Howard W. Odum’s Folklore Odyssey
Transformation to Tolerance through African American Folk Studies

Lynn Moss Sanders

A scholar's remarkable journey from segregationist to advocate of integration


"Draws attention to an underappreciated aspect of the mid-twentieth-century South’s leading sociologist. Odum, best known today for his exhaustive documentation of the South’s many deficiencies, also had a warm appreciation of the region’s folk cultures. In this fascinating study, Sanders examines Odum’s pioneering work on African American folklore, showing how he not only learned about his black ‘informants,’ but learned from them."
—John Shelton Reed, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Sanders gives new reason for a close re-reading of Howard W. Odum's folklore publications. Odum as mentor and as collaborator underlie his historical and contemporary importance. Sanders argues that folklore, because of its 'people-centeredness' and 'nonhierarchical nature,' was a logical outlet for Odum's intellectual interests in race relations and the new South."
—Karen Baldwin, coeditor/coauthor of Herbal and Magical Medicine: Traditional Healing Today

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Howard W. Odum (1884-1954), the pioneering social scientist and founder of the University of North Carolina's department of sociology, played a leading and well-documented role in the modernization of the South. This is the first book-length study of Odum's contributions to southern folklore, which had important but largely unappreciated consequences for his legacy of social justice.

Lynn Moss Sanders shows how Odum, as a collector of African American blues and work songs, anticipated some important precepts of modern folklore. Notably, Odum perceived the benefits of a collaborative and nonhierarchical approach to folk studies. Influenced by a racially tolerant former student and by one of his black folk informants, Odum changed his previous paternal, segregationist attitudes about race.

Comparing Odum's two song collections, The Negro and His Songs (1925) and Negro Workaday Songs (1926), Sanders links the growing influence of Odum's coauthor and former student, Guy Johnson, to a decrease in instances of racial condescension between the first and second book. The three "folk" novels in Odum's Black Ulysses trilogy (completed in 1931) also reveal a progressive refinement of Odum's racial views. The change, Sanders believes, came with Odum's growing ability to see John Wesley "Left-Wing" Gordon, the black, working-class model for the trilogy's hero, as a friend rather than simply as a representative of "the Negro."

From his authorship of Social and Mental Traits of the Negro (1910), now a relic of scientific racism, to his final publication, Agenda for Integration, Odum exemplifies how the study of folklore changed the folklorist--a change felt by a whole generation of southern liberals whose work Odum encouraged and shaped.

Page count: 208 pp.
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5


List price: $46.95

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Lynn Moss Sanders is a professor of English and folklore at Appalachian State University. Her work has appeared in such publications as the Southern Literary Journal, Appalachian Journal, and Southern Cultures.