Mody Boatright, folklorist and educator, the son of Eldon and Frances Ann (McAuley) Boatright, was born in Mitchell County, Texas, on October 16, 1896. He was the youngest of ten children in a ranching family and the grandnephew of pioneer cattlemen and merchants Mody and Sam Coggin of Brownwood. In early years he was educated alternately by a governess on the ranch and at school in town. He finished his high school education at West Texas State Teachers College (now West Texas A&M University), where he earned a delayed bachelor's degree in 1922, after serving two years in the army in 1917–19. He received his master's degree at the University of Texas in 1923 and his Ph.D. there in 1932. He taught at Sul Ross State Teachers College from 1923 until 1926, when he joined the staff of the University of Texas. Except for one year, 1934–35, when he was at the College of Mines and Metallurgy (now the University of Texas at El Paso), he remained at the University of Texas until he retired in 1968, rising through the ranks from junior instructor to full professor and chairman of the English department. Boatright began his career as a folklorist in 1925, when J. Frank Dobie asked him to contribute a tale, "The Devil's Grotto," to the next publication of the Texas Folklore Society. In 1934 Boatright published Tall Tales from Texas Cow Camps, a collection of stories he had learned in his youth and later from cow-country students. Gib Morgan: Minstrel of the Oil Fields (1945), Boatright's second collection of tall tales, moved from the ranch to the oil patch. It presented the career and stories of a folk character comparable to Mike Fink or Johnny Appleseed. The book won him national recognition as a folklorist.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who embellished folk tales with literary touches, Boatright retold stories in an unadorned and concise style much closer to true folk narration and recognized that in oral performance these tales were very molded by the immediate situation of their telling. His work stressed the importance of studying folklore in its total cultural context and of relating it to the lives of those who practiced it. Boatright published Folk Laughter on the American Frontier in 1949. In this book he delineated the nature of the tall tale, explored many areas of folk humor, and demonstrated that frontier humor was not born of despair but was a manifestation of the buoyancy and optimism of the frontiersmen. This work, like Tall Tales from Texas Cow Camps, was innovative in suggesting that folklore may arise out of conflict between different social groups, a view at variance with the then-common notion that folklore was the result of the shared experiences of an isolated "folk."
In 1937 Boatright joined Dobie in editing the annual collections published by the Texas Folklore Society. In 1943 he became secretary and editor of the society; he edited annual publications until 1964. As principal editor, often with coeditors such as Donald Day, Allen Maxwell, and especially Wilson M. Hudson, he edited thirteen volumes of folklore in addition to the five volumes he worked on with Dobie. He was elected a fellow of the American Folklore Society in 1962 and was also a vice president of the society in the same year. He was chosen a fellow of the Texas Folklore Society in 1968, an honor previously accorded only Leonidas W. Payne, Jr., John A. Lomax, and J. Frank Dobie. The Family Saga and Other Phases of American Folklore, a collection of lectures delivered by Boatright, Robert B. Downs, and John T. Flanagan, appeared in 1958. In it Boatright points out that family stories are often a fertile source of folklore. In 1963 Boatright published Folklore of the Oil Industry, the fruition of some twenty years of research. The book explores the introduction of traditional character stereotypes and motifs into the oil fields. Boatright was among the first American folklorists to study the traditions of an emerging modern industry. His investigations into folk activities in the oil fields continued, and in 1970 he published, with William A. Owens, Tales from the Derrick Floor, a pioneer work in oral history. Boatright also wrote on such topics as folklore in a literate society, the relationship between popular literature and national folk heroes, and myth in the modern world, studies which attested his belief that individuals in complex, industrialized societies are not so different from "folk" or "primitive" ones as is sometimes supposed. Three years after his death Mody Boatright, Folklorist, a collection of his essays, was published. In 1925 Boatright married Elizabeth Reck, with whom he had a daughter. His first wife died in 1929, and in 1931 he married Elizabeth E. Keefer (see BOATRIGHT, ELIZABETH K.), with whom he had a son. Elizabeth, an artist, illustrated his first two books. Boatright was a lifelong Democrat and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and of the Writers Guild. He died in Abilene on August 20, 1970, after a heart attack.