What Is Folklore?

Sadly, my folklore course canceled: not enough students signed up. The course hasn't been offered in a long time and is an elective; this is how I comfort myself over the lack of interest. (I spoke to a professor Monday morning who told me that often a course needs to be "on the books" for awhile before students take advantage of it.)

My wonderful boss has agreed to let me try again next semester. However, since I was looking forward so much to teaching the course this semester, I decided to post about folklore occasionally over the next four months using my lecture notes.

This is actually a good way for me to go through the material--the fact is, one learns how to teach by teaching, and one learns whether something will work in a particular course by trying it out. For example, concerning the material below, I was initially going to have the students read the Wilson article between class one and class two; now, I'm thinking that would be too confusing (though I might still include the article in the reading packet): all the "what-is-folklore-folklore-versus-history" stuff needs to be presented upfront. That way, I can focus on the relationship between folklore and literature as early as possible.


What is Folklore?

The folklore course examines the connection between folklore and literature, specifically the mobility of ideas, images, and stories. For example, an urban legend can develop in the school yard; that legend can then be used in a commercial; that commercial can then be taken up by viewers, and eventually translated/transmuted back into a folktale.

Likewise, an image or idea that occurs in a novel--literary or popular--can worm its way into everyday culture, showing up as an example of "folk" to later anthropologists.

To summarize: Ideas do not stay put in one place.

But what is folklore?

Nobody really knows! Just about every book I found on folklore had a slightly different definition (see below for a chart I created to try to order the various definitions).

Here are my definitions:

Folklore refers to pervasive (common) songs and tales that are transmitted person to person rather than by an official institution or author. Strict folklorists believe folklore can only be transmitted orally; however, I believe that folklore--such as urban legends, jokes, songs, and stories--are also spread through the Internet. These legends, jokes, songs, and stories become "folk" when they are transmitted person to person (through email, for instance).

Folkways, like folklore, are transmitted person to person, often within a specific group (a family or an occupational group). Folkways refer to customs, traditions, and practices: schoolyard games, food and dress customs, crafts, holiday/birthday/funeral rituals.

Myth is a very broad term; I use it to refer specifically to stories about the relationship of supernatural beings (gods, angels) to humans. While folklore may contain supernatural beings (vampires, fairies), folklore is not centered on the supernatural-human relationship; rather, it is grounded in everyday life. Myth, on the other hand, does concentrate on the supernatural-human relationship. So, for example, Gawain may leave King Arthur's court to meet the Green Knight, but the meeting takes place in an earthly environment. Psyche, on the other hand, leaves the mortal world to deal with a god, Eros, in his environment. The first is a British legend or folktale; the second is a myth. Likewise, stories about ghosts visiting family members are folklore; stories about humans visiting the great beyond (near-death-experiences) I would classify as myth. (It's a fine line.)


The most important aspect of folklore is that it is transmitted person to person within a community. It occurs at the "grassroots" level rather than in the official/institutional "face" of that community. So, for instance, a published collection of folklore on the Internet has stopped being folklore and become "official." But a story picked up from someone's blog and transmitted through email to friends and family (without credit to the original author) would be folklore. (Are "folklore" festivals--paid for through official state and university funds--really folk? Who knows! I would never be this legalistic with my students. I just don't want them relying on folklore websites rather than collecting stories from their friends. However, I do find it interesting that most general books about folklore were published in the 1970s; once folk studies become a government-funded issue--after the 1970s--general books about folklore practically disappeared. Well, and Richard Dorson died.)

Media Example: In the Psych episode, "Scary Sherry: Bianca's Toast," Shawn and Gus single-handedly create an urban legend or folktale when they tell all their elementary school friends that a woman committed suicide at the local mental hospital on Halloween night. The legend becomes anonymous; it enters the culture and is passed person to person until even Shawn and Gus have forgotten, fifteen plus years later, that they were the originators. In this case, the event never actually happened; Shawn and Gus just thought it did. The legend, however, has had an impact on the (television) town's culture.

Media Example: In the X-Files episode "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," Mulder opens the episode by telling Scully a story that "everyone" knows about a haunted house. The story is prevalent and, in this case, supernatural.

On the other hand, the imaginative stories that Sara invents in The Little Princess are just that: imaginative invented stories. They are transmitted orally, but they are not pervasive or anonymous. Therefore, they are not folklore.

The relationship between history and folklore

Although both history and folklore deal with narratives (making connections between events to explain what happened), folklore is collected and transmitted differently than historical documents. History is about learning, or trying to learn, what actually happened. Folklore is what people say about what happened. The two disciplines often merge since learning what people say about an event can help historians grasp the overall aura or "feel" of an event. But historians and folklorists do not approach cultural/historical material in the same way.

The relationship between history and folklore is wonderfully elucidated by William A. Wilson in his article "Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall" (from his collection of essays, The Marrow of Human Experience). In this article, Wilson argues the following:
1. Folklore has existed throughout time.
2. All people (cultures) have folklore.
3. Folklore is both universal and culture-specific.
Wilson is arguing against the idea that folklore is only produced by uneducated, country peasants and also against the idea that cultures outgrow folklore. Folklore is created in specific circumstances to explain events or to justify actions; it is also used to connect people. Therefore, specific types of folktales will arise from specific cultures, but the habits of folklore appear to transcend human behavior, technology, and "progress." Consequently, particular tales will appear over and over again in many different cultures and times. Cinderella is one example.

If folklore indicates particular reactions to particular events as well as reflecting the general human condition, how (and why) is it different from history?

