Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Encyclopedia Homepage
Search all Volumes
Disclaimer and Usage
© Copyright 2003

Table of Contents Search All Entries Home

OKLAHOMA FOLKLIFE SOCIETIES

"Folklife" includes oral traditions (speech, proverbs, songs and music), customary traditions that are both verbal and nonverbal (customs, superstitions, dances, dramas, festivals and games), and material traditions (crafts, arts, architecture, foods, and costumes). Oklahomans have long been interested in collecting and preserving their diverse cultural traditions. This dedication started under the term "folklore," but developed into "Oklahoma folklife."

In 1888 the American Folklore Society was organized to collect traditions and lore, and it continued into the twenty-first century as one of America's oldest learned societies. Interested individuals soon organized state societies. According to Benjamin A. Botkin, the Oklahoma State Folklore Society was organized at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 1915. The highly respected historian Edward Everett Dale apparently provided the momentum to organize and served four years as the president. Following World War I faculty member and prolific author Walter S. Campbell (better known as Stanley Vestal) became president. In 1924, when J. Frank Dobie was head of the English Department at Oklahoma A&M College (later Oklahoma State University), the organization was relocated to Stillwater under his leadership.

In 1926 Dobie's student, Walter R. Smith, became president, and in 1928 the society returned to Norman under Botkin's presidency. Beginning in 1921 Botkin taught English at OU and edited the regional miscellany Folk-Say, published by the University of Oklahoma Press (1929-32). In 1937 he went to Washington, D.C., as a Rosenwald Fellow and remained as the folklore editor of the Federal Writers' Project. In 1942 Botkin became head of the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress. During his Oklahoma years the folklore society met during the annual meeting of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), and their program was published in the Oklahoma Teacher. The president, the secretary, and the advisory council accomplished most of the work for organizing the presentations. He specifically gave credit to Della I. Young and Ethel Perry Moore, both of whom served as secretary. Moore, along with her husband, Chauncey O. Moore, collected ballads and folksongs in Oklahoma. The programs given at the OEA meetings included not only "the usual papers on legends, ballads, superstitions, and Indian and Negro lore, the performance of folk songs, folk dances, and folklore plays," but also attention to "foreign-language groups, especially the Bohemian and Czechoslovakian."

Starting in 1936 the Central Oklahoma Folk Festival was held on the campus of Central State Teachers College (later the University of Central Oklahoma) in Edmond. The gathering was sponsored by Central State, and the Oklahoma Folklore Society was not mentioned in press releases. In 1937 the second annual one-day festival scheduled a wide variety of activities such as plays based on folk themes, Oklahoma history presentations, American Indian and African American presentations, dancers such as Yvonne Chouteau, and Czechoslovakian dancers from Prague. There were fiddlers and square dancers, along with a round-table discussion led by Chauncey Moore, who was listed as the "state association director" of an organization called Oklahoma Folk Festivals, which apparently was not affiliated with the Oklahoma Folklore Society.

Other "folk" projects were active during the late 1930s as a part of the Federal Writers' Project. Numerous interviews about diverse cultural traditions were collected. These topics were varied and included treasure hunting, the doodlebug, grazing history, square dancing, Indian legends, colloquialisms, Oklahomaisms, children's lore, and several more traditional subjects. The records are housed at the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The Indian-Pioneers Papers (interviews with early Oklahoma residents) received noteworthy attention and continue to be available for researchers.

During the 1940s and World War II the Oklahoma Folklore Society languished but did not die, for in 1948 a new Oklahoma Folklore Society obtained a state charter. The organization probably originated in the efforts of Bob Duncan, an Oklahoma City singer of folk songs, who had earned popularity over local radio stations and wrote about Oklahoma lore. He helped create and became the curator of the Local History and Folklore Collection in the Oklahoma City Public Library and in 1952 contributed a column called "Oklahoma Folklore" to The Chronicles of Oklahoma. Although the society had been resurrected, Duncan's Chronicles series was short lived.

For four days, June 26 29, 1957, during the Oklahoma Semi-Centennial Exposition at the State Fair Grounds in Oklahoma City, the twenty-second Annual National Folk Festival was featured as a part of Oklahoma's celebration. The National Festival Association was organized by Sarah Gertrude Knott but had been featured in only seven states prior to Oklahoma. Local groups had to cosponsor the event. Apparently, the Oklahoma Folklore Society had no funds, for the cosponsors listed were the Oklahoma Semi-Centennial Commission and the University of Oklahoma. However, it is probable that Bob Duncan and others in the society were the moving force behind the Oklahoma festival. After this, the Oklahoma Folklore Society again moved into a period of relative silence.

A decade later, in February 1967 a group met at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City to establish the Oklahoma Folk Arts Council to coordinate and publicize folk activities and events across Oklahoma. Boyce Timmons, who at that time worked in the American Indian Institute at the University of Oklahoma, was secretary of the council. This organization was short lived.

In 1969 Carol K. Rachlin and Alice Marriott, well-known Oklahoma authors, made another attempt to organize a folk group. Rachlin changed the name to Oklahoma Folkways Society. They drafted a by-laws statement and held a meeting on April 11, 1970, at St. Gregory's College in Shawnee. Apparently Marriott and Rachlin started teaching a class titled "Folklore of the Southwest" at Central State College during the fall of 1970, and with Oklahoma Folkways Society sponsorship they held a "Children's Folk Fair" there. This group also disappeared.

On January 27, 1978, in Oklahoma City there was a meeting to reactivate the Oklahoma Folklore Society. Within a few months it appeared that the group had finally reached enough individuals to guarantee continued growth. In 1981 it started making presentations to various Oklahoma Diamond Jubilee committees, successfully campaigning for Oklahoma to be the featured state at the 1982 Smithsonian Institution's Annual Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. More than one hundred Oklahomans represented the Sooner State in the nation's capital for approximately fourteen days. It was one of the most successful events of the Diamond Jubilee celebration, for television coverage gave millions of people around the world the chance to see Oklahomans illustrating their traditional arts and crafts and the diversity of the state's ethnic cultures. The entire project was administered and funded through the Oklahoma Historical Society.

In the mid-1980s the State Arts Council obtained funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for a Folk Arts Program. In 1988 the Oklahoma Folklife Council was created as a conduit through which private funding could be obtained to support folk arts programs. The first program was Traditions '89, a commemoration of the 1889 Land Run and the state's diverse cultures. A second festival, Traditions '93, was held in Idabel. A Traditions '95 Festival was to be held at Quartz Mountain, but unfortunately the center was destroyed, and the council ran out of funding and lost leadership. The Oklahoma Folklife Council Newsletter, begun in the summer of 1989, lasted until 1996. It served as a listing of festivals in the state and the region and published articles on Oklahoma's traditional arts. The Oklahoma Folklife Council slowly became inactive. However, it was revived in January 2002.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Benjamin A. Botkin, "Oklahoma Folklore Society," Journal of American Folklore 56 (July September 1943). Bob Duncan, "Oklahoma Folklore," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 30 (Spring 1952). Ethel Moore and Chaucey O. Moore, Ballads and Folk Songs of the Southwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964).

Guy Logsdon

© Oklahoma Historical Society

Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site