In a 2011 edition of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, E. Dan Klepper wrote eloquently about what folklore in general and the Texas Folklore Society in particular have meant to this largest state in the lower 48.
He wrote in part:
FOLKLORE makes for an odd mix of characters. You’ll find fiddlers, photographers, cartographers and poets along with their jigs, portraits, surveys and sonnets. You’ll find ghosts and their graves, jesters and jokes, canners and tanners, hucksters and cons, the doomed and the damned, and the lucky, of course, especially in love.
Folklore is a strange and disparate culmination of the revolutionary and the traditional, together with all of its artifacts, rituals, stories and songs, aggregating over time to create the grand total of a culture and its identity.
Folklore is also a handmade thing, and its rough edges make parsing out the sum of its meaning an arduous task. It is culture’s anecdote, residing alongside the factual, but rarely found within it.
Folklore is not, however, fiction. It is oral, variable and anonymous, divorced from its originator, passed down by word of mouth, and, although it adheres to patterns, it changes over time. Fables and tales, arts and crafts, games and puzzles, music, dances, superstitions and remedies all provide material for the making of folklore, and, academics aside, its authorship belongs to its people.
But keeping watch as folklore evolves, perhaps even playing a part in its invention, helps to make sense of it all. Texas, with its ever-expanding identity, has been fortunate to host a gatekeeper to do just that over the last century.
With more than 100 volumes to date, the [Texas Folklore Society] is undoubtedly the master archivist of Lone Star folklore and, in essence, has crafted our understanding of not only what it means to be Texan but Texas itself.
MUSICOLOGIST John Lomax would be one of the first to acknowledge the importance of the state’s folklore. Lomax was a nationally recognized folklorist for his Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, an anthology he collected of well-known titles like Home on the Range.
In 1909, Lomax was granted a professorship at Texas A&M University, and together with University of Texas professor Leonidas Payne they established the Texas Folklore Society. By 1910, they had 92 members signed up. The society’s first official meeting, held in 1911, featured a presentation paper on Boll Weevil, a traditional blues song Lomax first collected along the Brazos River bottom in 1909.
Boll Weevil is good example of folklore. The song laments the beetle infestation that devastated the cotton industry through the turn of the 19th century. The lyrics, however, varied with the artists who sang them.
Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Blind Willie McTell all sang and recorded versions of the song, sometimes under different permutations of the song’s original title.
But Lead Belly’s rendition, recorded in 1934 by Lomax’s son Alan, a folklorist in his own right, is the most complete version and the one to achieve a lasting position in the blues canon.
The Texas Folklore Society took a hiatus after 1917, but by then the work of gathering Texas folklore had begun in earnest.
Leadership in archiving Texas folklore was taken up again in 1921 by one of the state’s literary icons, J. Frank Dobie.
Dobie was discharged from the Army in 1919 and returned to Texas, teaching English for a year before taking a job as ranch manager for his uncle Jim. He embraced the cowboy life with heart and soul, a commitment that would influence the way he would guide the society for the next 20 years.
“During the year I spent on Los Olmos Ranch,” Dobie wrote, “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.”
The experience made a populist out of Dobie, and, once the society’s reins were under his control, he coaxed the exceptional out of the provincial . . .
Dobie gathered many of today’s most recognized Texas folktales, compiling them in the society’s 1924 publication Legends of Texas. Among the pages were stories of buried treasure and lost gold mines, haunted bays and pirate ships, and how places got their names. The stories found in Legends of Texas are testimony to Dobie’s keen sense of preserve-worthy tales. . .
Today, the Texas Folklore Society boasts 450 members and a roster of folktale-collecting contributors. The society’s secretary/editor position, once held by Dobie and only a handful of others including Mody Boatright, Wilson Hudson and F.E. Abernethy, is now occupied by Kenneth L. Untiedt, associate professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University.
The society welcomes all and counts ranchers, lawyers and farmers among its ranks, along with librarians and teachers. Society members are actively engaged in the state’s lively festival circuit and also interact routinely with the state’s other cultural organizations.
The Texas Folklore Society maintains a website (www.texasfolkloresociety.org) and a consistent publishing schedule, taking John Lomax’s entreaty to heart and avoiding “musty tomes and incomplete records.” Instead, the centenarian society continues to invigorate the Texas tradition by distinguishing our cultural identity for a new century of Texans.