Celebrating a Century of Folklore at WKU

by Virginia Siegel / Research by Michael Ann Williams and Ann Ferrell

Since 2012, the Kentucky Folklife Program has proudly called Western Kentucky University’s Department of Folk Studies & Anthropology home.  This year, the WKU Folk Studies Program is celebrating a century of folklore research and teaching at WKU.  To celebrate, Folk Studies faculty, Michael Ann Williams and Ann Ferrell, have partnered with KFP’s Virginia Siegel to create a poster commemorating the last 100 years.  View the poster and read on to learn more about the history of folklore at WKU.

WKU Century of Folklore Post FOAF(Click on the poster to enlarge)

Gordon Wilson

Gordon Wilson

Born in far western Kentucky, Gordon Wilson entered Western Kentucky Normal School in 1908 and began teaching there in 1912. Intrigued by folklore in his undergraduate days, in 1917, Wilson announced his intention to begin local folklore research. He went on to Indiana University and studied under fellow Kentuckian Stith Thompson. Returning to Western Kentucky, Wilson headed up the English department from 1928-1959, establishing a legacy of teaching and writing about folklore.

1917, Gordon Wilson wrote in his private diary: “I began today a collection of what I call folk-lore notes, partly for the pleasure I get out of working with folk material, partly for source material for work in Philology next year, and partly, probably chiefly, for a background for my projected ‘Purchase Stories.’ . . . I already have in the book over 175 ‘cuss-words’ and over 100 well-known superstitions in my home neighborhood. When I go to Calloway County next week I hope to get a great deal of help on my collection from Quint, mother, and Ivan. Ever since I first began to teach Vergil – January, 1912 – I have been interested in local folk-lore and have, at numerous times, discussed before bodies of teachers some of the things I have learned. Prof. Aydelothe, now of Massachusetts School of Technology, encouraged me in my folk-lore studies and introduced me to that famous preserver of the cowboy ballads of Texas, Prof. Lomax of Texas University.”

D.K. Wilgus

D.K. Wilgus, 1955 (second from left)

Hired by Wilson in 1950, D. K. Wilgus was finishing his dissertation on Anglo-American ballad scholarship at Ohio State. For the next decade, Wilson and Wilgus (along with Herbert Halpert at Murray State and William Hugh Jansen at the University of Kentucky) became key figures in the Kentucky Folklore Society which had a membership of over 300. In the mid-1950s, Wilgus created the Kentucky Folklore Record. In the early 1960s, Wilgus called for the building of academic programs in Kentucky, but lamented the loss of folklorists at other academic institutions in the state.

1955, Kentucky Folklore Record established and D. K. Wilgus wrote: “One of the greatest weaknesses of regional journals has been their almost exclusive appeal to the learned, professional folklorist. . . . We believe that there is a middle way, that the amateur and the professional can find common ground, that there is a place in Kentucky for a folklore magazine that is popular without being cute or folksy, and scholarly without the trappings of erudition.”

1962, D. K. Wilgus wrote in the Kentucky Folklore Record: “One of the most important immediate tasks of the [Kentucky Folklore] Society is to contribute to the establishment of folklore study as a recognized discipline in all of the institutions of higher learning in the commonwealth.”


Kenneth and Mary Clarke
Kenneth Clarke and Mary Washington Clarke

After the departure of Wilgus for UCLA, Gordon Wilson made sure additional folklorists were hired. First came Kenneth Clarke, who discovered his commonality with Wilson.

Subsequently Mary Washington Clarke and Lynwood Montell (a former student of Wilgus) were hired and in 1969, the Center for Intercultural Studies was established.

1960s, Kenneth Clarke writing about Gordon Wilson: “One of our first points of common interest was our discovery that our respective experiences as graduate students under Stith Thompson’s direction had spanned our old professor’s graduate faculty career: Gordon Wilson was among the first; I was among the last to have that privilege.”

1970s and onward

Camilla Collins

Following the establishment of an undergraduate minor in folklore in 1968, Western Kentucky University created an MA program in 1972. The original core faculty included Kenneth and Mary Clarke, Lynwood Montell, and Camilla Collins.

By the end of the decade the program had established dedicated tracks in both public folklore and historic preservation. Leading public folklorist Archie Green recognized the significance of the program in establishing training for the public sector.

While the Clarkes retired during the 1970s, Montell, Collins, and Burt Feintuch, along with new generations of folklorists, continued to build the program.

1984, Archie Green writing about the WKU Program: “This was the first school to recognize the field we now call public sector folklore—this is, trained folklorists working for federal agencies, state agencies, local agencies, the park service, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, recreation departments, school boards. . . . this is the school that first recognized the necessity to train people for that responsibility. . . . Lyn Montell and his colleagues . . .shaped a program to give students the vision that they might combine knowledge in a very esoteric field with service to the larger community.

Lynwood Montell and students

Departmental Leadership in the American Folklore Society

The WKU faculty continue to provide leadership in the discipline. In 2014-2015, Michael Ann Williams served as president of the American Folklore Society, the first AFS president from Kentucky since Herbert Halpert in 1955.

That same year, in 2014, the Executive Board of the American Folklore Society chose WKU as the new home of the Journal of American Folklore, with Ann K. Ferrell as Editor-in-Chief.

In 2015, Erika Brady was elected as president of the AFS Fellows.

Graduating Folk Studies Class of 2011 standing outside the Pioneer Log Cabin

WKU Folklore Faculty over the years:

Gordon Wilson (PhD, Indiana)
D. K. Wilson (PhD, Ohio State)
Kenneth Clarke (PhD, Indiana)
Mary Clarke (PhD, University of Pennsylvania)
Lynwood Montell (PhD, Indiana)
Camilla Collins (PhD, Indiana)
Burt Feintuch (PhD, University of Pennsylvania)
Robert Teske (PhD, University of Pennsylvania)
Jay Anderson (PhD, University of Pennsylvania)
Marilyn White (PhD, University of Texas)
Michael Ann Williams (PhD, University of Pennsylvania)
Cheryl Keyes (PhD, Indiana)
Erika Brady (PhD, Indiana)
Johnston A. K. Njoku (PhD, Indiana)
Larry Danielson (PhD, Indiana)
Tim Evans (PhD, Indiana)
Chris Antonsen (PhD, Ohio State)
Barry Kaufkins (MA, WKU)
Mabel Agozzino (PhD, Berkeley)
Ann K. Ferrell (PhD, Ohio State)
Brent Björkman (MA, WKU)
Kate Parker Horigan (PhD, Ohio State)
Tim Frandy (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

All photographs from Western Kentucky University Library Special Collections.  Class of 2011 photograph provided by the WKU Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology.


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