Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions

Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions

by Martha Sims, Martine Stephens

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Living Folklore is a comprehensive, straightforward introduction to folklore as it is lived, shared and practiced in contemporary settings. Drawing on examples from diverse American groups and experiences, this text gives the student a strong foundation—from the field’s history and major terms to theories, interpretive approaches, and fieldwork.



Living Folklore is a comprehensive, straightforward introduction to folklore as it is lived, shared and practiced in contemporary settings. Drawing on examples from diverse American groups and experiences, this text gives the student a strong foundation—from the field’s history and major terms to theories, interpretive approaches, and fieldwork.

Many teachers of undergraduates find the available folklore textbooks too complex or unwieldy for an introductory level course. It is precisely this criticism that Living Folklore addresses; while comprehensive and rigorous, the book is specifically intended to meet the needs of those students who are just beginning their study of the discipline. Its real strength lies in how it combines carefully articulated foundational concepts with relevant examples and a student-oriented teaching philosophy.

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Utah State University Press
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)
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Living Folklore

An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions
By Martha C. Sims Martine Stephens

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2005 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-611-0

Chapter One


We know you have heard it before: "It's just folklore." We hear it when newscasters are announcing the report of a popular home remedy that does not really cure people (and may actually harm them). We hear it-or might even say it-when a friend is telling a story about the haunted house on the winding street in our neighborhood. People often call something "folklore" to dismiss the validity of the subject they have been discussing.

To some people, the term "folklore" commonly suggests something is untrue, not real-it's just a story or an old-fashioned belief. But that is a misconception. Some people come to folklore study expecting to learn only about quaint cultures from the past or contemporary cultures of those less educated, less fortunate, and less sophisticated than they are-primitive or simpler groups. That, too, is a misconception.

In the following sections we will clear up misconceptions about folklore by considering what folklore is and isn't. We will also look at genres and important concepts of text and context, and offer a short history of the study of folklore as a foundation for our own exploration.

What is Folklore?

A Working Definition

Folklore is many things, and it's almost impossible to define succinctly. It's both what folklorists study and the name of the discipline they work within. Yes, folklore is folk songs and legends. It's also quilts, Boy Scout badges, high school marching band initiations, jokes, chain letters, nicknames, holiday food ... and many other things you might or might not expect. Folklore exists in cities, suburbs and rural villages, in families, work groups and dormitories. Folklore is present in many kinds of informal communication, whether verbal (oral and written texts), customary (behaviors, rituals) or material (physical objects). It involves values, traditions, ways of thinking and behaving. It's about art. It's about people and the way people learn. It helps us learn who we are and how to make meaning of the world around us.

As we explore some attempts to define the field folklore, we want to ask you to expand your concept of folklore, or at least to let go of any preconceived ideas of what folklore means. One of the most useful ways we have found to clarify these distinctions is to talk about what folklore is not.

Folklore is not necessarily untrue or old-fashioned. Have you ever eaten pan de muerto on the Day of the Dead? Sent an email chain letter to everyone in your address book? Carried a special object or worn a particular article of clothing to bring you luck? Made a wish before blowing out candles on your birthday cake? These are all examples of folklore. Some have been around for many generations; some are relatively new. Some are meaningful to large groups of people; some are relevant only to a few people. First, whether these examples are "true" or not isn't relevant. In what way could a loaf of sweet bread be "true"? And it doesn't have to be "true" that clothing will help someone win a race for a track star to wear the same shirt to every meet. Second, these examples are not possessed or performed only by simple, primitive people, nor are they quaint or old-fashioned. The fact that you recognize the above examples-or know other similar examples-illustrates that folklore is not simply the historical behaviors of other cultures; folklore is alive, developing and changing in our lifetimes. Every one of us experiences and shares folklore.

Folklorists avoid the use of terminology such as "true," "primitive," or "simple" when they talk about folklore. These terms imply that folklore is "fake," or exists only in old-fashioned, nonliterate cultures. For example, some might see quilts made by hand rather than by machine as "simple," or might consider paintings and sculptures by poor, rural, unschooled artists as "primitive," but these labels assume some hierarchical value related to formal education systems. When we don't evaluate them by outside standards, we can see that these arts are simply creations of artists who have ideas and values they wish to express within (or about) their own group or community. Folklorists go "into the field" in contemporary societies to observe, record, and write about people and what we do, what we believe, and how we communicate right now-the culture of our lives.

