Joan Fenton and Documenting Southern Tall Tales

Audiotape of the North Carolina Folklore Broadcast Series found in the Joan Fenton Collection (FT-20015/909).

Joan Fenton was a folklorist and performer who earned a master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The sound recordings in this collection include interviews, oral histories, songs, and tall tales from artists and musicians throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisiana. She also recorded a gospel group at an African American church service near Princeton, West Virginia. Those recordings include sermons and testimonies from members of the congregation. Thanks to our generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the audio items in the Fenton collection are available and streaming online from the finding aid.

Fenton wrote the thesis for her master’s on Howard Cotten, a black tall-tale teller from North Carolina. These recordings include songs, tales, and interviews with Mr. Cotton and others like Laura Lea, a quilter from Chatham County, NC and Cotton’s friend and cousin, Willie Brooks. In the interviews, Cotton sings and tells stories about hitchhiking, ghosts, possum hunting, talking dogs, seeing a train for the first time and more (FT-20015/890-908).  

White sheet of paper with typed interview and field notes.

Field notes and transcribed interview with Howard Cotten by Joan Fenton. Found in the field notes of the Joan Fenton Collection (Folder 5-6, FT890-908).

The above interview is streaming through the finding aid.

White sheet of paper containing type field notes and transcribed interview.

Field notes and transcribed interview with Howard Cotten by Joan Fenton. Found in the field notes of the Joan Fenton Collection (Folder 5-6, FT890-908).

Fenton was the editor and sound engineer on an episode of the UNC Folklore Broadcast featuring a recording of Howard Cotton and Willie Brooks telling tall tales or lies, as Fenton calls them in the introduction to the broadcast, along with blues songs and additional explanation and commentary in between songs and stories. 

Some of my favorite audio recordings in the collection are from the John Henry Folk Festival in 1978. She gathered many interviews from this festival with musicians and attendees. She asks questions about the folk festival, why people attend this specific festival, what the blues mean to them, the importance of gospel music at a festival such as the John Henry festival, and many others. The answers she gets to her questions are part of larger conversations that are still relevant today. Some of the folks interviewed include Sparky Rucker, Ron Wilkerson, Hazel Dickens, Phyllis Boren, The Badgett Sisters, and Pigmeat Jarrett.  

Audiocassette tape with handwritten label

Audiocassette tape of a Hazel Dickens and Phyllis Boyens interview at the John Henry Folk Festival in 1978. (FS-20015/1167)

Finally, Fenton took part in video documentation of blues musicians including videos of Willie Trice. Fenton is described as recording the videos. They are also accessible and streaming in the Southern Folklife Collection Moving Image Materials finding aid. (VOR-30002/110-111).  

Black and white shot of man sitting on couch, playing a guitar.

Willie Trice playing his guitar (VOR-30002/110).

Fenton resides in Charlottesville, VA where she owns 9 retail stores. She is one of the organizers of Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Workshop in Elkins, WV.