William A. Owens Papers, Part One

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William A. Owens Papers, Part One


  • 1922-1979 (Creation)


67 boxes (27.9 linear feet)

Name of creator


Biographical history

William A. Owens, noted folklorist, author, and educator, was born in Pin Hook, Texas on November 2, 1905, the son of Charles Owens and Jessie Ann (Chenault) Owens. He spent his childhood on the small cotton farms around tiny rural communities of Pin Hook, Novice, Faught, and Blossom. Owens was indeed a child of the poverty and hard times that had gripped the agricultural regions of the South since the Civil War and Reconstruction. These early years, were, however, tempered by the love and closeness of his family, a family that sometimes had as many as four generations living under one roof. His father had died only a few days after Owens' birth, and it was from his mother that he learned the values of hard work and self reliance. In addition, he acquired a love of reading and a desire to obtain an education beyond the one room schoolhouses of Lamar County.

In an effort to finance his education, Owens undertook numerous odd jobs as a farmer's hired hand, stock clerk, and for a short time, combination waiter and dishwasher at Dallas University. In 1924 he entered East Texas State Teachers College in Commerce. Studying long hours on his own to make up for the deficiencies in his country school education and waiting tables and picking cotton to pay his way, Owens earned a high school diploma and elementary teaching certificate. After graduation, however, there were few jobs available in country schools and Owens lacked the qualifications to teach in the larger school systems.

Owens moved to Paris, Texas and for the next few years struggled against nearly overwhelming economic hardships to continue school at the newly opened junior college. Although these were very difficult times, he never lost sight of continuing his education and becoming a teacher.

With two years of college completed and a new teaching certificate, he returned to Pin Hook to teach in the one room school he had left only five years before. After two years teaching in country schools, Owens returned to college. He attended Southern Methodist University where he received the BA degree in 1932 and the MA degree in 1933. In 1941, he received his Ph.D. from the State University of Iowa. The title of his dissertation was "Texas Folk Songs."

With the completion of the Master's degree, Owens began his profession in earnest, compiling an enviable record as an academician with legions of grateful former students. During his career Owens taught at Greenville High School in Greenville, Texas (1934-35); Wesley College in Greenville, Texas (1935-36); Mississippi State College (1936); Robert E. Lee High School in Goose Creek, Texas (1936-37); Texas A & M University (1937-40, 1941-1947); University of Texas (1946); Columbia University (1947-1974). Additionally he served as Director of Research in Folk Materials (1941) and Director of the Oral History of Texas Oil Pioneers (1952-58) at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. He also served as Director of the Summer Session (1959-1969) and Dean of the Summer Session (1969-72) at Columbia University. During World War II, Dr. Owens took leave from Texas A & M University and served with distinction as Officer in the United States Army, receiving the Legion of Merit for "meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service in Luzon, Philippines Islands" while serving with the 306th Counter Intelligence Corps Detachment.

While his career as teacher, lecturer, and administrator has been full, he is more widely known as a gifted author. In addition to numerous articles, reviews and short stories, his books serve as monuments to his craft. His works include Swing and Turn: Texas Play-Party Games (1936); Texas Folk Songs (1950, revised in 1976); Slave Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953); Walking on Borrowed Land (1954); Fever in the Earth (1958); Look to the River (1963); This Stubborn Soil (1966); Three Friends: Bedichek, Dobie, Webb (1969); Tales From the Derrick Floor (with Mody C. Boatright, 1970); A Season of Weathering (1973); and A Fair and Happy Land (1975).

Dr. Owens married Ann S. Wood on December 23, 1946. Their two children are Jessie Ann and David Edward.

Content and structure elements

Scope and content

This collection contains papers documenting Owens' teaching and writing career from 1928 to 1979. Items of special interest in the collection include lyrics to many folksongs and recordings made by Owens in the 1930s and 1940s of folksingers as well as recorded readings of Robert Frost, interviews of early oil pioneers of Texas, legal papers for Owens vs. Fawcett Publications, Inc. and David Holland concerning True magazine's plagiarism of Slave Mutiny, and letters of Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Mody C. Boatright.

The correspondence is further separated into three areas: personal correspondence; correspondence with Owens' literary agent, Maurice Crain; and correspondence regarding Owens' books. Some overlapping exists between these areas. In the personal correspondence section, letters discussing Owens' books are largely from friends and fans and are nontechnical in nature. The correspondence with Maurice Crain concerns the publication procedures and business aspect of his writings while the boxes of letters specifically concerning the books deal primarily with the writing and development of the books.

The personal correspondence is arranged chronologically from 1932 to 1975. The letters are concerned with associations and societies to which Owens belonged; speaking engagements by Owens; programs in which he was involved; awards presented to Owens; and Owens' teaching career which includes letters to Owens as Director of Folk Festivals at the University of Texas, as an instructor at Texas A&M University, and as Professor and Dean of Summer Sessions at Columbia University. Other letters concern Owens' service as an Intelligence Officer in World War II and his early work with folksongs. In addition to correspondence from Owens' family and friends, there are letters congratulating Owens on his publications and requesting his literary advice. Of special interest are letters from famous persons such as Grant Wood, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Nelson Rockefeller.

