Barre Toelken: Folklorist of Culture and Performance

Matthew Irwin

Barre Toelken, longtime director of the Utah State University Folklore Program (1985- 2003), was born in 1935 to John and Sylvia Toelken in Enfield, in the Quabbin Valley of western Massachusetts. He grew up in a large extended family with strong traditions of singing, music, and material culture.

But young Barre didn’t get to live out his youth in that place. The town in which he was born was slated for demolition. Massachusetts had exercised eminent domain and begun converting the Quabbin Valley into a reservoir for thirsty Bostonians. The impetus of “progress” won out over the rights of the inhabitants, who were paid, they were told, fair market value for their homes and businesses and were then forced to vacate. Some of Toelken’s oldest and memories are of entire houses lumbering slowly by on enormous truck trailers, followed by their displaced owners.

The Toelken family was forced to move and they resettled here and there in various towns before ending up in Springfield, where Barre’s father found work as a machinist. Yet Springfield would never truly feel as much like home as Enfield in the once-picturesque but now inundated Quabbin Valley. Seeing a cold, uniform reservoir where his small but vibrant community had once stood was critical in forever casting Toelken as a cultural preservationist. Being uprooted at such an impressionable age affected him deeply and may well have contributed to his profound understanding of marginalized people’s sense of community and his own ever-evolving sense of place. In fact, Toelken has sometimes said that after death he would like to be cremated and his ashes cast upon the surface of the reservoir so that Bostonians can eat (or drink) the dust of one of the many people displaced by their incessant thirst. He did, however, manage to save the door handle to the Enfield church where the eighteenth-century Puritan minister and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

His mother Sylvia played the piano, and the two of them spent long hours singing together. He grew to love music and singing so much that he tested his mother’s stamina. Whenever he saw her pick up a book, either to read to him or to enjoy for herself, Barre would insist vehemently that she sing him the text. Fairy tale or nursery rhyme, the text didn’t matter, but he would bounce up and down and demand, “Sing! Sing it to me!” She usually obliged and perhaps unwittingly fostered his interest in ballads and folksongs; she later remarked how he somehow had always equated words with song or tune. In short, he was a natural-born ballad scholar who eventually became a fine ballad singer in his own right.

His imagination, too, seemingly began to effloresce in new and interesting ways. One afternoon, as Barre’s mother was working in the kitchen, she heard the family cat emit a blood-curdling yowl. She tore around the corner into the living room where her son had pinned the pet down and was trying his best to decapitate it with a toy wooden saw. After rescuing the shaken feline, she demanded that Barre explain himself. As it turned out, Sylvia herself was the inadvertent architect of this murder-in-the-making. Barre insisted quite matter-of-factly that he was doing nothing wrong. His mother, he said, had told him a fairy tale in which the hero encountered a beast of some sort blocking his way on a journey. When the monster rushed the hero, he cut off its head, but in its place sprouted seven new, even fiercer heads. Barre had merely been testing the process out on the cat. His belief in the magic of folktales led him to see if he could become the only kid in the neighborhood with a seven-headed cat. It surely had to work--because the folktale said it had. Such incidents always made his mother wonder what manner of man her child would become.

            As he walked the streets of Springfield in 1952, the teenaged Toelken happened upon two young men clad in white shirts and black pants. Never one to shy away from interesting-looking strangers, he stopped when the Elders thrust out their hands. They small-talked their way through personal introductions and Toelken was impressed by their openheartedness. A few weeks later, Toelken and the Mormon missionaries met again, and they struck up more conversation. Always interested in new cultures, Toelken admitted he knew little about Mormonism, and he began to listen to the young men. He was intrigued both by their message and by how enthusiastically they reminisced about their home state of Utah and the Intermountain West.

Toelken sensed that Springfield would become for him only a dead-end town, and he knew he wanted to try his hand at college somewhere. He had performed well in his high-school biology class and his teacher convinced him that, with the right education, he could end up working outside in nature rather than in the dust-filled dimness and din of a local machine shop. He researched a bit, and encouraged by the LDS missionaries’ recollections of Utah, he settled on Utah State Agricultural College’s renowned forestry program. By the autumn of 1953, young Toelken was 2,000 miles from home in the mountain town of Logan in northern Utah.

