Svatava Pirkova Jakobson

By Elise Grace Wagner

A Life Dedicated to Cultural Sharing and Understanding

Folksong collector, translator, and teacher of Slavic languages, Svatava Pirkova Jakobson dedicated her life to bridging cultural and ethnic differences and bringing Czech and other Slavic literature, culture, and songs to public awareness in America. In 1942, her path intersected with that of Alan Lomax, who undoubtedly learned much about Central European folklore and immigrant communities from her. For her part, Svatava told newspaper reporter Kate McKenna in 1993, "Alan introduced me to American singing" (McKenna). The two were lifelong friends, and during the 1960s Jakobson donated audio recordings to Alan Lomax's Cantometrics project.

Jakobson, known to friends as Svatia, was born March 19, 1908, in Vienna, Austria. She spent her childhood years in Prague and at ten witnessed the creation of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. "Of course I remember [when Czechoslovakia was created] however I did not understand the full meaning of it. Everybody was celebrating" (McKenna). Svatava studied languages and folklore at Charles University in Prague, completing a doctoral dissertation on the origin and function of folk song for the Department of Sociology, Ethnography, and Musical Science. She developed her translation skills, translating, among others, the work of poet and novelist Boris Pasternak and Arthur Rimbaud. During this period she met and married Russian-born Roman Jakobson, the brilliant linguist and philologist, who, as a member of the Russian Formalist School and later the Prague Linguistic Circle, was one of the formulators of structuralism. After their marriage, Roman taught at the University of Brno, and Svatava studied Moravian folk music and dance and translated French, Russian and German works into Czech. In 1938, the German occupation brought their rich life together in Prague to a close, since Roman's Jewish background made it impossible for the two to remain in the country.

With the help of friends and the Danish embassy the couple was able to escape to Norway by way of Copenhagen. After their train was bombed, they took refuge in the Norwegian mountains, where villagers helped them to get through to the Swedish border. The police in neutral Sweden took them for thieves, and it took several weeks to convince them that they were in fact refugees. Finally, in May 1940 they were allowed to proceed to Stockholm. Knowing they were still at risk, the couple then decided to go on to the United States. Svatava tracked down the American ambassador, who eventually granted them visas, and in1941 they reached New York.

Roman Jakobson was quickly hired to teach at Columbia, Harvard, and M.I.T.; while Svatava also lectured and taught Slavic languages at Columbia and elsewhere. During the summers of 1942-44 she helped organize the Pontigny Colloquia at Mount Holyoke College. Originally founded in 1910 and held at the Benedictine Abbey in Pontigny, France, the three-week Pontigny Conference convened at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts during the war, bringing together intellectuals and artists in exile from Nazism, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marc Chagall, and André Masson and American writers and artists, among them Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Roger Sessions.

In 1942, Svatava contacted John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress to discuss funding for a project tracing the development of Moravian music and culture in Czech immigrant communities in America. Lomax, who was just entering the U.S. Army as an information specialist, began a letter-writing campaign to obtain fellowships for Svatava from the Council of Learned Societies and the Guggenheim Foundation. Charles Seeger at the Pan-American Union; University of Texas at Austin president Homer P. Rainey; and anthropologist George Herzog at Columbia were among those he contacted on her behalf. Svatava’s five-page proposal for the  "Study of Czechoslovak Folksong in the United States," now at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, outlined a plan to document Czech music in New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. In November 1942, Lomax wrote to folklorist Mody Boatright at the University of Texas at Austin, to make sure the project did not duplicate the work of any of Boatright's graduate students. He praised Svatava as "a competent woman, from all accounts, one of the best young people in the whole field of folklore."

When funding for fieldwork proved unobtainable, Alan Lomax urged the Office of War Information to hire Jakobson, "a distinguished musicologist, folklorist, and anthropologist who had done a great deal of research on the folk song of Central Europe," on a per diem basis, explaining that:

She would be competent to collect and organize for us material in the following languages: German, Czech, Slovak, Russian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, and Norwegian. In a couple of months Mrs. Jakobson could accumulate a reservoir of songs and tunes, recorded in our New York studios.  

He proposed the compilation of a book of songs and tunes, which, he explained, could contribute to the war effort by serving as the basis for cue music for radio broadcasts foreign and domestic; for soundtracks in movie shorts; and for domestic broadcasts about American immigrant minorities and their heritages. Such songs could be also included in song books designed for sing-alongs and performed on phonograph records, "especially arranged by name bands for popular consumption as popular music, much as 'Loch Lomond' was popularized by Maxine Sullivan" (quoted from Lomax's proposal, "Memo for reaching folk groups with war information," October 27, 1942).

