Don Yoder (1921-2015): Father of American Folklife
By Patrick J. Donmoyer
It is rare when the measure of one’s impact on the lives of others takes on a dimension that is vastly greater than that which is normally allotted to a single human lifetime. Such is the case with Dr. Don Yoder, who was a visionary, the leading cultural advocate for the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the father of the folklife movement in America.
Dr. Yoder passed away on Tuesday, August 11th, bringing to a close a career of over 70 years dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of folk culture in Pennsylvania and beyond. Although his legacy is most decidedly felt among the Pennsylvania Dutch of his native State, his influence has extended across the nation and into Europe, where he inspired the lives and work of countless individuals.
Having earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1947, Dr. Yoder began his academic career in religious studies, and taught at Union Theological Seminary, Franklin & Marshall College, and Muhlenberg College before settling into a forty-year tenure at the University of Pennsylvania (1956-1996), where he established the nation’s first graduate program in folklife studies and supervised 60 doctoral dissertations.
Dr. Yoder was responsible for introducing the term “Folklife” to the academic world, revolutionizing the study of folk culture and ethnography in the United States. This legacy began while he was teaching at Franklin & Marshall, when Dr. Yoder co-founded the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center in 1949 with Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker, and J. William Frey. Together their monumental mission was to establish a research center dedicated to the comprehensive documentation of all aspects of Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture – everything from agricultural practices, to folk art; traditional costume to folk music; tools and trades to ritual customs.
Folklife, as Dr. Yoder defined it, is “the total range of traditional culture as researchable in the regional or ethnic context,” with a particular emphasis on the activities of daily life. This distinctive approach differed from folklore, which focused research efforts on the collection of verbal cultural material. This folklife methodology embraced all aspects of life, and greatly expanded the scope of folk cultural study and preservation. The trio of scholars later changed the name of the Folklore Center to the Pennsylvania Folklife Society in order to further clarify their dedication to the folklife movement.
The single largest contribution of the Folklife Society was the establishment of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival at Kutztown, the first ethnic display of its type in America. The Kutztown Festival was founded, in Dr. Yoder’s own words “to put an entire rural culture on display” in a manner that exceeded the possibilities of the museum experience, providing opportunities for the public to engage first-hand with living practitioners of the traditional arts, trades, and techniques of the culture. The festival was designed to be an educational experience consisting of demonstrations, seminars, performances, and presentations.
The Folk Festival was such a success that it later formed the template for the National Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. through the Smithsonian Institution. Although his efforts were based within his native state, Dr. Yoder promoted Pennsylvania as the most culturally diverse of the original thirteen colonies, and this idea of multiculturalism shaped his views of America as a nation. Dr. Yoder became deeply involved in advocacy on a national scale, having testified in Congress in 1970 in order to advocate the establishment of a national folklife institution, and he was instrumental in the establishment of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
In tandem with the Folk Festival at Kutztown, the Pennsylvania Folklife Society issued regular publications, including The Pennsylvania Dutchman, which later transformed into the magazine entitled Pennsylvania Folklife, which Dr. Yoder co-edited with Dr. Shoemaker for the first decade, and from 1961-1978 was the chief editor. To say that Dr. Yoder was prolific in his writing is an understatement. A recent, abridged bibliography of his publications included over 130 entries, written from 1944-2015, consisting of books, essays, published conference papers, articles, forewords, and introductions – however this list is far from complete, including a wealth of unpublished papers, addresses, lectures, and course materials.
Even at the age of 93, Dr. Yoder was still persistent in his research. Not only had he released the 25th-Anniversary edition of his folklife opus Discovering American Folklife last summer, but even as of Friday, the 7th of August, 2015 I had the pleasure of reviewing with him the manuscript for, The German Bible in America – an exploration of the cultural and religious legacy of the first European language in North America to print a full-length Bible, the fifth volume of the Annual Publication Series of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.
A friend of the Heritage Center since its inception in 1991, Dr. Yoder saw the Heritage Center as the fulfillment of the mission initiated by the Pennsylvania Folklife Society to establish a folklife center for research and preservation of folk culture in the heart of the Pennsylvania
Dutch Country. In 2011, recognizing his monumental contributions, Dr. Yoder received an honorary doctoral degree from Kutztown University, where he addressed the graduating class on the significance of rediscovering one’s roots.
And “roots” were indeed one of Dr. Yoder’s greatest interests. Having spent summers in his youth on his ancestral farm in the Hegins Valley of Schuylkill County, he became sensitive at a young age to the cultural distinction of his own community, in terms of language, customs, and foodways. This passion for his roots would follow him throughout his life and undergird the research that would later earn him the reputation as the leading genealogist among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Dr. Yoder was admired for having a rare, crystal-clear memory, with nearly absolute recall of faces, names, and the most detailed information – a precision that made him a favorite, not just of his academic colleagues, but also of his community. Known for his gentle spirit, and a playful sense of humor that even found its way into his most serious of work, Dr. Yoder’s generous sharing of energy was interwoven through his personal and academic life and affirmed the integrity of his vision and work.
A self-declared “incurable Pennsylvanian,” Don Yoder’s legacy continues to water the deep roots of our folk, and we must be eternally thankful for his steadfast devotion to the exploration of the heart and soul of his native people, rooted in the fertile soil of the past, and spreading branches into the farthest reaches of a fruitful future.
Patrick J. Donmoyer, August 14, 2015
Originally published in the Reading Eagle, August 14, 2015
Republished in 2016 in The German Bible in America, by Don Yoder.