CONTACT: MARY GERAGHTY
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0011; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: Feb. 23, 2000
UI emeritus professor captures Americana in new book
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- From Amos 'n Andy to Zydeco, American folk life is chronicled
in the new "Dictionary of American Folklore" (Penguin, 2000), co-written
by Harry Oster, a University of Iowa emeritus professor of English.
Oster, who retired from his faculty position at the UI in 1993, has been
working on the book with his co-author Alan Axelrod, a former UI graduate
student, for the last two and a half years. Oster said Axelrod asked him to
work on the project because he wanted "the official seal of a recognized
folklorist as a collaborator."
The dictionary contains more than 750 entries and 250 illustrations. Entries
vary in length from 60 words on "Big Sea Day" and 130 words on "Lizzie
labels" (precursor of bumper stickers) to the two pages dedicated to
"Capone, Al(phonse) ("Scarface") (1899-1947)" and nearly
five pages on "Custer, George Armstrong (1839-1876)."
Oster said it was "a chance to organize knowledge I had partially understood,
but never committed to paper. It was an artistic and cultural challenge to
absorb and express in readable fashion a wide span of materials."
When he first took on the project Oster said he thought he and Axelrod would
be soliciting others to write the entries, but budget constraints meant they
ended up doing all the writing themselves. Oster said they divided the writing
duties fairly evenly.
Oster spent his 40-year academic career researching and recording pieces
of American folklore to preserve that cultural history for generations to
come. His projects included dozens of folk records, among them "Folk
Voices of Iowa," a 1964 recording representing the major ethnic groups
in the state, and "Angola Prisoners' Blues," a 1959 recording of
the inmates at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He also
wrote "Living Country Blues," a book based on material collected
from blues performers in Louisiana.
Oster is also the co-founder of the annual "Old-Time Fiddlers' Picnic,"
held each October at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. He has served as emcee
at the picnic for the past 20 years and occasionally contributes his own music
on the dulcimer or guitar.
Although he has been officially retired for seven years, Oster said he's
never really stopped working. "Whenever one strand of activity dries
up, another comes along," he said. His next project will be a CD or a
television documentary on the Old-Time Fiddlers' Picnic.