Martha Schecter Forsyth died peacefully in her sleep early September 24, 2023 at age 82. Her son Peter Forsyth and "virtual sister" Pat Iverson were with her in her home of almost 50 years. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just weeks prior to her death. Dick, her husband of almost 40 years, died in 2014. She is survived by Peter, brother David Schecter, step-children Kristina and Matthew Forsyth, Matthew's wife Mary and their son Collen, cats Batko and Kalinka, and interconnected communities of friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers.
Family and friends will celebrate Martha's life in May 2024, location and date to be announced here at martha.forsyths.org.
Remote participation will be available.
Throughout her life, Martha pursued interests and passions that drew her far from the ordinary. Her greatest impact derived from her tireless research of traditional Bulgarian folk singing. She traveled to Bulgaria more than two dozen times beginning in 1976, seeking out traditional singers in small villages and recording their songs. Grants from IREX, Fulbright, and community organizations funded her early trips; later, she self-funded the work by leading numerous tours to the Koprivshtitsa folk festival.
She published a biography of one of her main contacts, singer Linka Gergova, in both English and Bulgarian in 1996, with an accompanying CD of Linka's songs. She released several compilations of field recordings, and donated raw materials to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress and to other academic archives. She served for decades as Secretary-Treasurer of the Bulgarian Studies Association (BSA). Organizations as varied as the BSA, the (U.S.) National Folk Organization, Bulgaria's national television and radio platforms, and academic journals have honored her work with lifetime achievement awards and coverage exploring her body of work.
Martha was born in 1940 in Dayton, Ohio to Harry Schecter and Gertrude (Baker) Schecter. They moved seven years later to Massachusetts, which Martha would call home for the rest of her life. Her interest in music and folklore grew organically throughout her life. Harry was a physicist with a keen interest in acoustics and a love for all kinds of music, and Gertrude taught weaving. Martha joined an adult choir, the Lexington Choral Society, at age 12. She continued with the choir into her time at Radcliffe College where, in the early 1960s, she delighted in the rich American folk music tradition that took hold in nearby Harvard Square. She was first exposed to Bulgarian music through an elective course at Radcliffe. She earned degrees in Slavic Languages and Literature at Radcliffe and the University of California.
Returning to Massachusetts after graduate school, Martha continued to explore Eastern European folklore in the burgeoning international folkdancing community cultivated by friends Marianne and Conny Taylor. This community would become central to her most important life events. She met Jon "Jonni" Boudreau through folkdancing, and after several years they conceived a son, Peter. She began this chapter as a single mother, but took great pride in seeing Peter meet Jonni and his family in 1980 and form lasting bonds, and in renewing her own connection with Jonni in later years. She met Dick, also through folkdancing, and they were married in 1976. Dick adopted Peter, and delighted in supporting Martha's interests with his own technical innovations.
Martha enjoyed numerous hobbies, crafts, and occupations. She taught Russian at M.I.T., made leather shoes for customers with various unusual footwear needs, made Appalachian dulcimers, learned and practiced Bulgarian crafts such as card weaving and crocheted beadwork, and put her research into practice as a founding member of the Bulgarian folk music ensemble Zdravets, which decades later continues to host regular dance events for a dedicated community of dancers and music lovers.
Community was a theme common to all her endeavors. She and Dick devoted energy to helping members of their community even when they didn't already know them well. They assisted a number of Bulgarians who immigrated to the United States during and after the fall of the Soviet empire, in some cases providing help that opened life-altering possibilities.
Martha's life was full of delightful contradictions. She described herself as "all three of the original computer-haters," but her esoteric interests and do-it-yourself inclinations drove her to push computers to their limits to get them to do what she needed. She disliked politics, but her personal connections, deep specialized knowledge, and above all her dislike of injustice often eclipsed that preference, and drove her to engage in interesting and impactful ways.
She embraced the social and educational opportunities that technology brought. Her field research continually brought technical challenges, often deriving from the need for durable, high quality recording equipment in remote locations. Dick brought many ideas, and Martha was always an active partner in implementing them. For many years she produced the Folk Arts Center of New England's Folk News, primarily through manual layout and printing, but gradually incorporating elements of desktop publishing. She sustained friendships and passions through social media. At Peter's suggestion, she contributed her knowledge to the English and Bulgarian language editions of Wikipedia. With Dick's guidance, she developed websites of her own to document her expanding knowledge.
Advancing age, medical adventures including two bouts of cancer, the loss of her husband and parents, the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a far-off mass shooting that impacted her family all took their toll, but none diminished her will to try new things and new ways to engage with the world. She embraced hula hooping. She mastered desktop publishing software in order to edit the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston's newsletter. She took on major renovations to the house, overseeing the installation of solar panels, new electrical wiring, and new insulation in recent years. This year she visited a beloved place by the ocean with Peter and his partner Laura, hiking miles through a nature preserve on a blustery January day. Until her final months, she routinely walked to a neighborhood store for her groceries.
Martha remained active, creative, and loving until the end. She developed her first alarming symptoms in August 2023, and received the cancer diagnosis in early September. Though her final weeks were far fewer than she wanted, she had the focus to ensure that her most important unfinished tasks were going to be addressed, and she settled into a beautiful time of visits with friends and loved ones, in person and on the phone. Her clear decision upon hearing the bad news was that "we're going to have fun when we can." She fully realized that vision, and true to form, she brought as many of her friends and family along for the ride as she could manage.