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Folklore and Folklife Studies: The Discipline of Analyzing Traditions (May 2013): Folk Genres and Themes

By Simon J. Bronner

Proverbs and Speech

The issues of the relation of mod-ernism to folklore and rhetorical uses of folklore animate recent studies and reference projects on speech and narrative.  A primary question is whether modernization displaces folk expressions that come out of preindustrial life, or if new forms emerge from modern conditions such as urbanization, mobility, and commercialization.  The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, compiled by Charles C. Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred Shapiro, clearly makes the case that the latter is true, as do monographic studies of modernism such as Proverbs Are Never Out of Season: Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age by Wolfgang Mieder and Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder and Anna Tóthné Litovkina.


In narrative studies, a spate of books reexamines the fairy and folktale genre.  The leading scholar in the fairy tale genre is Jack Zipes; his major oeuvre includes Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre and The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, making the case for oral folk roots of the fairy tale.  The question of fairy tale origin erupted into controversy in the twenty-first century with theories of individual composition and print sources as presented in Fairy Tales: A New History and Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition, both by Ruth B. Bottigheimer, and Tales of Magic, Tales in Print by Willem de Blécourt, which claimed to locate a single author (Straparola) who composed fairy tales that others imitated.

Legends and Myths

Often coupled with the study of folktales are studies of legend and myth.  Typically, legend studies cover the recent past with an evaluation of truth or social reality of events and real-life figures, while investigations of myth delve into ancient realms and often have etiological and sacred functions (folklorists bristle at the rhetorical use of “myth” as falsehood).  Scholars of both genres often relate folk belief to these narrative expressions and, in the case of myth, often analyze its symbolic content for a society and its integration into a cosmology or worldview.  William G. Doty advocates further for the origin of myths in ritual practices in Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals.  Other approaches, including the different forms by which myths enter into popular culture and symbolic readings, are evident in Myth: A New Symposium, edited by Gregory Schrempp and William Hansen.  (The old, and seminal, symposium is Myth: A Symposium, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok.)

Folkloristic work on legend is especially vibrant, with numerous books devoted to legendry in modern life.  Many analysts connect the expression of legends to anxieties of modern life, including increasing alienation as a result of a loss of community, change in gender roles, and concern for loss of human control as technology dictates the round of everyday life.  Among the prominent folkloristic studies exploring such connections are Legend and Belief by Linda Dégh, The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story by Jan Harold Brunvand, and Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends by Gary Alan Fine.  Another set of studies explores legendry in relation to rumors and finds that they often arise to narrate certainty in response to fears of health, global change, and invasion of privacy.  Exemplary studies of this sort are The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter by Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis, Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legends by Gillian Bennett, Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception by Diane E. Goldstein, What Happens Next?: Contemporary Urban Legends and Popular Culture by Gail de Vos, and Organ Theft Legends by Véronique Campion-Vincent.

Legends also address racial problems, and folklorists often find that narratives arise in legends to interpret inter-ethnic relations in contemporary events.  Prominent in presenting such scenarios is I Heard It through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture by Patricia A. Turner and Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America by Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner.  Another question is the persistence of ghost legends, despite the supposed rationality of modern society.  In studies such as Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore by Diane Goldstein, Sylvia Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas, Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses by Elizabeth Tucker, and Alas Poor Ghost! Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse by Gillian Bennett, folklorists hypothesize that belief in the supernatural actually increases with modernization because of the emphasis placed upon life.  Death becomes more fearful, and legends arise involving the dead in the midst of life.

Jokes and Humor

Although the bookshelf of folkloristic research of jokes is not as long as the one for legendry, folklore research has made a significant contribution to humor studies.  Prominently setting paths in different directions is the analytical work of folklorists Elliott Oring and Alan Dundes.  Oring, in his books Engaging Humor and Jokes and Their Relations, has understood humor arising from “appropriate incongruities” and sought to analyze contextually how those incongruities structured into humorous performances are variously perceived, so that what is funny to participants in one situation is not laughable in another.  Alan Dundes applies a Freudian view that jokes can be read for symbolic projections of anxieties, often sexual and scatological.  In Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes, and “The Kushmaker” and Other Essays on Folk Speech and Folk Humor, and with Carl Pagter, Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire, Dundes shows joking to be about serious matters.  He joins other folklorists in noting the way that folklore can provide a “veil of play” that allows individuals to say and act in ways that would be unacceptable in everyday discourse.  Other admirable studies of folk humor that interpret jokes as being more than entertainment and providing emotional outlets for aggression, distress, or frustration include The Last Laugh: Folk Humor, Celebrity Culture, and Mass-Mediated Disasters in the Digital Age by Trevor J. Blank, Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture, edited by Peter Narváez, and Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture by Marc Galanter.

