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Alan Jabbour: Fiddler, Scholar, and Preserver of Tradition
Steve Goldfield

Alan Jabbour has long been an integral part of the preservation of old time fiddling in America . Beginning his professional life as a professor of English Literature and Folklore, Alan soon moved into the musical arena, eventually becoming head of the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, director of the Folk Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and then director of the American Folklife Center. As a member of the Hollow Rock String Band, Alan brought old tunes to new audiences, and his documention of tunes from Henry Reed, the Hammons Family, and many others gave them a new life. Alan's acclaimed recent album of fiddle and banjo duets with Ken Perlman is proof of a musical career still going strong.


Alan's First Encounters with Traditional Music

One of [Alan's] first classes at Duke was a seminar on the ballad taught by Holger Nygard, who was a folklorist and a medievalist.Alan had been exposed to the folk music revival in Miami; Nygard's seminar immersed him in ballads and collecting folklore. Alan wrote his master's thesis on the collection and analysis of folk songs in the British Isles and America . Holger Nygard also played Library of Congress records. Alan recalls, "I was smitten. There was something culturally powerful in that music. I wrote off and got some for myself and listened to them over and over again. I had the idea that because of my special knowledge of the violin, I should collect folk fiddling."

Alan bought a cheap tape recorder and started in north Durham County in 1965. He stopped at a gas station/country store and asked if there were any fiddlers around. Within a few minutes, he met Edsel Terry, who played fiddle and banjo. Terry was fairly young at the time and is the only one of Alan's early mentors who is still alive. Terry encouraged Alan to try playing the music himself and turned Alan's visits toward apprenticeship.

At the time, Alan had not played his violin for about a year. He began learning tunes from his new mentors. He had to relearn both his instrument and a new way to learn -- by ear. Classical musicians use their ears, but they also rely on printed music. Now Alan had only his ears. The tape recordings helped, too. Alan's recorder was reel to reel with different speeds. He played the recordings back at half speed, which gave him time to hear what was happening, especially bowing patterns. At the same time, his transcriptions helped him see what underlay this style of music. At first, his learning went slowly but then it came faster.


Two of the fiddlers Alan recorded were Joseph Aiken and his brother Romy. The Durham Morning Herald ran a feature article on Alan's collecting with a picture of Alan with Joseph Aiken. Benjamin Franklin Jarrell, known as B. F., was working just north of Durham in Roxboro as a DJ. He saw the picture in the paper and then recognized Alan at Galax. He introduced himself and said, "You ought to see my daddy." Tommy Jarrell came to Galax the next day but did not have his fiddle. So Alan and Karen stopped to visit him in Toast, North Carolina , near Mount Airy , on their way home.

Alan was the first person outside Tommy Jarrell's community to visit him. He recalls that Tommy was no longer working for the state highway department but had his last check from that job on his wall. He refused to cash the check even though they begged him to do so to clear their books. Tommy was then in the transition from mourning his wife into bachelorhood. Tommy came to find a new function in life by teaching his music to a new generation of young people. He was very influential both because of his musical talent and because he was a warm and available teacher. Alan did learn some of Tommy's tunes, but he also played other versions, such as Taylor Kimble's "Breaking up Christmas," rather than Tommy's.

Henry Reed

Whereas many fiddlers had versions of Tommy Jarrell's tunes, Alan had to learn Henry Reed's tunes from scratch because nobody else played most of his tunes. Alan met Oscar Wright at Galax. Oscar was playing great tunes. Alan asked to visit him in Princeton , West Virginia . Eugene Wright lived there, too. Oscar played "Kitchen Girl," "Ducks on the Pond," and other unique and wonderful tunes. Alan asked, "Where did you learn those?" "From old man Henry Reed," the Wrights explained. Alan assumed that Reed was long gone but was told that he was still alive and fiddling. Oscar Wright gave Alan directions to Glen Lyn, Virginia, where he found Henry Reed on the same trip. The Jabbours arrived around suppertime and were invited to eat when the Reeds heard that Oscar had sent them. They did not even know why Alan had come.


Alan recorded about forty tunes on his first visit with Henry Reed. He says, "I knew that I had found my mentor for the future. He had a tremor in his hands, but a fiddler can hear through that." Mostly Reed played his old repertoire, though his son James would comment about a few little changes. "Henry Reed was a huge influence on me for repertoire and style," Alan asserts. "And through the wider circle in Durham , the tunes spread; they were the fuel for our music revival. Henry Reed was, for us, a dominant figure. He played great and unique tunes. He was the only one that remembered them. He was an amazing resource. He was not out of touch with the world; it was important to him to keep the music, so he did. He learned bluegrass and country western tunes, too. He learned what he liked."

Alan visited Henry Reed seven or eight times and recorded during six of those visits. He recorded 184 items of which 144 were different tunes. During Alan's last visit, Reed added more than twenty tunes, so he probably knew more.

Alan visited Taylor Kimble two or three times. He had also just lost his wife, and music cheered him up. Alan remembers that Taylor "met Stella Holladay through us young people. They courted, married, and learned each other's repertoires and played together in their seventies."

Alan wishes he could have visited Gray Craig, who learned from Posey Rorer, more than once. He also visited Doc White and Lee Triplett in West Virginia only once. He says, "It was important in that era to visit fiddlers because only those in their seventies and eighties still retained music from before outside influences seeped in after World War I. The new directions cut off a lot of local repertoire which fell gradually into disuse."

Alan recalls, "I was more pessimistic then about the future of the fiddle in the South than I am now. I've seen a revolution in interest in old time fiddlng. First, people like me and then later other people and now young generations in those communities. People from Gray Craig's area ask what he was like. I'm humbled that I became willy nilly part of the chemistry of that. In the long run, these things have cultural impacts, when you look back, enriching and beneficial impacts."


[For the full text of this article, as well as the tune "Ducks in the Pond" (transcribed by Alan Jabbour as played by Henry Reed), click here to download a free pdf.]

Henry Reed website:

[Steve Goldfield plays old time banjo and fiddle. He is a staff reviewer for Bluegrass Unlimited and a frequent contributor to Fiddler Magazine.]

Photo: Susanne Even