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Interview with Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth on "Finding the Singing Spruce"

November 6, 2023

Interview with Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth on "Finding the Singing Spruce"

Interview with the Author of Finding the Singing Spruce,  Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth

The Center for Folklore Studies celebrates the publication of Finding the Singing Spruce: Musical Instrument Makers and Appalachia's Mountain Forests by Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth, director of the Center for Folklore Studies. Jasper also serves as Archivist for CFS and is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Studies. In the following interview with CFS Graduate Research Assistant Rhiar Kanouse, Jasper provides insight regarding his book.

Interview with the Author, Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth

by Rhiar Kanouse

How did you initially arrive at this project?

JWQ: I left my work at the National Museum of Natural History in 2013 eager to begin a project in my home region of Appalachia, after noticing parallel processes of extraction and characterization of mountain people in West Virginia and my work in the Caucasus. A combination of family traditions in craft and music and the critical Appalachian Studies work done at the University of Kentucky brought me to consider what critical interventions craft and music might have for reimagining economy and environment in Appalachia. The voiced element of musical instruments struck a chord with my readings on new materialism in my grad school course work, and everything came together from there.

Finding the Singing Spruce is developed from your dissertation, correct? How has the project evolved since you earned your Ph.D.?

JWQ: Much of the research in the book presented in the book stems from my dissertation work, but the book has been substantially re-written and edited multiple times for a broader public audience. A lot of the academic conversation now happens in footnotes instead of the text and I’d like to think the language is more compelling now. Importantly, the book also contains some research in the way of updates in the conclusion. The end of the book returns to some of the places and people discussed to note how much things change within a short period of time. Places, processes, and practices that an ethnographic text can fix in time and space actually keep moving and changing, so I needed to gesture towards that succession in the conclusion.

What is the significance of the title?

JWQ: Spruce trees are highly sought after in musical instrument craft because of their tonal qualities, especially in acoustic, stringed instruments. This book is about how musical instrument makers draw out the liveliness and song from the wood materials they use, yet it also posits questions around non-human agency, material voice, and relationships with forest environments that contradict assumptions about the material world around us.

Did anything surprise you in the process of writing this book?

JWQ: The depth of relationships I would build up with the folks I write about in this book. Apprenticing, traveling, and just spending a lot of time with these makers was all part of the ethnographic plan, but I did not expect the strength of the relationships that would emerge from the book.

Where do you hope this book finds a home?

JWQ: This book has always been for the folks who gave up time in their lives to teach me and share about their lives and secondly for people in Appalachia who wish to see different stories told about their home places. Stories that honor places, that demonstrate agency and creativity, that acknowledge the contradictions of place, economy, environment, and that hopefully have the capacity to inspire some change to structures that limit people’s ability to imagine what comes next.

On another note, I understand that your departmental training is in anthropology. How do you position your research in relation to anthropology and folklore?

JWQ: I think I see myself first as an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary scholar, but I appreciate the community building and capacity to hold conversations and values that Anthropology and Folklore Studies maintain. My work in Anthropology at SI and UKy has always been very entangled in Folklore work, from public museum work on music and craft traditions to the artist/activist orientations coming from some of my Appalachian folklore colleagues. I find that both approaches are stronger when put into conversation, which is probably why I teach ethnography from textbook co-written by an anthropologist and folklorist!

What kind of impact has the Center for Folklore Studies had on you and your work?

JWQ: I’ve been very fortunate to have community partners, mentors, colleagues, and students here at CFS that have taught me how make our work collaborative and transformative – interlocking the teaching, outreach, and research components into a greater whole. While I had often thought of myself as existing in spaces of scholarship as conversation in the past, I now think of the relationships that emerge from research as an ecology that can be stewarded, nurtured, and transformed.

What future projects are in the works for you?

JWQ: A few projects continue to emerge from my work with the Ohio Field School. We are working with a university press to bring an edited volume with contributions from former students, partners, and instructors together. I am co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Appalachian Studies on material culture that brings perspectives from Folklore, Art, Museum Studies, Architecture and Design, Archaeology, Linguistics, and Sociology to bear on the oft-misrepresented materiality of place in Appalachia. I’ll be bringing some of the work I’ve done on the material culture of Rendville, OH as an offshoot of the OFS to that project. I’m also exploring some research possibilities on migration, place, and joy in pickup soccer in Columbus; comparative work on hunting and land tenure politics in West Virginia and Provence; and the transformative possibilities of Dungeons and Dragons, so we’ll see where that takes me!

Any final note or suggestions for folklorists?

JWQ: Folklore Studies has a lot to give in a moment where we need joy along with critical and nuanced perspectives on big issues. My book attempts to follow in the long line of folklorists who have done that in the past. Here’s to hoping we can continue that work with our partners and collaborators into the future!

Book Launch Celebration

The Center for Folklore Studies hosted a celebration for the launch of Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth's book, Finding the Singing Spruce: Musical Instrument Makers and Appalachia’s Mountain Forests. Jasper shared a conversation with John Preston of Lewisburg, West Virginia, a violin maker and the subject of the book. This was on Thursday, November 16, 3:00PM - 5:00PM in 198 Hagerty Hall.