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Folklore and Folklife Studies: The Discipline of Analyzing Traditions (May 2013): Folk Groups, Places, and Artists

By Simon J. Bronner

Race, Ethnicity, and Religion

Folklorists have been at the vanguard of scholarship documenting and interpreting cultural diversity in the United States since the nineteenth century.  Building on the founding mission of the American Folklore Society to collect the traditions of the nation’s regional and ethnic cultures and emboldened by the legacy of folkloristic work by early-twentieth-century public intellectuals such as Franz Boas, Elsie Clews Parsons, Zora Neale Hurston, John Lomax, and Ruth Benedict, who published material on the folklore of Native Americans, African Americans, Appalachians, Pennsylvania Germans, French Canadians, and Mexican Americans, among other identities, folklorists in the twenty-first century have deepened the study of these ethnic and racial communities and extended the folkloristic documentary reach to religious, urban, occupational, organizational, age, sexual, and online groups.  A reference shelf on ethnic and religious folklore published since 2005, for instance, could include The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, in three volumes edited by Anand Prahlad; Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife in three volumes, edited by Jonathan H. X. Lee and Kathleen M. Nadeau; Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions, also in three volumes, edited by María Herrera-Sobek; and Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore and Traditions, edited by Haya Bar-Itzhak.  In monographs such as Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition, Tom Mould exemplifies a performance-oriented approach of documenting narrative sessions among Mormons to identify themes that come through in their communication of identity to one another.  He identifies revelation as a strong theme, and notes that it often mediates the cognitive conflict that can occur in a belief system that is modern and yet contains many supernatural elements.

Region and Landscape

Folklorists have been long concerned with the cultural meaning of place, and this is especially evident in a long list of titles on folk regionalism.  Writing on the traditions of the southern United States has been especially active, spurred by the “Folklife in the South” series by the University Press of Mississippi.  Representative titles such as Wiregrass Country by Jerrilyn McGregory, Shenandoah Valley Folklife by Scott Hamilton Suter, and Blue Ridge Folklife by Ted Olson drive home the message that the South contains many subcultures with distinctive traditions.  Folkloristic explorations of regions outside the South, such as A Shared Space: Folklife in the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands by James S. Griffith, continue this line of inquiry by interpreting the “borderlands,” combining Mexican and western U.S. influences as distinctive from the areas north and south of it.

Campus Lore

The college campus is a place that represents an occupation (being a student) and often a distinct age period.  Of interest to students, faculty, and staff are books on the folklore generated by the university setting, such as Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University by Simon Bronner and Campus Legends: A Handbook by Elizabeth Tucker.  Despite the expectation that the growth of universities would dislodge folklore, these authors find that college students in their hallowed halls increasingly rely on narrative folklore to provide cultural guidance in the world of strangers and the odd locations in which they find themselves.

Occupational and Organizational Groups

A relatively new development growing out of the study of occupational folklore has been organizational folklore—that is, the traditions and cultural organizing strategies of corporations, clubs, secret societies, and institutions.  Extending the study of U.S. worker lore is Timothy R. Tangherlini’s Talking Trauma: Paramedics and Their Stories, which shows that storytelling is essential for conveying the expectations and dangers of the job.  A similar approach is evident in The Trial Lawyer’s Art by Sam Schrager, in which he shows that “oral arguments” rely on rhetorical conventions and stylistic traditions that can be called folklore.  Among other organizational studies by folklorists, Jay Mechling’s On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth reveals the Boy Scouts to have a culture that the boys in scouting have often shaped separately from the rules and regulations of organizers.  Military culture has also attracted folkloristic attention, especially as the armed forces morph into to a mixed gender and ethnic force.  Carol Burke’s Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture and Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore, edited by Eric A. Eliason and Tad Tuleja, both hypothesize the hold of masculine tradition on the military and the ways that subgroups in the armed forces work toward, and resist, changes in rituals, customs, and stories.

Gender and Sexuality

As a focused area of investigation, gender and sexuality are the subjects of a growing number of folklore and folklife studies.  Contributors to major volumes on gender folklore studies such as Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture, edited by Joann Newlon Radner, and Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities, edited by Simon J. Bronner, argue for ideas of masculinity and femininity as social constructions and find a continuum rather than a binary between men and women.  The constructivist view often enters into studies of sexuality related to gendered identities.  Indeed, monographs such as More Man than You’ll Ever Be: Gay Folklore and Acculturation in Middle America by Joseph Goodwin and The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit by Mickey Weems show homosexuals to be a culture by virtue of a distinctive folklore.  The “circuit” in Weems’s title is a large social party scene with its own conventions, which Weems ethnographically interprets as a unique construction of a self-consciously “gay” culture.

