Roberts, Warren E. (Warren Everett), 1924-

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In 1953, Warren Everett Roberts became the first person to earn a PhD in Folklore not only at Indiana University, but also within the United States. As a student, Roberts served as a teaching fellow and upon earning his degree, joined the faculty of the IU Dept. of English. He held a split appointment with the Folklore Institute until 1966, when he became full-time faculty with the Institute, remaining until his 1994 retirement.

From the description of Warren E. Roberts papers, 1863-1999, bulk 1960-1990. (Indiana University). WorldCat record id: 308362061

Warren E. Roberts was the first person in the United States to receive a PhD in Folklore and was one of the founders of the American study of folklife (traditional ways of life) and material culture. Roberts conducted a regional study of vernacular architecture and material culture in southern Indiana-particularly in Dubois County-that had not been duplicated before or since.

Warren E. Roberts was born on February 20, 1924 in Norway, Maine to Otho Wilson and Alice Clark Roberts. His father was a saw filer in a mill that made furniture dowels and the house game pieces for the game Monopoly. His mother, Alice was a singer; it is these early parental influences that shape Roberts’ interests and later direct his folklore career.

After graduating valedictorian from high school, Roberts attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon and began a major in English. His studies were interrupted in 1943 by a brief stint in the army where Roberts served in the 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops during World War II. Eventually, Roberts resumed his studies and his growing interests in literature, music, and history- which were probably partially due to his mother’s influence. These interests culminated in a comparative study of comic and tragic ballad melodies and probably more importantly, began the career of a great folklorist

Roberts received his B.A. in English in 1948. He pursued his graduate studies at Indiana University, receiving an M.A. in English in 1950 and a PhD in Folklore in 1953 with a minor in Anthropology. His dissertation, The Tale of the Kind and the Unkind Girls was published in 1958. Renowned folklorist, Henry Glassie, describes this work as a masterpiece within the historic-geographic paradigm of folkloristic research.

In 1959, Roberts received a Fulbright Award to study in Norway. Roberts studied Norwegian tales and tale types resulting in the book Norwegian Folktale Studies. However, Roberts’ stay in Norway marked a turning point in his career. It was in Norway that Roberts learned that his interests and passion for vernacular architecture and material culture were also areas of folklore research. Roberts himself was a fine cabinetmaker who also designed and finished his home in Bloomington, Indiana. Furthermore, Norway demonstrated to Roberts the importance of the folk museum in preserving and educating people about the traditional ways of life of the common man.

Upon his return to the United State and Indiana, Roberts began teaching courses in material culture and folklife. This was a switch from the myriad of courses on folk literature he had previously taught. His professional publications also followed suit-moving from case studies on ballads, folktales, and tale type studies to surveys and studies of vernacular architecture and various aspects of folk crafts and arts. Roberts was on the first panel ever on material culture at a conference in Denver in 1965.

In addition, Roberts began examining log buildings throughout southern Indiana, procuring several structures such as houses, barns, and covered bridges along with many tools, folk crafts and art from various donors with the intent to create the Indiana University Outdoor Museum of Early Indiana Life-also known as Pioneer Village. Pioneer Village would showcase architecture and folkways from the 19th century focusing on the decade 1865-1875. The purpose of the museum was to reflect how people lived in the south central Indiana countryside around the year 1870 before the Industrial Era. The museum was to be part of several academic programs at Indiana University, Ball State University, local schools, as well as open to the general public.

Enthusiasm for the construction of Pioneer Village was high during its conception in the early 1960s but by the 1970s, the 2 million dollars needed to complete the project was not forthcoming. The structures, unsheltered and unsecured on Indiana University’s Matlock Farm Property, either rotted or were stolen, before finally being disposed of by the university. Although Roberts’ vision of Pioneer Village was never realized, the research he conducted for the project resulted in two major works: Log Buildings of Southern Indiana (1984) and Viewpoints on Folklife (1988).

Roberts began a photographic survey collection of folk crafts and folk arts in Indiana from past centuries. Roberts was looking “for any item to photograph from adzes to zithers.” He was also interested in interviewing craftsman and owners of the items he photographed. The photographs and interviews were to be placed (and have been placed) in the Indiana University archives for the benefit of future generations. Warren Roberts retired from teaching in 1994 but continued to give lectures and presentations on folklife and material culture.

Few folklorists achieved Roberts’ level of distinction and accomplishment and have impacted the discipline of folklore. Roberts was the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Chicago Folklore Prize, Douglas Award of the Pioneer America Society, the Wilbur Peat Award and honored by his colleagues with the festschrift The Old Traditional Way of Life (1989).

Moreover, Roberts’ served as Councilor of the American Folklore Society and as a Fellow. He was president of the Fellows of the American Folklore Society and helped lead three other professional societies: Pioneer America Society, the Association of Gravestone Studies, and Vernacular Architecture Forum. In addition, Roberts served on the Advisory Council for the Cultural Heritage Studies Program of the Monroe County Community School Corporation, and was a member of Bloomington Preservation Inc, as well as other historic preservation activities in Monroe County

Roberts’ accomplishments are too numerous to record here; hence, the aforementioned research, service, and awards serve as a microcosmic representation of the life and work of a man who dedicated his life to documenting the life, culture, and history of the common man. As Roberts once wrote, American history books are filled with the stories of great men and important events. But what of the traditions of the ordinary man? What did he do for recreation? What kinds of items were necessary for his survival? Descriptions of the common man in books are often scanty and the man who is the exception rather than the rule is usually cited.

From the guide to the Warren E. Roberts papers, 1863-1999, bulk 1960-1990, (Indiana University Office of University Archives and Records Management

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Folklore and Ethnomusicology Publications records, 1942-2004, (bulk 1968-2004) Indiana University Office of University Archives and Records Management
referencedIn IU Folklore Institute, 1987 Indiana University, Bloomington. Center for the Study of History and Memory
creatorOf Warren E. Roberts papers, 1863-1999, bulk 1960-1990 Indiana University Office of University Archives and Records Management
creatorOf Roberts, Warren E. (Warren Everett), 1924-. Warren E. Roberts papers, 1863-1999, bulk 1960-1990. Indiana University
referencedIn Dorson mss., 1925-1981 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Folklore--Study and teaching (Higher)


Birth 1924-02-20

Death 1999-02-01





Ark ID: w6bp49tt

SNAC ID: 21408261