After moving to the Cache Valley and asking a few more questions, Toelken’s interest in Mormonism as a belief system flagged, but his love of the West only swelled. True to his initial goals, he started out majoring in forestry but soon opted for a University Studies major, a degree plan based in the Honors College. He now could enroll in anything that suited his fancy--and he did. He ended up with a B.S. in English and German, eventually graduating in 1957. But before he left USU, his life took an unexpected turn that would change him forever.

Along with other whites and many Navajos, Toelken decided to explore the deserts of southeastern Utah as another young party to the Cold War uranium rush. While there, the nineteen-year-old prospector contracted pneumonia in an out-of-the-way canyon on the Navajo reservation. Delirious with fever, he collapsed. He awoke disoriented and found himself lying in the center of a traditional hogan with a gray-haired man sitting at his head. The hogan was full of men and women, and the near-death Toelken was, he later realized, a fortunate participant in a Navajo healing ceremony. He drifted off into feverish oblivion. After three days of fitful half-sleep, he regained consciousness. When he awoke and looked around with new color in his face and renewed light in his eyes, the medicine men silently arose and went home. He was warm and safe in the Yellowman home. Yellowman’s wife continued to nurse him back to health; somehow he knew that his life would forever after be changed.

Toelken’s time among the Navajo caught him off guard. Ambition for mineral discoveries receded into the distance, but he wasn’t prepared for a different kind of wealth that he was encountering. Amid a culture saturated with story, song, dance, art, and especially humor, Toelken found himself enchanted with his new family and their people. He was so impressed that he stayed on for a while, recalling, in a 2003 interview, “these people were poor--unimaginably poor. They lived out in what we whites would call the middle of nowhere, but they would give graciously and joyfully even to the point of their own hunger and deprivation.” Such generosity dumbfounded the young Toelken; he never forgot it and later incorporated it into his own way of life. The Navajo were unlike any other people he’d ever known, yet he couldn’t remain forever. He returned to Logan, but much of him remained in southern Utah.

Toelken had planned to stay on at USU to pursue a master’s degree, but his application was rejected by the president of the university on grounds that he was “too dangerous to have around influencing ‘impressionable undergraduates.’” His crime? He had been the leader of an “unofficial and outlawed” student organization called the Human Relations Society, which investigated and protested against human injustice. It was the late 1950s, and USU was very homogeneous culturally. Often, foreign students or those displaying various types of “otherness” were dismissed from the university for engaging in “troublesome activities,” and Toelken, apparently, was a “troublemaker.”

When Washington State University’s English department head came to Utah, he heard about Toelken’s situation and inquired about it to USU President Chase. Dr. Buchanan wondered why a student as “colorful” as Toelken could find no place in a USU graduate program. Chase informed Buchanan that Toelken had spoken and written animated diatribes against various administrative decisions “that didn’t concern him” and that he was not welcome to spend additional time on campus. In short, Toelken had embarrassed the university. Professor Buchanan replied, “We may differ with our students on various issues at WSU, but at least we can extend them the four freedoms. We’re going to offer Mr. Toelken a fellowship.” This conversation occurred without Toelken’s knowledge, but within a few weeks he received a handwritten letter from the WSU president inviting him to Pullman, Washington. Meanwhile Toelken had married Miiko Kubota in 1957 in his former home of Springfield; Miiko is Japanese-American, a native of Utah, but interracial marriages were forbidden by law throughout the West until the 1960s.

Finishing his master’s degree, Toelken followed a friend to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he started out studying American literature, specifically the humor of Thoreau. He drifted into English literature, studying Chaucer mostly, and then discovered what he thought would be his life’s work: ballads.

One year into his doctoral work, Visiting Professor Arthur G. Brodeur of Harvard arrived to teach at Oregon. Brodeur had inherited some of George Lyman Kittredge’s dual interests in early English literature and the ballad, and Oregon’s department head quipped to Toelken that someone had finally arrived who could examine him. Toelken completed his Ph.D. in 1964 and moved on to teach at the University of Utah for two years, after which the Toelkens moved back to Eugene where Toelken settled into a career as an academic folklorist.

