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AFS Review: News

Barre Toelken (1935 - 2018)

Monday, November 12, 2018   (4 Comments)
Posted by: Meredith McGriff
Barre Toelken passed away on November 9, 2018. Barre was a leader in our field, a teacher, mentor, and charismatic speaker. He was a singer and guitarist who knew hundreds of traditional ballads, and a scholar whose books and articles are diverse and inspiring. He worked in many areas of the discipline, including Navajo mythology and Anglo-American folksongs. From 1985 until 2003, Barre directed Utah State University's folklore program. Before that, he established the folklore program at the University of Oregon. His book The Dynamics of Folklore provided an introduction to folklore studies for many students.

Barre served as president of AFS (1977–78), editor of the Journal of American Folklore (1973–76), and editor of Western Folklore. He was elected to the AFS Fellows in 1981 and served as president of the Fellows from 2002–2003. Additionally, Barre may be the only person to have received all four of AFS’s major awards for folklore scholarship and academic leadership: Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award (2016), Kenneth Goldstein Award for Lifetime Academic Leadership (2011), Américo Paredes Prize (2007), and the Chicago Folklore Prize (2007) for The Anguish of Snails. 

Barre was also one of the leaders of the American Folklife Center's 1979 Montana Folklife Survey project. Follow the link to view all the documentation generated by his fieldwork team, including photos of Barre himself.


Stephen C. Siporin says...
Posted Tuesday, November 20, 2018
(4/4) Like so many of Barre’s students, I remain in awe of him as a gifted teacher. He identified with marginalized groups like Native Americans, Mormons, and loggers, though he didn’t advertise it. He did not subscribe to dogma easily, not even scholarly dogma. These attitudes, as well as his charm and charisma, made him a beloved teacher, not just for future folklorists but for many other students who benefitted in both profession and personal ways from his teaching. As great as his legacy in scholarship remains, the positive, uplifting, and enduring impact he has had on many lives may be even greater.
Stephen C. Siporin says...
Posted Tuesday, November 20, 2018
(3/4) Indeed, Barre was not present for the first session of the first class I took from him at the University of Oregon. He was out of town, consulting, at the Navajo Reservation I think. (His graduate assistant, Polly Stewart, was the perfect substitute.) I had signed up for the class not because I had an interest in folklore (or, I should say, I didn’t know I had an interest in folklore) but because a deaf friend had told me “there’s a really good teacher named Barre Toelken. Take a class from him.” My friend’s suggestion speaks well for his ability to navigate in the hearing world, but Barre stood out for him as someone who could close the gap from the other side. What a recommendation, I thought. I had to find out who this Toelken fellow was.
Stephen C. Siporin says...
Posted Tuesday, November 20, 2018
(2/4) He made unique, enduring contributions in at least four major areas (appropriately reflecting his insights regarding the ritual number four in Navajo world view and tradition): the ballad and folksong, Native American culture, western folklore and culture, and Japanese narrative tradition. He also published significant work in other areas of folkloristics such as folk art, occupational folklore, folk belief, ethnicity, and German folklore. He was a key part of the New Perspectives generation of folklorists who revolutionized the way we look at folklore, reshaping folkloristics into a serious, all-embracing field. Working far away from the centers of power, in the American West, his adopted home, he nevertheless avoided isolation and was in regular contact with a far-flung, international network of colleagues. The bulletin board above his desk was always covered with slips of paper indicating each upcoming trip—to conferences, meetings, research, and consulting.
Stephen C. Siporin says...
Posted Tuesday, November 20, 2018
(1/4) It is hard to conceive how much Barre packed into one lifetime. Even at a relatively early point in his career, when he was teaching at the University of Oregon in the early 1970s, his graduate students would ponder how someone so young (then in his late 30s) could have done so much. And the bulk of his achievements were yet to come. This is not the place to list his publications or praise their quality except to say that he was an enormously skillful writer. In his writing one could hear his voice speaking in the charismatic style for which he was well known. It was said of him that if a keynote speaker suddenly cancelled at the last minute and Barre was in the audience, he could be called upon to get up and with five minutes preparation deliver a stirring, illuminating keynote. In fact, I saw it happen.

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