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Wichita's Musical History: Joan O'Bryant

Every community has a musical history. Most of the time, that history gets confused and hazy, but every once in a while somebody does us the favor of writing things down. Luckily for us, there was a Wichita native named Joan O’Bryant, a WSU alum who taught in the university’s English department in the 1950s.

Her field of study was “Folklore of Kansas and the Great Plains,“ and she happened to focus on Kansas folksong at the very time the great American folk music revival was beginning. O’Bryant’s work was prodigious: 42 feet of shelf space at the WSU Special Collections Library are devoted to her research. This includes stories, lyrics, and hundreds of field recordings and song lyrics collected in Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas.

I get the strong impression that Joan O’Bryant wasn’t just an academic; more like a plucky adventurer. The interest in folk tunes began with a number of ballads learned from an old prospector while she was searching for gold in the Colorado mountains. It must have taken a lot of bravery, driving thousands of miles to meet strangers with her tape recorder. And she must have been uniquely driven, teaching herself to play guitar so she could present her work as a living art to as many folk music gatherings as she could. She was also a fixture on Wichita television.

Joan O’Bryant’s life was cut tragically short, but we can still benefit from her work to preserve our musical heritage. Commercial recordings, one recorded right here at KMUW, were released on the Folkways label.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.