[Folk Music Journal (2004) pp 686 ff. ] [Return to home]

Bruce Olson

Obituary by Ed Cray

         He could be difficult, indeed, irascible.  At least twice he decided to drop his subscription to BALLAD-L, the Indiana University listserve that linked folk song and ballad scholars, because he judged some of the queries inane.  And twice he resubscribed, for such a dedicated ballad scholar as Bruce Olson needed the intellectual companionship and the opportunity to share all he had learned about “Moll Roe”/”Old Hewson, the Cobbler” or who first sang “Eileen Aroon” on stage in Gaelic (Kitty Clive) or how to access online the “Phi” collection of bawdy songsters in the Bodleian.

         He was a curious, questing, indefatigable researcher to the end. Coughing, laughing, he rasped a day before entering the hospital for the last time, "There is no answer.  That’s God's cosmic joke."   Four days later, William Bruce Olson died on October 31, 2003, at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  He was 73.

         The cause of death was listed as severe pancreatitis, Olson’s son, Kenneth, said.  His father, however, was also suffering from kidney failure and severe emphysema.  “His entire system was shutting down,” Kenneth Olson added.

         Bruce Olson – he preferred to be known by his middle name – had entered the hospital earlier that week to treat breathing problems with a therapeutic, continuous oxygen supply.  Fatalistic, and complaining too of severe pains in his lower back, Olson told a friend he was not sure he would survive.  He said he hoped to say goodbye to at least some of his many internet correspondents, particularly Steve Roud and Jack Campion in the U.K., Murray Shoolbraid in Canada, and Norm Cohen in the United States.

         Olson came to the serious study of folk song/music like so many contemporary scholars, through the folk music revival of the 1950’s.    

Schooled in physical chemistry at the University of Washington, where he earned his doctorate in 1960, Olson joined the National Bureau of Standards the following year as a physicist.  It was an odd fit, he later stated.  “I had a fair background in electricity and electronics, but the NBS didn’t want radical chemists who had such perverted tastes,” he wrote in a short biographical note in 1997.

         Over time, Olson continued, he drifted into research in high resolution infrared molecular spectroscopy at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology).  It was in that rarified field of materials testing that he achieved considerable international attention as a researcher – though “never close to Nobel-quality,” he immediately added.

         Meanwhile, he was pursuing his interest in folk music.  Never a performer, he instead gravitated to the history of various songs and ballads others were performing.  Like some of that generation, he became frustrated by the lack of basic research tools, particularly indexes of the many hundreds of songs and ballads printed prior to 1800.  Unlike most, he did something about it.  Frustration drove Olson to begin cataloguing the all but untouched body of Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century broadside, songster and music collections. 

         A hobby became first a passion and then a consuming avocation, he explained in his autobiographical note.  “I admit I played hooky at times from physics symposia at universities in order to run over to their libraries to see what I could turn up in the line of rare old songs.”  

         One memorable expedition, Olson recalled fondly, involved a stopover of two weeks in Great Britain while on the way to a symposium in Czechoslovakia in 1972.   “I managed about half a day each at the British Museum where I made the contents list for the collection denoted “BF” in the Broadside Index.

         “I also visited the Ralph Vaughn Williams Library of the EFFDSS.  At the Bodleian, I scanned through MS Ashmole 36/7 (one volume of sheets from various sources bound together) and Ashmole 38.

         “In Edinburgh I got into NLS [National Library of Scotland] and made contents lists of the Skene tune manuscript and G.F. Graham’s partial transcript of the now lost Straloch lute manuscript.”

         If it was a grand visit for Olson, it was less so for his wife, Barbara, Olson ruefully conceded.  He and Barbara “had several heated discussions about what a vacation was,” he acknowledged in his autobiographical note.

         Olson was later to take special pleasure in the access he earned to libraries devoted to what he deemed serious scholarship, particularly the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.  That library holds a large song collection, a collection that Olson knew better than did the staff.

Still, even as his patiently compiled bibliography grew, because of his lack of formal training and academic credentials, Olson was never certain of his acceptance by academic folklorists.  He had published, sometimes with co-authors, more than 55 scientific papers in physics and related areas, but virtually nothing in the field of folk song and ballad.    

As James Moreira noted in an email.  “Very few academic ballad scholars knew about him.  (Granted the English blackletter tradition in which he specialized had pretty much fallen off the map of ballad studies in the last fifty years. …)

Nonetheless, Olson’s painstaking indexing was invaluable,

continued Moreira, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maine.  “Bruce is yet another example of folkoristics’ tremendous debt to people who quietly pursue a passion and produce major research resources.”

A passion it certainly was.  In a eulogy delivered at a Gaithersburg memorial service for Olson on November 7, 2003, folk song scholar and performing artist Stephen Wade recalled a Bruce Olson he did not know well, but a man who “was not only courteous but capacious, freely lending his books and his knowledge, always with the caveat that he didn’t depend on secondary sources for information.  Instead, and he said this with some vehemence, he sought out only primary materials.

“As a result, his musical researches have yielded a periodical table of hundreds, if not thousands of songs, allowing the rest of us to see what elements have borne them over the centuries.  His studies reveal lineages as complex as the substances that comprise our natural world.”

In an added note, Wade applauded the retired Olson: “Like many in folklore, he was one of the great, unaffiliated scholars who have given so much and with such integrity, entirely apart from institutional sanction and support.”

Moreira agreed.  However modest Olson was about his burgeoning folk song and ballad index, “he was incredibly generous with his knowledge of the field – which unfortunately cannot always be taken for granted in the research world.”

If serious, a stranger’s query on any of a half-dozen listserves to which Olson subscribed would produce a lengthy reply culled from his large database – and an immediate addenda correcting errors in his first, hastily pasted message.

“That was just like him,” Olson’s son Kenneth said.  “All his life he couldn’t just answer yes or no.  He always had to give a full answer, an explanation.”

It was that which drove his ballad research as well.  Just days before he entered the hospital for the last time, he engaged in a dialectical exchange regarding folk tunes and “common sense” with Robert Waltz, who is engaged in a mammoth index of Anglo-American folksong books.

Olson grumbled that “`common sense’ is a self-adulation concept that one shares with his peers, and is derived almost solely from that peer group… Keep your common sense,” Olson barked in an email exchange on BALLAD-L.  “I just want good data.”

He favorably quoted a 1974 Journal of American Folklore article by Norm and Anne Cohen: “…We see no need for qualifying folklore (or folkloristics) as a science. It is sufficient that the discipline distinguish itself by following the path of scientific ionquiry rather than common-sense inquiry, and this is an approach that can be taken by textually oriented or behaviorally oriented folklorists alike.”

He was a scientist to the end.  And yet a man of letters.

Olson is survived by his wife, Barbara T. Olson; three sons, Douglas of Laurel, Maryland, Bryan of San Jose, California, and Kenneth of Gaithersburg, Maryland; and two sisters, Beryl of Bremerton, Washington; and Carol Kimsay, a resident of California.

 Olson’s voluminous research – updated a final time just days before he entered the hospital – is posted at Olson@erols.com.  Arrangements will be made, Kenneth Olson said, to permanently archive his website.

Condolences may be sent to the Olson Family, 101 East Deer Park Drive, Gaithersburg, Maryland, 20877.