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Remembering Peter Narvaez

By: | November 7, 2012

On the anniversary of his death, friends, fans and colleagues gather to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Peter Narvaez.

On Wednesday evening in St. John’s, friends, colleagues and fans of the late Peter Narvaez will gather at The Ship Pub to honour and celebrate the life of a man who was influential in, among other things, shaping the city’s music scene.

Close friend Neil Rosenberg wrote an obituary that highlights the celebrated musician, author and academic’s life achievements. It was originally published in the Winter 2012 Music, Media and Place (MMaP) Newsletter at Memorial University:

“Remembering Peter”

by Neil Rosenberg

Peter Reuben Narváez died in St. John’s on November 11, 2011 at the age of 69. He joined Memorial University in the fall of 1974 and retired as Professor of Folklore and Music with the title of Honorary Research Professor in 2005. He was a member of the MMaP Centre’s Board of Directors from its beginning.

Narváez was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942. His father, Jorge Aceves, a native of Mexico, was a labour organizer in the New York furrier trade. His mother, Borinquen Maria Narváez, born in Puerto Rico, ran an antiques business. He used the surname Aceves until 1976.

Growing up in the northern New Jersey industrial town of Boonton, he became interested in music. His uncle showed him his first guitar chords, gave him his first harmonica, and, with his father, taught him to use the body and strings of the guitar for percussion — a Hispanic guitar practice that became a part of his unique musical style. A fan of the popular music he heard on the radio, he made his first recording in 1959 with the rockabilly combo Pete and Jimmy & the Rhythm Knights, a 45-rpm single produced by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Alan Freed.

In 1959 he entered Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, later transferring to Drew University, a smaller liberal arts school also in Madison, where he majored in history. His musical interests shifted as he discovered the folksong revival and the old country blues. In 1963, his final year at Drew, he decided to pursue a degree in folklore. That fall he began graduate studies at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute in Bloomington.

In addition to his folklore courses at Indiana Narváez took courses in history, ethnomusicology and American studies, and carried out fieldwork on musical topics in Puerto Rico and Virginia. He also worked as a graduate assistant in the Indiana Folklore Archives, becoming its head archivist. In 1967, after finishing his M.A. he decided to remain at the Folklore Institute for a Ph.D.

Academic, activist, performer

He also participated in the flourishing local folk music scene. In January 1964 he published his first article, in the Newsletter of the IU Folksong Club (IUFC) — a “selective bibliography and discography” of blues. At the same time he performed blues as a soloist and in various duets, and formed a jug band. He became a charismatic star performer locally. When Mississippi blues legend Big Joe Williams played at a local coffee house that fall, Peter had the pleasure accompanying him.

At Indiana he was involved in the turbulent student politics of the era. He was an active member of the SDS and contributor to the Spectator, an underground weekly newspaper that marked Bloomington’s involvement in the era’s counter-culture.

His performance career grew as he began to work on his songwriting. In 1968 he assembled an acoustic string band to help develop his new music. At the same time his involvement in blues advocacy deepened as he helped the IUFC bring Mississippi delta blues pioneer Skip James to the campus for a historic concert performance.

In the fall of 1969 he became assistant professor of History and Anthropology at Bliss College in Lewiston, Maine. He had already taught history and folklore courses at Indiana University’s Jeffersonville extension campus; his new work at Bliss required him to teach sociology and anthropology. Peter was Dean of Students by the time he left Bliss in 1973.

In Maine Narváez remained active with his music. In 1971 his first album Homegas, made with his 1968 Bloomington band, published on the Takoma label and produced by Takoma owner John Fahey. Copies of it would precede him to Newfoundland. During these years his blues advocacy grew to include work as organizer and coordinator for blues festivals at the Universities of New Hampshire (1970) and Maine (1974).

