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There are many categories of folklore, including oral folklore and the material culture. Oral folklore includes legends, proverbs, and dialect, as well as folk songs. Material culture encompasses such things as baskets, architecture, and corn-husking pegs, among many others. Celebrations are a part of folklore, including the traditions we observe at Christmas, Halloween, weddings, and birthdays. Every group, be they coal miners, computer programmers, or residents of a particular mountain valley, has its own folklore, and that lore has hundreds of aspects.

Numerous West Virginia local histories and travelers’ accounts provide a glimpse of regional folklore as reflected in social mannerisms and beliefs as they existed from the pioneer era through the 19th century. Marion County in the Making, a 1917 book, was an early attempt to document folklore. It was a project by schoolteacher Dora Lee Newman and the Fairmont High School class of 1916. The book includes chapters on manners and customs, homes and homelife, remedies and superstitions, and songs and legends, as well as local history.

In 1915, C. Alphonso Smith at West Virginia University fomented interest in founding a folklore society in West Virginia. A society was soon formed and resulted, in 1925, in the important book Folk-Songs of the South. John Harrington Cox (also of WVU) edited the book, which, despite its title, consists almost entirely of West Virginia songs. This book went far to bring traditional regional folklore and folk music to the attention of the general public, as well as scholars. The collecting work of 22 folklore society correspondents is reflected in the volume. Cox’s 1939 publication, Traditional Ballads, Mainly from West Virginia, built on the earlier book.

During the New Deal of the 1930s, West Virginia was on the northern fringe of a major collecting effort to document cultural aspects of regional life in the South through the Federal Writers Project. The results are housed at the Library of Congress in the Archive of Folk Culture. Dozens of folklore collecting efforts followed throughout the 20th century. In 1932 another WVU professor, Louis Watson Chappell, published John Henry: A Folklore Study, which was widely admired. The John Henry story, known throughout the world and West Virginia’s best-known folktale, was also taken up by Guy B. Johnson, whose John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend appeared in 1929.

Between 1937 and 1947, Chappell pioneered field recording in West Virginia in a concerted effort to collect folksongs and fiddle music throughout the state. In 1947, Chappell made the only recordings of the great Pocahontas County fiddler Edden Hammons. Acquired by WVU in the early 1970s, this remarkable collection of 647 aluminum disks joined other significant field recordings at the university’s West Virginia and Regional History Center. In addition to this Morgantown archive, the state archives in Charleston is another major research library holding folkloric materials. The Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College houses a sound and photo archive that documents West Virginia folklore.

The federal resettlement project at Arthurdale, in the 1930s, brought about an early effort to present folklife through festivals. Influential weaver and 2000 National Heritage Fellow Dorothy Thompson grew up at Arthurdale and began honing her craft there. Recordings of these festivals, which were encouraged and attended by Eleanor Roosevelt, are at the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress.

Patrick Gainer was present at the Arthurdale events, and in 1950 he organized the West Virginia State Folk Festival at Glenville. Gainer had singers perform folksongs while they worked at a spinning wheel or in other contextual situations. Ghost stories, tales, spelling bees, and various folklife demonstrations and other expressions of folklore were integrated into the music presentations.

Also in the early 1950s, the West Virginia Folklore Society was revived under the leadership of Walter Barnes and Ruth Ann Musick of Fairmont State College (now University) and Gainer at WVU. Barnes and Musick started the West Virginia Folklore Journal as a quarterly publication of the society, and Musick was its editor until 1967.

West Virginia officially supported the celebration of folklore beginning with the administration of Governor Wally Barron in the early 1960s. The 1963 Centennial celebration included publication of the book Mountain Heritage and the first Mountain State Art & Craft Fair at Cedar Lakes. The popular fair has been held every July since that year, with the exceptions of a switch to September in 2016-2017 and cancellation in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hulett Smith, head of the state Department of Commerce in the early 1960s and later governor, helped create official folk arts programs, developed through the hard work of people such as Don Page and Jane Cox George.

In 1963, Gainer published The West Virginia Centennial Song Book of 100 Songs, and, after retiring from WVU, Witches, Ghosts and Signs (1975) and Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills (1975). Marie Boette published Singa Hipsy Doodle and Other Folk Songs of West Virginia in 1971. Ruth Ann Musick added to the nonmusical genre of published lore with The Telltale Lilac Bush (1965), Green Hills of Magic (1970), and Coffin Hollow (1976). Musick’s books are the first studies to include a considerable amount of narrative folklore outside the Anglo-Celtic tradition, including material of continental European origin brought to West Virginia by immigrant coal miners. A booklet and set of recordings, The Hammons Family, published by the Library of Congress in 1973, was squarely within the earlier tradition. It was edited by Alan Jabbour and Carl Fleischhauer. Gerald Milnes, retired folk art coordinator for the Augusta Heritage Center, has authored several books relating to folk music and folk culture in general: Passing it On: An Introduction to the Folk Art and Folk Life of West Virginia (1994), Play of a Fiddle (1999), and Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore (2007). Goldenseal, West Virginia’s quarterly magazine of traditional life, has publicized numerous aspects of West Virginia folk culture since its inception in 1975.

The West Virginia State Folk Festival at Glenville is the state’s longest continual folklife festival and one of the most authentic. The Augusta Heritage Center annually sponsors three weeks of music and craft workshop programming and additional festivals at Davis & Elkins College, beginning in 1972. Since 1977, the Vandalia Gathering has been held on the state capitol grounds, and continues as a major traditional music, story, and craft event on Memorial Day weekend. FOOTMAD and Allegheny Echoes provide participatory music and dance. The annual Appalachian String Band Music Festival, sponsored by the Department of Arts, Culture & History at Camp Washington-Carver, is a major regional event.

The Mountain State Art & Craft Fair at Cedar Lakes promotes apprenticeship learning. The Augusta Heritage Center operated a West Virginia Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program from 1989 to 1993 and from 2007 to 2010. Since 2017, the West Virginia Folklife Program, part of the West Virginia Humanities Council, has managed its own apprenticeship program. The West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University, established under the leadership of Judy Byers in 1998, provides a folklore curriculum and teacher training seminar. The center preserves the archives of the Folklore Society and collections of Ruth Ann Musick, among other holdings.

In the late 1900s and early 2000s, major studies of cultural resources have been undertaken by the Wheeling National Heritage Area, by the American Folklife Center in the New River Gorge and the Coal River basin, and by the National Coal Heritage Area in the southern counties. The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike National Scenic Byway also has researched and interpreted local history and culture to encourage tourism. Almost every West Virginia county has a festival of some kind, and most celebrate a local tradition, occupation, local agricultural product, community homecoming, or other activity of interest.

Written by Gerald Milnes