Folklife Projects and Folklorists

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Arkansas Folk Festival

The annual Arkansas Folk Festival takes place on the third weekend in April in Mountain View (Stone County). Held since 1963, the event attracts thousands of people to the small mountain community, where the livelihood of many residents is based on tourism. The town has become nationally renowned for its folk music, and the downtown area is a popular place for impromptu “pickins” as musicians gather informally to perform. The Arkansas Folk Festival has its roots in the Stone County Folkways Festival held in 1941, celebrating the musical heritage of the area. Musical performances and a jig dance contest were among events held at the Blanchard Springs Recreation Area. World War II prevented subsequent gatherings at the time, but the …

Gilbert, Ollie Eva Woody

Both a local and national celebrity, Ollie Eva Woody Gilbert, known popularly as Aunt Ollie, performed with Jimmy Driftwood, Woody Guthrie, and many other folk musicians who have come to define the voice of the Great Depression. Venues ranged from friends’ and family members’ front porches and living rooms in the Ozark Mountains to Cow Palace in San Francisco, California; the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee; and Madison Square Garden in New York City. The eighth of thirteen children of James (Jim) Franklin Woody and Mary Minerva Balentine Woody, Ollie Eva Woody was born on October 17, 1892, in the Hickory Grove area of Stone County. Shelearned to play the banjo at the age of five. Her instrument was made …

High, Fred

aka: Fredrick Green High
Fredrick (Fred) Green High, who lived in Carroll County from birth to death, was one of Ozark folk culture’s most notable characters. His contributions to Ozark heritage are evident in the many recordings of his folk song performances. The John Quincy Wolf Folksong Collection at Lyon College consists of a dozen recordings of High, and Missouri State University’s Max Hunter Collection contains thirty-one additional High recordings. A 1953 Arkansas Gazette feature captured his near legendary status in the Ozarks: “Everybody in north Arkansas knows Fred High for he seldom misses a fair, festival, picnic, public sale, apple peeling, corn husking, or other public gathering.” Fred High was born on January 15, 1878, to Jacob and Sarah Ann (Roberts) High in …

McNeil, W. K.

aka: William Kinneth McNeil
William Kinneth (W. K.) McNeil was a prominent folklorist and historian of Arkansas and Ozark regional folk traditions, especially their folk music and songs, speech, tales, and legends. He published books and articles in both popular and scholarly outlets and produced widely disseminated recordings. Most of his research was conducted while he held the post of folklorist from 1976 to 2005 at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View (Stone County), from which he drew materials for his public programming as well as writing. W. K. (or Bill) McNeil was born near the town of Canton, North Carolina, on August 13, 1940, to William McKinley McNeil, a sales manager, and Margaret Winifred (Rigdon) McNeil, an office worker; he had one …

Ozark Folk Center State Park

The Ozark Folk Center State Park at Mountain View (Stone County) may be the only state park in Arkansas dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of Southern mountain folkways and traditions. When opened in 1973, the park was hailed as a home for traditional crafts and music and has since become one of the important institutions preserving this particular way of life. The idea for the folk center grew from the success of the Arkansas Folk Festival, which debuted in April 1963 in Mountain View under the sponsorship of the Ozark Foothills Handicraft Guild (later known as the Arkansas Craft Guild) and the Rackensack Folklore Society. Although the Folk Festival continues to highlight the crafts and music of the area, …

Ozark Folklore Society

aka: Arkansas Folklore Society
The Ozark Folklore Society was founded on April 30, 1949, at an informal meeting convened by poet John Gould Fletcher, who was then serving as artist-in-residence at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), and held in the study of folklorist Vance Randolph in Eureka Springs (Carroll County). Fletcher was named president and Randolph vice president. Just over a year later, on May 10, 1950, Fletcher drowned himself in a pond near his house in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Randolph assumed the office of president. In the first issue of its newsletter, Ozark Folklore Society, Randolph stated the mission of the society: “We believe that the Ozark region of Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma has a richer store of …

Ozark Folkways

Originally known as the Ozark Native Craft Association, Ozark Folkways—located on Scenic Byway 71 south of Winslow (Washington County)—strives to preserve the past by teaching and exhibiting crafts native to the region. Though its mission has changed somewhat over the years, the basic intent has remained: to teach and share native Ozark skills and provide space in which to market crafts created by members residing in the Ozarks. In 1969, the Ozark Native Craft Association was formed when President Betty Cooley, Vice President June Roberts, and Secretary-Treasurer Elaine Cochran filed non-profit incorporation papers, establishing the organization as an outlet for a dozen founding members to market their crafts. Founders held classes to teach their crafts, and an outlet was located …

Parler, Mary Celestia

Mary Celestia Parler was responsible for developing and implementing the most extensive folklore research project in Arkansas history. She was a professor of English and folklore at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and the wife of noted Ozark folklore collector Vance Randolph. Through her vast knowledge and appreciation of Arkansas culture, she enabled many future generations to glimpse the state’s cultural history, much of which remains only in the stories, songs, and images she collected with the help of her students and assistants. Mary Parler was born on October 6, 1904, in Wedgefield, South Carolina, the daughter of a country doctor and farmer, Marvin Lamar Parler, and a local historian, writer, and teacher, Josie Platt Parler. Mary had …

