Alan Jabbour

Alan Jabbour in his office at the National Endowment for the Arts, Columbia Plaza, June 1974. Alan was the director for the new Folk Arts program. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Syrian American, Folklore, Music

Alan Jabbour


Dr. Alan Jabbour’s public presentations, teaching, and the many initiatives he supervised, all championed cultural conservation, pluralism, ethnic diversity, ethnography and set standards for the field.  

Alan Jabbour, the son and grandson of Syrian immigrants, was born in 1942 in Jacksonville, Florida. He earned a BA magna cum laude in English Literature from the University of Miami (1963), and received his MA (1966) and  PhD in English (1968) from Duke University. Early training in violin, a graduate course in ballad music at Duke University, and his interactions with like-minded musicians in the late 1960s led him to seek out old-time fiddlers in the southern Piedmont region. Jabbour became the apprentice of Henry Reed, a Virginia fiddler, recorded him, and then played and passed on Reed’s musical repertoire to other musicians. In 1968, he moved to California to become an assistant professor of English Literature and Folklore at UCLA. In 1969, he became head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress and then directed the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts (1974 – 1976).  He was appointed founding director of the American Folklife Center in the Library in 1976.

Dr. Jabbour’s public sector work and the major initiatives he supervised made major contributions to the field. His guiding concept was to “document artistic traditions professionally, using sound recordings and still photography, with an eye both to creating public products and to building an archive for the future.” Documentary projects explored communities such as Chicago’s urban neighborhoods, Nevada’s cowboy culture, and West Virginia’s rural lifeways. His commitment to pluralism and cultural equity was reflected in the path-breaking Federal Cylinder Project, initiated in 1979, which preserved and provided copies of archival recordings of cultural traditions to Native American communities of origin. The initiative continues to the present.

After retirement in 1999, Jabbour maintained a busy music performance and research schedule. A collaborative project with his wife, author, and photographer Karen Singer Jabbour, led to a book on the tradition of Decoration Day observances in southern cemeteries. In tribute to his musical mentor, he established the Center’s Henry Reed Fund for Folk Artists. Reflecting on the shared roots with his old teacher, Jabbour noted that he, the descendant of Syrian immigrants to the US, “ended up the most attentive person to certain cultural traditions here. Henry Reed was first generation, too. His father came as a boy from Ireland to America.” 

Among his publications are:

Southern Summits: 21 Duets for fiddle and banjo (2005), CD – 
with Karen Singer Jabbour. Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians (2010)

Guha Shankar