Alan Jabbour pushes a stack of books aside, wraps an arm around his wife’s waist, and prepares to dance. “I want you to see what a good waltz tempo is,” says Jabbour to the six fiddle students in his living room. They launch into “Peekaboo Waltz,” an old-time tune that Jabbour learned from legendary fiddler Henry Reed in the West Virginia mountains. Jabbour motions for the students to speed up. “When you get to that hemiola, it really feels like you’re going to take off and fly,” he says, lifting to his toes.
Lean and tall with a full head of wavy hair, Jabbour is one sprightly septuagenarian. “I’m not as fast as I used to be,” he says of his fiddle playing. But his rapid runs whip his 20-something students.
After the living-room waltz, the class takes a break for juice and cookies. The next song they’ll play, says Jabbour, is a country rag. “What’s it called?” one asks. “Well,” he says, looking embarrassed, “Henry Reed called it the ‘High Yellow rag.’” Reed named the song after the light-skinned black fiddle player who taught it to him, but Jabbour looks squeamish about passing on the derogatory term. “I do like it that it highlights the contributions of African-American fiddlers,” he says. Black musicians, he adds, brought syncopation to old-time tunes, transforming them into ragtime.
Jabbour easily rattles off lectures on American music history: He’s one of the tradition’s most important archivists. Starting as a graduate student at Duke University, Jabbour traveled around the country recording rural fiddlers’ front-porch sessions. He went on to found the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress—a collection of field recordings that dwarfs the better-known Smithsonian Folklife archives.
Now that he’s retired, Jabbour travels the country signing books, lecturing, and teaching. When he’s in town, he hosts small group lessons at his home in Cleveland Park. The songs he teaches are often simple, but Jabbour makes his students nail the details. They can add their own flair, but only after they’ve mastered a tune’s original flavor. “I want to get you outside of yourself, to stretch yourself,” he says, rather than just doing what feels natural.”