Folklore is not just another form of anthropology or literary study. The study of folklore touches on every dimension of human experience and artistic expression. It has grown out of the study of literature, has roots in anthropology, and contains elements of psychology and sociology. In many ways, it is the study of culture, visual and performing arts, sculpture, architecture, music, theater, literature, linguistics, and history rolled into one. The discipline of folklore has evolved into a way of thinking about how people learn, share knowledge, and form their identity. Studying folklore is a way of learning about people, of thinking about how we communicate and make meaning. It is different from its related disciplines in its approach and focus. As Richard Dorson explains, folklorists

are concerned with the study of traditional culture, or the unofficial culture, or the folk culture, as opposed to the elite culture, not for the sake of proving a thesis but to learn about the mass of [humanity] overlooked by the conventional disciplines. Historians write histories of the elite, the successful, the visible; literary scholars study elitist writings; and the critics of the arts confine their attention to the fine arts. Anthropologists venture far off the beaten track, and sociologists look at people statistically. (1976, 117)

While the field borrows, both theoretically and in practice, from the disciplines of history, literary study, anthropology and sociology, folklorists use a different lens. Folklore differs from these fields in the way in which it looks at everyday, unofficial, expressive communication. Folklorists study how members of a group communicate creatively with each other, as well as what-and to whom-they communicate.

Folklore is not "high art" or part of "official" culture. "High" art or culture (or "elite" art or culture) is part of the formally acknowledged canon that we learn about in institutions such as schools, churches or state organizations. A composition by Mozart, for instance, and a painting by Picasso are clearly part of "high" culture. Students study the work of Mozart and Picasso in school, and are usually taught about these works by experts or professionals; likewise, professionally trained artists perform Mozart in concert halls, and Picasso's works hang in major museums around the world. The term folklore refers to the knowledge we have about our world and ourselves that we don't learn in school or textbooks-we learn folklore from each other. It's the informally learned, unofficial knowledge we share with our peers, families and other groups we belong to.

Folklore is not "popular culture." But popular culture shares a few more features with folklore than elite culture does: It is usually not considered part of the canon of works or ideas taught formally in schools or other institutions, and it often appeals to groups of people who sometimes become linked through that artistic expression. However, popular culture includes many items that are "hot" or in demand, usually by large groups of people, and usually for a fairly short, definable period of time. Pop culture is usually created or produced in large quantities for large audiences, and usually shared or transmitted through mass media such as TV, radio, magazines and the Internet. In this category would be many TV shows that may dominate people's conversations and capture intense interest as long as the show is on, but which lose relevance over time once the show is no longer broadcast. Other examples include the pet rock and mood ring fads of the 1970s, or the poodle skirt and bobby sox fashions of the 1950s, which resurface now and then in nostalgic styles, but rarely, if ever, reach the same level of original interest.

But is it-or isn't it? Unfortunately for those of us trying to come up with clear definitions, the lines between high, pop and folk can be very blurry. Suppose for instance that a group of Mozart fanatics travel around the country together to view every performance of The Magic Flute they can find. Their love of the opera and the rituals and behaviors they take part in that relate to it are part of their group's tradition, part of what makes them a group. In that sense, the "high" art of opera is part of this group's folklore. Suppose a rural fiddler went to a performance of The Magic Flute, incorporated a few measures of the score into a variation of an Appalachian tune, and then shared the tune with his fellow fiddlers at a weekly jam session at his friend's barn. He's a member of a folk group, playing folk music shared in a traditional way, and now part of a canonized "high" art composition has been folded into his group's own folk traditions. As for pop culture, the distinctions can be even less clear. While the TV show Friends is not itself a folk performance, what about a drinking game based on the show or its characters?

Or consider Elvis Presley, a pop culture figure from the 1950s through the 1970s, whose music, appearance and image have been incorporated into everything from movies to paintings to wedding chapels. So many Elvis impersonators exist that they themselves could be considered a folk group. Stories exist about Elvis sightings across the world, rumors persist that he did not die in 1977, and contemporary legends about things Elvis said and did (or may continue to do, if it is believed he is still with us) continue to circulate. People have reported seeing Elvis pumping gas at a local 7-11, buying pastries in a London sweet shop, even posing as a Mafia boss in Los Angeles. Some mysterious events associated with Elvis have been reported-his face has appeared on a tortilla (subsequently put up for sale on eBay), his voice has been recorded in the background of an audio tape made long after his death. In what category, then, should we place Elvis, and all the types of expression that surround him?

