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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Barre Toelken, 1935-2018

Monday, July 1, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jessica Turner
By Randy Williams — 

Barre Toelken, brilliant scholar of folklore and medieval literature, died on 9 November 2018, in Logan, Utah, surrounded by his adoring family. A beloved mentor, teacher, and performer, Toelken leaves a legacy of insightful and approachable publications, impeccable fieldwork ethics, and hundreds of admiring colleagues and students.

Barre was born in Ware, Massachusetts on 15 June 1935, the son of John Toelken and Sylvia Damon Toelken. He grew up surrounded by his family’s ballad tradition. As a forestry student at Utah State University (USU) during the 1950s, Toelken took a class from King Hendricks, the larger-than-life head of the USU English Department. Hendricks described his course, entitled Floating Poetry, as ‘poetry that has lived in oral tradition since medieval times’. Toelken quickly became Hendricks’s star pupil, performing the ballads of the class syllabus. The experience whetted Barre’s academic appetite for ballad scholarship and he promptly changed his major to English.

During and after earning a bachelor’s degree in English (1958) from USU, Barre prospected for uranium in the western US Four Corners region. During this time, he became ill and was nursed back to health by the Yellowman family. This experience forged a lifelong bond and he was adopted into the family. For the next forty-three years, Toelken collected Navajo stories, principally from Hugh Yellowman.

After spending two years on the Navajo Reservation, Barre entered graduate school and went on to earn a master’s degree in English Literature from Washington State University in 1959. He earned his PhD in Medieval Literature in 1964 from the University of Oregon, where he studied under renowned scholar Arthur G. Brodeur. His dissertation ‘Some Poetic Functions of Folklore in the English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ paid homage to his love of the ballad.

After a short stint teaching at the University of Utah (1964–66), in 1966 he accepted a position at the University of Oregon, serving as director for both Folklore and Ethnic Studies and the Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Beginning in 1978, Barre traveled to his undergraduate alma mater to serve as a summer faculty member at the Fife Folklore Conference directed by his long-time friend William A. ‘Bert’ Wilson. As Wilson prepared to return to Brigham Young University, he recommended Barre as his replacement to direct the Folklore Program at USU. Toelken spent seventeen years building USU’s folklore program, where he often incorporated folk songs into classroom lectures and community presentations.

Max Peterson, USU Library Director, recalls going with Toelken on a networking trip. As they left Logan, Peterson remembered Barre saying, ‘wait a minute, let me get my guitar. If things go bad, I can always sing and make it better’ (pers. comm., March 2016).

Toelken’s charismatic personality and engaging teaching style attracted graduate students to USU from across the country and around the world, and his scholarship has informed three generations of scholars. His Dynamics of Folklore (1979, 1996) is a standard text used in many folklore courses today, forty years after its first publication.

In 1998, he wrote the seminal article ‘The Yellowman Tapes, 1966–1997’, wherein he discussed his rationale for returning his fieldwork tapes to the Yellowman family, fearing someone might use them out of season or in culturally dangerous ways. Although criticized by some for this move, he held strong to his decision. He wrote, ‘folklorists stand to learn more and do better work when scholarly decisions are guided by the cultures we study even when taking this course causes disruption in our academic assumptions’.

Barre Toelken was an amazing ambassador for folklore, serving on boards in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts Folklife Program, the Western Folklife Center, Utah Arts Council, and the International Ballad Commission. He was made a Fellow of the American Folklore Society early in his career and was awarded two Fulbrights.

Toelken was the recipient of many honors and awards, including the Ersted Award for Distinguished Teaching at the University of Oregon (1970); Danforth Fellows (1973); Fellows of the American Folklore Society (1981); Fulbright Exchange Professor (1984); the Bunyan Award, by the California Folklore Society (now Western States Folklore Society, 1991); Chicago Folklore Prize for The Anguish of Snails, by the American Folklore Society (2004); Lifetime Achievement Award, by the National Storytelling Network (2005); the Americo Paredes Prize, by the American Folklore Society (2007); the Kenneth Goldstein Award for Lifetime Academic Leadership, by the American Folklore Society (2011); Tribute for contributions to the field of folklore in Utah, by the Folklore Society of Utah (2012); and the AFS Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award, by the American Folklore Society (2016). He is the only person to receive all three major awards from the American Folklore Society during his lifetime.

We miss him, and strive to live up to the example he set as a teacher, scholar, and writer.


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