Last month we lost a very special friend of folklife. Alan Jabbour, musician, scholar, teacher, cultural administrator, and advocate for folk culture on the local, state, national, and international level. He was a seminal figure in the fields of ethnomusicology and folklore—and his legacy will live in the collections he developed, the national programs he founded, and the many students, colleagues, and friends who were enriched by their time with Alan.
Alan Jabbour’s contributions in Michigan are worth noting and celebrating. Back in 1975, Alan served as the first Director of the Folk Arts Program (now known as the Folk and Traditional Arts Program) at the National Endowment for the Arts. He was not only the chief administrator, he also was the inspired force for the preservation, documentation, and presentation of American folk culture. Marsha MacDowell and I learned about this new NEA grant program and we had the idea of doing a survey documentation project of the folk arts of Michigan. We contacted Alan and shared our vision of what we hoped to do. He encouraged and advised us with warmth of a long-time friend. We crafted our first grant application and submitted it to the NEA. A few months later, we were thrilled to learn that we were being awarded a grant to conduct a year-long survey of Michigan folk artistic traditions. We embarked on a year of traveling across the state visiting museums, cultural festivals, local historical societies, MSU Extension Offices, and meeting with traditional artsists. This survey led to the first exhibition of Michigan folk arts that traveled across our state for the Michigan the national bicentennial. We learned later that this NEA grant was one the first folk art state survey grants given by the NEA (the other was in Georgia). In the years to follow, other states conducted similar surveys that helped set the stage for the establishment of state folk arts programs in virtually all states and some territories of the US.
Alan continued to support our work in Michigan while he was at the NEA and then when he took on the challenging role as the founding Director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. From this new seat, he continued to find ways to work together and he proved to become a close personal friend in the following years. He visited the MSU Museum a number of times and also became an important advocate for our Michigan Traditional Arts Program including the Michigan Heritage Awards Program, the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, our exhibitions program, the development our Michigan Traditional Arts Archives, our growing folk art collection, and our annual festival programs.
During this past year, I had the opportunity, in my role as the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, to introduce a special 40th anniversary program for the AFC in Washington, DC. The program was the first time that the Directors of the AFC were all together on a stage to discuss the remarkable contributions of the center to our nation. The conversation traced those early years of the center right up to the present day—and the future role of the center. While it was the tireless champion of such a center, Archie Green, who is properly credited with successfully lobbying for the creation of the center, it was Alan who with his wit, generosity, creativity, and leadership that enabled the center to thrive and eventually gain permanent federal authorization.
The world has lost a legendary figure who dedicated his life to giving voice to the creative expressions of people from diverse communities. We in Michigan are grateful to Alan for his nurturing support and counsel for our own folk and traditional arts programming-- based at the Michigan State University Museum. Clearly though we all have been enriched by his work and a life truly well-lived.
To learn more about Alan Jabbour’s life go to:
To learn more about the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress go to: https://www.loc.gov/folklife/
Dr. C. Kurt Dewhurst is Director Emeritus and Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage for the MSU Museum. He is also the Director of Arts and Cultural Initiatives and Senior Fellow for MSU University Outreach and Engagement. He co-directs the Great Lakes Folk Festival and is a Professor in the English Department of MSU.