Texas Folklore Society

TFS History




by Francis Edward Abernethy--Portions were taken from the Preface in T for Texas: A State Full of Folklore (PTFS 44-1982) 

The Texas Folklore Society has been preserving and presenting folklore in Texas for eighty-eight years. In its time the Society has published fifty-five annual hardback volumes, eleven special supplementary volumes, numerous monographs and newsletters, and has promoted the publication of sixteen more books on folklore. It has brought to Texas and sent out from Texas the finest scholars and lecturers in the field of folklore. It has sponsored programs displaying folk arts from Texas and the world. And it has had eighty-one annual meetings, most of them alone but some in concert with the Texas State Historical Society, the Texas Academy of Science, folklore societies from other states, and with the American Folklore Society.

TFS HistoryJohn Lomax

Most Society regulars would not blink an eye if they were told that the Society was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. However, as a philosophical deist I see these matters figuratively rather than literally. On the other hand, the Society's conception was the result of a seed planted by that Holy Spirit of Harvard, George Lyman Kittredge - and I am not trying to make an analogy in which John Lomax becomes the Virgin Mary. Lomax took with him to Harvard, in 1906, the cowboy songs that he had been learning and collecting since his boyhood days in Bosque County. Kittredge and others were delighted with them and sent him home to Texas with the great commission to establish a branch of the American Folklore Society for the further collecting of Texas folklore.

Lomax returned to Texas and began teaching at Texas A&M and began an association with another folklorist, the linguist Leonidas Warren Payne of The University of Texas. In 1909, Kittredge's suggestion became an accomplishment. Lomax and Payne met after the Thanksgiving Texas-A&M football game and resolved to found the Texas Folklore Society as a branch of the American Folklore Society. The Society was officially chartered at the Texas State Teachers Association meeting in Dallas on December 29, 1909. Charter Membership closed with ninety-two members, the initiation fee was fifty cents, and the annual dues were a dollar.


The founders were very significant because of the differences that existed between the personalities of the men and between their attitudes about the collection and presentation of Texas folklore, and because of the fact that they remained the closest of friends in spite of these differences. Payne was an academician, a linguist, and a comparative folklorist with an eye to the international. In his first 1910 circular to the members, Payne presented a philosophy and wrote a list of suggestions to workers that would satisfy the most scientific of modern folklorists.

Lomax was the other side of the coin. He loved the romance of the cowboy and the old west. And he loved the sound of the songs the cowboy sang. His collecting was invaluable. His promotion of the Texas western image and the circulation of the songs in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads spread one brand of Texas folklore throughout the world. His work was popular. He meant it to be, and when a song needed alteration for art's sake, he borrowed lines from variants and straightened it out.

Payne and Lomax worked together, and the tolerant and liberal philosophy established by the founders of the Society made it a comfortable bed ground for all kinds and colors of Texas folklorists.

TFS HistoryLeonidas Warren Payne

The activities of the Texas Folklore Society were pretty well established during its first decade, when members began their annual meetings where they read papers and discussed a wide variety of folklore and brought in national and international folklorists as guest lecturers. Texas folklorists who were to lay the philosophical groundwork as the officers and leaders were Walter Prescott Webb, Stith Thompson, Dorothy Scarborough, Herbert Bolton, Lomax, and Payne. And in 1916 the Society issued its first major publication, now called Round the Levee, which was edited by Stith Thompson.

The first phase of the Texas Folklore Society ended with the San Marcos meeting in 1917 and the problems of World War I and its aftermath.

 TFS HistoryJ. Frank Dobie

The next chapter in the preservation and presentation of folklore in Texas began with J. Frank Dobie. After his discharge from the army Dobie returned to The University in 1919 as an English instructor. He lasted one year before he became disillusioned with the teaching profession. He resigned in 1920 and took a job managing his uncle Jim Dobie's ranch. If there is one point that can be counted as the exciting force in Dobie's life as the director of the Society and the state's leading folklorist, it is a night he sat around the campfire and listened to a vaquero tell tales of buried treasure in the Brasada. He later said of that time: "During the year I spent on Los Olmos Ranch while Santos talked, while Uncle Jim Dobie and other cowmen talked or stayed silent, while the coyotes sang their songs, and the sandhill cranes honked their lonely music, I seemed to be seeing a great painting of something I'd known all of my life. I seemed to be listening to a great epic of something that had been commonplace in my youth but now took on new meanings." Dobie discovered the depth of his roots through his discovery of Texas folklore.

