The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 87, July 1983 - April, 1984 Page: 330
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song .... By William A. Owens. (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1983. Pp. vii+328. Acknowledg-
ments, index. $25, cloth; $12.50, paper.)
If William A. Owens is not properly appreciated as one of Texas's
"classic" writers it may be that he has tried and succeeded too well in
too many genres. Rather than making his contribution to Texas let-
ters solely as novelist, folklorist, editor, or writer of autobiography,
he has, over the years, produced distinguished works in all these areas.
His Texas Folk Songs (1950, extensively revised 1976) is the definitive
study of the ballads, songs, and spirituals of the region. His first
novel, Walking on Borrowed Land (1954), is one of the two or three
best novels written by a Texan. His first volume of autobiography,
This Stubborn Soil (1966), is generally agreed to be the finest book of
its kind to come out of the state; indeed, it is an American classic. In
addition, he has two other novels, several nonfiction books, and a sec-
ond volume of autobiography-all of high quality. And yet Owens
is not always listed with Katherine Anne Porter, J. Frank Dobie, Roy
Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb-often not with John Graves,
Larry McMurtry, and William Humphrey-as one of Texas's very
best writers. When his name is not mentioned in the best company of
Texas writers an injustice is being done, for his work deserves to rank
at the very top in fiction, folklore, and history.
William A. Owens's value to Texas letters is plain to see in his
most recent volume, Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song.... The book is
important not so much because it carries Owens's own life story for-
ward by a decade, but because it is a record of folk life in Texas in the
thirties. The book tells of Owens's folksong collecting among the
anglos, blacks, and ethnics of Texas during the years of the Great
Depression. Owens, for much of that time a faculty member at Texas
A8cM, traveled the state and into Louisiana and Mexico to record on
aluminum discs the songs of the people. As the book shows, he re-
corded more than the songs: he captured the speech patterns, customs,
folk beliefs, and ceremonies of Texans. Tell Me a Story gives the
reader a real feeling for life in Texas during the hard times; it also
gives the reader a picture of the young Owens who went among "all
sorts and conditions" of people, often as a stranger, to help them sal-
vage some of their heritage. Among the blacks especially, Owens
walked "on borrowed land" as he tried to get them to sing "the old
songs," for many of his informants were trying to put behind them
the works reminiscent of the slave days. In his dealings with everyone
except the anglos, Owens was an outsider, and it is a tribute to his
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 87, July 1983 - April, 1984, periodical, 1983/1984; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117150/m1/382/: accessed November 21, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.