The main distinguishing difference is in what we do with the stuff-how we learn about it and hear about it, and how (or whether) we incorporate it into our daily experience and lives. The differences are also clear in how we pass around different kinds of objects, verbal expressions and behaviors with other people. As we've said, we learn official, elite ideas in school, church or other official organized settings. We usually learn about pop culture through mass media channels. But we learn folklore from other people. Elite art and culture are intended to reach, usually, those who are officially and formally educated or trained within that particular setting. Pop culture and art are for everybody, whether connected to each other with special characteristics or not. Folklore reaches groups of people who share personal connections, values, traditions, belief-and other forms of lore-that in part define them as a group.

So is Elvis folklore? As a recording artist in the 1960s, probably not. But as a gas station employee in a contemporary legend, or as a face on a tortilla, yes, he is.

Children's games offer another example of how we might sort out the differences here. In the last decade or so, Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh games and collectibles have been popular among elementary school age children, especially boys. Children learn about these games through the media-cartoons, commercials, books, and ads all feature the characters from the games. They are meant to be enjoyed by almost any child, so because of the way these items are created and distributed, they themselves (and the general "craze" or "fad" they generate) are part of popular culture. But-suppose a group of fourth graders at a particular elementary school play the games every day at recess, in the same corner of the playground. They share the common experience of playing the games together. As a group, they may share stories, styles of play, nicknames, etc., that may be related to the pop phenomenon, but which are personalized and localized by their interactions. Their daily game play becomes part of their identity as a group. That's how other people recognize them, as well as how they recognize themselves: They are "the kids at Gables Elementary School who play Yu-Gi-Oh in the corner of the parking lot every day at recess." Again, the game figures themselves may not be folklore, but the process of daily interaction that has made the game play a feature of this group of children's tradition and identity, is folklore.

Folklore is informally learned and unofficial, part of everyday experience. This type of unofficial learning is essential to folklore but often difficult to pin down in definite terms. Because folklore is expressive communication within a particular group, it is taught informally, through one's presence within that group. Therefore, the unofficial education of a young woman learning to quilt might involve her attending a gathering of more experienced women quilters, watching what they are doing, and being instructed in the art through that experience. She won't sit down with a book on quilting techniques and become a quilter by reading about it. Similarly, an artist may have taught himself to paint or carve. Perhaps he whittled as a child creating toys and as he grew older used that skill along with a love for nature and animals to create figurines of animals native to his home; and perhaps he worked with other carvers in his community to learn about different techniques. In any case, folklore comes to us through our experiences with others around us.

Folklorists often use the term vernacular to refer to the particular localized language, objects and practices of groups within specific contexts; this term and concept can help us see the differences between what is considered official and formal and what is considered unofficial and informal. Vernacular is a more general term than folklore in that it can refer to anything that is locally or regionally defined, produced or expressed. For example, most of us in the U.S. are familiar with the many carbonated soft drinks available in the supermarket. In some parts of the country, people may refer to those kinds of drinks as "soda," and in others "pop," or "soda pop." In some regions of the South, groups refer to all soft drinks as "coke," using the brand name of one kind of soft drink to refer to the whole category. Objects and practices, as well as verbal expressions, may be vernacular. Architectural styles may vary in different geographic areas, for example. In coastal areas of the U.S., houses on or near the beach may be built on elevated platforms or stilts, without underground foundations, to suit the climate and shifting nature of the soil. Local materials may also influence building decisions: in regions where clay is plentiful and bricks could be easily manufactured, many houses may be built of brick. Where people live sometimes affects what they say, do and make.

Vernacular materials, behaviors and expressions, like folklore, are created by and for people in everyday, local contexts, as opposed to those materials, behaviors and expressions created by governments, schools or other institutions. The term vernacular can distinguish between the things we do as part of society and the informal things that are still part of that formal structure. A group of people may celebrate Arbor Day, for example, by performing the officially designated ritual of planting trees. But in conjunction with this act, a particular neighborhood group may hold a community tree festival, in which children decorate trees with colorful handmade crafts, and residents congregate under trees for picnics. The day itself is designated as a special holiday to honor and care for trees, but these residents have added their own spin to the day by creating community traditions and rituals that express their local interpretation of the official holiday. Vernacular beliefs and practices exist alongside mainstream or sanctioned beliefs or practices, not as lesser or deviant variants (particular local, vernacular or individual versions) but as added or connected concepts.


Excerpted from Living Folklore by Martha C. Sims Martine Stephens Copyright © 2005 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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