Rackensack Folklore Society

The Rackensack Folklore Society was organized for the purpose of perpetuating the traditional folk music of the people of Arkansas, particularly in the mountainous area of the north-central part of the state. Stone County, located in the area, was unique in having music-making families throughout its boundaries who founded the base of the Rackensack organization. The society was begun by Lloyd Hollister, a doctor, and his wife, Martha. They came from the Little Rock (Pulaski County) area in 1962 and settled in the Fox (Stone County) community. Hollister set up his medical practice in Mountain View (Stone County) with Howard Monroe, a noted surgeon in the area. The Hollisters attended various musical sessions in the Fox community and joined in the …

Randolph, Vance

Vance Randolph was a folklorist whose wide-ranging studies in the traditional culture of the Ozarks made him famous with both academic and popular readers from the 1930s to the present. Vance Randolph was born on February 23, 1892, in Pittsburg, Kansas, to John Randolph, an attorney and Republican politician, and Theresa Gould, a public school teacher. He was the eldest of three sons. Born to the respectable center, he was as a young man attracted to the margins, to the rich ethnic and cultural diversity and radical politics of the region’s mining communities. He dropped out of high school and published his first writing for leftist periodicals such as the socialist Appeal to Reason, published in nearby Girard. He graduated …

Rayburn, Otto Ernest

Otto Ernest Rayburn was a writer, magazine publisher, and collector of Arkansas and Ozark lore. Vance Randolph, in his introduction to Rayburn’s autobiography, Forty Years in the Ozarks (1957), defined Rayburn as a “dedicated regionalist” and added, “There is no denying that, in the period between 1925 and 1950, Rayburn did more to arouse popular interest in Ozark folklore than all of the professors put together.” Otto Rayburn was born on May 6, 1891, in Hacklebarney settlement, Davis County, Iowa, to William Grant Rayburn, a farmer, and Sarah Jane Turpin Rayburn. The family soon moved to Woodson County, Kansas, where Rayburn grew up. In 1909–1910, he attended Marionville College in Marionville, Missouri. In the spring of 1917, Rayburn bought forty …

Robertson, Irene

Irene Robertson was an interviewer and writer for the 1930s Federal Writers’ Project in Arkansas. She preserved the life stories and experiences of former slaves—or, in some cases, their children—then living in the counties of Crittenden, Lee, Monroe, Phillips, Prairie, and St. Francis. Using her straightforward style of reporting, she prepared 290 out of a total of 300 slave narratives produced in the above counties. She also prepared approximately 116 narratives from interviews with older white residents. Irene Robertson was born in May 1893, possibly in Troy in Greenwood County, South Carolina, near the “Hard Labor” section of Edgefield County, where her parents had lived. Robertson’s father, Samuel Elisha Robertson, a farmer, was born in Edgefield County; he was a …

Starr, Fred

Fred Starr was an educator, farmer, sometimes-politician, and writer who spent the second half of his life working in, observing, and writing about the Ozarks. He was best known for essays that were published in Arkansas and Oklahoma newspapers for more than thirty-five years. They were a mixture of Ozark folklore, often-funny stories of life in the hills, and his own homespun philosophy, told in unpretentious and conversational prose. Fred Starr was born in Waco, Georgia, on September 11, 1896, to William D. Starr, who was a farmer, and Alice Murphy Starr. He was the sixth of their nine children, with six brothers and two sisters, one of whom died soon after birth. He and his family moved to Oklahoma …

Taylor, Samuel Shinkle

Writer and educator Samuel Shinkle Taylor was one of only two African-American interviewers for the Arkansas Federal Writers’ Project 1936–1938 collection of oral history narratives from ex-slaves. He also wrote and compiled Survey of Negroes in Little Rock and North Little Rock, served as a minister and professor, and was an associate editor for the Arkansas State Press from 1949 to 1956. Samuel Taylor was born on November 21, 1886, to the Reverend Marshall W. Taylor and Catherine Hester Taylor in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was the first black editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and author of A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies. Taylor’s father died in 1887, and his mother moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where Taylor …

Wolf, John Quincy, Jr.

A college professor and self-trained folklorist, John Quincy Wolf Jr. left a lasting legacy in the mid-South folk music world through his intrepid collecting and field recording and his broad-ranging scholarship. Wolf was born in Batesville (Independence County) on May 14, 1901, the younger of the two children of John Quincy Wolf Sr. and Adele Crouch Wolf. Known as Quincy to distinguish him from his banker father, he spent the first twenty-one years of his life in Batesville, earning his bachelor’s degree from Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in 1922. One year later, Wolf received an MA in English at Vanderbilt University and returned to his alma mater to teach English and history for much of the next decade, with occasional …

WPA Slave Narratives

aka: Slave Narratives
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest agency in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic relief, reform, and recovery agenda during the Great Depression, as their “make-work” programs got millions of unemployed people back to work. One component of the WPA, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), sponsored unemployed writers to undertake assorted research and writing assignments, including conducting oral history interviews of ex-slaves in the Southern and border states. By the time the program ended in 1939, Arkansas had generated the largest portion of the interviews, nearly one-third, now known collectively as the WPA Slave Narratives. The FWP’s national director was Columbia University law graduate Henry G. Alsberg, who was a lawyer, former foreign correspondent, and director of the …