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Thomas Washington Talley (1870-1952)

Thomas Washington Talley, chemistry professor at Fisk University and pioneer African American folklorist, was born on October 9, 1870, in Shelbyville, Tennessee. One of nine surviving children born to former Mississippi slaves Charles Washington and Lucinda Talley, Thomas grew up in rural Middle Tennessee. He attended six years of public school and later high school and college at Fisk University. Talley received his A.B. in 1890 and a master’s degree in 1892. Beginning in 1891, he held teaching positions in southern black colleges: Alcorn A & M College in Mississippi; Florida A & M, beginning in 1893; and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, beginning in 1900.

Thomas Talley met Ellen Eunice Roberts at Florida A & M, and the two were married on August 8, 1899. Their two surviving daughters, Sonoma and Thomasina, both had successful music careers as music teachers and performers.

The majority of Talley’s teaching career, from 1903 to 1942, was spent at Fisk, where he taught chemistry, biology, and science, and was chair of the Chemistry Department for twenty-five years. Having earned a doctorate from Walden University in Nashville in 1896, he also spent two postgraduate summers, 1914 and 1916, at Harvard. In 1931 he finished a degree from the University of Chicago.

Although Talley’s profession was teaching and chemistry research, he made significant contributions to the study of American music, specifically black folk music. Music was a constant throughout Talley’s life. He joined the Fisk music program in 1888 and sang bass and toured with the New Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1890. He was a member of a quartet, active in the Mozart Society at Fisk, and conducted the Fisk choir for several seasons. Talley also participated in music activities at the Fisk Union Church.

Around the age of fifty, at the end of World War I, Talley began collecting rural black traditional songs. He sought texts from the Middle Tennessee countryside and elsewhere through an active network of friends, family, students, and colleagues, and recalled songs from memory or from his travels. In 1922 Macmillan published these folksongs as Negro Folk Rhymes (Wise and Otherwise) containing 349 secular folksongs (some with music notations), an essay by Talley, and an introduction by Walter Clyde Curry, literature professor at Vanderbilt University. This successful publication was the first serious collection of folksongs from Tennessee, the first compilation of black secular folksong, and the first to be assembled by a black scholar.

In addition, Talley accumulated stories from African American rural communities and compiled a manuscript of folk narratives. The unpublished work was entitled “Negro Traditions,” a version of which was later published in 1993. Talley also wrote an original composition, “Behold That Star,” which has since entered the Christmas music repertoire.

Talley retired from Fisk around 1942. He worked for the War Department during World War II. Talley moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1943 but eventually returned to Nashville, where he spent his last years writing about the sciences.

Thomas W. Talley died on July 14, 1952. Aside from his contributions to Fisk University, Talley’s legacy is his documentation and study of black secular folksong and folklore in Tennessee.

Suggested Reading

Thomas W. Talley’s Negro Folk Rhymes. A New Expanded Edition, with Music, edited, with an introduction and notes, by Charles K. Wolfe (1991);

Thomas W. Talley, The Negro Traditions, edited by Charles K. Wolfe and Laura C. Jarmon (1993).

Published » January 05, 2010