Wilson explains the difference this way: "[Historians] . . . attempt to come as close as possible to that [full] story, and . . . do so through the use of verifiable, documentary evidence" (57, my emphasis). Wilson continues: "Folklorists would also be interested in what really occurred . . . but their principal interest would be in oral narratives . . . because people govern their lives not on the basis of what actually happened in the past but rather on what they believe happened--that is, on folk history." Wilson attempts to distinguished between the roles of the folklorist and the historian, but he also shows how the two "hands" can reflect and help each other.

I highly recommend Wilson's article. Not only does Wilson have intelligent things to say about folklore, he says all those intelligent things in a calm, friendly, enlightening way.

Diagram of the relationship to folklore to history and what folklore is.


Jennifer said...

I took a folklore class in college with a professor who had a pretty strict definition of what folklore was. Every time there was a class discussion, or a test that required us to share examples, I would get in trouble because the examples/stories I offered weren't valid, according to him. (I don't remember now what his definition was, just that I never could get it right.)

By the end of the semester I was fairly annoyed with this guy, so when the time came to write my semester paper, with the required original research, I decided to try to get a little revenge. I went to my female friends and got them to share with me the stories and jokes they'd heard about menstruation when they were preadolescents. I then wrote up the paper focusing on those that seemed most likely to discommode a man.

I don't know if I succeeded in making him squirm. I did, however, manage to please him for the first time that semester. I got a long note on my paper praising the originality of my research, and he gave me an A for the class! So it worked out well.

Kate Woodbury said...

I've had a hard time coming up with a flexible definition that still maintains a distinction between folklore and popular culture. I think it comes down to the personal or, as Joe suggested to me, the "non-permanent" state of the transmission.

This is where I think folk studies in universities can get kind of silly. Instead of addressing the non-permanent, changing state of folklore, professors fall in love with the idea of "purity," and start arguing that something really isn't folklore unless it is sung in a scratchy voice to three guys around a stove accompanied by a banjo.

I belong to that category of folk-instructors who think commercial jingles are folklore (but not necessarily Monty Python "Holy Grail" quotes--although I love those too!).

When university-folk instructors get too obsessed with purity, the result is, well, a little odd to say the least. Take university programs that PROMOTE the practice of folklore--not the collection of folklore, which would make sense, but the *practice* of folklore: songs from the 1940s, Morris dancers, etc.

If a folksong or folktale or folkdance is being promoted by an institution in a particular form, doesn't that kill it as a grassroots survival? Doesn't that freeze it into that one form, contradicting the whole IDEA of folklore?

a calvinist preacher said...

Personally, I would tie folklore more closely to folkways.

There's an "everybody knows" quality about folklore/ways, too. One might not know the specific blonde joke, for instance, but the category of jokes, their typical pattern, and so on are familiar. It's the literary and cultural equivalent of the old t-shirt you wear at the lake instead of the suit and tie you wear to work - familiar, a bit ragged and frayed around the edges, comfortable.

Folkways/lore also serve as a way of defining a group - since "everybody knows", those who don't must be outsiders. As such, they become both an independent means, as well as servants of other means used to establish or maintain group cohesion.

It is possible, therefore, for folkways/lore to be a bit less anonymous than your definitions might indicate, such as grandpa's war stories becoming family/clan/folk lore, or the Darwin Awards helping to bring together an entire new category of folk tales.

These are just scattered responses to the definition/explanation you post, so take them for what they're worth.

Kate Woodbury said...

All suggestions are welcome! These first lessons were actually the hardest part of the lesson planning process. There are no textbooks on folklore (not that I would have accepted the textbooks' definitions, but they would have been a starting point) and, as I mention in the post, very little general literature after the 1970s. Folklore was definitely a "craze" (academically speaking) that has slowly died off.

I still love it! (And want to teach it.) And all this feedback is immensely helpful. I rely on this kind of feedback much more than on class evaluations to improve my teaching. A comment like "I didn't like the textbook" is interesting but much less helpful than trying a particular approach and having 25 pairs of eyes stare at me blankly. (Note to self: THAT didn't work.)

Speaking of feedback, a secondary issue that I would/will cover in the same week as definitions is regionalism. The course focuses on New England folklore for the good reason that the topic is so broad, it has to be narrowed somehow. And historically speaking, there are distinct differences between New England and say, English, or, say, American Western folklore.

But I wonder how much regionalism is still a factor. On the one hand, we (meaning Woodburys) have been very mobile (West coast to East coast to all over the United States), but many of my students come from families that have been Mainers probably since the 1800s or so. Even then, though, they are influenced by "Americana" culture by television, radio, and the Internet and by move-ins, like myself and my Somali students.

As Calvinist Preacher says, individual groups (church groups, family groups, student groups) definitely exist and create (and transmit) folklore but do regions? Is regionalism, other than on CSI or as a blue state versus red state concept, still an identity marker?

I don't know (says the person who got her degree in American & New England Studies).

Mike said...

Folk Lore is definitely not quite as prevalent today as in the past, which is probably due to improved communication, and due to television and internet, a smaller variation of culture from one area of the country to the next.

You may not agree (as you're right, the definition is a little slippery), but some things that exists today that seems a modern version of folklore are Hollywood rumors (Paul is dead)and E-mail forwarded stories (not just the chain letters). I don't know how often I get an e-mail, I think... What? that can't be possible! I look it up on http://www.snopes.com/ or some similar website, and sure enough it's a rumor. I wonder of this also applies to common misconceptions or even falsities that are spread by television (such as humans only using 10% of their brains).