Arriving in the midst of a cultural revolution

In 1974 he came to Memorial as Lecturer in the Department of Folklore and Assistant Archivist at the Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA). Teaching and archiving folklore in Newfoundland gave Narváez a crash course in local culture and history. A cultural revolution was blossoming. He was immersed in it not only as a professor but also as a popular performer in the local music scene. A dynamic teacher and public lecturer, he taught a wide variety of folklore courses to undergraduate and graduate students.

At MUNFLA a songbook from a 1973 strike in the central Newfoundland mining company town of Buchans caught his interest, and he began fieldwork there. His Buchans research ultimately led to an album featuring the union’s songs, a doctoral dissertation that depicted their historical context and analyzed them, and a number of articles about Newfoundland’s vernacular music scenes.

In 1986 he co-edited (with Martin Laba) Media Sense, a collection of studies that pioneered in folkloristic research by viewing popular culture as part of the folk-popular culture continuum.

His 1987 study of Newfoundland fairy lore caught the interest of other scholars, prompting him to edit The Good People, a seminal collection of essays by leading folklore scholars from Europe and North America that went through two editions in the 1990s. In similar way his work on the tradition of the merry wake in Newfoundland led him to edit a collection of essays by European and North American scholars: Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture (2003).

Another collaborative effort was his production Newfoundland and Labrador Folklore: A Sampler of Songs, Narrations and Tunes, the MMaP Centre’s Back on Track Archival Series 2006 collection of MUNFLA recordings.

Last winter the Department of Folklore published Narváez’s new book, Sonny’s Dream: Essays on Newfoundland Folklore and Popular Culture. The fifteen pieces, newly re-edited, are followed by a list of his publications, research and performances.

Beyond Newfoundland

Narváez was active in the affairs of national and international scholarly organizations. A long-standing interest in broadcasting drew him to the Association for the Study of Canadian Radio and Television, where he served on the executive board and was elected president (1987-88). He was also active in the Folklore Studies Association of Canada — elected as its president (1991-92) and receiving its Marius Barbeau Medal for his lifetime contributions to Canadian folkloristics in 2006. Other organizations that benefitted from his activities included the Canadian Society for Traditional Music, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) and the American Folklore Society. In 2008, the Folklore Studies Association of Canada dedicated to him an issue of their journal, Ethnologies, containing essays by his friends.

Recent achievements

He was also active in local and provincial arts organizations. In 2007 he was Director of the 31st Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. In 2010 the Festival’s organizer, the St. John’s Folk Arts Society (formerly Council), awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to the Folk Arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Throughout this long and distinguished academic career, Peter remained active as a musician, playing his own compositions and blues in a wide variety of groups and venues locally, nationally and internationally. He launched the last of his many recordings, Superpickers, at Fred’s Records on Duckworth Street in April 2011. In September he was honoured in a concert at the LSPU Hall, “Friends of Peter Narváez,” part of the Sound Symposium’s annual World Sound festival. On a Sunday night at the end of November a “Peter Narváez Party/Jam/Tribute” set an attendance record at the Fat Cat, the George Street Blues Bar in St. John’s where he had often performed.

“A Tribute to Dr. Peter Narvaez” will take place Wednesday, Nov. 7 at The Ship Pub in St. John’s, beginning at 9 p.m. From the event’s Facebook page:

“Friends, colleagues and band mates will gather at the Ship Pub to mark the one year anniversary of the passing of renowned musician and folklorist, Dr. Peter Narvaez, with an evening of blues and performances of Peters original songs. Performances by the Powerhouse Blues Band, Dave Rowe, Darrel Cooper, Denis Parker, Crooked Stovepipe, Lori Cooper, Brian Cherwick, Duane Andrews, Jean Hewson and Christina Smith, Scott Goudie, Laura Sanchini and Ian Hayes, Brian Hennessy and Derek Pelley with Steve Hussey and Superpickers Glen Collins and Sandy Morris and Dave Rowe sitting in throughout. It’s going to be real cool. Just like the man himself. Donations will be collected for the Mary A. Griffiths Memorial Bursary for Folklore Field Research.”

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