"Mountain Mother Goose" Illustrates Teaching Tradition

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What is today Fairmont State University was first established in 1865 as the West Virginia Normal School at Fairmont, a private institution dedicated to educating teachers. Many decades and name changes later, it was the proud teaching tradition that gave birth to “Mountain Mother Goose.”

“Mountain Mother Goose” – which this summer becomes an operetta for young audiences and in the fall will become a published collection of childlore and a curriculum for public school teachers – has been a labor of the love of folklore for a distinguished group of Fairmont State faculty members.

One of the founders of the West Virginia Folklore Society in 1915 (which was the same year the cornerstone was laid for Hardway Hall on the main campus), Dr. Walter Barnes was chair of the English Department of Fairmont State Normal School and a professor of English education, as well as a nationally recognized educator and author. Barnes served as mentor to Dr. Ruth Ann Musick, who taught English and folklore at Fairmont State College from 1946 to 1967. Barnes and Musick were the main collectors of the content for “Mountain Mother Goose.”

Musick was mentor to Dr. Judy P. Byers, Abelina Suarez Professor of Folklore and English, Senior Level.

“Dr. Musick was fascinated with childlore, but that wasn’t her major interest. Her major interest was the ghost tale, the supernatural tale. She would come across childlore all the time. Childlore means ‘knowledge of the children.’ Childlore is riddles, rhymes, jingles, jangles, songs, play party games. All of this tells you a lot about a time period. It places children in history and culture in a certain time period,” Byers said.

“Dr. Musick always said to me, ‘Judy, I would love to someday see this childlore collection come out. I think we’ve got the making of a Mountain Mother Goose right here in West Virginia.’ ”

Musick indicated to Byers that her childlore collection was not complete because it was missing some of the earlier collecting done by Barnes. Since Musick’s death in 1974, Byers has served as executrix of Musick’s unpublished folklore estate, comprised of Musick’s own unpublished collections and the archives of the West Virginia Folklore Society. Over the years, Byers was able to find some of Barnes’ works through the journals West Virginia School Journal and West Virginia Review.

In 1993, Byers was able to bring Musick’s collection to Fairmont State, which later led to the establishment of the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center. Today, Byers serves as Director of the Folklife Center, and Noel W. Tenney as Cultural Specialist.

In the 1990s, Byers talked with Dr. Alice Moerk, who is now an FSU Professor Emeritus of Music, about writing music for the childlore collection. More years passed, and the Folklife Center found its permanent home on campus.

Byers and Dr. Francene Kirk, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre, received a Strategic Planning Implementation Grant in 2011 to help fund a book and musical production based on the childlore collection. Fairmont State graduate Susan Long, a teacher at Union Elementary in Upshur County, has written a curriculum based on the material for teachers to use in their classrooms. The hope is that curriculum will be available online, along with video of the operetta.

Moerk, who now lives in Florida, composed the music for the operetta. Retired faculty member Dr. George Byers and Kirk penned additional lyrics for “Mountain Mother Goose.” The book, edited by Dr. Judy P. Byers, will be published in the fall and will include beautiful illustrations by Pat Musick, niece of Dr. Ruth Ann Musick, as well as Noel Tenney and John Randolph. These final works are a collaboration decades in the making.

“When I think of Fairmont State, I think of many great teachers,” Byers said. “We’ve known since the 1990s that we wanted to put together this collection. This is a gift to the community and to the people of West Virginia. How fitting that this is happening in our inaugural year of the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center.”