Thomas Washington Talley

Photo courtesy of Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections, ful.alu.pho014

Scientist and African American Folklorist

Thomas Washington Talley


Dr. Thomas W. Talley, a Tennessee native, taught chemistry and biology at Fisk University from 1903–42, after earning his high school education, an AB in 1890, and a master’s degree in 1893 at Fisk. He later chaired the chemistry department there for 25 years. After earning a Doctor of Science degree at Walden University in 1899, he did postdoctoral work at Harvard, completed a dissertation at University of Chicago later in his life, and completed several scientific publications during his career.

As an undergraduate, he joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers with a love and commitment to performance and knowledge of Black musical traditions that lasted his entire life. This love of Black traditional music led him to collect the texts of Black rural traditional music (some with musical notation) throughout Tennessee in his later life. Published in 1922, this groundbreaking work, Negro Folk Rhymes, was the first collection of African American secular folk music, the first folklore collection compiled by a Black scholar, and the first serious collection of folksongs of any type from Tennessee. In addition, Dr. Talley produced the first significant collection of folk narratives from African American rural communities across Tennessee, which remained unpublished until 1993.

Among his publications are:

 Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise and Otherwise (1922)

The Negro Traditions (1993)

Phyllis May-Machunda

Talley, Thomas Washington. Thomas Washington Talley Unpublished Papers – Fisk University. Thomas M. Talley Collection Papers, 1891- 1951, Fisk University.  

Talley, Thomas Washington. Unknown. “Behold That Star” (Song). n/a.  

Talley, Thomas Washington. 1922. Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise and Otherwise. Macmillan.  

Talley, Thomas Washington. 1993. The Negro Traditions. Ed. Charles K. Wolfe and Laura C. Jarmon. The University of Tennessee Press.  

Talley, Thomas Washington. 1944. “Thomas W. Talley Says.” The Peachite. Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944.  [Feature on Peachite about Folk Festival]

Talley, Thomas Washington. 1942. “The Origin of Negro Traditions” (Part 1). Phylon. Vol. 3, No. 4 (4th Qtr. 1942) pp 371-376.  

Talley, Thomas Washington. 1943. “The Origin of Negro Traditions” (Part 2). Phylon. VOL. 4, NO. 1 (1st. Qtr. 1943) pp. 30-38.  

Talley, Thomas Washington. Unknown. “A Systematic Chronology of Creation.” Morehouse Journal of Science. Unknown.