Toelken admits that he spent much of his academic life “catching up” on folkloristics, other folklorists, and the various schools of thought in folklore theory. At first, he engaged himself in teaching mostly medieval English literature but found himself more interested in literary connections to folklore. From Beowulf to T.S. Eliot, he searched for and led his students through examples of literature arising out of folklore. Toelken confesses that he was always more captivated by what various cultural groups did than by what scholars wrote about them. Ironically, in all his schooling, Toelken never took a folklore course. When asked how he became a folklorist, he responded, “I always was. I always sensed that knowing the customs and ways of people was important. I somehow knew that even when I was a kid. Our family had singers on both sides, and I grew up singing whaling and sea songs. I also came of age in a working environment full of traditions, and since I had seen the [Quabbin] valley disappear, I decided that I would always strive to commit to memory as much of what was traditional and customary in any culture I encountered--before the memories were all gone.”

            One of the main reasons Toelken had wanted to return to Utah was to be nearer his adopted Navajo kin and to re-immerse himself in Utah’s folklore, an interest that began with his first publication, in 1959, on “The Ballad of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.” Still, through the 1960s, most of his research focused on the ballad and on medieval literature. It wasn’t until 1969, with the publication of his pathbreaking “The ‘Pretty Languages’ of Yellowman: Genre, Mode, and Texture in Navaho Coyote Narratives,” that Toelken began incorporating his experiences with his Navajo family into a broad analysis of the ways that language, storytelling, context, and performance are linked to human culture and worldview. Toelken’s commitment to understanding human behavior and the importance of its contexts—in contradistinction to a reliance on texts alone—placed him in alliance with those “Young Turks” who were developing the contextual or performance approach to folklore studies at the universities of Pennsylvania and Texas at Austin in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

These interests were borne out in other publications with implications for folklore theory that followed: “Folklore, Worldview, and Communication” in Folklore: Performance and Communication (1975); “The Performative Aspect of Northwest Superstition and Popular Belief” (Northwest Folklore 4, 1985); “Belief Performances Along the Pacific Northwest Coast” in By Land and By Sea: Studies in the Folklore of Work and Leisure (1985); and a number of articles in German for European journals. Much of this thinking about the performative nature of folklore was distilled into an innovative interpretation of folklore in his introductory text, The Dynamics of Folklore (1979, revised and expanded ed., 1996). Instead of using the time-honored genre-centered approach to folklore, Toelken focused instead on process, enactment, and performance in describing not only the materials or items of folklore but their social and community contexts, the ways individuals enact them, and their meanings to their performers and their communities.

Many of the same concerns animate Toelken’s continued work with ballads and with the folk traditions of Germany and Japan. Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends (co-written with Michiko Iwasaka, 1994) goes beyond the typical collection of tales to assess Japanese culture as it reveals itself through its ghostlore. Similarly, Morning Dew and Roses: Nuance, Metaphor, and Meaning in Folksong (1995) uses ballad texts to assess their inhering cultural metaphors of significance.

The 1969 publication of “The ‘Pretty Languages’ of Yellowman,” which appeared first in the journal Genre and was then reprinted in Folklore Genres edited by Dan Ben-Amos, established Toelken’s place as a folklorist, one who was alert to the potential insights of anthropology and linguistics as well as literature. It also became the first in a series of essays on Native American folklore, particularly Navajo myth, that have had powerful implications for Toelken’s career and, more broadly, the study of religion and culture. Toelken followed up on this article with “Ma’i Jołdloshi: Legendary Styles and Navaho Myth” (1971), “Seeing with a Native Eye: How Many Sheep Will It Hold?” (1976), “The Demands of Harmony: An Appreciation of Navajo Relations” (1977), “Poetic Retranslation and the ‘Pretty Languages’ of Yellowman” (coauthored with Tacheeni Scott, 1981), “The Moccasin Telegraph and Other Improbabilities” (1995), and other articles. In each, Toelken has worked toward an ever-deeper understanding of the dynamic complexities of language, myth, and worldview among a people who are simultaneously neighbors and Utah residents but who see the world from perspectives radically different from those of European heritage.

