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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Thomas Vennum, 1934–2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson
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By Guha Shankar (Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress) — 

When the news about Tom Vennum’s passing on September 12th, at the age of eighty-two, reached me, conflicting emotions ran through my head. There was melancholy, tinged with remorse, over the fact that I had not been able to maintain closer contact with him in his last few years. Not so odd, but another feeling was relief, because he was free at last from the near-constant physical agony he endured from the crippling surgeries that followed his debilitating stroke in the mid 1990’s. Above all, I felt again a sense of deep, profound gratitude and love for my friend, first mentor and (sometimes irritable) guide into the overlapping arenas of documentary film-making, ethnographic practice, and crucially, cultural advocacy for under-represented communities in the public sector. To be sure, all the above goes without saying that our interactions were complicated and at several junctures… fraught… but then again, that could be said of the relationship that many others also had with Tom!

Much of Tom’s experiences and knowledge were accumulated over four decades while in the employ of the early variants of the present-day Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. It is very much the case that I am far from being the only Folklife staffer (former or present), friend, and colleague who can attest to how Tom Vennum’s out-sized personality, his raucous (and raw) sense of humor, prodigious scholarly credentials and accomplishments, and teaching (intentional or not) touched and, in some instances, profoundly shaped our lives. To that point, Richard Derbyshire, Miles Herter, Marjorie Hunt, Richard Kurin, Diana Parker, Frank Proschan, Arlene Reiniger, Cal Southworth, Nick Spitzer, Barbara Strickland, and innumerable others, could spin out their versions of “Tom stories”—some of them would even be fit for hearing by small children and elderly people!

Our telling of such stories would surely involve his meticulous research in the field and the archives, his wide-ranging knowledge of musical and cultural traditions ranging from drum-making and wild ricing among Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people in Wisconsin to kombit songs in Haiti to Seri music in the US-Mexico borderlands and the Native American origins of lacrosse,  the solidly crafted texts that resulted from that research, and his fine eye for producing documentary films—he was the Supervising Editor for the pioneering monograph/film series, Smithsonian Folklife Studies. Some of us might recall that he was a very talented stride piano player, and also fluent in a couple of Algonquian languages, Haitian kwéyòl and German. Most important of all of his passions, we would certainly remember his unwavering advocacy for the Native American community members and friends he knew and moved with. As he told me more than once, he learned much from Indian people and, in turn, he dedicated his personal and professional life to advancing their causes and to finding ways to amplify native ways of knowing via films, books, recordings, and festival programs. Along those lines, he was the first director for the trail-blazing Federal Cylinder Project (ca. 1979-86), an inter-agency effort led by the Library of Congress to preserve and return historic Native American recordings to source communities. (Judith Gray and others at AFC who worked with him referred to him fondly as “Dr. Vundebark” in those days!)

My own memories of Tom are sometimes clear and distinct, but more often specific events and dates tend to blur, one into the other, like a long, slow film dissolve. Take the accompanying photograph: the details behind the photograph are lost to me (it was taken at the Folklife festival in 1993 as Tom’s staff T-shirt indicates), but that is not as consequential as the poses we are striking—me jostling, him resistant. For me, and perhaps for others who knew us, the photo brings into focus the roles that Tom and I came to inhabit at the Smithsonian’s Office of Folklife Programs (OFP) over thirty years ago, when I was his film editor. The script we performed—and to which we subjected our friends and colleagues for many a year (sorry, folks, we were just kidding around…mostly!)—were that of the acerbic, bitingly funny, brilliant scholar and legendary curmudgeon (Tom), pitted against his sometimes unruly, often scruffy protégé (me) who was locked in on a mission to buck the old guy’s dictums, upset his decorum whenever possible and jolly him into loosening up. He and I developed that shtick over the course of nearly a decade of working together at the OFP (1985-1993), where we made ethnographic films and worked on Festival programs and publications. Inevitably, thinking about things seen and unseen in the photograph brings into view the many occasions we went to see the Grateful Dead in concert. I tried to tease him about joining the clan of Deadheads at such an advanced age—he was close to fifty when the percussionist Mickey Hart came calling, drawn to the Center because of Tom’s book on Ojibwe drumming. But, as Tom was quick to retort (expletives included), he was the one who had it in his power to get me into the show, so I very quickly backed off from nipping at the hand that held the tickets and backstage passes! And so on…

Maybe some of us who traveled with Tom over the years will get together and do that story-telling thing one of these days… or maybe not. Time is not in our favor, after all. In the meantime, we will have our various memories and tales of a good and complicated man to hold on to and savor as needed.



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