You are here: Past Lectures > William R. Bascom > Biographical Information > "William Russel Bascom (1912-1981)." Journal of American Folklore
University of California Berkeley
When Bill Bascom died on September 11, 1981, from complications following open-heart surgery a month earlier, the discipline of folklore lost one of its most distinguished scholars. An introspective, taciturn man, Bascom excelled in three closely related fields of scholarship; the folklore, art, and ethnography of African and African-derived societies. He was also an administrator, the Director of the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Born in Princeton, Illinois, in 1912, Bill Bascom lived in Madison, Wisconsin and studied at the University of Wisconsin, earning a B.A. in Physics in 1933, and after a career switch, an M.A. in Anthropology three years later. The same year, he moved to Northwestern University where he became Melville Herskovits's first Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1939. His first field research in Nigeria in 1938 produced The Sociological Role of the Yoruba Cult-Group (1944, reprinted 1969), and many research papers. Also during this field trip, he brought out the first two Ife heads which came to be recognized as among the most important pieces of African art, and which he later returned to Ife.
After joining the Anthropology Department at Northwestern and working among the Gullah people on the Georgia/South Carolina coast, he joined the O.S.S. at the onset of World War II, and later the Board of Economic Warfare as Chief of the French West African Section, collaborating with Ralph Bunche on A Pocket Guide to West Africa in 1943 for the War and Navy Departments. After a further stint in Accra, Ghana, for the Foreign Economic Administration, he returned to academic life at Northwestern where he taught for the first semester of 1945-1946. In the spring of 1946, he went to Ponape in the Caroline Islands as Chief Economist of the U.S. Commercial Company. His Ponape fieldwork was published in 1947 as Ponape: A Pacific Economy in Transition and achieved the status of a classic, being republished as Volume 8 of the Economic Survey of Micronesia and again in 1976 in microfilm.
In the fall of 1947, Bascom rejoined the Northwestern faculty, and in 1948 he received a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to study the descendants of the Yoruba in Cuba (the Lucumi). He was accompanied by the Cuban-born folklorist Berta Montero, who was a student in anthropology at Northwestern. At the end of this field trip, they were married. They often visited Cuba, where they studied the Afro-Cuban cults in Matanzas and Havana. Because of his knowledge of Yoruba language and ethnography and her rapport with the cultists, the remarkable continuities in Yoruba religious belief and practice in the Cuban cults were documented in a series of articles over the next two decades.
In 1957 he left Northwestern for a Professorship of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, taking over the development of the Lowie Museum, but he spent the next year at Cambridge University in England on a prearranged Senior Postdoctoral Fellowship. He returned to Nigeria in 1960 and again in 1965. In 1965 he helped to establish the Master's Degree program in folklore at Berkeley, serving as the chairman of the folklore committee until his retirement in 1979. He had an international reputation as a folklorist, and in 1972 he accepted an invitation to give a series of lectures and seminars in Scandinavia at the universities of Turku, Copenhagen, and Bergen.
From his first fieldwork, Bascom collected African art with great enthusiasm and taste, soon being recognized as an authority and the owner of an important collection. He published the catalogue of an exhibition at the Milwaukee Public Museum with collector/ missionary Paul Gebauer in 1953, a catalogue of his memorable Lowie show entitled simply African Arts in 1967, plus an introduction to the catalogue of the Jay C. Leff Collection in 1969. His popular text, African Art in Cultural Perspective: An Introduction, came out in 1973. In spite of its brevity, the work demonstrates how a knowledge of ethnography increases aesthetic experience. In 1957, he contributed to a film on the Yoruba entitled "Life of a Primitive People" (Coronet), and in 1953 to a carefully documented recording "Drums of the Yoruba of Nigeria" (Ethnic Folkways). He also wrote the notes for Mongo Santamaria's record "Mongo in Havana" (Fantasy) in 1961.
Bascom's interests in ethnography found voice in his contributions to Continuity and Change in African Cultures, which he edited with Melville J. Herskovits in 1959, and which has gone into two editions and eight printings plus a translation into Arabic. In 1969, he brought out The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria in the Holt, Rinehart & Winston series as well as Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa, which won the Pitre International Folklore Prize and is often considered his masterpiece. This work was followed in 1980 by Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World, which combined his vast knowledge of divination and its folklore on both sides of the Atlantic. Urbanization in Africa was another of his central research topics, resulting in nine papers dating from 1955 to 1975, many of them repeatedly reprinted. For example, his essay, "Urbanization among the Yoruba," which appeared originally in the American Journal of Sociology in 1955, was reprinted five times (1960, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1973) in a variety of anthologies. More than 15 of his articles have been reprinted, several many times. Each reprinting constitutes another endorsement of his meticulous and thorough scholarship. There are few anthropologists and folklorists whose "reprinting" record can compare with Bill Bascom's.