Folk Music and Song

Folklorists have been especially active in the study of folk songs and ballads as signs of regional and ethnic persistence.  Many of these studies also analyze the popularization of folk music to ask about the consequences for communities when traditions are taken out of those communities and become commercialized.  Often, American folklorists locate a hybridization or creolization process, as different influences come together to produce mixed forms such as country music and blues.  Notable monographs covering such ground in U.S. folk music include James P. Leary’s Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music, Ryan André Brasseaux’s Cajun Breakdown: The Emergence of an American-Made Music, and Cecilia Conway’s African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions.  María Herrera-Sobek’s Northward Bound: The Mexican Immigrant Experience in Ballad and Song is a laudable example of an ethnic study showing the power of song to comment on social movements and to often convey political protest.  Although the period covered in these studies is contemporary, other books describe remaining legacies of song and music to inquire about historical change in a region, particularly social interactional patterns.  New England and the northern maritime regions have especially attracted this kind of investigation, as exemplified by Jennifer C. Post’s Music in Rural New England: Family and Community Life, 1870-1940.

Custom, Ritual, and Belief

A number of genres fall under the heading of “social folklife,” including customs, rituals, beliefs, holidays, dances, games, and festivals.  Studies of these topics often take an ethnographic approach and emphasize the context of distinctive cultural settings, groups, and ideas.  In these studies, folklife refers to special occasions to celebrate tradition, and often to socially bond communities.  A strong set of books interprets U.S. holiday celebrations at local and national levels and finds tension between the values implied in home observances and commercial appropriation.  For example, Jack Santino, in All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life, suggests the main social function of holidays serves to adjust to seasonal change that has been undermined by commercialism.  Of the holidays, Halloween garners the most scholarly attention, and folklorists often note the shift of the holiday from child to adult control.  Folklorists write in Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Santino, on the use of play to confront the fear of darkness and decay that occurs during the season.  In Groundhog Day by Don Yoder, the author observes the shift of the holiday from an expression of German ethnic separation based on a prognostication belief to a national celebration of leisure and recreation.  Folklorists also take the lead in documenting traditions that resist appropriation by mass culture, such as Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour, who in Decoration Day in the Mountains explain the persistence of grave-cleaning customs with a homecoming function in the Appalachian Mountains.

Material Culture and Architecture

Another inclusive rubric used by folklife researchers is “material culture,” for architecture, art, craft, landscape, and food, and, increasingly since the 1990s, “visual culture,” covering designs, decorations, and iconography.  As with the integrative term folklife, so too do material and visual culture represent patterns across genres, but studies are often based in a type of artifact or practice, or grounded in the material surroundings of a region or community.  Some general folkloristic titles that deal with material traditions and behaviors are Henry Glassie’s Material Culture and Simon J. Bronner’s Grasping Things: Folk Material Culture and Mass Society in America, which make the case that the built environments people create in turn influence ways of thinking.  The monumental achievement in the global scholarship of folk and vernacular architecture is undoubtedly the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, in three fat volumes edited by Paul Oliver.  A theme of the many entries in that work is that folk housing is in tune with the environment and serves community-building functions for families and workers as they are culturally defined in different societies.  An illuminating companion volume that graphically shows patterns of construction and form is Atlas of Vernacular Architecture of the World by Marcel Vellinga, Paul Oliver, and Alexander Bridge.  Oliver continues the theme of the environmental and social adaptability of folk housing in a key pair of recent publications: Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture and Dwellings: The Vernacular House World Wide.  A number of excellent studies focus on the U.S. cultural landscape that gives identity to residents and their aesthetics or spatial thinking: Images of an American Land: Vernacular Architecture in the Western United States, edited by Thomas Carter; Homeplace: The Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina by Michael Ann Williams; and Building with Logs: Western Log Construction in Context by Jennifer Eastman Attebery.

