History students are accustom to course instructions on methods of citation, operating microfilm machines, and avoiding passive voice. Rarely do their professors email them suggesting they, “Bring a raincoat, wear something to cover your legs, and try for shoes with traction.” This past spring, another class of Folklore students traversed the South by car, in canoes, and on foot, immersing themselves in the folkways of the region. Dr. Jim Brown often quips, only half-jokingly, that folklore is as much a class as it is a lifestyle. For students, this lifestyle of weaving, fishing, singing, and canoeing lasts for a semester. For Dr. Brown, it has been a lifestyle for over 40 years. Since 1973, Dr. Brown has shaped a course that communicates his love for the people and places of the South through experiential learning that focuses on folk orature/literature, material culture, and music.
The study of traditional folkways was not always an interest for Dr. Brown. He says that “as a teenager, I was running away from that as fast as I could run . . . I just didn’t move in those circles. I was heading toward the big city . . . It was kind of quaint and interesting but I was not going that direction at all.”
In college, the study of history drew Dr. Brown away from engineering because he “was trying to get some perspective on the craziness of American life in the Sixties.” Though Brown specialized in Russian history, Alabama folkways captured his attention soon after he arrived at Samford in December of 1970.
As Dr. Brown and his wife traveled from east Tennessee to Birmingham, he was skeptical about the flat terrain of north Alabama. Brown says we “hit the floodplain across Decatur and Athens, we thought that was too flat, too much sky, we can’t live down here,” but as the plains turned into the rolling hills of central Alabama, Dr. Brown began to feel more at ease. The plains of north Alabama were not the only thing that made Brown uneasy about moving to this state. Brown came to Alabama “scared to death of George Wallace,” but eventually “got to know Alabama . . . below the level of state politics. I got out in the countryside.” This was a place he could live. Even more, this was a place he could love and study.
Folklore began as an experimental course taught during Jan Term of 1973. This first class focused on German folklore from the Grimm brothers to Hitler. Folklore began to morph in the first decade of Dr. Brown’s arrival at Samford. Nearly every major component of the class emerged within his first ten years in Alabama as he built relationships with the people and places of the South. For Brown, people and place, and the interaction between the two, form the backbone of this course stating, “one of the tenets of the course is how removed we moderns are from direct connection with the natural world.”
As Dr. Brown traversed the countryside of the South, he met Henry Upchurch, who first introduced him to basket making using Alabama’s native white oak; Carol Welch, one of Cherokee’s most accomplished basket makers, who taught Brown how to weave a traditional basket using river cane; Mott and Morgan Lovejoy, who took Brown fishing on the Cahaba River for river redhorse (Moxostoma carinatum); and, Rose Bryan, who welcomed Brown into her traditional country store in Freeny, Mississippi. All of these individuals had a unique relationship to their natural environment and community that Dr. Brown sought to communicate to his students.
What also makes Folklore so unique is Dr. Brown’s approach to education. He says that “the best, most lasting education comes from experiencing things.” Weaving river cane baskets, canoeing down the Cahaba River, fishing for redhorse, and singing Sacred Harp in a country church will linger in students’ minds long after graduation. By experiencing various cultures through their folkways, “you see the culture more from the inside . . . you sort of walk a mile in their shoes.”
Adapted from Oral History Interview with James Brown conducted by Evan Musgraves, June 2015.
Photography by Jonathan Bass and Chase Trautwein