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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Burt H. Feintuch, 1949-2018

Tuesday, October 1, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jessica Turner

By Jeannie Banks Thomas, Utah State University —

Burt Feintuch departed this earth on October 29, 2018, at the age of 69. He left us with extensive folklore field research on local and traditional music from Kentucky; Northumberland, England; Cape Breton Island, Canada; Louisiana; and Texas. His fieldwork collection consisting of tens of thousands of recordings, images, and documents resides at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He was the author of numerous scholarly books and articles on folklore and music, and he produced several albums of traditional music, gospel, Northumbrian smallpipes, and Cape Breton fiddle and piano music for Rounder Records and Smithsonian Folkways. His work with music bears witness to its capacity to move people—often literally, because he was particularly fond of documenting dance music. A talented musician himself, he regularly provided fiddle music to New Hampshire-area contra dances. He also played the banjo, the acoustic and electric guitar, the Northumbrian small pipes, and the mandolin.


His undergraduate degree was from Penn State, his PhD from Penn. At Penn State, Professor Samuel Bayard was especially influential. Burt also worked a folk music series for the Penn State Folklore Society, which brought in well-regarded traditional musicians, including  Fred McDowell, Elizabeth Cotten, and the High Level Ranters. Not only did this series promote folk music but it is also remembered for an epic drunken snowball fight between the New Lost City Ramblers and Penn State college students.


A former editor of the Journal of American Folklore, he held academic positions at Western Kentucky University and the University of New Hampshire. While living in Kentucky, he published Kentucky Folk Music (University Press of Kentucky, 1985) and edited The Conservation of Culture (University Press of Kentucky, 1988). He followed traditional music from archives, kitchens, and living rooms to the Taylor AME Church and a Tennessee auto-salvage yard, where he documented performances by the likes of Bud Garrett, Street Butler, Mose Rager, and Chlorine Lawson (a name he particularly loved). He also met the Cross family, whose gospel music inspired him to make an album and serve as a cultural consultant on a film about them, Living the Life We Sing About. He said the highlight of his career was when the Crosses declared him an honorary family member. He may have earned this distinction because he followed them to church so many times while lugging his weighty Revox A77 reel-to-reel recorder. Years later, another highlight came when he attended the wedding celebration of Cape Breton fiddler, Andrea Beaton. He stayed for over eight hours, finally leaving after having seen the bride herself play a rousing set of dance tunes that began at 2 a.m. 


During his UNH years, he served on the National Recording Preservation Board, was an  AFS representative at the World Intellectual Property Organization, and a fellow of the American Folklore Society. His books include Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and The Encyclopedia of New England (Yale University Press, 2005) with New Hampshire Senator David Watters, which was chosen as a Boston Globe “nonfiction book of the year.” His last three books foreground fieldwork that focused on local music. They include In the Blood: Cape Breton Conversations on Culture (Utah State University Press, 2010), which won an Independent Publishers Book Award, and Talking New Orleans Music (University Press of Mississippi, 2015). He was working on his final book manuscript, Creole Soul, which is about zydeco music in Texas and Louisiana, when he died. Additionally, he produced two movies; Uprooted (2011) is about refugees in New England, and Shadows Fall North (2016) focuses on African American history in New England. While at UNH, he built an endowment that continues to support faculty research in the humanities. He secured numerous grants, including ones from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Justice, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U. S. State Department, and the Mellon Foundation. A study abroad program to Ghana was one of the several interdisciplinary programs that he developed during his tenure at the Humanities Center.


Burt always managed to find the best dive bars in all the out-of-the-way towns with names like Cheticamp (Cape Breton) or Opelousas (Louisiana)—all places that cranked out first-rate, live, local music. His passion for his subject of study was remarkable, as was his trademark wit, which he demonstrated at the end of his life through the worst of circumstances while he was being treated for cancer. For example, when he was at home recovering from a craniotomy meant to slow the progress of glioblastoma, I was scrubbing the bathroom. I asked him if he minded if I cleaned and organized the linen closet, too, a process that would prolong the use of strong-smelling cleaning solutions. He replied, “I would’ve had brain surgery more often if I had known that it would get you to clean out the linen closet!” When his oncologist told him that his brain needed to be mapped in preparation for radiation, Burt said, “If you’re going to map my brain, will you please put in some points of interest?” 

Burt had terminal brain cancer when he died, but it did not kill him. He was at home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recovering from chemotherapy and radiation treatment, when he decided to play his fiddle with friends for the first time in months. He went downstairs to retrieve it. Once there, he decided to grab his mandolin as well. While going up the stairs with an instrument case in each hand, he fell over backwards. It was a shocking and tragic end to such a vibrant life. We wanted a gentler and sweeter ending for him. We did not get it. But because music was at least there to see him off, in that one, small way it was fitting end for this dynamic, brilliant, and talented folklorist who lived a life that was worth singing about.


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