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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.