Art and Craft

Folk art and craft also cover a wide range of materials, processes, and skills.  Folklorists typically have an ethnographic or behavioral perspective that is distinctive from art historical approaches that stress the outlandish style and vision of self-taught or outsider artists.  Folklorists concentrate on skilled “insider” artists who are integrated into and produce work for their communities.  Many studies emphasize the vitality of handwork even in a postindustrial age in which people are often removed from making things for themselves.  The studies are both preservationist, in the sense of documenting endangered skills, and analytical, in asking why some artists and forms persist and, indeed, continue to adapt their products.  In Tin Men, for example, Archie Green relates the tin constructions outside metal shops as an occupational badge of honor; The Carver’s Art by Simon Bronner is a behavioral study that explains the attraction of old men to the making of chains because of gendered concerns about being unproductive in old age.  In Row upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry, Dale Rosengarten finds that the extraordinary skills African ancestors used to make rice baskets have been adapted to a modern tourist trade, allowing women to exert aesthetic and financial power.  Yvonne Lockwood in Finnish American Rag Rugs: Art, Tradition, and Ethnic Continuity shows that distinctively designed rugs for Finnish American families generations removed from the original immigrants provide symbols of identity in a multicultural society.

A growing area of interest that combines custom and craft is in memorialization, including markers often characterized as spontaneous or “grassroots.”  These structures raise questions about their religious content or their frequent use to provide a public form of mourning, especially for youth who lose their lives prematurely because of an auto accident or violence.  Examples of recent folkloristic studies of these structures, which often involve ethnographic considerations of how assemblages arise and the beliefs inherent in a memorial at and pilgrimage to the site of death include Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death, edited by Jack Santino; Roadside Crosses in Contemporary Memorial Culture by Holly J. Everett; and Grassroots Memorials: The Politics of Memorializing Traumatic Death, edited by Peter Jan Margry and Cristina Sánchez-Carretero.  The structures interpreted in these books are related to an environmental folk art of assemblages and display practices discussed in thought-provoking volumes such as Backyard Visionaries: Grassroots Art in the Midwest, edited by Barbara Brackman and Cathy Dwigans, Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists by Leslie Umberger, and No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work by Grey Gundaker and Judith McWillie.  In these works, authors focus on individuals who draw attention to themselves with structures that invoke traditions to convert their yards into showplaces for their creativity.

Food and Medicine

Folklorists have contributed immensely to research on food and medicine, usually emphasizing the contexts of social and cultural traditions.  Often, a question that arises in such studies is the relation of traditional food preparation and herbal and magical knowledge to scientific “hospital” medical and nutritional systems.  This question drives the challenging situations described in Powwowing among the Pennsylvania Dutch by David W. Kriebel and Healing Traditions: Alternative Medicine and the Health Professions by Bonnie Blair O’Connor, in which the authors find social and emotional needs of people who are frustrated by “scientific” care to call upon tradition providing magico-religious functions in times of illness.  In a number of folkloristic works, relying on ethnic and regional food traditions that have not nationalized becomes important to indicate a sense of subcultural belonging.  This theme is apparent in Cajun Foodways by C. Paige Gutierrez, Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South by Marcie Cohen Ferris, and Clambake by Kathy Neustadt.

Themes and Symbols

Cutting across the boundaries of folklore genres are thematic studies examining recurrent symbols, images, and characters.  These thematic studies often show the symbolic significance of certain images in different cultures and make the case for their archetypal hold on a shared cultural imagination.  Examples are History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition by Jean Delumeau, The Crossroads in Folklore and Myth by Martin Puhvel, and No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock by Marina Warner.  Providing background to a spate of popular films and novels featuring vampires and zombies in the early-twenty-first century, a number of folkloristic works interpret bestial themes and images.  Such works as Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media by Bill Ellis and From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth by Matthew Beresford explore what accounts for the appeal of (indeed, the obsession with) these horrifying characters in the West.  In his The Vampire: A Casebook, editor Alan Dundes presents various views, including his own incisive psychoanalytical interpretation that the representation of the vampire story is a projection of guilt in modern society for abandonment of the deceased by youth.

Works Cited: Legends and Myths

Works Cited: Custom, Ritual, and Belief

Works Cited: Themes and Symbols