This proposal was accepted, and together, Lomax and Jakobson produced Freedom Songs of the United Nations(1943) for the Office of War Information, comprising about 250 one-sided pages (bound three-hold punched, not numbered consecutively). The songbook aimed to further the cause of the Allies (dubbed the "United Nations" by Churchill and Roosevelt), and to draw attention to the folk music heritage and aspirations of the "countries that Hitler had swallowed up."  Alan Lomax's introduction states: "This is a representative collection of the fighting songs, the freedom songs, the national songs and the anti-Fascist songs of the United Nations. It follows the liberation movements of the conquered countries across a thousand years” and concludes: "The biggest part of the job of collection, transcription, translation, organization, was done by Mrs. Svatava Jakobson, Czech musicologist, under my supervision." After the war, Svatava Jakobson and Alan Lomax both were elected to the national board of directors of Peoples' Songs, the association directed by Pete Seeger that was designed to assist progressive causes (such as labor and civil rights) through music (see Richard A Reuss with JoAnne C. Reuss, American Folk Music and Left Wing Politics 1927-57 [2000]) p. 187).

Svatava's academic work in the years immediately following the war, meanwhile, followed the plan laid out in her 1942 proposal, though her area of research was now limited to New York State. The 1947 Journal of American Folklore (vol. 61, no. 239, pp. 74-75) published the following "Works in Progress" entry:

Svatava Pirkova Jakobson states that her manuscripts on the following subjects are scheduled to appear: (1) Folklore and personality: life and creative work of an outstanding peasant woman who lived 20 years in a Slovak village and 50 years in New York; (2) The songs of the Czech and Slovak people in New York and vicinity; (3) American influence on Czech popular song; (4) Critical survey of new publications about Czechoslovak Folklore; (5) Introductory survey of Slavic folklore. Field work in the Department of Slavic Languages [at Columbia University] under the direction of Mrs. Jakobson and her husband, Roman Jakobson, will consist in the continuation of systematic recording and study of Slavic folklore in New York; the building up of archives of phonographic and written records, popular written and printed songbooks, and ethnographic photographs; preparation of a representative record album of Slavic folklore; and the production of a film: "The Life and Lore of the New York Czechs and Slovaks." Three graduate students directed by Mrs. Jacobson are conducting independent projects in Slavic folklore.

In 1949, Roman Jakobson left Columbia for Harvard to join its newly established Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, bringing with him fourteen of his graduate students. The new department included the distinguished expert on oral literature, Albert Bates Lord, professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature, later chairman of Harvard’s Department of Folklore and Mythology. Svatava accompanied her husband to Harvard, where for the next eighteen years she was a lecturer in Czech literature and Slavic folklore. Among her publications in those years were the entry on "Slavic Folklore" in the Funk & Wagnall's Dictionary of, Mythology, Folk Lore and Legend, vol. 2  (1950); and "Harvest Festivals among Czechs and Slovaks in America" in the Journal of American Folklore (59 [1956]: 266-80). She also wrote the introduction to the Morphology of the Folk Tale (1958), by Vladimir Propp (who had been a fellow member with Roman Jakobson of the Russian formalist school).

Svatava had become interested in Austin through hearing members of the Lomax family speak about the Czech communities in the Texas Hill Country. After an amicable divorce from Roman in 1967, she accepted a one-year position as a lecturer in Czech language and literature in the Slavic Languages Department at the University of Texas. She fell in love with Austin during her appointment and ended up teaching there for another ten years. During this time she also maintained her connection to Washington, D.C.: in 1976, the Smithsonian Institution asked her to spearhead the planning and coordination of all European countries in the Bicentennial Celebration of American Folklife on the National Mall.

Jakobson officially retired from teaching in 1978 but remained active as a mentor, friend, and inspiration to those in her Austin community. In 1993, she was awarded the Texas Czech Heritage Award for her contributions to the preservation of Czech heritage and community in Texas. She died in 2000. Before her death, she donated over 3000 books, tapes, recordings and Czech newspapers to the University of Texas library. Her friends remember her as a warm, kind woman with a vast knowledge of language and culture. Her Austin home was a center for good conversation, food and drink, and she was known for her annual Christmas dinner party. Her research endures as the groundwork for the study of Czech culture and assimilation in twentieth- century America.

Works Consulted:

Jakobson, Svatava Pirkova. "The Study of Czechoslovak Folksong in the United States," 1942. American Folklife Center. Library of Congress.

Lomax, Alan. Letter to Homer P. Rainey, October 9, 1942. American Folklife Center. Library of Congress.

Lomax, Alan. Letter to Mody Boatwright, November 2, 1942. American Folklife Center. Library of Congress.

McKenna. Kate. "Remembering: Czech Woman Returns to Her Homeland for a Last Look. Austin American-StatesmanJanuary l, 1993.

"In Memoriam: Svatava Pirkova Jakobson (1908-200)"Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences.

"Mount Holyoke to Re-Create Historic WWII Symposia That Provided Haven for European Intellectuals Fleeing Hitler."College Campus News. March 15th, 2003

Note: The foregoing paper was adapted from a paper by Elise Grace Wagner, written in 2006, while she was an intern at the Association for Cultural Equity.