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The New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture Saturday, July 26, 2014

The melodies linger on: John Donald Robb

Music historian John Donald Robb

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Posted: Friday, April 4, 2014 5:00 am | Updated: 10:35 pm, Thu Apr 10, 2014.

John Donald Robb had lived 88 of his eventual 96½ years when, in 1980, he brought forth his magnum opus, Hispanic Folk Music of New Mexico and the Southwest: A Self-Portrait of a People. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, it was applauded at the time as the most comprehensive repository of the repertoire it addressed, amassing into a single volume the texts and melodies of more than 500 songs and offering many of them in variant versions. Why it was published by the University of Oklahoma Press rather than the University of New Mexico Press is not clear, although Oklahoma boasted a strong commitment to music-related titles dating back to the 1950s. In any case, Robb’s monumental volume has now made its way onto the booklist of the University of New Mexico Press, which has just issued a facsimile edition of the original book, expanded by new prefatory material.

Robb was a singular character. Born and raised in Minneapolis, he studied English at Yale and law at Harvard and then entered the legal profession. He worked for two decades in New York as an attorney specializing in international financial law, but in 1941, when he was 49, he decided to walk away from the career he had built to that point. Like so many people seeking change in their lives, he headed to New Mexico. By that time he had developed considerable expertise as a composer, having studied with such highly respected figures as Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, and Nadia Boulanger, even during his lawyering years. Thus prepared, he obtained an appointment in 1941 as head of the music department at the University of New Mexico, then ascending to dean of the UNM College of Fine Arts from 1942 through 1957.

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