The Tennessee Folklore Society is a statewide organization of academics, nonprofit activists, and interested citizens who are concerned with the preservation, celebration, and study of the traditional expressive culture of the state. Such culture ranges from the classic forms of folklore that include proverbs, tales, and music to more recently appreciated forms such as folk architecture, foodways, beliefs, and recreation styles. The Tennessee Folklore Society recognizes these forms in a number of ways: publishing a journal, The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin; serving as a conduit for state and federal grants devoted to folklore projects; serving as a clearinghouse for information about folk culture and events; holding annual meetings; and producing videos and audio recordings.
The society formed in 1934, when famed ballad collector John Lomax pointed out to his Tennessee friend J. A. Rickard that parts of the state were “the richest in folklore of any portion of the United States.” Impressed, Rickard called a meeting at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (now Tennessee Technological University) that attracted some fifty people, mostly educators. The group created a constitution and elected Charles S. Pendleton of George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University) as the society’s first president. The following spring, the organization began publishing its journal, which continues today as one of the nation’s oldest continuously published regional journals. As the society grew, its pioneering efforts attracted the attention of a number of notable figures who later became members: such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Estes Kefauver, Mary Frances (Mrs. Cordell) Hull, J. Percy Priest, Carroll Reece, and Albert Gore Sr. It also attracted the work and support of most of the country’s folklore scholars including Richard Dorson, Stith Thompson, Dorothy Horne, and Henry Glassie. The pages of the journal were filled with riddles, proverbs, stories, and songs and became the first to call attention to such modern folk trends as “elephant jokes” and oral lore from the Vietnam War.
In the 1970s the society played a role in establishing the position of Director of Folk Arts at the Tennessee Arts Commission and in supporting and encouraging the development of festivals in the state. It sought and received a nonprofit charter that allowed it to receive grants from state and federal agencies. By the mid-1970s the organization began a series of documentary field recordings that ranged from “historical ballads” to the aural documentation of the rural black community of Free Hill. From 1976-1980 the society sponsored several video documentaries, including “The Uncle Dave Macon Show,” which won a regional Emmy for best documentary and was shown nationally over the PBS network in the “Southbound” series. From 1979-1984 it hosted grants from the National Endowment for the Arts that made possible extensive statewide documentation and programming efforts by the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Program. From 1988-1992 the society cosponsored The Tennessee Banjo Institute, a novel teaching experiment that attracted national attention. In 2009 it published A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selections from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin (1934-2009).
Originally the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin was headquartered at Tennessee Tech, where it flourished under the guidance of T. J. Farr. In 1952 it moved to Peabody College, where it was edited by William J. Griffith until 1966. Then it moved to Middle Tennessee State University, first under the editorship of Ralph Hyde, and later under the direction of Charles Wolfe from 1979 to 2004. Since 2007, TFSB production and the society headquarters have been hosted by Jubilee Community Arts in Knoxville, where Brent Cantrell now continues to serve as editor.
The society maintains a website, where additional information about membership, meetings, and available recordings and publications can be found.