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  • Burt H. Feintuch (1949–2018)
  • Jeannie Banks Thomas

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Figure 1.

Burt H. Feintuch (courtesy University of New Hampshire).

Burt Howard Feintuch was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on May 29, 1949. He departed this earth on October 29, 2018, leaving behind extensive folklore field research on local and traditional music from Kentucky; Northumberland, England; Cape Breton Island, Canada; New England; Louisiana; and Texas. His fieldwork collection, consisting of tens of thousands of recordings, images, and documents, resides at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He was the author of numerous scholarly books and articles on folklore and music, and he produced several albums of vernacular music—including gospel, Northumbrian smallpipes, and Cape Breton fiddle and piano music—for Rounder Records and Smithsonian Folkways. He also made documentary films about gospel music, refugees, and African American history in New England. He was a [End Page 103] dedicated father to his daughters Sophie and Hannah, a delightful life partner, and an enthusiastic cook. A talented musician, he regularly provided fiddle music to New Hampshire-area contra dances. He also played the banjo, the acoustic and electric guitar, the Northumbrian smallpipes, and the mandolin.

Those of us who loved and mourn Burt echo the words of the woman, known only as Dink, who did laundry on a Texas levee as she sang, “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly up the river to the one I love.” “Dink’s Song,” of course, was famously captured by John Lomax just after the turn of the twentieth century. In the contemporary era, Burt caught tunes, too, and he did it in the best way possible. He documented tunes so that others could hear their power and the joy and resilience they brought to human existence. His work with music bears witness to its capacity to move people—often literally, as he was particularly fond of documenting dance music.

His mother, Janice Albert Feintuch, may have launched his career of documenting folk music when she took a teenaged Burt to see Pete Seeger in concert, which made a lasting impression. During high school in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, he was a member of the Folk Club, which focused on music. As an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University, he worked for the Penn State Folklore Society folk music series, which hosted well-regarded traditional musicians including Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elizabeth Cotten, and the High Level Ranters. Not only did this series bring in the era’s notable folk musicians, but it is also remembered fondly for an epic and drunken snowball fight between the New Lost City Ramblers and Penn State students.

Burt studied American Studies and Folklore, and Professor Samuel Preston Bayard was especially influential. Bayard molded and refined Burt’s lifelong interest in documenting traditional and roots music. After graduation in 1971, he attended graduate school in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn, he learned to play the fiddle and completed his PhD in 1975 with a dissertation about Earl “Pop” Hafler, a traditional fiddle player from southeastern Pennsylvania.

His first academic job was as Professor of Folklore and Folklife at Western Kentucky University from 1975–1988, where he directed the master’s degree program. While living in Kentucky, he followed local music from archives to kitchens and living rooms, to the Taylor Chapel A.M.E. Church, and to a Tennessee auto salvage yard, where he documented performances by the likes of Bud Garrett, Street Butler, Mose Rager, and Chlorine Lawson (whose name he loved). He produced an LP of this music with Bruce Greene, I Kind of Believe It’s a Gift (Bowling Green-Warren County Arts Commission, ND). He also met the Cross Family, whose gospel music inspired him to produce an album, Walk Around Heaven All Day (Bowling Green-Warren County Arts Commission, 1981). He was the content specialist for a documentary film about them, The Cross Family: Living the Life We Sing About (Western Kentucky University Television Center, ND). He said that the highlight of his career was when the Crosses declared him an honorary family member. He may have earned this...


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