Charles Faulkner Bryan was one of Tennessee's greatest composers, musicians, and collectors of folk music. Bryan was born on July 26, 1911, in McMinnville, the second of Clarence Justus and Allie May Bryan's five children. At the age of nineteen Bryan entered the Nashville Conservatory of Music. During his four years there Bryan organized the Nashville Junior Concert Orchestra and conducted the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra. He received his bachelor's degree in music in 1934 and was invited to become the head of the Music department at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (now Tennessee Technological University). His interest in folk music and folklore peaked during his four years in Cookeville, and that inclination determined the future of Bryan's musical work.
In 1939 Bryan was awarded a graduate fellowship at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville. While at Peabody he befriended Vanderbilt professor and fellow folklorist Charles Pullen Jackson, with whom Bryan coauthored a textbook for the teaching and performance of folk music in public high schools. Bryan composed a folk symphony to fulfill his master's requirements. On March 27, 1942, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed his White Spiritual Symphony at the University of Tennessee; the work eventually gained him a Guggenheim Fellowship.
During World War II Bryan served in the civilian defense arm of the military, directing southeastern efforts in 1942 and 1943 and gaining national recognition for his contributions to the war effort.
In 1946 Bryan accepted a one-year Guggenheim Fellowship and entered Yale University to study with Paul Hindemith. Under Hindemith's tutelage Bryan composed his most famous musical work, the Bell Witch Cantata, which premiered at Carnegie Hall on April 14, 1947, performed by Robert Shaw and the Julliard Orchestra. In 1947 Peabody College asked Bryan to join its faculty. There, he served as president of the Tennessee Folklore Society and cowrote a folk opera, Singin' Billy, with Donald Davidson. In the fall of 1952 Bryan accepted an invitation to become Master of Music at Indian Springs, a new boys' private school in Alabama. On July 7, 1955, while returning to Indian Springs from a visit to McMinnville, Bryan, who had had a long history of violent headaches, died very suddenly. Although only forty-three years old at the time of his death, Bryan left a distinct mark on Tennessee and American folk culture. His peers respected him as an excellent musician, and his students revered him as an energetic teacher. In 1935 he married Edith Hillis, and they were the parents of two children, Betty Lynn and Charles Jr.