Folklore can be described as traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practices that are passed on in large part through oral communication and example. The information thus transmitted expresses the shared ideas and values of a particular group. British antiquarian William Thoms is generally credited with coining the term "folklore" in 1846. Elliott Oring states that folklore is that part of culture that "lives happily ever after".
The academic study of folklore is most often known as folkloristics, although it is sometimes also termed "folklore studies" and "folklife research". As an academic discipline folklore shares methods, and insights with literature, anthropology, art, music, history, linguistics, philosophy, and mythology.
- 1 Definition
- 2 Characteristics
- 3 Academic study
- 4 Genres
- 5 Categories of folklore
- 6 Folk Culture
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
The term "Folk-Lore" was coined by William Thoms in 1846; he described it as a "good Saxon compound" to delineate that which was then widely known as "popular antiquities, or popular literature". Ever since then, there have been debates as to the meaning of the term among folklorists, with no widespread agreement. For instance, introducing their edited volume on the subject, the folklorists Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem stated that "there is not one unambiguous way of defining what folklore is and what its study comprises."
The most common definition of folklore was that it represented 'oral tradition', or traditions that have been transmitted in an oral manner. This definition had several issues, however; in non-literate societies, for example, all culture is orally transmitted, making the concept of folklore in such a context all-encompassing. Moreover, even in literate societies there are many activities, such as brushing one's teeth or driving a vehicle, which are orally transmitted and yet not usually thought of as folklore. Accordingly, oral transmission alone is not seen as something that is enough to make something folkloric. Also problematizing the link between folklore and oral tradition is the fact that some practices that are widely deemed folkloric – such as epitaphs or chain letters – involve transmission through text. Similarly, some other folkloric practices, such as traditional dances, games, gestures, and symbols, are often transmitted visually rather than orally.
An alternative approach to defining "folklore" focuses on the element of the "folk". More specifically, it describes folklore as those beliefs and practices which are held by "any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor", whether they be a family unit, a profession, or an ethnic, national, or religious community.
In 1995, the folklorists Robert A. Georges and Michael Owen Jones defined folklore as a term denoting "expressive forms, processes, and behaviors (1) that we customarily learn, teach, and utilize or display during face-to-face interactions, and (2) that we judge to be traditional (a) because they are based on known precedents or models, and (b) because they serve as evidence of continuities and consistencies through time and space in human knowledge, thought, belief, and feeling."
A further approach seeks not to explicitly define folklore but rather to explain it using an itemised list of those elements of culture usually considered to be folkloric. This is the position taken on the website of the American Folklore Society.
Folklore is integral to everyday life. It can be observed wherever humans interact face-to-face, however some forms of folklore are only performed at specific times, events, or places. Obvious examples of folklore include holidays and festivals, as well as key events in the human life-cycle.
Folklore often occurs in multiple different versions or variants. Specific elements can recur in various different forms of folklore, for example the terms "once upon a time" and "they lived happily ever after" can be found in a wide range of folk tales.
Folklore has been incorporated into both literature and mass media, thus furthering its pervasiveness. An example of folklore being incorporated into literature can be seen in Guy Owen's 1965 novel The Ballad of Flim Flam Man, into which he added aspects of dialect, folk sayings, and folk lore that he encountered while growing up in the Southern United States. Folklore also appears in television and film. For instance, the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was based on an older fairy tale, while the 1980 American film Alligator was based on the legend of sewer alligators. Proverbs from folklore are often incorporated into adverts, printed cartoons, and comic strips.
In oral tradition, information is passed on verbally from one generation to another. This may be transmitted in speech or song and may take the form of folktales, songs, or chants. Because it is conveyed orally, it may change in the retelling and appear in a variety of versions. This is particularly noted in folktales and folksongs. Some American folksongs can be traced back to England or Ireland, brought by immigrants who adapted the lyrics in light of their new surroundings and experiences.
Carl Wilhelm von Sydow noted that folklore varies from region to region and suggested that this indicates the communities' adaptation to their own cultural environment. The Scottish ballad "Marie Hamilton" is found in over fifty versions, recorded at different times and places from different sources. While the different versions have a great deal in common, there is considerable variation.
“All folklore participates in a distinctive, dynamic process. Constant change, variation within a tradition, whether intentional or inadvertent, is viewed here simply as a central fact of existence for folklore, and ...a defining feature that grows out of context, performance, attitude, cultural tastes, and the like.” Traditions which survive are those which have proved useful and suitable, even in a new environment.
The study of folklore is typically termed "folkloristics", although other terms that are sometimes used include "folklore studies" and "folklife research". Causing some confusion, the study of folklore has also sometimes itself been termed "folklore". Folklorists gather data by studying folklore first hand, through what is termed fieldwork. This entails questioning and interviewing people about their own folklore. In some cases the folklorist remembers what their interviewees say, allowing them to later recollect it either orally or in writing. It can also entail making written notes during the interview, or using mechanical recording methods such as video, photography, and tape recording, the latter of which is the method most often employed by folklorists. The choice of recording medium is often informed by the circumstances and nature of that which is being recorded; for instance a folk dance would best be recorded using video.
Approaches to the study of folklore vary; some folklorists specialise on a specific folklore genre, for instance becoming a specialist in folk tales, folk songs, or folk art. An alternative approach focuses on the study of a "folk group", studying the various forms of folklore present within a given group of people. A third approach incorporates the study of folklore as a sub-field of another discipline, such as literature studies, anthropology, history, or linguistics.
