Hutchins Library
Special Collections & Archives
Guide to the Leonard Ward Roberts Collection - History

Accession Number: 57
The Leonard Ward Roberts Collection
Papers and Sound Recordings 1949-1983
27.8 Linear Feet
44 Cassette Tapes
99 Reel Tapes
Online Catalog Record (BANC)

Overview & Series Description
Series I - Biographical Information
Series II - Writings
Series III - Publications Edited by Leonard Roberts
Series IV - General Correspondence
Series V - Subject Files
Series VI - Ballad and Song Texts
Series VII - Student Folklore Collections
Series VIII - Games
Series IX - Regional Writers
Series X - Community Histories
Series XI - Folklore
Series XII - Folktales
Series XIII - Folksong Texts
Series XIV - Folkways
Series XV - Genealogy
Series XVI - Interviews
Series XVII - Indians
Series XVIII - Teaching Aids
Series XIX - Audio Tapes and Transcripts
Series XX - Card Files

These are the papers and sound recordings of Kentucky folklorist, Leonard Ward Roberts (1912-1983). They are constituted mainly of correspondence, writings, folklore narrative transcriptions, audio recordings, and photographs that document his folklore research, publication, editing, and teaching from 1945 to1983.

Related Berea College Archives

Josiah Combs Collection, 1910-1960, SAA 71
Nora Morgan Lewis Folktale Collection, SAA 96
Talitha Ethel Powell McClure Ballad Collection, 1915-1980, SAA 32
John F. Smith Traditional Music Collection, 1915-1940, SAA 5
D. K. Wilgus Folklore Collection, 1918-1989, SAA 67


Roberts' folklore scholarship was distinctive in at least three respects. Although he included instrumental music and songs in his collecting, as did most of his fellows, his primary focus was on magic tales and other stories. For a considerable time, he was one of only a few scholars collecting and publishing such material. He is also notable for having included a large number of children among his informants and having made extensive use of electrical sound recording. Of particular significance are his recordings from the late 1940s through the 1950s, a time for which such documentation of southeastern Kentucky's folklore is otherwise quite rare. The hundreds of items he recorded constitute perhaps the nation's largest collection of such audio-recorded tales. Much of this material has neither been published nor transcribed. Some of these tales are available as audio files in the Digital Library of Appalachia.

Roberts was born and grew up in the Toler Creek area of Floyd County. He attended a one-room school for the first six grades and eventually graduated from Pikeville High School, after time out for Army service. He continued his education at Berea College, earning a BA in English and Music in 1939. He taught school for a while in Kentucky and North Carolina and then studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. After earning a Master's degree in 1943, he found work teaching in the Army V-12 program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he also began part-time Folklore doctoral studies.

In 1945, he returned to Berea College to teach English in the Foundation School and continued doctoral work, first at Indiana Unniversity and then at the University of Kentucky, under the tutelage of Dr. William Hugh Jansen. At Berea (1945-1950) and Harlan County's Pine Mountain Settlement School (1950-1953) he involved his students in collecting folktales and songs from their families. It was during the time at Pine Mountain that he encountered the Couch family, from which came his most important informants.

While at Berea and Pine Mountain, he annotated several of the tales he collected for publication in Kentucky Folklife Record and Mountain Life and Work. In 1953 he completed his dissertation, which was based on a large number of folk narratives he had collected, mostly via sound recordings in Leslie and Perry counties. It was published in 1955 by the University of Kentucky Press as South From Hell-fer-Sartin: Kentucky Mountain Folktales and was well received by Roberts' professional peers. From Pine Mountain, he went on to teach at Georgia's Piedmont College, Union and Morehead State in Kentucky, and West Virginia Wesleyan before his 1968 move to Pikeville College. Other major works that followed over those years included Up Cutshin and Down Greasy: Folkways of a Kentucky Mountain Family (1959), Tales and Songs of the Couch Family (1959), Old Greasy Beard: Tales From the Cumberland Gap (1969), Sang Branch Settlers: Folksongs and Tales of a Kentucky Mountain Family (1974), and In the Pine: Selected Kentucky Folksongs (1978).

The many annotated folk narrative texts that are central to most of Roberts' published works make clear his ongoing commitment to the comparative, text-centered methodology of his doctoral program mentors. However there was also a degree of contrariness in his approach that put him uncomfortably ahead of his time in certain respects. Most notably, in Up Cutshin and Down Greasy: Folkways of a Kentucky Mountain Family (1959), he shifted perspective to focus almost entirely on the overall folklife context of a specific region and family, an approach that would not be in vogue among his peers for another ten years. Also unlike the folklorists of the day, he was an active participant in the burgeoning folk festival movement of the 1960s. Most notable was his service as Vice President and President of the National Folk Festival Association, during which he advocated strongly for authenticity over polish in the selection of Festival performers. Unfortunately, his post-1959 publications arrived just in time to go largely unappreciated by a new generation of scholars.

In 1968, Roberts accepted Pikeville College's invitation to teach and become Chairman of Humanities. At Pikeville, Roberts taught English, folklore, and creative writing and was deeply involved in research and publication of eastern Kentucky folklore and history. He founded the Pikeville College Press, published the literary journal, Twigs (later Cumberlands) and a number of books of poetry and regional history by Kentucky writers. He started the College's Appalachian Studies Center and was a key figure in the Pikeville College based Mid-Appalachian Teacher Education Program. Also for seven years he wrote for and edited the Pike County Historical Society's annual journal, which focused mainly on local genealogy. Roberts died April 29, 1983, from injuries received in a car-coal truck collision.

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