Indiana State University Newsroom

The Bicycle Diaries

May 23, 2011

As soon as Nan McEntire landed in Zurich, she unboxed her Peugeot 10-speed bike and began assembling it.

"It was a nice bike for the times - in 1976," she said. "I remember I had two screws left over, and I worried for weeks afterwards about where they should have gone."

On the back of the bike, she strapped a small, classical guitar in a vinyl case. A red flag fluttered off the neck end. She also strapped on a tent, sleeping bag, camping gear and a bag with a few clothes. From the airport, she began peddling her way out of Switzerland, through France, crossing the English Channel by a ferry from Calais to Dover, and then began bicycling through England and Scotland. When she reached the northern tip of Scotland, she took a ferry to the Orkney Islands.

"It was time for adventure," she said. "I was ready to see the world."

Along the way, she met people of all ages and occupations. They shared stories, music and laughter. Some of those people never forgot that meeting.

In late 2010, when Deb Shebish took a break from playing her fiddle during an Irish music session in Indianapolis, she struck up a conversation with a woman from Edinburgh, Scotland. The conversation centered on an American lady who had ridden her bicycle through Scotland more than 30 years earlier researching traditional music.

Shebish learned during the conversation that this woman on the bicycle was a "fascinating lady who was on a long bicycle trip through Europe, and she was carrying a guitar and hunting for ballads and had so many stories." This woman had made a tremendous impression on her, even for the short time they had met.

Shebish knew instantly that the woman who rode her bicycle through Scotland had to be McEntire, now Indiana State University's associate professor of English and director of ISU's Folklore Archives.

"I think it speaks volumes about Nan's character," Shebish said regarding the meeting the Scottish woman had recalled, years after it had taken place. "I think Nan has made a tremendous impression on her students and the community surrounding ISU."

Shebish knows because McEntire impacted her life as well. McEntire introduced Shebish, a 1999 ISU graduate in music, to Scotland in 2000 when she took her as a graduate assistant to research the music of the Orkney Islands.

"It was really great helping her interview these ballad singers and transcribe the songs because it was all by ear," Shebish said. "It was my first time to travel overseas and all this new music that I didn't know before."

McEntire also took Shebish to the University of Edinburgh to conduct research. Later, Shebish would return to Edinburgh and earn her master's degree in Celtic studies while researching how the fiddle was being taught in the Orkney Islands.

"The foundation was the work I did with Nan," she said. "It's absolutely what I wanted to do and I have her to thank for it."


McEntire promised her students, "You'll never forget this, once it's in your head and your feet." Then she stood at the front of the classroom and called out directions to the line of students behind her.

"Step, together, step, stomp," she said as the five students took a step sideways to the right, brought their left feet to join their right before they slid back to the left and brought their right feet down with a stomp. Before the lesson ended, they added a hop in place of the stomp. "This is what Irish music feels like.

"Now, you know the basic hornpipe," she told the students. "There's Irish music in your veins."

The professor known as Dr. Nan joined hands with Jordan Carpenter to dance the jig as they spun in a circle with the step, together, step, hop.

"She's very big in student involvement," said the senior theater major from Plainville. "She takes you places and shows you things. She very much wants you to be involved in learning."

After 13 years of teaching folklore at Indiana State University, McEntire officially retires at the end of May. For her work, research and teaching, President Dan Bradley selected McEntire to receive the President's Medal.

"Professor McEntire, teacher, artist, scholar, and servant leader, has earned the respect and admiration of hundreds of students, faculty, and staff alike through her academic accomplishments, good humor, and compassion, thereby modeling the highest standards of collegiality and the academy," Bradley said.

McEntire also earned the College of Arts and Sciences' Educational Excellence Award in 2001 and ISU's Caleb Mills Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005. She also was named Faculty of the Year for the University Honors Program in 2010. She has led students and Terre Haute residents around the ISU campus on ghost walks, which have gathered such large crowds that they now require reservations.

"Folklore is everywhere," McEntire said. "Once our students realize that, they can find it in folk speech, music, jokes, stories and superstitions."

Besides teaching her students a jig in a recent class, she showed pictures of Irish music sessions in pubs that she attended while on her Fulbright sabbatical during the spring of 2010. She told of children sitting next to adults learning and playing traditional songs by listening to their elders. She passed around a bodhran - a Celtic drum - for students to see and touch. She played a jig on the tin whistle.

McEntire has succeeded in bringing folklore to life for her students, of which there have been about 300 a year for most of the 13 years that she has taught at Indiana State.

"Folklore is alive, vibrant and fresh - not something half remembered from long ago," she said.

"She's the best teacher bar none," Carpenter said. "I like getting up at 9 in the morning and coming here."

McEntire reciprocates with fondness for her classes.

"The students at ISU have been great," she said. "They're not afraid to show enthusiasm for something. I appreciate their lack of pretense."


McEntire grew up with folklore. She just didn't know it at the time. McEntire's father, who hailed from the mountains of North Carolina, would often sing ballads around the house.

"I thought all fathers sang ballads," she said. "It wasn't until I was a teenager that I asked him about them. He had learned the songs from his mother who had learned them from her mother, who came from England."

She didn't know then that music passed from generation to generation in the British Isles would become one of her research interests.

As a teenager, McEntire, listened to, played, and sang folk songs. When Joan Baez published her songbook in 1964, McEntire said it "became a Bible for young folksingers." She noticed that many songs in the book were labeled as "Child No. 20" or "Child No. 84." A friend informed her this referred to a large collection of ballads by Francis James Child, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads."

"I found a copy in the library and started looking through all five volumes," she said. "I just thought it was fascinating, so I started reading about folklore and ballads on my own."

She also performed music, singing and playing the guitar in coffeehouses on the north side of Chicago, such as No Exit. She listened to blues, bluegrass and folk at The Old Town School of Folk Music.

"Those of us who participated in the folk revival were swept into the field. We played guitar and sang the songs. We didn't know we were singing traditional ballads. We were doing what folklorists examine today," she said. "I was lucky to turn my tremendous interest in folklore into a profession and to be able to share that with students is a ‘pretty nice gig,' as they say."

Folklore became her profession because of a professor. While studying for her master's degree in English at Indiana University, she took an elective class on English and Scottish ballads.

"Professor Edson Richmond, who taught it, took me aside and said, ‘What are you majoring in?' I said, ‘English.' He said, ‘You need to be in folklore.'"

Eventually, she was. She returned to IU to study folklore and ethnomusicology for her doctorate, which she obtained in 1990, and wrote her dissertation on "Sitting Out the Winter in the Orkney Islands: Folksong Acquisition in Northern Scotland." She drew on the riches of a culture that she first discovered on her bicycling adventure in the 1970s.

McEntire has continued to conduct research in Scotland as well as in Eastern and Western Europe.

"She's passionate about what she does," Shebish said. "She's a life-long learner. I think that defines her more than a Ph.D."

McEntire plans to teach a class on Celtic folklore during the summer session and she will spend next year working in the ISU Folklore Archives. Her goal is to make much of the archives available online, a project supported by the Cunningham Memorial Library's Visions and Voices initiative.

"I'm not riding my bike off into the sunset," she said.

She and her husband, David Stanley, who is also a folklorist and a retired professor from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, plan to travel, write and do fieldwork in new parts of the world.

"I can hardly imagine what mischief we can get into," she said smiling.

Nan McEntire ISU Photo/Tony Campbell
Dr. Nan teaches her students how to dance a jig in class. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking
Nan McEntire plays a jig on a tin whistle for her class. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or