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Center director carries on W.Va. folklorist's work

By Ben Adducchio

FAIRMONT, W.Va. -- Judy Byers, the director of the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, knew at a very young age she would spend her life working in preserving folk culture. She believes her work is far from being completed.

Byers uses oral storytelling as a method to preserve West Virginia folklore culture.

She's been doing this work for several years, and she discovered her love for folklore at a very young age.

"I sat on my grandmother's knee and heard her and my mother tell so many stories, and teach life through the story, through the sayings, through the beliefs. I became very much intrigued, and yes it did formulate my life," she said.

As a girl, Byers says she would hear family stories Sundays when her Italian family met to eat after church services.

Byers also credits her love for this field to her mentor, Ruth Ann Musick. Musick collected about 400 ghost tales.

"Ruth Ann Musick was a folklorist, a regional folklorist, and probably the prima folklorist of West Virginia. She came into the area, in 1946, to teach math and English at Fairmont State," Byers said.

"She died in 1974, right here in Fairmont. When she was here, she was the predominant collector of the supernatural story."

Byers said Musick would come to her home on those Sunday afternoons, and bring a tape recorder to document the family stories.

It inspired Byers to see Musick at work. Byers is also quick to point out that folklorists are not writers.

They do not invent or create the stories they orally present, or publish in books.

They are collectors, assembling a database of stories, artifacts, sayings, pictures, and other information, that are told to that person through others.

Interestingly, Ruth Ann Musick lived at the very site where the West Virginia Folklife Center currently sits.

"She passed away right here. When she first came to Fairmont State in 1946, her first apartment was upstairs, right above here. Down here is where she died," Byers said. "Isn't that a beautiful antique oaken cabinet? It came from our home [economics] department, and we can't keep the doors closed! They want to pop open! And I tell the students, don't worry, it's just Dr. Musick looking at us. Overseeing us!"

Byers said she promised Musick on her deathbed that she would carry on Musick's work. And she has, as the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center has been open for more than a year. The center publishes a publication called Traditions, a journal of West Virginia's folk culture, which includes stories and even songs inspired by folk traditions.

Byers said there's a lot more to do.

"It's my dream someday to see continual major studies, to get people excited about their own collecting. In the time of Ruth Ann Musick, there was a movement that the folklore of regional areas all throughout America needed to be collected, or we would lose the story of what we called the folk," she said.

"Now we are at the point that we are encouraging people to do their own collecting, to go out and do their own stories."

And for now, that's exactly what Byers is hoping people do. And she said, it's taking the work Ruth Ann Musick left to her, and moving it forward.

"It's exciting, I had Ruth Ann Musick for folk literature. We still teach that folk literature class here, but now we have a whole program. For instance, in introduction to folklore, the students do two collection projects. One of which is their own family story, that then they give as a gift to their family," Byers said.

"That's very satisfying to see them say, 'oh, I want to make sure I talk to my grandmother, before she passes on. I want to make sure that I get those photographs identified, that I look at those artifacts.'"

Byers said she thinks Musick would be very happy to see how the program has grown.

Byers hopes to publish more of Musick's works in books. She also says the Folklife Center will create more programs to connect students and those interested in folklore with the tools they need to retrace their own family histories.


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