Jacob Delworth Elder is a towering presence in the cultural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago. His field research, scholarly insights and championing of indigenous culture helped to change official attitudes to the culture of the masses, while assembling a trove of information and understanding for future generations.
In his quest to promote cultural wholeness, J.D. Elder straddled the world of academia and politics, bringing expertise and insight to the process of change.
He grew up in Charlotteville, Tobago, at a time when the cultural expressions of the masses were socially ostracized and even banned by law. His application of the tools of scholarship to folk culture served to validate and legitimize the culture of the underclass and to build their confidence. His early jobs as primary school teacher and community development officer gave him privileged access to the traditional cultures of Tobago’s African descendants. Over the career of a lifetime, he conducted extensive field research into the history of kalinda, steelpan, calypso, Carnival, African religions, architecture, folktales and folk music. His voluminous body of work attracted the attention of anthropological scholars throughout the Caribbean and beyond.
In 1965, J.D. Elder was awarded the Ph.D. in anthropology from the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States where he would lecture for several years. In the mid-1970s, he spent four years in Nigeria as a research professor at the University of Ibadan and as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law at the University of Maiduguri.
In the 1980s, he was appointed to the Tobago House of Assembly where he held the portfolio of Culture and Education. Among his legacies from that period is the Tobago Heritage Festival, which built on his work as a consultant to the Best Village Folklore competition in the 1960s.
In 2012, a segment of his extensive archives was donated by the Dr J.D. Elder Collection Foundation to the Alma Jordan Library at the University of the West Indies. In 1981, J.D. Elder was awarded the Humming Bird Medal for his contribution to cultural research and the development of Trinidad and Tobago.
On October 13, 2003, he passed away, just days before his 90th birthday.