Correspondence with Maurice Crain contains letters from 1950 to 1959. The letters discuss publication and promotional plans for Owens' books and short stories. Other subject areas include foreign and domestic contracts for publication, royalty statements, and motion picture plans for several books.

The correspondence concerning books is arranged in chronological order based on the year of the book's publication. Included are letters regarding contracts with publishers, royalty statements, motion picture rights, and lectures on the books. Numerous letters discuss Owens' research and recordings of folksongs for Texas Folk Songs. Additional correspondence with Mrs. Walter B. Sharp, Dudley Sharp, and other oil pioneers refers to the Oral History of Texas Oil Pioneers.

Material concerning Owens' books includes background material, book reviews, typescripts, drafts, and in most cases galley proofs and page proofs. The boxes are arranged chronologically according to the publication date from the earliest to the last. However, the revised edition of Texas Folk Songs which was published in 1976 is included with the papers of the 1950 edition. Labels that Owens used on the papers, such as the numbers of a draft, have been retained, and where there was no designation of a draft number, the typescript is merely labeled typescript, early draft, or manuscript. The papers include both photocopies and ribbon copies and duplicates of typescripts. Typescript and manuscript are used interchangeably as labels.

The evolution of each of Owens' books can be seen through the background material and copies of drafts. In the first folders are Owens' research material and notes, book reviews, advertisements, and other information pertaining to the book in subject matter. Copies of typescripts, from the earliest to the final edited manuscript are next with the last folders containing galley proofs and page proofs. Through the revisions and changes made by Owens in each subsequent draft, the progressive development of notes and a rough outline into a complete and polished publication is revealed. Papers of major interest include a copy of Owens' doctoral dissertation on folksongs for the State University of Iowa (June 1941) with Texas Folk Songs material, the legal papers from the Owens vs. Fawcett Publications, Inc. and David Holland concerning Slave Mutiny, interviews of oil pioneers of Texas with material for Oral History of Texas Oil Pioneers and Walter B. Sharp biography, and the correspondence of Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb revealing their ideas about many varied subjects included with Three Friends material.

Other writings by Owens comprise the next section of the collection. Articles and short stories are filed alphabetically. Book reviews are grouped together in one folder. Speeches are filed last and are labeled with the title or meeting at which they were given and the date if known. Typescripts exist of most of the articles and short stories, and duplicate copies are retained. Some of these writings occur in their published version and are labeled with the title and date of the magazine in which they were printed. The dates of the other stories and articles are unknown. The subjects of Owens' stories and articles cover a wide range of subjects and span the entirety of his writing career. Published excerpts from his books such as This Stubborn Soil and Tales From the Derrick Floor are included in this group as well.

The personal data concerning Owens contains biographical information such as vitae, resumes, publications concerning programs and lectures in which he participated, and material relating to his teaching career. Additional material documents his years at Columbia University and awards presented to him. Newspaper articles and photographs from 1940 to 1974 concern Owens' many interests and involvement in programs as well as his books and teaching career.

The next boxes in the collection contain miscellaneous material kept by Owens. Many oil history photographs and newspapers articles relating to subjects in which Owens was interested are included. Articles by other authors, some signed by the author and some written by friends of Owens, along with magazines and publications collected by Owens are filed in this section. The miscellaneous publications are divided into three categories: literary publications, college publications, and remaining miscellaneous publications. These deal with a wide variety of subjects in which Owens was apparently interested.

The remaining three boxes contain aluminum discs of recordings made by Owens of various folksingers and country people of the South. Note cards listing titles numbered to correspond with the records are filed with the discs. Owens also made recordings of readings by Robert Frost in 1939, and these provide a valuable addition to the collection.

Copies of Owens' books are shelved with the boxed papers. Oversize items including an advertisement for Three Friends: Bedichek, Dobie, Webb, color prints of the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission, and maps and genealogies for A Fair and Happy Land are housed separately in oversize flat storage.

System of arrangement

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Conditions governing access

Physical access

These materials are stored offsite and require additional time for retrieval.

Technical access

Boxes 67-69 have been made into Aluminum Disk transfers which have been digitized for access.

Conditions governing reproduction

Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.

Languages of the material

  • English

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Separated Material: Oversized material includes twelve 11-inch x 4-inch color prints of the Apollo 11 Lunar mission, maps and genealogies for A Fair and Happy Land, and a freestanding advertisement poster for Three Friends: Bedichek, Dobie, Webb, housed in oversize storage.

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Archivist's note

Finding Aid Authors: Barbara A. Middlebrook.

Archivist's note

© Copyright 2019 Cushing Library. All rights reserved.

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