Remembering Author Bill Owens’ Rise from Stubborn Soil
Bill Owens autographing a copy of his book "This Stubborn Soil."
William A. (Bill) Owens, folklorist, author, and professor, was born November 2, 1905, in Pin Hook, about 20 miles northeast of Paris, Texas.
He was born into rural poverty, his father died when he was only a few days old and was educated at a one-room school.
Owens learned to read and write, and when he met a poorly-educated cross tie cutter who owned 25 books that he was willing to lend, young Bill read them all and resolved to devote his life to reading and study.
After moving to Dallas for work, he earned enough money to attempt study at East Texas State Normal College in Commerce (now Texas A&M University — Commerce).
He started teaching school at Pin Hook and other East Texas schools beginning in 1928, working in the Kress store in Paris, taking courses at Paris Junior College, and ending up at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1932 and 1933 respectively.
His master’s thesis, published as Swing and Turn: Texas Play Party Games (1936), grew from all the years Owens spent hearing and singing the old English and Scottish ballads that were a part of his East Texas heritage.
As Owens tells in his third volume of autobiography, Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (1983), he spent much of the 1930s collecting folksongs, teaching at Texas A&M University, and completing his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa.
Working partly on his own and partly for the Extension Division of the University of Texas, he recorded songs from East Texas to the Cajun Country of the Texas Coast to the Mexican border, using a secondhand Vibromaster recorder.
In 1940, Owens made a live recording of Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams singing “Hitler Blues,” a song written by Williams. The song received mention in Time magazine and was broadcast by BBC Radio on a program hosted by Alistair Cooke in 1940 about the American musical response to World War II. This recording was instrumental to the development of Williams’ career.
Owens served in the US Army from 1942 to 1945 and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work in the intelligence service in the Philippines.
He taught at Wesley College in Greenville, Texas, Mississippi State College in Starkville and Texas A&M College in College Station, Texas. He taught at Columbia University from 1945 to 1974.
He wrote This Stubborn Soil: A Frontier Boyhood (1966), an autobiographical account of growing up in Pin Hook.
Owens later worked closely with J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek and later published Three Friends (1969), a collection of letters that the three legendary Texas literary figures wrote to one another.
Two later books that grew from his folklore-collecting days were Texas Folksongs (1950) and Tales from the Derrick Floor: A People’s History of the Oil Industry (1970). He also won the Texas Institute of Letters 1954 prize for best first novel for his Walking on Borrowed Land.
He died December 9, 1990.
(Adapted from Texas State Historical Association)