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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Tristram P. Coffin (1922--2012)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Dan Ben-Amos — 

Tristram Coffin, born in San Marino, California, a scion of a pedigreed family whose ancestor was among the first settlers in Nantucket in the 17th century, was a leading American folklorist and an international ballad scholar. He was elected as a Fellow of the American Folklore Society in 1960 and served as its Secretary-Treasurer from 1961 to 1965. After graduating from Haverford College in 1943, he served in the Army Air Forces. Upon discharge, he attended the University of Virginia and in 1946 transferred to the University of Pennsylvania where he studied with Professor MacEdward Leach, specializing in English, Scottish and American ballads. His dissertation The British Traditional Ballad in North America (1949), was published a year later and became a key work in ballad scholarship. Tris started teaching at Denison University in Granville, Ohio (1950), where he was elected into the Athletic Hall of Fame, and where a scholarship was created in his name. In 1953 he was a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 1958 he was appointed as an Associate Professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania. Four years later, in 1962, he became a founding member of the Folklore and Folklife Department, and in 1965-1968 he was vice dean in the Graduate School of Arts. He retired in 1984. Looking back at his teaching career, he singled out as one of his most interesting activities teaching Shakespeare and other poetry in 1962-63 at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The ballad remained the main stay of Tris’ scholarship. He edited, with excellent critical annotations, four volumes of Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England, compiled and edited by Helen Hartness Flanders (1960-1965), and together with MacEdward Leach the volume of Critics and the Ballad (1961). As a service for folklorists he prepared the Analytical Index to the Journal of American folklore (1958), and for the students he edited Our Living Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore (1968). He also extended his research beyond the ballad and published Uncertain Glory: Folklore and the American Revolution(1971), The Book of Christmas Folklore(1973); Female Hero in Folklore and Legend (1975), Proper Book of Sexual Folklore (1978) and edited with Hennig Cohen four books on folklore in America. He was a public folklorist before the term existed and made more than 100 media appearances, hosting the series "Lyrics and Legends” on National Educational Television (NET) and the Voice of America’s series on American folklore. In addition to his love for ballads and books he was an athlete, directing a summer tennis camps and refereeing soccer games. His love for sport generated his book The Old Ball Game: Baseball in Folklore and Fiction (1971) and the only novel he wrote Great Game for a Girl (1980). A witty scholar, he described folklore "as a bastard field that anthropology begot upon English.” See also Margalit Fox, "Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist, Dies at 89" New York Times (February 13, 2012).

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