With his elegant sartorial style and mannerisms, his remarkable height, his studious approach to Appalachian fiddle styles, and his immersion in the halls of academia and the bureaucracy of Washington, Alan Jabbour cut a striking figure in an old-time music scene initially made up of real-deal old-timers, back-to-the landers, countercultural seekers, and later, crusty punks—characters bedecked in plaid, overalls, and jeans, in contrast to his tidy suits and crisp shirts. Jabbour initially seemed destined for a career as an academic, studying for a PhD in Medieval Literature at Duke University before a class on balladry steered him towards a career in public folklore and derailed his life—or, maybe, gave him the true north compass point he needed.
His background playing violin in symphonies as a youth and young adult gave him a solid grounding on the instrument that allowed him to find his true calling in the playing, documenting, and dissemination of traditional Southern fiddle music. Jabbour found his mentor, his lifelong guru and master, in the person of Henry Reed from the Virginia/West Virginia border, and was a Pied Piper for Reed’s musical legacy the rest of his days. Embarking on a serious study of fiddle music, following a path created by earlier scholars such as Samuel Bayard, he put in long hours listening to and studying the field recordings in the Archive of Folk Song (later renamed the Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress, and created the landmark 1971 LP American Fiddle Tunes. It was the most serious aural study of fiddle music available at the time, allowing listeners access to worlds of music not easily accessible to the general public. Collaborating with Carl Fleishhauer and Dwight Diller, he then embarked on a remarkable multi-year project to document and disseminate via publication the music and folklore of the Hammons Family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
Jabbour and his group the Hollow Rock Stringband also created an approach to learning and playing old-time music that sought to emulate the finest details of the master musicians they idolized. Ironically, the way they processed and transformed the largely solo music from Jabbour’s field recordings into the string band format changed the music. They put the focus heavily on fiddle tunes and away from the singing and multi-instrumental prowess that characterized revival predecessors the New Lost City Ramblers. This emphasis on instrumental music, on Jabbour’s beloved fiddle tunes, lives on in the old-time music scene of today. The dedication to sources reflected the intense longing for roots, community, and a connection to the past that was in the air in the 1960s and ’70s. Jabbour’s example inspired a legion of fiddle and banjo apprentices to go out to the field to look for their own Henry Reed, as Tom Carter put it (in his 1991 essay “Looking for Henry Reed: Confessions of a Revivalist”). While he had many predecessors in this, including most famously Alan Lomax, they were older, distant figures to most baby boomers, while Jabbour was present on the scene and was a brilliant musician and teacher to boot.
Alan Jabbour also helped to innovate an all-inclusive approach to the jam session that nearly everyone reading these words has experienced: the mega-jam. By all accounts, the scene around Hollow Rock and Chapel Hill that emanated from Jabbour and his circle in the late 1960s was one of inclusiveness that sought to give musical realization to a democratic ideal. With all musicians focused on playing the melody in unison, as Tom Carter again characterized it, the “logical extension of this approach was the idea that the number of people who might join at any one time was, at least theoretically, infinite.” The aesthetic musical results of large sessions can be mixed, but the mega-jam isn’t about performance; you are supposed to experience it as a participant, and at least in the early days of the festival scene, all were welcome to these sessions regardless of skill level.
Among many other professional accomplishments well documented elsewhere, Alan Jabbour briefly served as professor of English and folklore at UCLA, before being head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress through 1974, when he became the first director of the National Endowment for the Arts‘ grant-giving folk arts program. Another major first came when he was hired to oversee the birth of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, as its Director. The AFC was founded in 1976, during the Bicentennial, a time of idealism and nostalgia in this country for the nation’s birth, a time very hard to imagine at present. Raising a family and guiding the Center through its birth and initial growing pains took him away from the music scene he helped give birth to, but he returned to regular performing and teaching upon his retirement in 1999.
It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously involved in old-time music over the past 50 years who wasn’t aware of Alan and his work. Nearly all of the tributes that poured in on social media in the wake of his passing mentioned what a kind, gentle, and giving man he was, and this was my experience as well. He radiated the vibe of a gentleman and retained a poetic sensibility from his early grounding in literature that came across as he expressed his ideas and theories on traditional music. His performances weren’t just about presenting music; he sought to educate his audiences about the people, places, and processes that resulted in the expression of traditional music and culture. He touched many lives and straddled many worlds: academic, bureaucrat, fieldworker, firecracker fiddler. He will be remembered and he will be missed – what more can you ask of a well-lived life?