This week the Quilt Alliance lost one of its original supporters, who helped envision, lead, and sustain the organization and its projects. Alan Jabbour, former Quilt Alliance board member (2001-07) and president (2006-07), died on January 13, 2017. A renowned folklorist, old-time fiddle player, and collector of old fiddle tunes, Alan was the founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He was also a mentor and friend to many, including those of us who were lucky enough to serve on the board of the Quilt Alliance with him.
In 1992, Shelly Zegart and Eunice Ray of the Kentucky Quilt Project went to the American Folklife Center to pitch their idea for a database compiling all of the data from the many state quilt documentation projects—the largest grassroots movement to document an aspect of the decorative arts—along with related quilt media. “Alan loved the idea of the Index and was on board from moment one,” recalls Shelly. “His encouragement, support, and uplift made all the difference.” Soon after, Zegart and Ray joined forces with Karey Bresenhan and Nancy Puentes O’Bryant to establish the Quilt Alliance. Alan hosted the Quilt Alliance’s initial advisory council meeting in 1995 at the Library of Congress. He served as an essential early booster of our mission, and his invaluable connections and leadership served both the Quilt Alliance and the Quilt Index—a partner project of the Quilt Alliance, Michigan State University Museum and MSU’s MATRIX: the Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences—as we developed the organization and this signature project from a nascent idea to what they are today. As Shelly notes, “having the imprimatur of the American Folklife Center made a huge difference in the validation of the Quilt Index and the Alliance.”
In addition to serving as a guiding force during the Quilt Alliance’s formative years, Alan impacted many of us personally, through his kind words, encouragement, and musical talent. QA executive director Amy Milne reflects, “Personally, I found Alan to be a warm and supportive colleague whose mentorship meant a lot to me. His devotion to family was unmistakable.” Former board member and Quilt Alliance president Le Rowell fondly recalls her close collaboration with Alan, as well as the “pleasure of his fiddling and folk music presentations, his gift of storytelling and his calm, gentle presence.” I benefitted from his encouragement as I worked toward finishing my book; he believed in me, and that helped me believe in myself.
As a folklorist, Alan helped us situate quilts in the world of folk culture. It was hard not to when he’d break out his fiddle. At one board reception in Asheville with Amy’s young children in attendance, he played while they danced, reminding us how we pass on our love of culture and history to each new generation. At Quilters Take Manhattan in 2012, we enjoyed the most delightful entertainment at the annual “After Dark” cocktail party following the main event at FIT. Alan brought both his fiddle and his encyclopedic knowledge of traditional tunes. He played, while our guests danced. Before each song, he would recount its origins, and how he learned it. Denyse Schmidt, who recalls her love of old-time music in her QSOS interview, was a particularly vivacious participant in the makeshift dance floor in Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s loft apartment.
Our thoughts are with Karen Jabbour, Alan’s wife of over 55 years, and their extended family. We join the many individuals whose lives Alan touched, sharing in the grief of having lost such an inspirational and devoted friend and colleague.
To learn more about Alan: