W.F.H. Nicolaisen (1927-2016).
In 1983, Bill wrote, 'Narration of any kind involves selection and emphasis in the interpretative presentation of related and ordered chunks of sequences, but [...] narrating is quite clearly upsettingly agonising as well as pleasurably compulsive.' (2) And it is indeed agonizing to write the obituary, to attempt to narrate concisely the life story, of a cherished mentor. But there is also a compulsion to share a bit of what made him so special to those who knew him. Others with different associations to Bill may question the 'selection', 'emphasis', and 'interpretative presentation' herein, but I have striven to recount Bill's life as he presented it to me in his latter years.
Without a doubt, it is due to his assiduous and ardently amiable nature that Wilhelm Fritz Hermann Nicolaisen, who was born on 13 June 1927 in Halle, Germany, had few worries when it eventually came time to find academic positions. 'As I've said, often said before, I never had to apply for anything,' (3) he cheerfully admitted to me during an interview about his career. Indeed, after studying folklore in the late 1940s at the University of Kiel under the eminent folklorists Walter Anderson and Kurt Ranke, Bill was asked by Professor of German Studies Fritz Braun to fill a German-language teaching position at the University of Glasgow that had lain vacant since the beginning of the Second World War.
It was at this time that he began, again at the behest of Braun, a PhD under the supervision of the philologist and Indo-Europeanist Hans Krahe, (4) at the University of Tubingen, on the river names of Britain. In the midst of this, his luck continued as he was contacted in 1952 to fill a position as German lector at University College Dublin (UCD), where after a chance encounter with Seamus Delargy (Seamus O Duilearga), Chair of Irish Folklore at UCD and Honorary Director of the pioneering Irish Folklore Commission, Bill was invited to work on his doctoral thesis at the Commission's headquarters at St Stephen's Green. It was there that he got to know Delargy, Sean O'Sullivan (Sean O Suilleabhain), Kevin Danaher (Caoimhin O Danachair), and 'all the famous people of that era in Dublin [...] and they talked folklore, and I listened to folklore [...] so that was definitely another push in the right direction'. (5)
Bill's charm and diligence led to yet another opportunity. Through the benevolent machinations of Christian Fordyce, Professor of Humanity at the University of Glasgow, who knew Bill as a singer in the chapel choir he directed, Bill was offered a studentship to complete a BLitt in Celtic Studies--this despite having only learned of the bursary two days after the proposal deadline had passed. In 1956, fortune continued to direct its gaze at Bill as a sudden resignation at the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies opened up the once-in-a-lifetime job of head of the Scottish Place-Name Survey, a position to which Bill was particularly suited, having just completed his PhD and BLitt on place names.
It was in Edinburgh that Bill's charisma led to his greatest success, as he convinced May Marshall, whom he had met while sharing a textbook, to marry him, in 1958. But it was also in Edinburgh where, as he recounted to me, his industriousness landed him in trouble: 'I can still see Calum [Maclean] standing there, at the window, with one leg on the radiator. And he said, "Bill, the others have asked me to tell you something [...] You work too hard.'" (6) But if his tenacity was not always welcome at the office, it was necessary in his fieldwork as he cycled up and over the steep hills of the Isle of Mull with a hefty reel-to-reel recording machine to document place names. (7) It was through fieldwork like this, often conducted with student, then colleague, Ian Fraser, that Bill 'discovered that the people who give names and use names are the same people who tell stories and use them', (8) and so, in contrast to most onomasticians, he began earnestly to document the stories surrounding names and places, thus bringing together his two passions.
Towards the end of his tenure at the School of Scottish Studies, which lasted from 1956 to 1969, Bill met American folklorist Francis Lee Utley at a conference in Edinburgh and, characteristically, insisted on leading the self-avowed bibliophile on a tour of the secondhand book shops of the Scottish capital. Bill's kindness resulted one year later in an unsolicited invitation from Utley, inviting him to be Visiting Professor at Ohio State University--and so he went, accompanied by May and their four young children, Fiona, Kirsten, Moira, and Birgit, as well as his mother-in-law. Though he returned to Edinburgh in 1968 to become Acting Head of the School of Scottish Studies, his stint in Ohio meant that he was soon receiving offers from universities around the United States to teach, and in 1969 he accepted a job at the State University of New York, Binghamton, on the condition that he be allowed to teach folklore as a staff member of the English Department.
In Binghamton, Bill quickly proved himself to be an excellent teacher to his students, including future folklorists Simon Bronner, Cristina Bacchilega, Bill Healy, and Lynne Williamson, all while proving himself across the university as an able administrator, no matter the field. He was also increasingly influential with his colleagues across disciplines: he was elected president of the New York Folklore Society (1971-75, 1981-83), the American Name Society (1977), the American Folklore Society (1983), and was a key figure at the University of Sheffield's early 'Perspectives on Contemporary Legends' seminars. It was at this time that Bill's academic output began to reflect directly his parallel interests in folklore and onomastics. Examples specifically relevant to readers of this journal are his essays on 'Place-Names in Traditional Ballads', (9) and "'There was a Lord in Ambertown": Fictitious Place-Names in the Ballad Landscape', (10) subjects that eventually led to Bill's creation of a comprehensive place-name index for the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, (11) All told, Bill spent twenty-three years at Binghamton, eventually becoming Distinguished Professor Emeritus, before retiring at the age of sixty-five and returning with May to Scotland to live in Aberdeen. On the occasion of his retirement, he was presented by former students and colleagues with a Festschrift entitled Creativity and Tradition in Folklore}. (12)
Bill would not slow down, however, and an incomplete list of his retirement-era presidencies includes the Folklore Society (1999-2002), the Scottish Medievalists (1994-97), and the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (1993-96). In 1990, and again in 1993, Bill was Visiting Professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. In 2002, he was the first person to be honoured with the 'Lifetime Scholarly Achievement' award of the American Folklore Society (2002). In 2006, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Aberdeen. All the while he continued to teach, first at the University of Aberdeen's Department of English and its Centre for Lifelong Learning, and then at the Elphinstone Institute, the University's centre for ethnology, folklore, and ethnomusicology, where he was Emeritus Professor and which he had helped to set up--and where he taught about place names and contemporary legends to me and other eager MLitt and PhD students. In 2015, Bill was awarded the prestigious Sahlgren Prize by the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy for Swedish Folk Culture.
To the profound sadness of family, friends, and colleagues around the world, Bill passed away on 15 February 2016 in Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, Scotland. As a final act of kindness, he bequeathed his library--certainly one of the world's most important private collections on folklore and onomastics--to the Elphinstone Institute. The volumes will have good company, as they are used by staff and students alongside those of seminal ballad scholar, and long-time friend of Bill's, David Buchan.
Astoundingly prolific, Bill Nicolaisen published more than three hundred journal articles, two hundred and thirty book reviews, over two hundred magazine articles aimed at the general public, and four books, and was also editor or co-editor of more than ten volumes and journals, including The Ballad and the Folklorist: The Collected Papers of David Buchan. (13) In 2011, the Scottish Place-Name Society published a selection of his place-name essays entitled In the Beginning Was the Name} (14) a sequel of sorts to his Chicago Folklore Prize-winning Scottish PlaceNames, (15) In the last few years of his life, Bill worked with me and colleagues in Scotland, Ireland, and the United States to publish an equivalent volume of selected essays on the subject of folklore--this will be published by the University Press of Mississippi through the co-sponsorship of the Elphinstone Institute, the Folklore Society, and the American Folklore Society.
It is a testament to Bill's international influence that his life is being celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, first by a memorial service held at Binghamton on 15 May 2016, and then by an upcoming international symposium in his honour in Aberdeen in the summer of 2017. Writing about humour in traditional ballads, Bill wrote, 'what keeps people going most of the time is not the heavy tear of weeping but our eyes awash with tears of laughter'. (16) Indeed, Bill saw good humour as a way of life, and his enormous smile and the twinkle in his eye could relax even the most nervous student, as they did when I anxiously announced on tape that I was 'interviewing Professor W. F. H. Nicolaisen' and he immediately retorted with a grin, 'You hope!' (17) It was that conscientiousness, humour, kindness, and goodwill that led to Bill's lifelong success across countries, languages, and disciplines, and those characteristics are what led him in his final years to mentor and befriend a student more than fifty years his junior. I miss him dearly, but I know that I can always meet him again in the pages of the essays we discussed together so many times.
Nicolas Le Bigre
Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen
(1) Aberdeen, Elphinstone Institute Archives, W. F. H. Nicolaisen, interview with Nicolas Le Bigre, 19 March 2012, El 2012.021, 01:26:22.
(2) W. F. H. Nicolaisen, 'Sir Walter Scott: The Folklorist as Novelist', in Scott and his Influence, ed. J. H. Alexander and David Hewitt (Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1983), pp. 169-179 (p. 177).
(3) Nicolaisen, El 2012.021, 00:31:08.
(4) I am thankful to Professor Simon Bronner for bringing this name to my attention.
(5) Nicolaisen, El 2012.021, 00:26:40.
(6) Nicolaisen, El 2012.021, 00:39:52.
(7) Thankfully some of these fieldwork recordings have been digitized by the Tobar an Dualchais project and are available to listen to online at <http://www.tobarandualchais. co.uk>.
(8) Nicolaisen, El 2012.021, 00:48:57.
(9) W. F. H. Nicolaisen, 'Place-Names in Traditional Ballads', Folklore, 84 (1973), 299-312.
(10) W. F. H. Nicolaisen, "'There was a Lord in Ambertown": Fictitious Names in the Ballad Landscape', in Narrative Folksong--New Directions: Essays in Appreciation of W. Edson Richmond, ed. Carol Edwards and Kathleen Manley (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985), pp. 71-81.
(11) W. F. H. Nicolaisen, 'Place-Name Index', in The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, ed. Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, Emily B. Lyle, et al., 8 vols, (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press; Aberdeen: Mercat Press, 1981-2002), vm, 603-23
(12) Simon J. Bronner, ed., Creativity and Tradition in Folklore (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1992).
(13) W. F. H. Nicolaisen and James Moreira, eds, The Ballad and the Folklorist: The Collected Papers of David Buchan (St John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Publications, 2013).
(14) W. F. H. Nicolaisen, In the Beginning Was the Name (Lerwick: Scottish Place-Name Society, 2011).
(15) W. F. H. Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names (London: B. T. Batsford, 1976; repr. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2011).
(16) W. F. H. Nicolaisen, 'Humour in Traditional Ballads (Mainly Scottish)', Folklore, 103 (1992), 27-39 (p. 39).
(17) Nicolaisen, El 2012.021, 00:00:15.
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|Author:||Bigre, Nicolas Le|
|Publication:||Folk Music Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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