Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Roger D. Abrahams, 84, Penn folklorist, writer, and performer

"He was a charming guy, not professorial at all," a colleague said. His approachable manner resulted in hours of recordings of street rhetoric, which he studied.

Roger D. Abrahams at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s.
Roger D. Abrahams at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s.Read moreUniversity of Pennsylvania

Roger D. Abrahams, 84, formerly of Laverock, a University of Pennsylvania folklorist who delved deeply into the traditional speech patterns, rhymes, and music of African Americans, greatly expanding the study of folklife, died Wednesday, June 21.

Dr. Abrahams died in his sleep of a heart ailment in an assisted-living facility in Sunnyvale, Calif. He had moved there in June 2014, said his son, Rod Abrahams.

"In addition to his formal teaching, his thoughts on the importance of folklore inspired generations of students, ethnographers, and folklorists," the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, which he helped to create, said in marking his passing.

Dr. Abrahams' current title was professor emeritus. He retired from Penn in 2002.

He arrived at Penn in 1985 as professor of folklore and folklife, and four years later he was named the Hum Rosen Professor of Humanities, an endowed chair.

His unique contribution to the field of folklore was his interest in the "old talk" of African Americans, although at times that same focus extended to southern Appalachia, the American South, and the West Indies, according to his 2005 book, Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices.

"Old talk" meant proverbs, riddles, toasts, teasing insults aimed at another's family, children's folk tales, jump-rope and counting rhymes, and traditional songs. He viewed those as the source of creative cultural energy, and during years of fieldwork, collected samples to analyze.

For his 1970 book, Positively Black, he practically lived on the streets of Philadelphia, where he listened to African Americans talking among themselves — and then he repaired to his study to identify the history behind the street rhetoric.

"He was a charming guy, not professorial at all," said his colleague John Szwed, a former chair of the folklore department at Penn. "He left his apartment unlocked and said anyone could go in and record themselves. He got hours and hours of recordings."

During a 42-year career, Dr. Abrahams produced 21 books and monographs, 60 book chapters, 64 scholarly articles, and 10 review articles. He also published material for a mainstream audience in eight magazines and six encyclopedias. In addition to writing, he taught and lectured across the country.

A key point in his message was that Black English vernacular, far from being a flawed or incorrect deviation from "standard" English, had value as a creative tradition of its own, said Debora Kodish, his student at the University of Texas in the 1960s.

"He did a groundbreaking dissertation on African folk speech which he recorded [in Philadelphia].  At the time, it was a new thing to respect African American speech as correct and to value the creative traditions and practices behind the language," she said. "He went on to do tons of truly important work. He was a voracious reader and wide-ranging thinker and a leader in the field of folklore. "

In the early 1960s and 1970s, African American speech patterns were considered deficient, anthropologist Gillian Richards-Greaves wrote in a biography of Dr. Abrahams. By giving credence to speech rituals such as "playing the dozens," a teasing game in which two parties compete to insult each other's relatives, Dr. Abrahams portrayed black verbal traditions, and by extension blacks themselves, "in a different, more favorable light," she wrote.

In a series of articles published during that same period, Dr. Abrahams argued that folklore study should include not only speech, but performances of folk songs and ballads heard at festivals and holiday gatherings. He went on to learn some of the songs and perform them in public.

"He had several albums of folk music that were recorded in the early '60s and '70s." his son said. "He played guitar, banjo, and the mandolin."

Born in Philadelphia to Robert D. and Florence Kohn Abrahams, Dr. Abrahams graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1951. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Swarthmore College and a master's degree in literature and folklore from Columbia University in 1959. Two years later, he completed a doctoral degree in literature and folklore from Penn.

While a graduate student, he documented the Swarthmore College Folk Festivals of 1958 and 1959. He later wrote that the experience of collecting music at the two events was the turning point that made him a folklorist.

Between 1960 and 1979, Dr. Abrahams rose from instructor to professor in the departments of English and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. From 1979 to 1985, he was the Alexander H. Kenan Professor of Humanities and Anthropology at Scripps and Pitzer Colleges in Claremont, Calif.

On the national level, Dr. Abrahams was instrumental in establishing the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Endowment for the Arts-Folk and Traditional Arts Program, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Over the course of his long career, Dr. Abrahams received many honors. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965, and was named a fellow of the American Folklore Society, serving as its president in 1979. He was awarded the society's Kenneth Goldstein Award for Lifetime Academic Leadership in 2005.

Despite his skill as lecturer and a folk singer, Dr. Abrahams was at the core an introvert, his son said. "If you saw him onstage or in the classroom, you would never know that. He would always come home [afterward] and take a nap because he was so exhausted."

He liked to get up at 4 a.m. to write. When his son took up a project, Dr. Abrahams became an expert in the topic. "It was his way of showing me love," his son said.

Dr. Abrahams was married three times. Mary Rodman Abrahams, his first wife, from whom he was divorced, died in 1976.  Barbara Babcock Abrahams, from whom he also was divorced, died in 2016. His third wife is Janet Anderson Abrahams.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Lisa Abrahams, and a sister.

At his request, there will be no funeral.