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Friday, January 21, 2011

The Roots of a Renaissance Man

When you walk though the front door of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, one of the first things you see is the bronze bust of our namesake. Rinzler himself was much more than a gleaming forehead, however, and we have the 90 cubic feet to prove it. These boxes contain the records of a life lived exuberantly--to which interns Abigail Kabaker and Megan Northcote can attest. Though these papers were initially acquired and processed in 1994, they have begun tackling the enormous task of revisiting  them and refining their arrangement and description. 

Folder after folder, one gets the sense that Rinzler wore many hats throughout his life. From playing and touring with the Greenbriar Boys to recording and working with now-legendary traditional musicians Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, from founding Director of what is now the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and developing the annual Festival of American Folklife to being appointed Assistant Secretary for Public Service for the Smithsonian Institution in 1983 and Assistant Secretary Emeritus in 1990 (phew!), Ralph Rinzler was a true Renaissance man. In addition to having records relating to all of these periods of his life, we also have materials from his years at Swarthmore College, where he organized his first folk music festival. It is fascinating to look through his coursework and notebooks and see the roots of Rinzler's "Ralph-ness," a quality that informed so much of what he did later in life.

Rinzler was a dreamer and big thinker, personality traits that served him well in his creative life but perhaps not-so-successfully in his classes at Swarthmore. These qualities are especially illustrated in three items from his papers.

Two essays from his 1954 literature courses have especially relevant comments from professors. His essay titled "The Grapes of Wrath: Art or Propaganda" was given a C-, the explanation being that it "show[ed] undaunted powers of mind" that didn't "add up to anything in particular." The professor elaborates, saying "One question at a time is enough to answer, and any answer demands a good deal more concrete and analytical approach [sic] than you have offered." Rinzler made a career out of asking questions that didn't necessarily have answers, but  the asking resulted in much more than "nothing in particular."

The second paper, "Universality in Hedda Gabler," received a C+. "Hedda should have received far more attention than she gets, for the whole play centers around her. You tend to dwell too much upon peripheral subjects," says the professor. As Abigail Kabaker points out, Rinzler spent his life focused on peripheral communities and what they had to offer to cultural narratives. To Rinzler, what was happening on the periphery was the story.

The third item probably looks familiar to everyone, as we've all been in that class where doodling has been preferable to the subject at hand. In  Rinzler's case, Economics. Behold, the college doodles of the future Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian.

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