Dobie returned to The University in 1921 and with Leonidas Payne awoke the Society from its four years sleep. He was elected the Secretary-Treasurer and took upon himself the duties of editor of the second PTFS, which came out in 1923. Except for two years during World War II the Society has met annually and has not missed a year without at least one publication. either of its own editing or by sponsorship.

Dobie was inspired by Lomax's work and Lomax's approach to his subject, and his aim, like Lomax's, was to get the general public involved in folklore. Dobie didn't begin as a popularizer. His first instructions to collectors of folklore, published in Coffee in the Gourd in 1923, were in line with Payne: " . . . no legend should be adorned, 'doctored,' or changed from its usual form. It should be written as it is usually told." He had earlier sent out under his own name Payne's 1910 Pamphlet with its solidly academic instructions to collectors.

Dobie soon shed the academic approach and renounced utterly the Society's connection with the American Folklore Society. By 1930 he and the Texas Folklore Society had achieved statewide attention, and in Man, Bird and Beast the Society's publication of that year, Dobie presented his philosophy of folklore as a balance to one of the articles written by Leonidas Payne Payne, still the scholar, had written an article on research in folk music, and his central question and it was a very responsible and logical question was what to do with all the folklore the Society had collected. Dobie replied, "He seems to be saying that the collections should lead to monographic disquisitions on the historical and ethnographic evolution of each particular song with particular attention to its borrowing from other songs." After further attack on the academic methods, Dobie continued with his own criteria which he was to adhere to throughout his career; "I look for two things in folklore . . . flavor and vitality . . . and a revelation of the folk who nourished the lore. . . . Folklore that is interesting whether it be accompanied by footnotes or not is good to print and preserve."

There was plenty of room for academically oriented folklorists during Dobie's twenty-year tenure, and the Society and the state went through phases that included interests in Indians, archaeology, history, and natural science. The Society was affiliated for a while with the Texas Academy of Science. It led the successful fight to preserve the Texas Longhorn. And it flung itself wholeheartedly into the chauvinism of the Texas Centennial years. The Society's emphasis throughout Dobie's editorship remained on field collecting and popular presentation, and he recruited many collectors, especially among Mexicans and Blacks, who didn't even know what folklore was until he told them. Books, magazines, and newspapers throughout the United States carried his folklore articles. Dobie defined folklore for a lot of us, and his influence is still a strong force inside the Texas folklore scene.

Forty years of the Society's life was under the guidance of two men, Frank Dobie from 1923 to 1943 and Mody C. Boatright from 1943 to 1963. There was no immediate change when Mody officially took over, but the center of Texas folklore soon became an institution rather than an individual. It was to become the Texas Folklore Society at The University of Texas, and those of us who came into the Society during the Boatright and later the Wilson Hudson years were to view the association as immutable.

 TFS HistoryMody C. Boatright

Under Mody's leadership the Society became more academically centered than it had been, and he re-established its association with the American Folklore Society. The national society since then has met twice on the University campus and once in conjunction with the TFS annual meeting. Under Mody the papers read at meetings and published in annuals remained about the same in content, probably with a movement toward more analytical papers. Like Dobie, Mody kept no hard and fast boundaries and definitions of folklore. He was a social historian and his own studies of the cowboy, the oil fields, and the American frontier were soundly grounded in an understanding of society and history. The leadership he gave to the studies of folklore in the English department was the beginning of the strong folklore center which is now a permanent part of the University. Mody promoted the collection and study of oral history and of folklore in a modern industrial society. One of his main contributions to the study of folklore in Texas was through the Society's annual student paper contests, which involved students from colleges and universities throughout the state in preserving and presenting folklore. Mody's time as Secretary-Editor was also coincident with the increase of a national academic interest in folklore and the institution of folklore courses throughout the state. Because most of the state's teachers of folklore were trained as English teachers, much of their guidance and inspiration came from the Society and the folklorists at The University of Texas.

Mody was a beautiful, gentle, and wise man. His leadership was not as flamboyant as Dobie's, but in some ways it was more productive. His encouragement of the academic investigation of collected folklore and his own social analyses of folklore were conclusive steps in the study of field materials, necessary for a full understanding of the subject. His encouragement of scholars and scholarship spread his and the Society's work far beyond his own time.

