Alan Jabbour A.M. '66, Ph.D. '68

Striking up the fiddle
June 1, 2007

 

Alan Jabbour A.M. '66, Ph.D. '68
Bill Petros

Alan Jabbour fell in love with the old-time fiddle when he was a graduate student at Duke, but it was hardly his first encounter with the instrument. A violinist from the age of seven, Jabbour played with the Jacksonville Symphony, the Brevard Music Festival Orchestra, the Miami Symphony, and the University of Miami String Quartet, all before he arrived at Duke to study literature.

Then came a revelation. "I had been interested in folk music when I was an undergraduate—Odetta, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez," says Jabbour. "Then at Duke one of my first classes was a seminar in the traditional ballad. We dragged out some Library of Congress field recordings and played them. They had an authenticity, a real power, which derived from hearing them played by people for whom that music was a way of life. I was smitten. Nothing would do but that I would go meet these musicians. And off I went."

Jabbour traveled the hills and hollows of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, recording instrumental folk music, folk songs, and folklore. "The other collectors collected tales or ballads," says Jabbour. "I collected old-time fiddle tunes. Once I started right there in Durham County, one thing led to another. Encouraged by the fiddlers I met, I took out the fiddle again myself." Jabbour's research evolved into an apprenticeship when he met Henry Reed, a Virginia fiddler then in his eighties.

From these adventures a group of young musicians emerged who were at the heart of the old-time music scene in Durham in the late 1960s. Jabbour taught the fiddle repertory he had learned from Reed to friends, and they formed the Hollow Rock String Band, a group from which "the ripples are still spreading," he says.

In 1968, the year Henry Reed died, the Hollow Rock String Band released an LP, and Jabbour moved on to teach English and ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles. Just a year later, he came back east to head The Archive of Folk Song (now The Archive of Folk Culture) at the Library of Congress. In 1971, he moved to the National Endowment for the Arts as founding director of that agency's grant-giving program in folk arts. A career built around recognizing and recording American folk culture moved into high gear. It would be filled with publishing, recording, conferences, festivals—and fiddling.

In 1976, Jabbour returned to the Library of Congress as founding director of the American Folklife Center and stayed there until retiring in 1999. He marked that event by founding the Henry Reed Fund for Folk Artists, named for his fiddle mentor.

Since then, Jabbour has taught, recorded, and toured from his home base in Washington, with his wife, Karen Singer Jabbour A.M. '68. He has also explored his own roots, speaking about his Arab-American heritage at a conference in 2006. "My grandfather came to America from Syria and had dreams. My father followed him and joined him in this country. No matter where you are from, your family storytelling creates a felt connection between your past and your present life in America.

"It's curious that my father was an immigrant, and I ended up the most attentive person to certain cultural traditions here. Henry Reed was first generation, too. His father came as a boy from Ireland to America."

The story of an Arab-American boy who meets an Irish-American fiddler in the mountains of Virginia and goes on to share his tunes with a new generation of musicians: Sounds like a ballad, doesn't it? Strike up the fiddle.

— Grace is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, New York.