Robert “Roby” Cogswell of Nashville was raised in Shelbyville. He graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned a Ph.D. in folklore studies at Indiana University. He taught at the University of Louisville and conducted public folklife projects for the Kentucky Arts Council before joining the Tennessee Arts Commission as Director of Folk Arts in 1984. He remained in that position, later called the Folklife Program Director, for thirty years, administering grant programs, documenting Tennessee folk arts, providing technical assistance and information services about the state’s folk culture, and doing special projects including publications, events, and exhibits about traditional music, crafts, and vernacular life in Tennessee. His work files and photography are now housed in the TN Arts Commission Folklife Program collection at TN State Library and Archives.
Over the years, Cogswell also worked with the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, the National Park Service, and the National Folk Festival, and has chaired the Folk Arts Advisory Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received the American Folklore Society’s Botkin Prize for lifetime achievement in public folklore.
A lifelong bluegrass and old-time musician, since his retirement in 2014, Roby’s been playing fiddle tunes on his Cumberland Plateau-built Horner mandolin.