George Worley Boswell was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1919, when the South was already well into an economic decline that would virtually cripple the United States a decade later. Boswell maintained a lifelong interest in folksinging, and two aunts who made their living teaching piano may have planted the musical seed in the young boy. As a child Boswell enjoyed Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, one of the twentieth century’s most important musical venues.
Boswell learned to read and write music at David Lipscomb Junior College, then entered Vanderbilt University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and studied under Donald Davidson, whom Boswell credited as instrumental to his understanding of British ballads. In 1939 Boswell earned a master’s degree from the George Peabody College for Teachers. He taught high school for a short period and was drafted into the army, where he served in the Signal Corps. After World War II, Boswell returned to Peabody and earned a doctorate. In 1950–51 he took a teaching position at Austin Peay State College, finished his dissertation, and married Emily Hall.
Boswell published numerous literary essays, but his greatest contribution to scholarship was his enormous collection of folk songs from Middle Tennessee and his numerous scholarly essays on southern folklore. He began collecting songs in 1948 and had collected more than twelve hundred by the end of his career. He and J. Russell Weaver published a seminal monograph, Fundamentals of Folk Literature, in 1962. His journal articles include “The Kinds of Folksongs,” “Otherwise Unknown or Rare Ballads from the Tennessee Archives,” “A Shiloh Cante Fable,” “Three Tennessee Folksongs,” “Pitch: Musical and Verbal in Folksong,” “Mississippi Folk Names of Plants,” “Folk Recipes of the South,” and dozens of others pertaining to virtually every aspect of folk culture in Mississippi and Tennessee. He also contributed essays to the book Folksongs of Mississippi and Their Background.
Boswell spent the majority of his career teaching literature at the University of Mississippi. Blending his love of folklore with his duties as a professor, Boswell was among the first generation of professional scholars to view folklore as real literature that was interesting for its literary merits in addition to its anthropological and sociological value. Boswell also encouraged his students to participate in gathering local folk songs—as many as four hundred of the songs in Boswell’s monumental collection came from his graduate and undergraduate students. Boswell also published two short pieces inspired by his students, “Ole Miss Jokes and Anecdotes” and “Irony in Campus Speech.”
As a literary scholar working in Oxford, Boswell perhaps inevitably devoted a considerable portion of his career to the study of William Faulkner. Boswell explored folkways in the Nobel Prize winner’s fiction and published journal articles including “The Legendary Background in Faulkner’s Work,” “Folkways in Faulkner,” “Epic, Drama, and Faulkner’s Fiction,” “Superstition and Belief in Faulkner,” and the curious “Pet Peeves of William Faulkner.” Boswell also published literary essays on folklore in Sir Walter Scott and J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction.
Boswell died on 2 March 1995 at his home in Tupelo.
- George Boswell Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
- George W. Boswell and Russell Weaver, Fundamentals of Folk Literature (1962)
- Charles K. Wolfe, ed., Folk Songs of Middle Tennessee: The George Boswell Collection (1997)