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From the Hills to the Classroom
Folklife Goes to College

By John Lilly | Photographs by Tyler Evert

Scotty Leach (fiddle) and Rebecca Wudarski (guitar) provide live music for the Appalachian Spirit dancers at Davis & Elkins College.
Students at D&E are eligible to receive academic credit for their participation in this group. Photograph by Tyler Evert.

West Virginia’s rich folk heritage has a life of its own, surviving from generation to generation in unexpected ways. Ancient skills and traditions once passed along on rustic front porches in remote hollows today can also be found at festivals, on the Internet, and in many college classrooms around the Mountain State.

Dr. Judy Byers teaches folklore and folklife studies at Fairmont State University. A Fairmont native, Judy is Italian American on both sides. She completed her undergraduate study at Fairmont State and received a doctorate in pedagogy from West Virginia University, doing her dissertation on folklore and dramatics.

“I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to combine the pedagogy with literature, with folklore. That’s what I’m about. Those three areas,” she says.

Judy started at Fairmont State in 1974 as a part-time instructor, becoming fulltime in 1982. In 1998, the college introduced a minor in folklore studies under the university’s English Department, now called the Department of Language and Literature within the College of Liberal Arts. To date more than 100 students have gone through the program; plans are underway to develop an interdisciplinary major in folklore studies in the next couple of years.

Judy and her assistant, Noel Tenney, follow in the academic footsteps of several prominent West Virginia folklorists, including Drs. John Harrington Cox, Louis Watson Chappell, Patrick W. Gainer, and Ruth Ann Musick. Judy especially admires the work of Ruth Ann Musick, whom she knew quite well.

Dr. Ruth Ann Musick arrived at Fairmont State in 1946 as a mathematics and English instructor. The Missouri native was a trained folklorist with a strong interest in tales, legends, and beliefs related to ghosts and the supernatural.

While still a child, Judy met Ruth Ann when the folklorist came to the Prozzillo home to collect ghost tales, which were often told at gatherings of Judy’s family on Sunday afternoons.

“I would often stay to listen,” Judy recalls. “I was fascinated! Stories, beliefs, customs, traditions, following the planting signs. Following the signs for everything – everything was a sign. Everything had a reason.”

Ruth Ann Musick visited the Prozzillo home regularly for 11 years, during which time she and Judy became fast friends. Judy would visit Ruth Ann at the college, and was present at the folklorist’s death in 1974. As a student Judy took Ruth Ann’s Folk Literature class. Today she has built an entire program upon that foundation.

Judy and Noel teach in the newly remodeled Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center on the Fairmont State campus.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.