Welcome to Ellen’s new website!

Hello. Welcome to ellenstekert.com, the online home of Ellen Stekert, professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota, singer and guitarist, former president of the American Folklore Society and Minnesota state folklorist. Ellen has had a long, varied, and interesting career and we look forward to sharing it with you here, including music, writing, and photography from her archives that has not yet been seen by the public.

Ellen herself will be here soon, both blogging and writing essays on her life and career. For now, we’re just getting started in building the site itself. Watch this space!


  1. Jim birckhead

    Hello Ellen, I sent you an email to your U. Mn address. Don’t know if it still works. I met you in the past at Berkeley and before that at an anthro conference in NY C. I did.my Ph.D on serpent handling and was wondering if you have done any additional work on it, or made the film I recall you mentioned in 1972; or have had further thoughts on the topic? I work in Australia now on Aboriginal connection .to country through Songlines and story, but am still interested in Appalachian culture and folklore.
    All the best,.jim

    1. Ellen Stekert

      Hello Joe, Good to hear from you. My University of Minnesota address should still be good — so I don’t know why your message did not get to me — well, now that I think about it, I do — it’s probably a goof-up my former Department made when I retired: I discovered it when the University announced that they are planning to take away the free U of MN email graduates and retired faculty (who are retired but NOT emeritus or emerita) had previously been granted. Aside from that being a dastardly thing to do to the poor grads who counted on the gift of free dependable email, a good number of retired faculty found out (like I did) that they were scheduled to be dropped, too.
      You know I’m not one to suffer an injustice quietly so I raised a bit of a ruckus. It turned out, that when I retired my Department, like a number of other Departments, simply overlooked registering me and a number of others as emerita (and emeritus). So, after a short scramble we were quickly remembered and our planned “de-emailing” was corrected. So my U of MN email is now back — so do write me at it. I’m still here and kicking and should be listed as an emerita faculty in the Department of English. — Moral: Once a member of the English Department at U of MN, always haunted by its efficiency.

    2. Ellen Stekert

      Hello Jim — Sorry to have sent you a message first of all, calling you “Joe” and then with nothing at all that related to your message to me. I’m just getting used to this blog thing and I think I was carried away by getting messages on it (you were among the first several).

      I never did get that film done that I thought about doing when we spoke, although I do recall our talk in NYC and our possible plans. I finally did my dissertation, partly on Willie Nolan, the singer from near the Pine Mountain School. You should be hearing a good deal about him if you keep checking in on this blog (which is being unfortunately slow in starting).

      From what I hear from my old contacts down in Harlan, the church is still there and would be ripe for use as a focus for a snake-handling study/film. However, if you still want to do the film, you will have to work with someone other than me, although I will gladly help with what tape recordings and film material I have.

      I am stowed up with an ever-serious case of Post Polio Syndrome and even short walks are an effort. However, I do work daily at digitizing my past concerts and my fieldwork that is on tape, so I’m spry and working but just not mobile

      It is very good to hear from you and I do hope your work in Australia is going well for you. It’s a country I have always wanted to visit. Cheers, Ellen

  2. Jim Birckhead

    G’day Ellen, Great to hear from you through the confusion of names and challenges of the new website. Not to mention the efforts of the Dept of English at U. Mn…. Sorry to hear of your mobility issues, but glad that you are “spry” and confronting what looks like a massive digitising project of your song and field materials.
    Ah! thoughts of a doco film making at Pine Mountain! Seemed like a good idea at that time. I regret that it didn’t happen, as a collaboration with you on this project would have been exciting to do. I appreciated so much your idea of doing this and your offer to share photos, films and field notes. Such a generous offer to a grad student who was in the early stages of Ph.D. fieldwork in East Tennessee. And thanks for your present offer to share materials, but I think a film is beyond me at this point as I now live a long way from that place and don’t get back often.

    The Pine Mountain Church of God is a real classic. It had been going from the early days of serpent handling and when I last visited there was under the “eldership” of K.D. Browning. It seemed embedded in the rural community, in picturesque country around Little Laurel Creek, about which books like Up Cutshin and Down Greasy and South from Hell fer Certain had been written about mountain folkways. Coal mining notwithstanding…
    Would have been a good site to explore your ideas in film about serpent handling’s effect on these folk traditions.

    By contrast, I did research at a newly formed church near Newport, Tn, a reputed center for cock fighting, bootlegging, organised crime and “snake handling”. The Holiness Church of God In Jesus Name did not have a long history or many elders past 30 yrs. So, very much an emergent entity rapidly “inventing” its own traditions and “folklore”. I was greeted at my first service there by a “hippie” film maker doing a doco. And with the strychnine deaths of Jimmy Ray Williams and Buford Pack in 1973, the church was invaded by international media. It became a media event circus, alerting me to how the process of interacting with media effects belief and practice. I got caught up in all of this and was lucky to manage to complete a dissertation from this whirling chaos. I ended up serving as a defence witness in a court case in Cocke County and inadvertently appear in a doco film. As you probably know, folklorist Tom Burton did a number of films on this church. So, while never making a film, film making at this so called isolated, Appalachian congregation became central to my research focus of serpent handler’s identity creation.

    While all of that is water under the bridge, I a still haunted by my experiences in the church. Many of the people from then have died; either in the faith or of natural causes. Serpent handling still takes place in those parts, but with different people; mostly young ones. I was wondering if you wrote any follow up papers to your classic article. Have you published any notes from that diary that led to your ride in the pickup truck? And, as I asked before, if you have further insights into the existential nature of these groups.

    I hope this website develops and works for you and look forward to hearing about Willie Nolan. Yes, Australia is an interesting country and place to live. Too bad you didn’t manage to visit here. I will resend my first email to your Eng Dept and see if it works this time, and will send further thoughts of film making, serpent handlers, and Appalachian stereotypes. Do take care,
    “Brother Jimmy”…

  3. Pat Zunz (nee Lasche)

    Hello, Ellen!

    Don’t know if you remember me from Cornell — Pat Lasche (n0w Zunz).
    We have been living on Longboat Key, Florida for the last 25 years, with about ten years part time in a condo in NYC. We have three sons, all living nearby — with the youngest living with us in or condo to help us old folks (Ed is 88 and I am 86, soon to be 87).
    We have two granddaughters — Bea just turned 25 and lives and works in Brooklyn and NYC. Zuleika will be 13 next month and is a top student in a private school here.
    Ed and I both were Commissioners here, and I chaired the Board of Adjustment and also served on the Planning Board.

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