Dr. Harry Oster
(April 12, 1923 - January 19, 2001)
was a highly regarded American folklorist, musicologist, musician, record producer, concert promoter, professor, instrument collector, friend, and co-founder (along with Art Rosenbaum) of the Iowa Friends of Old-Time Music. Each year since his passing in 2001, the IFOTM board has presented an award plaque in his name to a deserving individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to the music scene in Eastern Iowa. The award is given with sincere appreciation of each recipient's lasting impact on fellow musicians and on the music and folk traditions of our area.

By the time Harry and Art began IFOTM in the late 1960s, Harry was already a well known figure in folk music circles. In the 1950s he had co founded the Louisiana Folklore Society. He had made dozens of field recordings of Cajun musicians , southern storytellers, and blues musicians, including several of prison inmates recorded inside the walls of the notorious Louisiana State Prison at Angola. He turned many of these recordings into now classic records on the Folkways, Arhoolie, Louisiana Folklore Society, Heritage, and Vanguard record labels. Through his own record company, Folk Lyric, he produced dozens of albums in the early 1960s, including several by such wide ranging artists as blues men Robert Pete Williams, Hogman Maxie, Snuffy Jenkins and the Carolina Bluegrass boys, Scotsman Ewan MacColl (along with his mother Betsy Miller), Irishman Brendan Behan, folksinger Peggy Seeger, and blues innovator Jesse Fuller. Many of these recordings have been reissued on cd for a new generation of listeners.

One of the original purposes of IFOTM was to bring nationally known folk musicians to the area through a series of concerts. The list of high quality musicians Harry helped bring to Iowa City through IFOTM is as impressive as his list of recordings. Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the 1990s , he brought in Cajun bands such as the Balfa Brothers, bluegrass bands including Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass boys, Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, swing band Martin Bogan and Armstrong, gospel singer Elizabeth Cotton, Celtic bands the Boys of the Lough and the Battlefield Band.

Harry was equally energetic in promoting local talent. The Fiddler's Picnic began primarily as a way to showcase the many old-time fiddlers in the area. The intent was not to have a contest or competition, as with many similar festivals, but rather to get together with fellow musicians for a pleasant afternoon of music, food, and jamming. Several fiddlers attending the first Picnic had already been recorded by Harry for the album Folk Voices of Iowa in 1965.

Harry will also be remembered for his great enthusiasm for collecting musical instruments. Throughout his life he bought and sold hundreds instruments of the wildest construction and diversity. Peruvian harps, 17th century zithers, boxwood clarinets, French flageolettes, Greek bouzoukis, 8-string Spanish guitars, cigarbox fiddles, viol da gambas, drums of every description could all be found tucked into nooks and crannies throughout his house. His collection of historically significant flutes is now housed at the U of Iowa School of Music.

Harry's accomplishments also include numerous books and articles on music and folklore, including Living Country Blues (1969) and the Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore (2000). Throughout his academic career he was awarded major grants such organizations as the Guggenheim, Ford Foundation, and National Endowment for the Humanities. Throughout it all, Harry maintained a gracious and gregarious, yet quiet and unassuming disposition which was an inspiration to all those that knew him.

For more a comprehensive look at Harry's recording work, check out Stefan Wirz's tribute page at

Harry's Faculty Memorial:

Harry's Folk Voices of Iowa recordings housed at the University of Iowa Digital Library



Dennis Jones

Warren Hanlin

Dave Moore

Aleta Murphy

J. Knight

Margaret Brumm

Dennis Roseman

Dave Hicks

Greg Brown

Dan Daly

Art Rosenbaum

Bob Black

Guy Drollinger

Keith Dempster

Al Murphy





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