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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Traveling Texas With Bill Owens William A. Owens, Pin Hook, Texas native and for many years Professor of English at Columbia University, is the author of This Stubborn Soil and A Season of Weathering. Following are excerpts from his third volume of autobiographical writings, Tell me a story, sing me a song, an account of his travels throughout Texas in the 1930s collecting stories and songs. Becoming a professional collector if being paid makes one a professional was for me the result of a series of three accidents, or at least of turnings in directions I had not calculated or envisioned. Without these, what became an enduring need to know more, to understand more, to record more about the folk mind might have developed into nothing more than a pleasant hobby. The first came in the fall of 1930 when, as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University, I took a course in writing taught by Henry Nash Smith. Though a year younger than I, he was already established as scholar, critic, and editor. To him, writing was important, the substance of writing more important. He soon knew my poverty of substance in all areas except one: my memory of songs and speech and ways I had known in the country. Slowly he made me see value in what he called my original sources. While I was trying to overcome an embarrassment of ignorance \(like calling the University of Bologna “the me writing down what I could remember about my people and their ways. I had gone to school determined to rid myself of “country,” of being ashamed because I was from the country. Before the year was over I had been brought to a kind of middle ground in myself, where I was ashamed not of being country but of country traces that made me appear crude, ignorant. At the end of the year, eager to see a way of life he had heard about chiefly from me, he went to the country with me, to Forest Hill, to find, if we could, a play-party, to join boys and girls who had been my pupils in singing and dancing “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Lead Her Up and Down Your Little Brass Wagon”; to stay with the Will Halliburtons, in the room that had been my room. There was no play-party, the Halliburtons told us when we arrived, but there was a close-of-school play at Tigertown, down the road toward Red River. She would have supper ready for us “toreckly,” Mrs. Halliburton said, in TELL ME A STORY, SING ME A SONG .. . A TEXAS CHRONICLE Austin: University of Texas Press A Sing Me a Song cassette is also available from UT Press. time for us to go. After talk of old times over a country supper, we went. The play was in the big room and as we went in we could see shadowy shapes of people between us and the reddish glow of coal oil torches on the stage. We found room on a bench at the back and settled down, to wait for the white sheet curtains to open, to listen to the country talk of country people talk of whose children were in the play, of prices of eggs and butter, of “the droops” in young turkeys. The play was a comedy with a love interest, the actors the big boys and girls in school. The lights were dim and flickering, but from time to time in their flickering they caught the brown of a country cheek, the flash of an eye. Before the end of the first act I looked at Henry. “This is good,” he said softly. From then on I was watching him watch the play, pleased with his visible response to young people who, un trained, were going through lines memorized by rote, through movements unpolished but convincing. As the play progressed we and the men and women around us allowed ourselves to be led into a reality created for the moment, a reality of time and place in which only the themes of love and laughter had a constant kinship with Tigertown. Later, toward midnight, we walked a path that wound through hawthorn trees in full bloom. The whiteness of moonlight through the whiteness of flowers cast a pale glow around us. The air was warm, and musty sweet with the scent of hawthorn. Contemplatively, Henry talked about the play and the people we had seen in Tigertown. The play was not much, he admitted, but that was not what mattered. It was the need for a play in a place like Tigertown, the need for people to cast themselves for a time in a world of make-believe, and for other people to join them in it. The second turning came in the summer of 1937 at the State University of Iowa, in Iowa City, where, after I had failed to qualify at the University of Texas, I had gone in search of a route to the Ph.D. Again I was directed by a professor of English, Edwin Ford Piper, whose name I had first encountered in Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag. He had answered my feeler letter not with questions about my academic qualifications but with suggestions of what I might study in folklore and writing, all in a tone positive and welcoming. In our first meeting I knew I had made a good choice. He was a Nebraskan but many of the ballads he sang for me in his Philosophy Hall office were Anglo-Saxon ballads I had learned in East Texas, though his words were sometimes widely different and the tunes rarely the same. He sang in a flat nasal Midwestern voice; I sang my versions in what has been called my East Texas whang. There was a meeting of minds if not of sounds. Henry Nash Smith had urged me to collect play-party games. By the time I THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15