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James Taylor Adams

Biography by Michelle Vincent

Ferrum College

  Quick Facts  Professional Life References More Links   

Michelle Vincent
was a senior English/Secondary Education student at Ferrum College in 2005-2006 (now a middle school teacher). Her summer research project, "Studying the Oral Tradition in the James Taylor Adams Collection," was supported by a Lee B. Ledford Scholarship from the Appalachian College Association. Her faculty mentor was Tina L. Hanlon, Associate Professor of English and director of AppLit, who has updated this page's references in later years. They presented this project at the ACA Summit on October 27, 2005, in Abingdon, VA. Tales that Michelle selected from the Adams Collection are being added to AppLit's Fiction & Poems section.

Quick Facts about James Taylor Adams

Professional Life

James Taylor Adams is most known for his extensive collection of songs and tales from Wise County, Virginia, as well as other neighboring communities in Virginia and Kentucky. In 1936 he began working with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and in 1938 Adams began working with the Virginia Writers’ Project, which was part of the national WPA. Adams worked closely with Richard Chase, folklorist and storyteller, and others to collect thousands of pages of folklore. Several members of Adams' family, especially his wife Dicy, told Adams many of the tales we know today. By the time the project ended, Adams “had collected more than twice as much folklore and song material as any other Project worker in Virginia” (Perdue, Outwitting 101). Most of the collection is archived at Ferrum College's Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in the James Taylor Adams Collection.   


In his book titled James Taylor Adams: A Brief Biography (1937), Frederic D. Vanover discusses Adams' fondness for the Appalachian region—more specifically, the Cumberlands. Adams says, “There are almost two hundred miles of these deep slopes and narrow ridge tops which extend from East Tennessee northeast along the border line of Kentucky and Virginia, and on into West Virginia. This comprises what we know as the Cumberland Empire, an empire with a romantic and important place in American history” (qtd. in Vanover 4).


Because Adams wanted to preserve the Appalachian culture, he began a company known as the Cumberlandcrafters, which housed a printing press, a library that focused on the history of the area, and a museum of the mountain people’s handiwork.  Adams and his wife, Dicy, had eight children, and four of their children “[did] all the typesetting, presswork and binding turned out by the small plant, in addition to aiding in the housework and other duties” (Vanover 6).  


Prior to Adams’ most noted accomplishments, however, he sold fruit trees, established a post office in Big Laurel (Wise County), owned a grocery store, sold insurance, and wrote news articles.  Adams also traveled as a nursery stock sales representative. “This…job was more to my liking.  It gave me the opportunity to get around among people close to the soil, talk to them, and hear their stories of triumphs and failures. In this job, I thought, I could study human nature; I could begin writing,” Adams told Vanover (qtd. in Vanover 8).   


Although reluctant, Adams “was forced by a run of bad luck to take up pick and shovel and go to work digging coal for about one year” because of lack of money (Vanover 10). There were other times throughout Adams’ life when he “was forced” to work in the coal mines.  He compiled ballads based on coal mine disasters in a book titled Death in the Dark: A Collection of Factual Ballads of American Mine Disasters with Historical Notes (1941). In the foreword, Adams states, “The miner’s home life was bad.  His working conditions were terrible” (15).  An opponent of poor working conditions, Adams fought along with other miners to improve conditions. Many conditions were improved because of federal and state laws; however, he asserts in 1941 that  “the miner still finds only tragedy of which to sing” (18).      


Another area of interest for Adams was genealogy. He published Adams Family Records (1929), which was a journal about any genealogical accounts of the Adams family, and Adams also helped other families with their own genealogical histories. These papers were published by the Cumberlandcrafters (Vanover 12). Several books published by the Cumberlandcrafters are still in existence today.   


Later in life, with his own printing press, Adams published several newspapers, but, according to Adams, only The Vagabond Gazette (1928-1930) and The Liberal (1929) succeeded; however, The Liberal “was too big a success” (qtd. in Vanover 12). Adams goes on to say that over 300 subscriptions were requested at one time. “I just couldn’t handle it and suspended publication after four issues,” he said (qtd. in Vanover 12).  


Adams worked hard to establish Big Laurel College, which eventually became part of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Adams died of cancer on September 3, 1954, which was the same year the university opened ("Scholarship").  Just before his death, Adams donated all of his personal library’s books to the college’s library ("Scholarship"). Beginning in 2006, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise will grant the James Taylor Adams Scholarship Award in Writing to “gifted English and journalism students” in honor of Adams ("Scholarship").   


Adams' contributions to Appalachia are innumerable. Adams and his family never focused on money; instead, Adams said, "All we care about…is that our plans to have a big part in the future cultural advancement of this backwoods region succeed” (qtd. in Vanover 14).    



Adams, James Taylor. Death in the Dark: A Collection of Factual Ballads of American Mine Disasters With Historical Notes. Big Laurel, Virginia: Adams-Mullins Press, 1941.

