Jacob Delworth Elder

by Peter Stone and Ellen Harold

Jacob Delworth Elder (1913–2003) born in Charlotteville, Tobago, was a noted anthropologist, author, educator, and cultural advocate for Trinidad and Tobago. Among Dr. Elder’s achievements as primary school teacher and community development officer in his young days had been to encourage the growth of the steel bands of Trinidad as an outlet for the restless youths of Port of Spain. Dr. Elder’s extensive field research on the history of kalinda, pan, calypso, and other aspects of Carnival, as well as steel bands, the Yoruba religion, Caribbean folktales (and their connections with the African continent) helped make the music and cultural traditions of his islands as respectable to the islanders themselves as they were to the world at large. “It was he who introduced me to the incredible culture of Trinidad and Tobago during the two magic weeks I spent there in 1962,” Alan Lomax wrote of his longtime comrade and colleague.

He obtained his Ph.D. in anthropology in the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 and also lectured at Temple University. He then spent four years in the mid-’70s in Nigeria as a research professor at the University of Ibadan and as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law at the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria.

On returning to the Caribbean, Elder served as Minister of Culture and Education for Tobago and as consultant to the Ministry of Youth, Sport, Culture, and Creative Arts for the government of Trinidad and Tobago. The “cultural guru of the nation”, as his obituary in the official government register described him, helped develop and nurture two of the most important cultural events on the island, the Best Village Folklore competition in the 1960s, and, in 1987, the Tobago Heritage Festival.

Alan Lomax considered Elder’s Song Games from Trinidad and Tobago (1973) “of seminal importance” — in the international literature of child development that “takes us into the heart, the very process, of cultural growth.” Cantometric techniques enabled Elder to weigh the relative contributions of European and African influences in black Trinadadian traditions. In 1997 he, Lomax, and Bess Lomax Hawes authored and co-edited Brown Girl in the Ring, an anthology of children’s song games (accompanied by Rounder CD 171). It incorporates throughout many of the insights of his earlier work and includes an important essay “I Recall Growing Up in Tobago” about how adults use song games in the socialization of children.

Dr. Elder’s books also include From Congo Drum to Steelband: A Socio-historical Account of the Emergence and Evolution of the Trinidad Steel Orchestra (1969); The Yoruba Ancestor Cult in Gasparillo: Its Structure, Organization and Social Function in Community Cohesion (1969); Lopinot, a Historical Account (1973); and Folk songs from Tobago: Culture and Song in Tobago (1994).

In July of 2006, the International Society for Oral Literature in Africa (ISOLA), based in Binghamton, N.Y., held its sixth annual African Diaspora Conference on Oral Literature at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. Both the venue and focus of the conference, Oral Literature and Identity Formation in Africa and the Diaspora, honored J. D. Elder's groundbreaking work in the field:

We chose Trinidad and Tobago as the site of our 2006 conference with a view to celebrating the life and work of Dr. J.D. Elder, who joined the ancestors just over a year ago. Dr Elder devoted his scholarly career largely to exploring African cultural survivals especially in the Caribbean, doing it with such a passion that in his research visits and residences in Africa, as well as in his lectures and publications, he never failed to convey to his professional colleagues the vibrancy of the surviving bonds between Africans on both sides of the Atlantic. Our meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, the home of Dr Elder, is the least we can do to salute his pioneering work in African diaspora studies.

In 1981 J. D. Elder received the Humming Bird Medal for his contribution to cultural research and the development of Trinidad and Tobago, and in 1988 the French government named him Officier des Palmes académiques, awarded to people who advance the image and culture of France abroad. During the last years of his life, Elder stayed at the home of his daughter, Dr. Patricia Elder, in Petit Valley, Diego Martin, Trinidad. At the time of his death, he was working on a book about black oral ceremonies as symbolic weapons of resistance.