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Arts & Extras: Grant helps Ferrum College's plans to share Appalachian folklore

Arts & Extras: Grant helps Ferrum College's plans to share Appalachian folklore

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This stop along the Virginia's Heritage Music Trail has been designated as the State Center for Blue Ridge Folklore since 1986.

FERRUM

James Taylor Adams spent the 1930s and early 1940s on a mission to preserve Appalachian ballads and folklore, accumulating enough typewritten, carbon-copied pages to make a 12-foot stack.

A Kentucky native who settled in Wise County, Adams labored on his folklore project in partnership with the Works Progress Administration through the Great Depression and the start of World War II. He intended to assemble the material he collected into a book, but he died in 1954 with that goal unrealized.

The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College has archived and organized copies of Adams’ papers. “There’s 13,000 pages of Southwest Virginia folklore that is in the James Taylor Adams collection,” said Ferrum English professor Tina Hanlon.

With help from a $10,000 grant, the museum plans to make the tales and songs in Adams’ papers available to a much wider audience.

The grant comes from Humanities Research for the Public Good, a program run by the national Council of Independent Colleges that’s meant to promote student research and public engagement. Ferrum is one of 24 member institutions to receive a Public Good grant in 2021-22.

With assistance from students, the team assembled for the project will start digitizing the folktales and ballads in the Adams collection. They will be made available to the public through an expansion of the Blue Ridge Institute’s website.

“We have a fairly new minor in public history and museum studies, so we’re hoping one or two students in that program will be involved,” Hanlon said.

The project requires a community partner, and the Franklin County Public Library fills that role. In 2022, the library will host public storytelling workshops to introduce attendees to the lore Adams compiled.

“The public library is very interested in getting getting local people to get involved in storytelling and oral histories themselves, looking for people who have the untold stories,” Hanlon said.

The library workshops will be led by Ferrum theater arts professor emeritus Rex Stephenson, who has been dramatizing tales from the Adams collection since the 1970s and continues to do so as part of the Jack Tales Storytellers. “Last Monday they gave a fantastic show over at the Pavilion at the Farm Museum [at Ferrum]. It was for those school kids who are doing summer school,” Hanlon said.

Jack tales are Appalachian variants of English language fairy tales that date back centuries. Historically, the best known Jack tale is “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but there are many others.

Stephenson’s quest to adapt Jack tales to the stage led to the connection between Adams and Ferrum. “He went looking for archive copies of folktales or storytellers that could tell him the tales,” Hanlon said. From Adams’ family, Stephenson learned that Adams’ papers had been given to what was then Clinch Valley College, now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. His queries led to the rediscovery of the boxes, which had been placed in storage and forgotten.

Now-retired Blue Ridge Institute director Roddy Moore got permission to make copies of Adams’ papers to bring to Ferrum. The museum’s current director, Beth Worley, had worked on organizing and archiving the collection earlier in her career and will be involved in the digitization project.

Hanlon’s website reproduces other tales from Adams’ collection, such as “How Jack Got a New Shirt,” in which a young boy’s kindness and curiosity is rewarded by the creatures of the farm and forest when his hand-me-down shirt becomes too threadbare to wear. Read the story at https://bit.ly/JackNewShirt.

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Mike Allen is the editorial page editor for The Roanoke Times. His past beats as a Roanoke Times reporter included Botetourt County, Franklin County, courts and legal issues, and arts and culture.

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