About Ellen Stekert

Academic and musician Ellen Stekert  has been recognized as one of the pioneering scholars in the field of folklore studies. She taught for many years at the University of Minnesota, where she is professor emerita of English and American Studies. She was the first Minnesota State Folklorist in 1976. Ellen is noteworthy not only as a folksong collector, but as a performer herself, having recorded four albums of folk in the 1950s and continuing to perform frequently for many years. (You can listen to some of Ellen’s music on the Music & Performing page.)

Born in New York City in 1935, Ellen grew up in the suburb of Great Neck on Long Island. At the age of 13, Ellen contracted polio, from which she recovered but suffered lifelong disability. While she was rehabilitating, she learned to sing and play guitar, and ignited her lifelong love of folk music from Vance Randolph‘s four-volume Ozark Folksongs, which her father had given her as a present. Upon returning to high school, she met John Cohen (founder of folk-revival group The New Lost City Ramblers) who belonged to a friendship group that had gatherings where they sang and swapped folksongs. He invited her to join the group, and she learned much about folksongs and guitar playing from them.

Ellen was drawn to the folk-music scene of 1950s Greenwich Village, and began visiting and exploring the scene. She made a name for herself as a guitarist and vocalist in the Village, and often hung out at her friend Izzy Young’s book/record store, the Folklore Center, where aspiring folksingers learned and swapped folksongs. She met Woody Guthrie and “discovered” Reverend Gary Davis with John Cohen and his friends, and she eventually cut her first record in Bob Harris’ record store on Union Square, where Stinson Records was then making their home. This was all before she left the city for her undergraduate years at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The recording came out in 1955 as Ozark Mountain Folk Songs.

Ellen earned a B.A. in philosophy from Cornell University in 1957 and an M.A. in folklore and anthropology from Indiana University in 1961. She earned her Ph.D. in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. As part of her studies, she did fieldwork in Kentucky, New York, and Michigan, collecting folksongs and other material from singers including Sarah Ogan Gunning, Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight, and Willie Nolan, as well as a snake-handling Pentecostal church. Her Ph.D. dissertation, Two Voices of Tradition: The Influence of Personality and Collecting Environment upon the Songs of Two Traditional Folksingers, focused on her work with Barhight and Nolan.

Her musical career continued as well, with a second album, Ballads Of Careless Love, recorded as a Cornell undergraduate in 1956, and a collaboration with Milton Okun, Traditional American Love Songs, in 1957. Her academic work as a folksong collector also led directly to her fourth album, a set of Barhight’s tunes called Songs Of A New York Lumberjack, for Folkways Records in 1958.

Ellen was a professor in the English department at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, from 1963 to 1972. While there, she directed and reorganized the Wayne State University Folklore Archive with the help of Judith McCulloh.

After a year as a visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley, Ellen moved to the University of Minnesota in 1973, where she was a professor in English and American Studies until her retirement in 2000.

In 1976, Ellen was named the first Minnesota State Folklorist, and was the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Minnesota Folklife from 1976 to 1980. 

Ellen served as president of the American Folklore Society in 1976-77, and on its executive board from 1969 to 1978. In 1984-1989, she was also part of AFS’ Centennial Coordinating Council. 

Ellen was a consultant on folklore and urban legends for three exhibits produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota: Wolves and Humans: Coexistence and Competition in 1985, Hunters of the Sky, on birds of prey, in 1994, and Bears: Imagination and Reality in 1999. She was also a consultant for the Walker Art Center’s 1974 exhibit Naives and Visionaries, and for the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney.

Ellen served as arts commissioner for the city of Minneapolis from 1975 to 1978. She was also human rights commissioner and budget advisory commissioner for the city of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, from 2006 to 2009.

Today, Ellen lives in south Minneapolis with her partner, Beth. Although retired as a professor, she still speaks on folklore topics from time to time, and has run PasTime Antiques since 1997. 

Now 89, Ellen is energetic and full of life, although increasingly dealing with the difficulties of post-polio syndrome, as she has for many years. Ellen also no longer sings, due to complications from surgery on her upper spine that had the side effect of severing the nerve to one of her vocal cords. (She can talk your ear off, though!) But she has a large archive of songs in her tape and digital archives, as well as photographs and much more, and has been enjoying the process of revisiting them. “It’s like meeting myself coming down the street,” she says. We hope to share many of them with you here on this website.