Wilson Hudson, the Society's editor from 1963 to 1971, became associated with the Society when he began teaching at The University of Texas in 1946. His continuing and growing interest in work in folklore soon made him an integral part of the Society, and when Mody left the campus for a year in 1950 Wilson was put in charge of the next Society publication, which was to be The Healer of Los Olmos (PTFS XXIV, 1951). In The Healer Wilson made a significant addition. For the first time, tale-types and motif numbers were included, a practice which Wilson was to continue after 1951, during his time as Associate Editor and after 1963 as Editor. Wilson's finest contribution to the Society and to folklore generally was his inspiration and direction of James Bratcher's Analytical Index to Publications of The Texas Folklore Society, which the Society brought out in 1973. Mr. Bratcher indexed thirty-six volumes of the Society's publications according to tale type, motif number, ballad number, tale synopsis, and finally alphabetically. In balance to his academic bent, Wilson published five books of popular field folklore in his Paisano Series of the Society's supplementary books.

TFS HistoryWilson Hudson

Folklore as a popular phenomenon was on the rise in Texas during the 'sixties. This was the time of the beginning of a lot of area and ethnic folk festivals, of such restoration projects as those at Winedale and Nacogdoches, and later at Lubbock, of Stan Alexander's folk music club at North Texas State University which spawned such moderns as Steve Fromholz and Michael Murphy, of John Lomax, Jr. and Mack McCormack's Houston Folk Music Club, and to move up into another league, of the Institute of Texan Cultures. One of the most popular and enduring of the folk studies associations was the annual Folklore Symposium founded by Jim Byrd of the English Department of East Texas State University in 1962 and still going strong.

TFS HistoryFrancis Edward Abernethy

I became the Secretary-Editor of the Society in 1971, and the Headquarters were moved to Stephen F. Austin State University. It was a sad day in August when we loaded all those Austin years into a station wagon and rolled them 250 miles east. But even though a geographical tradition was broken, the business and the purpose were to remain the same. If I have made any identifiable differences in the Society it has probably been because of my interest in East Texas folklore, in ethnic studies, and in editing the Society's annuals around one theme.

Which brings me to conclusions reached after viewing seventy two years of Texas folkloring as a Texan, a folklorist, and a Society member.

The major work of preserving and presenting folklore in Texas has from its beginning centered in the Texas Folklore Society. The development of departments, divisions, and centers in universities has not significantly changed this because the academic approach, even though it has preserved, has not been successful in its presenting.

As I look back over the Society's history I find that the period of time when folklore received its greatest attention and had the greatest effect in making people conscious of the infinite variety and richness of their culture was the time when it was least associated with academicians, during the 'twenties and 'thirties of J. Frank Dobie. Academicians, of which I consider myself one, are the brightest lights which a civilization shines, but they are prone to dabble in esoterica and pedantry, and to dwell in a rarified atmosphere that relates but poorly to the general public. So, professional folklorists may cuss the Dobies and Botkins and Foxfires and picture books by Life and National Geographic for their sometimes creative approach to their subject, but these are the forces that have focused the public eye on folklore, and these are the forces that have made the public conscious through folklore of the beauty and richness of their culture.

I conclude with an examination, or more accurately, a statement of the Texas Folklore Society's direction as I see it.

I believe that the Society's main purpose is to search for ways to preserve folklore without embalming it and to present a fairly well-educated public with the treasures of their culture's folk life. I do not believe that our purpose is to proliferate esoterica and pedantry among a small, specially educated clique. I further believe that the Texas Folklore Society's purpose is to preserve and present the Folklore of Texas. This does not mean that our purpose is to be chauvinistic or provincial, both of which are brought about by states of mind rather than geographical locations. It means, as Kittredge said so many years ago, that Texas really is the folklorist's happy hunting ground, that we have all the fields we can ever plow, and that the work and the room to work is as wide as its borders and as inexhaustible as the winds that blow across the Staked Plains. And this work should be done by those who know the land and love it and understand it. And finally, I believe that the purpose of the Texas Folklore Society is not to hide the light of the lore under a bushel of academic guidelines and definitions and scholarly verbiage but to let that light so shine among men that all the world but, Lord, most especially Texans may see the richness of the land and its people and its history and its continuity. In this land and its people and its history Texans must realize the place of their belonging, a mother land to moisten with their sweat, and finally to nourish with their bones.

By Francis Edward Abernethy, taken from the Preface in T for Texas: A State Full of Folklore (PTFS 44-1982)

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Texas Folklore Society
P.O. Box 13007 - SFASU
Nacogdoches, TX 75962-3007
Ph. 936.468.4407