa Clara, California, 2016. Photo by Kimberly Lau.

Abrahams grew up in a cultivated, affluent Philadelphia family of German Jewish descent; his father was a lawyer with literary inclinations and a commitment to social justice. The future scholar read Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose concern with experience and the vernacular character of American culture became touchstones in Abrahams’ later work (Abrahams 2005:2). Vacations at the family’s house on the West Indian island of Nevis provided early exposure to Caribbean peoples and their expressions. The family was also musical; Abrahams remembered singing in the car on family trips. Arriving at Swarthmore College in 1951, Abrahams became a performer of Gilbert and Sullivan and was active in the Young People’s Socialist League. A campus visit from Pete Seeger pulled him and his roommate Ralph Rinzler in a new direction: they became enchanted with the folk song revival and began to participate in the influential Swarthmore Folk Festival. To be a singer then was also to be a collector. Competing with all the other aspirants to unearth “the next ‘Tom Dooley,’” Abrahams found himself in...


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