Cold but sunny New York mornings, in a high-ceilinged Chelsea apartment filled with books, instruments, and folk art. Coffee and freshly-baked muffins. And Henrietta Yurchenco, diminutive and volatile, white-haired, dressed in deep purples or blues, with Mexican jewellery – now presiding over the breakfast table, now at the piano, now pulling out a rare book from her collection, now at the computer … always talking about new projects, ideas, politics, music …
I first met Henrietta in 1983, taken to meet her while in NYC for a conference by my late thesis director, the ethnomusicologist Charles Boilès. At the time, she was also his student, but was too actively immersed in ongoing and new projects to ever complete her dissertation. She was to become Professor Emerita at CUNY, where she taught ethnomusicology for many years. There are several accounts of her impressive accomplishments which readers can consult, so I won't go into curricular details here. Henrietta was not one to use academic jargon – with her many years as a pioneering radio producer, and her fluent, highly articulate conversation, she was never at a loss for words in English or Spanish. She could hold any audience spellbound, whether a roomful of ethnomusicologists at a major conference or an audience of one at her breakfast table.
Over the years, we met whenever I had occasion to be in New York City and at conferences. Our research coincided especially in the songs of Sephardic women from Northern Morocco. Her invaluable recordings are among the first of these women, along with those made by the Spanish scholar Manual Alvar, around the same time in the late 1950s. But Henrietta's research was not limited to Sephardic women's songs (or to their stories and lives; she never considered music in isolation). Her pioneering folk music radio broadcasts in New York City and her work with women blues singers are well known. She was very knowledgeable about several regional traditions in Spain. She was an expert – a hands-on, old-fashioned, tough-conditions field worker – on the musical traditions of Mexico, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico and issued many of her field recordings on vinyl. Until the end of her life she was regularly invited to lecture in Mexico. Late in life, she also began an innovative internet-based study of music used by Neo-Nazis.
Just as Henrietta disdained academic jargon, she dismissed the ivory-tower aspects of academia. She was actively involved until the end of her life in protests against the war in Iraq. When I last visited her, in, I think, 2006, she recounted gleefully how a few days earlier she had stood on the street brandishing her cane and a sign, shouting protests, and urging the police to arrest her, which, she reflected somewhat regretfully, they refused to do.
We didn't always agree, especially about her proposed re-classification of Sephardic narrative ballads according to women's roles in them, or on the role of ancient Celtic queens in shaping women's live in Spanish Galicia today, or on other ethnographic matters, but she was tremendous fun to disagree with. Henrietta and the concept of boredom are incompatible.
There's an anecdote I've long wanted to get into writing (or virtual writing) and perhaps this is the time. About ten years ago, during one of my visits, a former student of Henrietta's dropped by the apartment. At some point, he asked her how old she was; (she must have been in her early eighties). Her answer? "Well," she said, "put it this way: when Columbus came, I saw him coming. I knew he'd cause problems. So I called out to him, to go away. I called out in Spanish, in English. I even tried Yiddish, you never know. But he didn't pay any attention to me, and just look at all the trouble he caused …"
At the end of her absorbing memoir, Around the World in Eighty Years – a Musical Odyssey (MRI Press, 2003), Henrietta suggests that she has left some of the best stories "for later." One can only imagine … "We Remember Henrietta"? For anyone who knew her even briefly, forgetting Henrietta Yurchenco is simply not a possibility.
For more on Henrietta Yurchenco, see: Memorial page for Henrietta Yurchenco; Remembering Henrietta Yurchenco; and Around the World in 80 Years: A Memoir, A Musical Odyssey.