A large number of his most celebrated papers were devoted to folklore and first appeared in the pages of the Journal of American Folklore. These include "The Relationship of Yoruba Folklore to Divining" (1943), "Folklore and Anthropology" (1953), "Four Functions of Folklore" (1954), "Verbal Art" (1955), "The Myth-Ritual Theory" (1957), "Folklore Research in Africa" (1964), "The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives" (1965), and "Folklore, Verbal Art, and Culture" (1973). Of course, other important contributions to folklore appeared elsewhere, such as "Cinderella in Africa" in the Journal of the Folklore Institute (1972) and his pioneering compilation of a neglected form of African narrative, African Dilemma Tales, published by Mouton in 1975. As the acknowledged doyen of anthropological folklorists, he was invited to organize a folklore session at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He edited the results of his symposium which were published as Frontiers of Folklore (1977).
As a teacher, Bill projected the same characteristics that his research displayed: clarity, an immense philosophical and ethnographical scope, a kind of dogged insistence on getting all of the available facts, no matter what the cost, and a concern to present these facts in the most rational manner. Notes on his lectures are imbued with the order and clarity of his thought, and most of them are as correct today as they were 30 years ago. At Berkeley, he was technically a nine-tenths appointment in the Lowie Museum of Anthropology and only one-tenth in the Department of Anthropology. This meant that he was not required to teach very much. Yet he chose to offer a lecture course in folk narrative every year as well as a graduate seminar in either African art or African folklore. Students treasure their notes from his lectures because they provide admirable surveys of theories and methods of folkloristic research.
During the Northwestern years, Bill and Berta took a real interest in graduate students; supporting them through every adversity and never losing contact with them down through the years. At Berkeley, he had fewer students because he was obliged to devote much of his time to museum administration. But those students, too, appreciated his kindness and concern. They also enjoyed his quiet, wry and dry sense of humor.
A few years before his retirement in 1979, Bill Bascom began yet another major project. At a time in life when many scholars are content simply to rest on their laurels, he was engaged in important research which only someone with his special expertise could attempt. With his unequalled knowledge of African folktales, he started to document African/Afro-American tale types. Working on 99 tales simultaneously, he published a series of impressive studies of individual tale types in Research in African Literatures, each essay constituting a veritable Bolte-Polivka-like comparative survey of the versions he had discovered in print. Unfortunately, Bill's time after retirement was far too short. But while it is sad that he did not live to complete this project, future folklorists can at least be grateful for the dozen or so "African Folktales in America" essays which did appear (1977ff).
Bill Bascom knew the magnitude of the project, and in a revealing autobiographical evaluation of his own life's work which he gave as the annual Archer Taylor Memorial lecture to the California Folklore Society at UCLA in the spring of 1981 (and which was published as "Perhaps Too Much to Chew?" in Western Folklore in 1981), he admitted that he did have a tendency to choose extremely ambitious research topics. Fortunately, he had the patience and perseverance to complete many of them. He remarked that he did manage to complete Ifa Divination in 31 years (1938-1969) and Sixteen Cowries in 29 years (1951-1980). His wife is still working on a study of Yoruba proverbs that they both commenced in 1951. The unfinished African tale type materials are housed in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley with Professor Bascom's other unpublished field notes and papers.
On May 23, 1982, which would have been Bill Bascom's 70th birthday, a festschrift volume, African Religious Groups and Beliefs: Papers in Honor of William R. Bascom (Delhi: Archana Publications, 1982), was presented to Berta Bascom in a brief ceremony at the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to 15 essays by Bascom's students (including Merriam, Messenger, and Crowley), there is an introductory essay, "The Anthropology of William R. Bascom" by Simon Ottenberg, who edited the volume, as well as a useful "Bibliography of William R. Bascom."
Bill Bascom wore many hats: Africanist, museologist, anthropologist, and folklorist (not to mention jazz clarinetist, gardener, and sailor). His masterful survey articles on the definitions and functions of folklore as well as his remarkable comparative studies of African tales in the New World constitute a rich legacy. But Bill Bascom will also be remembered as a sweet, modest soul who was helpful to his students and to his colleagues. He was, to borrow the words Shakespeare used to describe Macbeth, "full of the milk of human kindness," or as Chaucer described the knight in the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
And of his port as meeke as is a mayde He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde In al his lyf unto no manner wight He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.
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