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  • Barre Toelken (1935–2018)
  • Randy Williams

Surrounded by loving family, John Barre Toelken died on November 9, 2018, in Logan, Utah.1 An extraordinary scholar of folklore and medieval literature, Toelken was a beloved mentor, teacher, and performer. Barre leaves a legacy of insightful and approachable publications, ethical fieldwork, and admiring colleagues and students.

Born in Ware, Massachusetts, on June 15, 1935, he was the only child of John Toelken and Sylvia Damon Toelken. Barre was the loving husband of Midori “Miiko” Toelken, devoted father to Vanessa Brown, Kazuko Toelken, Kenji Toelken, Hiroshi Toelken, Taizo Toelken, Chiyo Toelken, and beloved Opa to 19 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, who miss him dearly. On December 15, 2018, in Logan, Utah, family, friends, and colleagues participated in a celebration of life for Barre through song, reminiscences, and poetry.2

Toelken grew up in Massachusetts surrounded by his family’s ballad tradition. In the 1950s, as a forestry student at Utah State University, he took a class from King Hendricks, the charismatic head of the USU English Department, entitled Floating Poetry, about the “poetry that has lived in oral tradition since medieval times” (Utah State University, 1964–1965). Barre was the star pupil, singing the ballads of the class syllabus. This experience influenced him to change his major to English. In fact, music and poetry informed Barre’s life, bringing him enduring relationships and impactful experiences. From memories of learning whaling songs from his Toelken relatives to “sip and sings” with family and friends at his and Miiko’s home, from his popular ballad courses to his lyrical poetry, verse was an exquisite expressive outlet for Barre Toelken (Toelken 2011).

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Figure 1.

Barre Toelken with his guitar at the 1982 fife Conference Canyon Picnic. Singing and guitar playing were regular features of the fife Folklore Conference and Toelken’s classes. Image taken at the Upper Guinevah on the opening night of the fife Conference

(photo by Carol Edison. Original photograph housed at the Folk and Traditional Arts, Utah Division of Arts and Museums [previously known as the Utah Arts Council]. From Utah Folklorist Image Digital Collection. Reprinted by permission of Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library).

Toelken earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1958 from Utah State University (USU); he went on to earn a master’s degree in English Literature from Washington State University in 1959. He earned his PhD in Medieval Literature in 1964 from the University of Oregon, where he studied under renowned scholar Arthur G. [End Page 100] Brodeur. His dissertation, “Some Poetic Functions of Folklore in the English and Scottish Popular Ballads,” paid homage to his love of verse.

After teaching at the University of Utah from 1964 to 1966, he accepted a position at the University of Oregon, serving as director of both Folklore and Ethnic Studies and the Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. During his 19 years at the University of Oregon, Toelken built the folklore program and archives into thriving endeavors, mentoring notable folklorists C. W. “Chip” Sullivan III, Polly Stewart, Suzi Jones, Steve Siporin, George Wasson, and others.

Beginning in 1978, Barre travelled to his undergraduate alma mater to serve as a summer faculty member at the historic fife Folklore Conference directed by his longtime friend William A. “Bert” Wilson. When Wilson returned to Brigham Young University, Toelken was engaged to direct the Folklore Program at USU. Toelken spent 17 years building USU’s folklore program, including a public sector track and an outdoor museum track. A charismatic program builder, he worked tirelessly to promote folkloristics at USU. A popular teacher, he incorporated folk songs into classroom lectures and community presentations, making him a sought-after professor and community presenter. Max Peterson, USU Library Director, recalls going with Toelken on a networking trip. As they left Logan, Peterson remembers Barre saying: “Wait a minute, let me get my guitar. If things go bad, I can always sing and make it better” (Peterson 2016).

Toelken’s charismatic personality and engaging teaching style attracted graduate students to USU from across the country and around the world. At USU, he mentored folklorists Jeannie B. Thomas, Joanna...


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