            More importantly, Toelken’s series of essays, written over nearly forty years, reflect his constant rethinking of his work and his reevaluation of his place as collector, analyst, and interpreter. For example, he has analyzed why he did not collect from women, and how contexts and his own ideas about gender relations influenced his decisions and directed his attention. Navajos are a matrilineal culture, yet in the process of his zealous efforts to capture and preserve Navajo narrative culture, he recorded and analyzed tales only the men were telling. Even more ironic, when Toelken collaborated with Tacheeni Scott, a young Navajo scholar, and issued a corrective retraction of his earlier work in “Poetic Retranslation and the ‘Pretty Languages’ of Yellowman” (1981), the retraction had the effect of undermining work that other scholars had based on the first essay. Scholarly reaction was mixed, ranging from uproar to deliberate indifference. No one wanted to admit the reality of Toelken’s rethinking and its consequences for Navajo scholarship. Well into the twenty-first century, the first article is still far more widely cited than its successors.

Especially in his 1996 and 1998 articles, “From Entertainment to Realization” and “The Yellowman Tapes, 1966-1997,” and in a plenary address to the American Folklore Society in 2003, Toelken discussed frankly and openly the rethinking that has been part of his scholarship and his life since his first experiences living with Navajo people. He has become increasingly sensitive to and aware of Navajo beliefs regarding the power of spoken language and the constant presence of death as reflected in witchcraft, warnings, and other omens, and he eventually concluded that he would limit both his collection and analysis of the Coyote tales that are central in Navajo culture. In his 1987 article, “Life and Death in the Navajo Coyote Tales,” he distinguished four levels of meaning for these narratives: those that he calls entertainment (level I), moral worldview (II), medicine (III), and witchcraft (IV). And he concluded:

Even if I reject [the Navajo] warning that there is danger in deeper inquiry into the stories, for me to actually do further work would necessitate a repudiation of Navajo beliefs and values—treasures that I feel ought to be strengthened and nurtured by folklore scholarship, not weakened, denigrated, or given away to curious onlookers.

Just as a folklorist needs to know where to begin, so one needs to recognize where to stop, and I have decided to stop here. My intention is to deal with Level IV of the Navajo stories not at all, beyond acknowledging here that it exists and that it is considered dangerous by those in whose world it functions. Level III, while fascinating, involves such heavy implications for Level IV that I think it should also be left alone by outsiders; the present essay is the fullest statement I anticipate making on it. (pp. 399-400)

            In these respects, Toelken contrasts markedly with many scholars, some of whom have urged him to collect and write about materials that the Navajo consider sacred or not to be shared with outsiders or limited to particular seasons of the year. He has said forthrightly that he has doubts about journalists and anthropologists who advocate “quick fixes and fast theories.” And, in “The Yellowman Tapes, 1996-1997,” he recounts his decision to pack up and mail to the Yellowman family his entire collection of tape recordings of Coyote stories, some thirty years’ worth, knowing that they would be destroyed by the family because of the potential dangers if the tapes were played in the wrong situation or at the wrong time of year.

Perhaps the culmination of his constant rethinking of his research into Native American cultures is reflected in The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West (2003), which is both a restatement of much of his previous research and another stage in the dynamic rethinking that has characterized his work. Here he surveys the ways in which Native American traditions are performed, with chapters on visual and material arts, dance, story and song, humor, and modes of thought, with evidence drawn from a lifetime of research in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Intermountain West.

Yet publication and research are only a means to an end with Toelken. He wants primarily to know people and their worldviews and ways of life more fully. When queried, he freely admitted that his tenure as a scholar of Navajo culture was purely accidental, though fortuitous for both Toelken and those who know him and his work. Over the years, he said, “I have become much less interested in lofty, ivy-covered, ivory tower folklore theory and theoretical thinking (or unthinking), than in what I and others can learn from other people by paying close attention to the people themselves. The kinds of cultural expression people deem important enough to pass on among themselves and to others is the kind of folklore I want to help cultures perpetuate and preserve.”