Age and Family Groups

Although children’s folklore has been a vibrant area of study since the nineteenth century, research on the distinctive folklore of other age groups and families toward a concept of “the folklore of aging” has been a relatively recent movement.  Many of the studies of the folk expressions and play of youth since 2000 have been concerned with the loss of free play and open spaces and the command of commercial media (and adults) on children.  Ethnographically and historically based studies such as The Lore of the Playground by Steve Roud, Recess Battles by Anna R. Beresin, and Play Today in the Primary School Playground: Life, Learning, and Creativity, edited by Julia C. Bishop and Mavis Curtis, find that children still have lots of lore to pass around, but they also note changes in the content and function of play.  In praiseworthy, ethnically focused research such as The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, Kyra D. Gaunt finds sources for African American musical competence in games and values associated with play such as jump rope.  Inspiring scholarly attention to the folklore of older adults is Listening to Old Voices: Folklore, Life Stories, and the Elderly by Patrick B. Mullen, who observes that folklore often works as a form of life review.  He urges consideration of the narratives of the elderly not as historical documents, but as expressions of their present age.  The primary folk group is the family, and folklore figures significantly, particularly for such a dispersed society as that of the United States, or so authors posit in laudable works such as The Family Saga: A Collection of Texas Family Legends, edited by Francis Edward Abernethy, Jerry Bryan Lincecum, and Frances B. Vick.

Folk Artists, Storytellers, and Singers

Besides interpreting the ways that folklore bonds groups and symbolizes community identity, folklorists analyze individual performers, artists, and practitioners to connect life stories, creative and innovative trends, symbolic projections and pathologies, and emotions and personalities to personalized expressions.  Aware of the often-incredible artistry of folk material and its frequent undervaluation in art worlds, folklorists sometimes also offer biographical publications and exhibitions to venerate the masterwork of tradition bearers.  Eminent folk artists recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts are featured, for example, in American Folk Masters by Steve Siporin.  Extending the database in text and image is the two-volume Masters of Traditional Arts: A Biographical Dictionary by Alan Govenar.  Govenar profiles at greater length standout artists in Extraordinary Ordinary People: Five American Masters of Traditional Arts.

Storytellers, singers, and craftsworkers are often singled out for praise—and sometimes analysis.  In studies such as Ray Hicks: Master Storyteller of the Blue Ridge by Robert Isbell, Mule Trader: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men by William Ferris, and Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry, edited by David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher, storytellers are presented as celebrities worthy of public attention.  Exemplary studies showing the tensions between performances in their communities and on public concert stages are Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues by Alan B. Govenar and Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues by Philip R. Ratcliffe.  In the poignant narrative about a community member devoted to preserving a culture through folk music Singing the Songs of My Ancestors: The Life and Music of Helma Swan, Makah Elder, Linda Goodman shows the agency of tradition bearers to build pride in the community’s identity.

Some classic biographical studies by folklorists of individual folk artists, such as Michael Owen Jones’s Craftsman of the Cumberlands, are less celebratory than they are penetrating psychological studies of complex, if not troubled, creative personalities.  A tower of individual studies, many published in the Folk Art and Artists Series at the University Press of Mississippi, has built on this foundation, raising questions about the individual motivations to create and the community response.  Some representative titles are Chicano Graffiti and Murals: The Neighborhood Art of Peter Quezada by Sojin Kim, Vietnam Remembered: The Folk Art of Marine Combat Veteran Michael D. Cousino, Sr. by Varick A. Chittenden, and Vodou Things: The Art of Pierrot Barra and Marie Cassaise by Donald J. Cosentino.  The variety of creative makers and their work, most formed out of modern urban environments and materials, gives notice of folk artists continuing to adapt under contemporary conditions, rather than being relics of the pastoral past.

Technology and Digital Culture

Folklorists have often examined the impact of technologies such as the printing press, photocopier, television, and radio to show the effect of modernity on folklore and folklife.  Frequently, they have concluded that communication technology has not displaced folklore, but mediated old forms and generated new ones.  This concept continues with analytical folkloristic studies of the computer, digital devices, and the Internet.  Leading the way are two essential collections of scholarly essays edited by Trevor J. Blank: Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World and Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction.  Cutting-edge studies of quickly changing digital-age folklore include Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet by Russell Frank, Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat by Michael Kinsella, and Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind by John Miles Foley.

Questions of Tradition

The core focus on folk groups, bearers, contexts, and genres in face-to-face interaction remains in folklore and folklife studies, with attention to ever-relevant questions of tradition, imagination, identity, practice, and communication.  Whether interpreting the traditions of “virtual” social networks or “real” gatherings in today’s corporate offices or rustic campfires of the past, or indeed among the young or old, folklorists’ significant contributions to the humanities and social sciences seek to provide answers to the questions of how and why people express themselves and practice their traditions.

Works Cited: Region and Landscape

Works Cited: Campus Lore

Works Cited: Folk Artists, Storytellers, and Singers