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Leonard Roberts Papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: BCA 0057 SAA 057

Scope and Contents

These are the papers and sound recordings of Kentucky folklorist, Leonard Ward Roberts (1912-1983). They are comprised mainly of correspondence, writings, folklore narrative transcriptions, audio recordings, and photographs that document his folklore research, publication, editing, and teaching from 1945 to 1983.

Listen To Roberts’ field recordings, lectures, and storytelling


  • created: 1950-1983


Conditions Governing Access

Records can be accessed through the Reading Room, Berea College Special Collections and Archives, Hutchins Library, Berea College.

Conditions Governing Use

There are no known restrictions other than federal copyright regulations. Please cite information.


79.00 boxes_(general)

Language of Materials



Leonard Roberts’ folklore scholarship was distinctive in at least three respects. Although he included ballads in his collecting, as did most of his fellows, his primary focus was on magic tales and other stories.  For a considerable time, he was one of only a few collecting and publishing such material. He is also notable for having included a large number of children among his informants and having made extensive use of electrical sound recording. Of particular significance are his recordings from the late1940s through the1950s, a time for which such documentation of southeastern Kentucky’s folklore is otherwise quite rare. The hundreds of items he recorded constitute perhaps the nation’s largest collection of such audio-recorded tales.  Much of this material has been neither published nor transcribed.

Roberts was born and grew up in the Toler Creek area of Floyd County. He attended a one-room school for the first six grades and eventually graduated from Pikeville High School after time out for Army service. He continued his education at Berea College, earning a BA in English and Music in 1939. He taught school for a while in Kentucky and North Carolina and then studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. After earning a master’s Degree in 1943, he found work teaching in the Army V-12 program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he also began part time Folklore doctoral studies.

In 1945, Roberts returned to Berea College to teach English in the Foundation School and continued doctoral work, first at Indiana and then Kentucky under the tutelage of Dr. William Hugh Jansen.  At Berea (1945-1950) and Harlan County’s Pine Mountain Settlement School (1950-1953) he involved his students in collecting folktales and songs from their families. It was during the time at Pine Mountain that he encountered the Couch Family, his single most important informants.

While at Berea and Pine Mountain, Roberts annotated several of the tales he collected for publication in Kentucky Folklife Record and Mountain Life and Work.  In 1953 he completed his dissertation, which was based on a large number of folk narratives he had collected mostly via sound recordings in Leslie and Perry counties. It was published in 1955 by the University of Kentucky Press as South from Hell-fer-Sartin: Kentucky Mountain Folktales and was well received by Roberts’ professional peers.

From Pine Mountain, he went on to teach at Georgia’s Piedmont College, Union and Morehead State in Kentucky and West Virginia Wesleyan before his 1968 move to Pikeville College. Other major works that followed over those years included Up Cutshin and Down Greasy: Folkways of a Kentucky Mountain Family (1959, Tales and Songs of the Couch Family (1959, Old Greasy Beard: Tales from the Cumberland Gap (1969), Sang Branch Settlers: Folksongs and Tails of a Kentucky Mountain Family (1974), and In the Pine: Selected Kentucky Folksongs (1978).

The many annotated folk narrative texts that are central to most of Roberts’ published works make clear his ongoing commitment to the comparative, text centered, methodology of his doctoral program mentors. However there was also a degree of contrariness in his approach that put him uncomfortably ahead of his time in certain respects. Most notably, in Up Cutshin and Down Greasy: Folkways of a Kentucky Mountain Family (1959), he shifted perspective to focus almost entirely on the overall folklife context of a specific region and family, an approach that would not be in vogue among his peers for another ten years.

Also to the contrary for folklorists of the day, he was an active participant in the burgeoning folk festival movement of the 1960s. Most notable was his service as Vice President and President of the National Folk Festival Association during which he advocated strongly for authenticity over polish in the selection of Festival performers. Unfortunately, his post-1959 publications arrived just in time to go largely unappreciated by a new generation of scholars.

In 1968, Roberts accepted Pikeville College’s invitation to teach and be Chairman of Humanities. At Pikeville, Roberts taught English, folklore, and creative writing and was deeply involved in research, and publishing eastern Kentucky folklore and history.  He founded the Pikeville College Press, published the literary journal, Twigs (later Cumberlands) and a number of books of poetry and regional history by Kentucky writers.  He started the College’s Appalachian Studies Center and was a key figure in the Pikeville College based Mid Appalachian Teacher Education Program. Also for seven years he wrote for and edited the Pike County Historical Society’s annual journal, which focused mainly on local genealogy. Roberts died April 29, 1983 from injuries received in a car-coal truck collision.

Arrangement Note

The collection is arranged in series as follows:

Series 1: Biographical Information

Series 2: Writings

Series 3: Publications Edited by Leonard Roberts

Series 4: General Correspondence

Series 5: Subject Files   

Series 6: Ballad and Song Texts

Series 7: Student Folklore Collections

Series 8: Games

Series 9: Regional Writers

Series 10: Community Histories

Series 11: Folklore

Series 12: Folktales

Series 13: Folksong Texts

Series 14: Folkways

Series 15: Genealogy

Series 16: Interviews

Series 17: Indians

Series 18: Teaching Aids

Series 19: Recordings and Transcripts

Series 20: Card Files

Related Materials

Josiah Combs Collection, 1910-1960

Nora Morgan Lewis Folktale Collection

Talitha Ethel Powell McClure Ballad Collection, 1915-1980

John F. Smith Traditional Music Collection, 1915-1940

D. K. Wilgus Folklore Collection, 1918-1989

Other Descriptive Information

Collection Number: BCA 0057 SAA057

Processing Information

The finding aid was updated in November 2015. Links to recordings added 2018.

Archon Finding Aid Title
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Berea College Special Collections and Archives Repository

Hutchins Library
100 Campus Drive
Berea Kentucky 40404 US