Henrietta Yurchenko

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Ethnomusicologist and folklorist Henrietta Yurchenco championed and preserved musical traditions spanning from her native United States to destinations as far-flung as Guatemala and Morocco -- as folk…
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Ethnomusicologist and folklorist Henrietta Yurchenco championed and preserved musical traditions spanning from her native United States to destinations as far-flung as Guatemala and Morocco -- as folk legend and longtime friend Pete Seeger said, "She went to places people didn't believe she would be able to find." Born Henrietta Weiss in New Haven, CT on March 22, 1916, she studied piano at Yale School of Music. There she met Argentine painter Basil Yurchenco at a meeting of the John Reed Club, and they were married in 1936. After abandoning plans to become a concert pianist, Yurchenco signed on with New York City-owned public radio station WNYC in 1939 -- one of the few women working in broadcasting, she further distanced herself from the establishment by devoting her Adventures in Music show exclusively to traditional and modern folk music, befriending the likes of Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Alan Lomax, as well as composers Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, and Otto Klemperer, poet Pablo Neruda, and painter Frida Kahlo. In 1941 the Yurchencos traveled to the remotest regions of Mexico, lugging with them a 300-pound recording machine and documenting the folk music, ritual songs, peyote chants, and healing ceremonies of native peoples like the Cora, Huichol, Seri, Tzotozil, and Yaqui. Combined with a 1946 journey to Guatemala, Yurchenco collected more than 2000 Latin and Central American songs in all, later issued commercially via collections including 1948's Library of Congress release Folk Music of Mexico, 1952's Indian Music of Mexico and 1966's The Real Mexico. Over the decades to follow Yurchenco traveled to areas spanning from Puerto Rico to Ecuador to Ireland. Most famously she studied the music of the Sephardim Jews expelled from Spain during the 15th century who arrived in Morocco just as many were preparing to settle in the new state of Israel; there they seized a final opportunity to record their traditional songs in their original context. (The recordings were commercially released in 1983 on the Folkways collection Ballads, Wedding Songs and Piyyutim from the Sephardic Jews of Morocco.) Yurchenco never lost sight of her own New York City folkie roots, either -- in 1962, she conducted one of the first radio interviews with a little-known singer/songwriter named Bob Dylan, and in 1970 published A Mighty Hard Road: The Woody Guthrie Story, widely cited as the first major biography of the folk pioneer. Yurchenco's other books include In Their Own Voices: Women in the Judeo-Hispanic Song and Story and Around the World in 80 Years: A Memoir -- A Musical Odyssey. She was also the subject of filmmaker Jose Luis Sagredo's documentary Henrietta Yurchenko: Testimonio de Vida. Yurchenco died in Manhattan on December 10, 2007 at the age of 91.