Texas Folklore Society captures the past for keeps.
By E. Dan Klepper
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. The Texas Folklore Society, having collected, preserved and shared the lore of Texas since 1909, is celebrating its 102nd birthday this year. With more than 100 volumes to date, the 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.
“Here are many problems of research that lie close at hand.” Lomax wrote, emphasizing the untapped wealth of folklore in Texas, “not buried in musty tomes and incomplete records, but in vital human personalities.”
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, eschewing an academic approach for one unburdened by analysis. Dobie believed that “folklore that is interesting, whether it be accompanied by footnotes or not, is good to print and preserve.”
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. The Legend of Sam Bass and Lost Canyon of the Big Bend Country are just a few of the titles that share the pages of Dobie’s extensive collection.
Dobie’s own contribution to the collecting process also makes for good reading, and perhaps Texas folklore, as well. His editorial note for Stampede Mesa, a ghost story from the cattle days in Crosby County, reveals Dobie’s hand in ferreting out particularly compelling narratives.
“Of all the legends in this volume,” Dobie wrote, “The Legend of Stampede Mesa shows most of native originality. Like all true legends, it has had a wide vogue, though I have never heard it in the cattle country of the border. A few years ago a young man from the Panhandle, named Roy Ainsworth, gave me this abbreviated variant of it. Back in the days when range men paid in coin rather than in checks, a certain cattle buyer on one of the big ranches of Northwest Texas is believed to have been murdered for his money and his body put away in a shack or dugout near the principal round-up grounds of the ranch. After the murder, whenever an outfit tried to hold a herd of cattle on these grounds at night, they were sure to have a stampede. Cowboys reported many times having seen the murdered man’s ghost wandering about among the cattle in the darkness and, of course, stampeding them. Naturally, the place came to be avoided for night herding.”
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.