Barden, Thomas E., ed. Virginia Folk Legends. Charlottesville:  U Press of VA, 1991. A selection of 150 legends from the previously unpublished materials collected by the Virginia Writers' Project of the WPA from 1937 to 1942, including stories collected by Adams.

Jones, Loyal, ed. Appalachian Folk Tales. Illus. Jim Marsh. Ashland, KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2010. Jones includes four tales collected by Adams: "The Boy Who Wanted Gold," "Robin Hood, Mountain Man," "The Three Gold Nuts," and "Through Thick and Thin."

Lindahl, Carl, ed. Perspectives on the Jack Tales and other North American Märchen. Bloomington, IN: Folklore Institute/Indiana University, Bloomington, 2001. 179 pp. Series: Special Publications of the Folklore Institute, no. 6. "Is Old Jack Really Richard Chase?" by Charles L. Perdue, Jr. discusses folktale collecting by Chase and Adams. "Two Transcriptions of 'Jack and the Bull,' by Polly Johnson" compares versions collected by Chase and Adams. This material was "originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 38, nos. 1 and 2 (January-August 2001)" (WorldCat). "This volume is about...a vernacular art form that has been strangely ignored or misconstructed by many. At the same time, the genre's vitality and appeal are evidenced by its persistent presentation as written literature. The essays in this volume re-examine common assumptions about 'magic' tales and their tellers, reconsidering the performance, collection, transcription, publication, and interpretation of narratives that continue to live orally - especially in the private realm - as one mechanism of intergenerational communication or as symbolic articulation of worldview." \ In addition to four interpretive essays, six segments feature narrators and their transcribed narratives, accompanied by contextualizing introductions. Some segments compare editing practices or narrative styles; others represent the first publication of contemporary narratives to tales that have long lain in archives, unheard and unavailable. All attest to the skill of the tellers and the artistry of their creations" (book jacket).

Martin-Perdue, Nancy J., and Charles L. Perdue, Jr. Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. This book includes a brief interview with Rev. J. H. Coleman by James Taylor Adams, 1 October, 1940, from the Virginia Writers' Project folklore collections. Coleman, who was born in slavery, comments on older African American people believing in conjuring.

Mellon, Patsy, and Edward L. Henson, Jr. "James Taylor Adams, 1893-1954: Mountain Scholar." Virginia Cavalcade, vol. 21, no. 4 (Spring 1972): pp. 12-17 or 18.

Perdue Jr., Charles L., Jr. "James Taylor Adams." Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Vol. 1. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.


Perdue Jr., Charles L., Jr., ed. Outwitting the Devil: Jack Tales from Wise County Virginia. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1987.


“Scholarship Established at UVa-Wise in Honor of Local Author, Folklorist James Taylor Adams.” The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. 24 Jul 2005. (no longer online, 11/19/18).


Special Collections, University of Virginia's College at Wise Library, includes papers of James Taylor Adams and Emory L. Hamilton.


Vanover, Frederic D. James Taylor Adams: A Brief Biography. Louisville: Dixieana Press, 1937.


More Links

Appalachian Folktales in Collections lists books by Adams.

Background Resources on Appalachian Folktales and Storytelling. See reference to Lindahl, Carl. "Introduction: Representing and Recovering the British- and Irish-American Märchen," which contains a picture of Dicy Adams.

Bibliography of Works by and About Richard Chase

Blue Ridge Institute of Ferrum College

See Index of Folktales, Stories, Plays, Poems and Songs in AppLit for copies of tales collected by Adams.

Wise County Historical Society web site: Historians page has photo, information on Adams, and poem by Adams.

For references to the Jack Tale Players' dramatizations of tales from the James Taylor Adams Collection, in adaptations by R. Rex Stephenson, see:

Ferrum Performers Keep Jack Tales Alive - article by Lana A. Whited and Tina L. Hanlon 

Strong Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations by R. Rex Stephenson - article by Tina L. Hanlon

Introduction to "Mutsmag" by R. Rex Stephenson - background by Tina L. Hanlon

“Mutsmag, Appalachian Folk Heroine and her European Ancestors” - article by Tina L. Hanlon, 2016.

James Taylor Adams: Historian. Folklore Collector. Traveler
. This WordPress site contains many proofreading errors and does not identify the first-person writer or a date. "This page was made possible by the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges  and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise." The page called "The Life of JTA" reprints "A Wish," a poem by Adams about life from The Journal of Education, 1924. An audio reading is on the page called "Performance Pieces," along with a tale ("The Baby and the Witch"), a murder tale in verse ("A Peddler and His Wife"), and a folk song ("Shady Grove") from the James Taylor Adams Collection. In "The Baby and the Witch," a man overhears witches talking, prompting him to protect his baby. After he cuts a foot off a hog that threatens them, he finds his mother, who had opposed his marriage, with a hand cut off. "The Importance of Folklore" contains an interview with Dr. Amy Clark, with important insights about language and storytelling of the past, including some discussion of ghost stories in her own and Adams' heritage.

This page created 11/5/05. Last update: 11/22/18
Send questions or suggestions for this page to Tina L. Hanlon
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