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In Honor of Henrietta Yurchenco

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My dilemma is wondering under what category I should post this blog. See, Henrietta Yurchenco was more than just an ethnomusicologist. She was also a political activist who entertained those around her with stories of her travels to find music that might otherwise never have been exposed to the outside world. Equally important, she documented how music played a vital role for social and political issues.

I was first introduced to Henrietta Yurchenco through her publicist, Joe. About five or so years ago, he'd approached me with a press kit and paperback copy of Henrietta's memoir, Around the World in 80 Years: A Musical Odyssey. Apparently, her publisher, MRI Press, knew this petite woman, whose energy could not be contained, had a great story to tell, but Henrietta was looking for fuller distribution, which meant she needed a bigger publishing house. And why not? If anyone deserved a wider platform, it was Henrietta.

Pete Seeger writes in the prologue of Henrietta's book,

An extraordinary woman of slight frame, has gone places and recorded music that the outside world didn't know existed, and then came back to New York City and put it on the radio for anyone and everyone to listen to. Hooray for Henrietta Yurchenco and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constition.

I must admit that when Joe approached me, Henrietta Yurchenco's name was not familiar to me. I am now grateful to have had the opportunity to not only have made her acquaintance, but her friendship, before she left this world--one she made much better for all of us, whether we know it or not. Henrietta died on Monday at 91 years of age.

The first time I saw Henrietta, I was taken aback. She had a shock of white hair and an expression set with determination. I towered over her. At my height of five foot two inches, that's quite a feat. She leaned on her cane, which helped her navigate, but even so, it was obvious with or without the cane, nothing was going to stop her. We met in Manhattan during New York Is Book Country. Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic and crowded with pedestrians browsing the new book releases. I had suggested to Joe to come to NYIBC to get acquainted with the publishers to see what might be a good fit for Henrietta's book. He thought it was a good idea and we arranged a time and place to meet. Moving easily in the crowds proved to be difficult for an elderly woman depending on a cane. Henrietta didn't complain, but Joe suggested she and I find a place to sit while he walked up and down the street to investigate possibilities.

Before long, Henrietta and I were sitting near Rockefeller Center and got to know each other. I quickly learned that she wasn't shy nor did she have patience for light banter. We talked politics and, fortunately for me, we were of like minds; however, she was disheartened to discover that I was never arrested for marching in a protest. Proudly, she claimed she'd been handcuffed and carried off on several occasions for taking a political stance. Anyone worth his or her salt needed to be arrested for their beliefs was her judgment. I think any respect she might have had for me at that moment was knocked down a notch or two. However, by the time Joe returned and we were to go our separate ways, she insisted I be her guest at an upcoming Grateful Dead concert. She wanted me to meet her friend Mickey, since she was going to be working on a project with him. She thought perhaps I would be able to offer some suggestions. Little did I know that her friend "Mickey" was the Dead's Mickey Hart.

A couple of weeks later, I was sitting with Henrietta, Joe and Mickey backstage at Jones Beach Theater listening to talk of percussion and activism, Mickey clearly respectful of Henrietta and the history she'd brought with her. Out front, the theater was filling up with Grateful Dead fans, the hum growing louder. Soon, as the sun was setting, it was time for the band to go on. Instead of holding seats for us in the audience, chairs had been set up on the stage for Henrietta, Joe and myself, just barely out of the spectator's line of vision. Familiar only with one or two Dead songs, I didn't deserve such prominent placement, but it wasn't long before Henrietta and I were bopping to the beat, Henrietta paying particular attention to Mickey. After the concert as we headed to our car, several people stopped me to ask how I managed to acquire such priority seating. I pointed to the old woman walking next to me and said, "She hooked me up."

The next time, which was the last time I saw Henrietta, was when she and Joe surprised me by coming to my book launch. I'd invited them, but hadn't heard if they would be able to attend. I wondered if perhaps she'd forgotten about me, a woman who never managed to get arrested. She hadn't and I was thrilled to see her once again, her spirit still on fire for justice as she talked to a number of other guests in attendance.

Her obituary in The New York Times cited those whose paths she'd crossed, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, but it was this paragraph that made me grateful to have known this inspiring woman:

At Yale, she met Boris Yurchenco, an Argentine-born painter, at a meeting of the John Reed Club, named for the American writer who chronicled the Bolshevik Revolution. They were married in 1936, the year she was first arrested in a protest; she was demonstrating against a brass band from Mussolini's Italy.

My dilemma still stands, however, since this tribute could be entered on the political page while entertainment is just as easy a fit. Then again, upon further consideration, after 91 years of meaningful living, it's doubtful Henrietta would want friends and family to mourn her for too long. Quite likely, she'd prefer we pick up the gauntlet or placard and go on believing, discovering and, yes, protesting; in other words, living.

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