Toelken remains suspicious of any theory that is conceptualized as “the way that all folklore works.” Such ideological frameworks may leave important aspects of cultures completely out of consideration. Folklorists, according to Toelken, may be blinded by what they want to see, rather than awakened by what is really there. He can only say as much because he admits he learned that painful lesson personally. Moreover, folklorists miss the boat when they select or mold lore to fit their theoretical models. Toelken believes that such models are important, but only as a basis for understanding. The center of his work and his thinking is not in the texts but in the people:

Folklore is dynamic, alive, variant, and persistent. Among folklorists, it might seem absurdly elementary to reiterate, but the folklore should come first, the literature second. The meat of our scholarship is in the lore itself, not in the theory. From the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, culture and worldview change with each tribe, and literary people are tragically missing out, often choosing not to deal with the dizzying array of cultural performance and meaning, so they work with theoretical models instead of people. The more sad for them.

            One of the most important ways Toelken has influenced the academic folklore community internationally as well as locally was through his participation in and directorship of the annual Fife Folklore Conference at Utah State University. Dating back to the late 1970s, the Fife Conference has brought alive local, regional, and international folklore for the Cache Valley’s residents and for visiting students and scholars (see chapter 25). Before attending a Fife Conference, Toelken says, most of his students “don’t realize the universality of folklore, let alone have an interest in exploring it.” The long-term results and overall satisfaction he drew from putting on the Fife Conference is the sense of a public much more cognizant about what folklore is and the meanings it can have for them individually and communally. Toelken contends that because of the Fife Conference and USU’s outstanding folklore faculty, folklore has become increasingly meaningful and visible in the area and in the state. Toelken hopes that the USU program has, in his words, engendered the

true spirit of folklore--namely, that it is ongoing, continual, always in flux. This is the vibrant legacy of Utah State University’s folklore program: that we teach people the excitement of a discipline (or hobby) always new, always alive, always dynamic, and never definitive. Our students have been awakened to the idea that folklore is constantly being passed down and preserved all around them, and that cultural expression is worth investigating intimately. They learn that folklore will at once always persevere and always change.

Toelken would consider the success of his students to be his most rewarding legacy. Working on four continents, Toelken’s scholastic descendants have spread out across the world with the idea that gleaning meaning from cultural expression is important, indeed crucial in human history and human relations. The list of his students is far too extensive to recount here, but it is noteworthy that people came from all over the world on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, an occasion marked by the publication in his honor of Worldviews and the American West: The Life of the Place Itself, edited by Polly Stewart, Steve Siporin, C. W. Sullivan, and Suzi Jones. It is a dynamic and diverse collection of essays that reflect Toelken’s personal and scholarly influence. His affable accessibility has shaped how countless scholars approach their students, their colleagues, and their scholarship.

Toelken has served extensively in the cause of advancing folklore scholarship along with cultural, social, and academic awareness, both locally and internationally. From 1968 to 1985, he served as the curator of the Randall Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore at the University of Oregon. During that period, he held other posts and positions as well. In 1979, he was the director of the Montana Folklife Project for the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. From 1976 to 1979, he chaired the Folk Arts Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1977-78, he was president of the American Folklore Society, and he served as a member of the Society’s Executive Board from 1971 to 1976 and again from 1991 to 1994. From 1987 to 1990, he chaired the Board of Directors of the Western Folklife Center. On the national level, he was a congressional appointee to the Board of Trustees for the American Folklife Center, co-chairing in 1988 and serving as chair in 1989. He has edited three prominent folklore journals during his career: Northwest Folklore (1963-66), Journal of American Folklore (1973-76), and Western Folklore (2002-04).

On July 5, 2002, Toelken sustained a massive stroke. He was at his office in the Fife Folklore Archives when he suddenly became dizzy and disoriented. He drove home, picked up Miiko, and drove to the Logan hospital where it took some time to diagnose the problem and its severity. By the end of the first evening, Toelken could neither speak nor move the right side of his body. He was, for all practical purposes, paralyzed. So, too, were his family, friends, and the folklore community. Luckily, Toelken didn’t believe that his condition was permanent. He set his aim toward recovery and after many long months of hospitalization and intense physical, occupational, and speech therapy, he picked up his research and writing again and has continued to teach, even though he’s technically retired.

Perhaps most miraculous and inspiring is that in the midst of recovery, he managed to complete his magnum opus, The Anguish of Snails, his tribute to his many friends and adoptive families near and far. It is a work reflective of fifty years of trial and error, of meeting, befriending, knowing, and often losing Native American friends. Most importantly, it is an exhortation to cultural sensitivity, as well as a source for speculation, discovery, and insight.