William A Owens, folklorist, author, and professor, was born in the Lamar County hamlet of Pin Hook about twenty miles northeast of Paris on November 2, 1905. He was the son of Charles and Jessie Ann (Chennault) Owens. His father died within a few days after Owens's birth, and the boy spent his early years helping his mother and his older brothers scratch a living from the worn-out red soil of Lamar County.
His education was spotty in his early years, for he was never able to go to school for more than a few months at a time, and, as he tells in his first volume of autobiography, This Stubborn Soil (1966), the school at Pin Hook was only open about three months a year. Owens learned to read and write, and when he met a poorly-educated crosstie cutter who owned twenty-five books that he was willing to lend, young Bill read all the tiehacker's books and resolved to devote his life to reading and study.
At the age of fifteen he moved to Dallas to live with an aunt and work, on rollerskates, filling catalog orders at Sears and Roebuck's huge mail-order warehouse. Later, he found a job washing dishes for a Catholic school and saved enough money to attempt study at East Texas State Normal College in Commerce (now Texas A&M University—Commerce). Despite his lack of education, he made a high score on the entrance exam and was allowed into the college's high school program in 1924. These early years are detailed in This Stubborn Soil. The filmmaker James Lipscomb turned some of the early material from This Stubborn Soil into a PBS television program entitled Frontier Boy.
In the second volume, A Season of Weathering (1973), Owens tells of his years teaching school at Pin Hook and other East Texas schools beginning in 1928, working in the Kress store in Paris, taking courses at Paris Junior College, and ending up at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees in 1932 and 1933 respectively. His master's thesis, published as Swing and Turn: Texas Play Party Games (1936), grew from all the years Owens had spent hearing and singing the old English and Scottish ballads that were a part of his East Texas heritage. "Play parties" were the dances of religious fundamentalists who forbade dancing to music unless it was without fiddles, guitars, and other instruments.
As Owens tells in his third volume of autobiography, Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (1983), he spent much of the 1930s collecting folksongs, teaching at Texas A&M University, and completing his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. Working partly on his own and partly for the Extension Division of the University of Texas, he recorded songs from East Texas to the Cajun Country of the Texas Coast to the Mexican border, using a secondhand Vibromaster recorder. The records were played with bamboo or cactus needles. Owens later worked closely with J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek. Bedichek was the director of the Extension Service's Interscholastic League and Owens's employer for part of his time as a collector of songs. Owens's close relationship with "the old three" led to his publishing Three Friends (1969), a collection of letters that Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb wrote to one another. It also includes a running commentary by Owens on his relationship with the three men. A later book that grew from his folklore-collecting days was Tales from the Derrick Floor: A People's History of the Oil Industry (1970), which he edited with Mody C. Boatright, Dobie's successor as secretary–editor of the Texas Folklore Society.
As Owens notes in Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song, he entered the University of Iowa in 1937 after he failed the entrance examination at the University of Texas. Encouraged by Professor Edwin Ford Piper, he took his folklore collection to Iowa and turned it into his dissertation, later published as Texas Folksongs (1950), a book still in print. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1941, and he claims that one of the influences on his writing there was the painter Grant Wood. Owens drove for Wood and learned from him something about cleanness and clarity of style.
In 1942 he joined the United States Army as a buck private and was assigned to the intelligence branch. One of his postings was to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where, because of the Tulsa race riots of 1921, the government feared that Blacks might revolt against the United States. Owens's job was to attend Black churches in his capacity as a folklorist in order to take the temperature of African Americans about America's war effort. Needless to say, he found no disloyalty among Blacks, and from his Oklahoma experience came his best novel, Walking on Borrowed Land (1954), the story of a Black teacher from Mississippi who was hired to be principal of a segregated school in the "Little Dixie" section of Oklahoma. This book won the Texas Institute of Letters 1954 prize for best first novel by a Texas writer.
Owens served in the Philippines during World War II and wrote of his experiences there in his fourth volume of autobiography, Eye Deep in Hell (1989). He was awarded the Legion of Merit. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1947 and remained there until his retirement in 1974. He was professor of English and dean of the summer session there for many years.
In addition to his collections of folklore and his four volumes of autobiography, Owens wrote the novels Fever in the Earth (1958), set at the Spindletop strike in 1901; Walking on Borrowed Land (1954); and the novelette Look to the River (1963). In 1985 he and Lyman Grant edited the letters of Roy Bedichek, Owens's old boss at the UT Extended Education Division and one of the Texans he most admired. Owens also wrote Slave Mutiny: The Revolt of the Schooner Amistad (1953), which provided much of the material for a Steven Spielberg film, Amistad (1997). In 1975 he wrote a family history, A Fair and Happy Land.
Owens married Ann Seaton Wood on December 23, 1946, and had two children—David, director of business systems for a large accounting firm, and Jessie Ann, dean of arts and sciences at Brandeis University. Jessie Ann Owens, a musicologist, provided the notations for her father's collections of songs and ballads. Owens lived the last years of his life in Nyack, New York, where he died on December 8, 1990.