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.

Student Television Collection

Over the past two months, we have been processing and arranging the University Archives Student Television at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill collection (#40326) as part of the next phase of our generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Photo collage of a U-matic case and tape for "Off the Cuff #19: A Holiday Extravaganza!" One has a drawing of a Christmas tree on the label; the other a drawing of Santa.

U-matic case for “Off the Cuff #19: A Holiday Extravaganza!” featuring drawings on the labels (VT-40326/466).

This collection of video recordings features original, student-produced shows, along with recordings of events and speeches around campus made by UNC Student Television between the years 1983-2010. There are more than 1,600 recordings in the collection on U-matic, VHS, and mini-DV analog formats. A few shows are still running today including General College and Late Night STV. UNC Student Television is a completely student-run television station for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Founded in 1983, it is now one of the largest media organizations on campus.

The finding aid for this collection will be available soon, but until then we thought we’d give you some highlights.

Off the Cuff is a long running sketch comedy show, and the STV collection features around 200 items with related Off the Cuff content. Pictured above and below is a sample of U-matic and VHS tapes found in the collection, all featuring Off the Cuff shows and segments.

Photo collage of U-matic case with sticker that reads "Off the Cuff" on the front, "sometimes comedy" on one edge, and "isn't pretty" on the other edge

U-matic case for “The 75th Off the Cuff Special: 7 years of STV comedy” (VT-40326/167)

Photo collage of VHS case for "Off the Cuff #150: Behind the Music Part 1" Label has a drawing of a monkey on it.

VHS case for “Off the Cuff #150: Behind the Music Part 1” (VT-40326/1478).

General College is another long running show featured in the collection. STV describes it as a “surreal melodrama with comedic elements,” and episodes are sequential by season. Below is a short clip of the General College intro from episode #14 produced in the fall of 1988 (VT-40326/104).