Ken Sullivan Remembers Alan Jabbour

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Alan Jabbour, Head of the Archive of Folk Song (now Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress, reviewing sound recordings of folk music from the Archive’s collections, July 1972. Jabbour is pictured in the Library’s Recording Laboratory in the Library’s main building (now called the Thomas Jefferson Building). Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, via Folklife Today.

From West Virginia Humanities Council Executive Director Ken Sullivan:

After Alan Jabbour’s recent and untimely death, someone asked how long I had known the man, and I realized with a start that I couldn’t answer the question: Alan had been in my life a long, long time, always just there, almost like the weather, a real friend and asset to those of us in the folklife business.

Thinking more deeply, I figure I probably inherited Alan from Tom Screven when I took over Goldenseal magazine from Tom back in 1979. Goldenseal is West Virginia’s traditional life magazine, and Tom was founding editor. I don’t know that Alan ever contributed articles, but he was the subject of a great Goldenseal interview in 1977 and always very much a part of our informal circle of advisers. Certainly that was true in Tom’s day at Goldenseal, and in mine, and I believe during John Lilly’s more recent tenure as well.

At the time of the 1977 interview, Alan had recently become the first director of the American Folklife Center at age 34. Tom called him a “brilliant young innovator in the field of folklore in the United States.” I don’t think that ever changed, Alan’s brilliance and youthfulness, and of course the other thing one remembers is that mile-wide grin – that, and the eagerness with which he resumed conversation no matter how long since the last time he saw you.

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Alan Jabbour at the U.S. Forest Service sign for Little Laurel Creek, which flows into the Williams River at the bottom of the hill to the right. In the background of this April 1972 photograph are visiting friend Paul Haggard, Maggie Hammons Parker, and Burl Hammons. Maggie and Burl had accompanied their visitors to this location in order to show them one of the family’s former home sites, near the mouth of Little Laurel. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, via Folklife Today.

Carl Fleischhauer helped Tom interview Alan for Goldenseal, and Carl and Alan had already collaborated on a legendary 1973 words-and-music study of the Hammons family of Pocahontas County. I’d say that the landmark Hammons project [The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions] was Alan’s main foray into West Virginia folk studies, had it not been for his lifelong interest in fiddler Henry Reed of the Virginia-West Virginia border country, or his album for Kanawha Records, or the influence on Alan of West Virginia native Tommy Thompson – or well, a few other things as well.

Certainly those things include several very welcome contributions to our work at the West Virginia Humanities Council, after I came here from Goldenseal in 1997. We booked Alan for formal lectures whenever we could, if charming fiddle-and-talk sessions can be described as any ways formal. I remember introducing him for one of those in Beckley and one here in Charleston, and maybe another place or two, as well.

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West Virginia Humanities Council Executive Director Ken Sullivan and Alan Jabbour at the MacFarland-Hubbard House, 2014. Photo by Mike Keller.

Alan came on as a special consultant when we undertook our two-year study of southern West Virginia folk music at the suggestion of former Congressman Nick Rahall back in 2005-06. (And come to think of it, Rahall’s chief of staff Kent Keyser probably helped to cement my relationship with Alan. As Folklife Center director, Alan was one of our field’s most effective advocates, on Capitol Hill every day at his offices in the Library of Congress and well-known to Congressional staffers and their bosses too.) Alan contributed articles to our big West Virginia Encyclopedia project at about that same time, then later on he came to see us officially as part of a site visit team from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our last extensive interaction concerned what was possibly Alan’s final research interest, on Central Appalachian burial practices – and yes, he turned up more traditional grave houses in this region than any of us ever thought possible.

Alan Jabbour was a busy, busy professional despite every appearance of laid-back cool, and we were blessed with a lot of his time and attention.

Maybe West Virginians enjoyed special access, given his interest in certain Mountain State subjects, but I really suspect that anyone with an honest curiosity about America’s rich traditional heritage found Alan’s door open wide. In any case, I cherish my time with him and the things learned from him.

But no, I don’t recall when I first met the guy, and I’m sorry for it.

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Alan Jabbour recording Maggie Hammons Parker at her home in Stillwell, near Marlinton, West Virginia, April 1973. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, via Folklife Today.

Alan Jabbour continues to impact folklife work in West Virginia. In 2016, the West Virginia Folklife Program was one of two recipients of the Henry Reed Fund Award from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, a fund Alan established upon his retirement. The award was used to produce and document a free public concert with Gilmer County ballad singer Phyllis Marks.

Read Alan Jabbour’s e-WV articles on Henry Reed and The Hammons Family.

Read Carl Fleischhauer’s memories of working with Alan to document the Hammons Family. 

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