Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2003
"A mighty wind" blew out of IU 50 years ago
Conference commemorates first doctorate in folklore granted at IU and in U.S.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On a warm June day 50 years ago, the Trustees of Indiana University met and established a new rank of distinguished professor to honor three eminent IU faculty members -- Nobel Prize winner Herman Muller, renowned biologist Tracy Sonneborn and a folklorist named Stith Thompson.
Thompson, an IU Bloomington faculty member since 1921, originally came to teach in the English Department, but, little by little, introduced college courses about traditional folk stories and ballads. One of his students, a Maine native named Warren Roberts, was drawn to IU by Thompson's reputation and his Institutes of Folklore, organized meetings of international scholars held every four years.
Despite the fact that Roberts, Thompson and many other scholars had studied hundreds, even thousands of years of folk history, folklore then was not an established discipline at American universities.
However, with the completion of Roberts' doctorate in 1953, Thompson had two milestones to celebrate -- recognition by his peers and something more profound, the first doctorate in folklore ever awarded at IU or in the United States.
The new folk music comedy, A Mighty Wind, may not acknowledge IU's legacy in its fictional account, but appreciation for folklore and ethnomusicology truly began blowing in a different direction as a result.
"I was supervising Roberts' thesis," Thompson related in his memoir, A Folklorist's Progress. "As a matter of fact, he did not take a great deal of supervision, but I did give him as much help as I could in bringing together the many hundreds of versions of one of the tales he was studying. When the thesis was finished it was a real accomplishment."
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Roberts' doctorate, the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology on June 6-8 will commemorate a half century of scholarly achievement by hosting a conference at Bloomington. Roberts passed away at age 74 in 1999, but his widow, Barbara, expects to attend. The public also is invited to events taking place at Read Center, which is located at 125 S. Jordan Ave. in Bloomington.
"The conference is not a commemoration in itself," said John McDowell, chairman and professor of folklore at IU. "What we want to do is showcase the range and quality of research that is happening in this field, which in some sense has its origin with the 1953 dissertation.
"Warren was one of several people who, when we look back to them, are kind of our 'demi-gods,' our mythical ancestors. They were quite an impressive batch of people," McDowell added. "So many of the early graduates of this program took the folklore concept and established it elsewhere, and that continues to happen today."
One of those graduates, Wayland Hand, went on to found the Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore and Mythology at the University of California at Los Angeles, which established a library in his name. Another alumnus, Alan Dundes, became the first American to win the Pitre Prize, the top international prize in folklore and ethnomusicology, while at the University of California at Berkeley. One of Roberts' former students, John Vlach, is now the director of the folklife program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Today, the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology is home to internationally recognized scholarship on the music and culture of African-America, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded it a grant to create an online digital archive of video world music recordings and a searchable database for research and teaching.
In the second year of his graduate study, Roberts was assigned the undergraduate courses in folklore. After earning his doctorate, he was invited to become a professor at IU, where he remained for a career spanning 45 years. Folklore did not get its own department at IU until 1963.
"I can say wholeheartedly that as much as he loved British literature -- from Beowolf all the way up through the 1800s -- he really loved folklore," Barbara Roberts said. "When he had an opportunity to broaden his work to include folklife, he embraced it. He loved his work with heart and soul."
In addition to his teaching and research at IU, Roberts was an original member of Bloomington Restorations Inc., a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Bloomington and Monroe County's historic architecture and old neighborhoods. He was among those who helped save the old Monroe County Public Library building, which now houses the Monroe County Historical Society.
McDowell observed that it's ironic that folklore as an academic discipline is relatively new.
"What we call folklore has been of interest to people for centuries and indeed millennia," he said. "It often got subsumed under other labels. If you think about it, the curriculum that we have today in the American university is fairly recent. It wasn't too long ago that people were studying subjects such as rhetoric and metaphysics.
"It took a while for folkloristics -- we sometimes call it folkloristics to distinguish it as a field of study, like linguistics -- to kind of separate out into a unique field of study ... to locate art in a social context, to expand it out beyond the boundaries of the museum and the concert hall, to recognize the creativity that is in every person."
The conference, "Words and Things and Music: Modes of Cultural Production," will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 6, with a presentation, "Public Folklore, Public History and the Politics of Representation." The conference will continue the next day and conclude with a keynote lecture by Bruno Nettl, an IU classmate of Roberts and now a professor at the University of Illinois. Alumni of the program will gather on Sunday.
Each night, the schedule will conclude with informal musical sessions featuring whoever wishes to participate, a tradition going back to Thompson. McDowell notes that folklorists are peculiar in that they actually do the stuff that they study.
"Stith Thompson liked to play the guitar. Whenever they had these folklore institutes, apparently in the evenings there would be later what came to be known as a hootenanny. Time would be given over to singing songs," he said. "We want to continue that tradition and keep it alive and it seems most appropriate that it would be part of this conference."