Increasingly, folkloristics has come to intersect with other disciplines, with which it shares topics of interest. Much inter-disciplinary research has resulted from this. Courses in folkloristics are widely available at universities and colleges in the United States, with some also awarding degree programs in the discipline.
Research into folklore began to distinguish itself as an autonomous discipline during the period of romantic nationalism in Europe. A particular figure in this development was Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose writings in the 1770s presented oral traditions as organic processes grounded in place. After the German states were invaded by Napoleonic France, Herder's approach was adopted by many of his fellow Germans who systematised the recorded folk traditions and used them in their process of nation building. This process was enthusiastically embraced by smaller nations like Finland, Estonia, and Hungary, which were seeking political independence from their dominant neighbours.
The concept of "folklore" developed among 19th century European scholars who were contrasting tradition with the newly developing modernity. They typically saw folklore as the residues and survivals of the past that continued to exist within the lower strata of society.
In the past, folklore was generally focused on traditional stories and songs. Academics such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Francis James Child, and George Lyman Kittredge collected and categorized many traditional stories and songs, both to preserve the texts and to learn about the past. A more contemporary view holds folklore to encompass a variety of creative expression.
Genres of folklore include Material culture such as folk art, Music such as folk songs, Narratives such as legends, Sayings such as proverbs, Beliefs as in folk religion, and Food as in traditional cooking.
Within these there are a number of subgenres. There is a good deal of overlap in classifying an example of folklore into genres. A ballad is a narrative that may be a poem or sung to a traditional melody. Historical examples date back to the Middle Ages. Particular jokes are often part of the lore of a specific occupation.
Folklore studies of material culture typically address how objects are designed, made, and used, and what they mean to those who make and use them. Material culture includes pottery, woodworking, wood and stone sculpting and general crafts, as well as decorative ironwork such as weathervanes. A craftsperson may use methods, techniques, materials, and even designs dating back many generations in their own particular interpretations. Over time the functional purpose of an object may shift and what was once crafted primarily for utilitarian purposes is now viewed as an expensive piece of artwork. The Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection includes documentation of the quilting tradition carried on in rural communities along the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Houses, barns, and other traditional buildings constitute a subcategory of material culture known as vernacular architecture.
Folk songs include: rounds, drinking songs, work songs, and sea chanteys. However, probably the best studied is the traditional ballad. Svend Grundtvig published a Danish translation of English and Scottish ballads in 1842, followed in 1853 by his first volume of Danish ballads. Folklore can also be the root of many cultural types of music. Country, blues, and bluegrass all originate from American folksongs, which in turn, derive, in many instances, from folksongs from Europe.
Among the most common types of narrative folklore are folktales (folk tales). A folktale is a story that forms part of an oral tradition, and does not have a single, identifiable author. The stories are passed down from one generation to the next, and over time become expanded and reshaped with each retelling. Folktales often reflect the values and customs of the culture from which they come. They have been used to teach character traits. The Buddhist story of "The Banyan Deer" illustrates concern for others. The Ghanaian folktale "The Hungry Little Boy" teaches respect for the elderly.
Folktales are often not connected to a specific time, place, or historical persons. The characters are usually ordinary people. Similar folktales are found in different cultures around the world. Vladimir Propp found a uniform structure in Russian fairy tales. A folk narrative can have both a moral and psychological aspect, as well as entertainment value, depending upon the nature of the teller, the style of the telling, the ages of the audience members, and the overall context of the performance. A skilled storyteller will adapt the narrative to his particular audience.
A fable is a subgenre of folktales that uses anthropomorphic animals to illustrate a moral.
Fairy tales involving magical, fantastic or wonderful episodes, characters, events, or symbols. They are often populated by fairies, elves, trolls, dwarfs, giants, and other imaginary creatures. Fairy tales take place in timeless settings, as indicated by the beginning "Once upon a time". The main character is a person who triumphs over difficulties partly through the use of magic. Originally spoken stories, fairy tales became a distinct literary genre in late-seventeenth-century France. Cinderella is a well-known fairy tale.
A Tall tale is a story about a real or fictitious person whose exploits are wildly exaggerated. These are often folklore related to specific occupations, such as the cowboy Pecos Bill, lumberjack Paul Bunyan and the famous "steel-driving man" John Henry (folklore).
Myths feature deities and often concern creation stories.
Legends are set in the past and tell of heroes and kings and deeds of valour. They may be based on real people or actual events. They may also contain lists of succession in ruling houses. In this they function as a sort of verbal historical record. They may also incorporate local tales of ghosts, and buried treasure. Stories about Robin Hood are legends.
Folk art is "...art made with an awareness of and a connection to tradition and community." Kenneth Ames differentiates between crafts and folk art in that crafts speak to the needs of everyday living, while folk art speaks to the need for aesthetic expression. Storytelling is one of earliest forms of folk art. Hex signs on Pennsylvania Dutch barns are also an example of traditional expression.
Many folk sayings relate to the weather, such as, "“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight." This is reflected in the popular that on Groundhog Day, (which also falls on February 2), if the groundhog sees its shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.
A popular custom in many parts of Europe is the midsummer celebration of St John's Eve when bonfires were lit at sunset and tended until long after midnight. In some places prayers used to be said for a blessing on the crops, then at the peak-point of summer bloom.
Customs can be used to reinforce cultural identity. Maximilian II of Bavaria studied the art and customs of the people to promote a Bavarian national identity during German unification efforts dominated by Prussia. He was the first to formalize what was considered correct folklore dress. The introduction of a national costume was seen as something which would increase a feeling of national cohesion amongst Bavarians.
Childlore is a distinct branch of folklore, and concerns those activities which are learned and passed on by children to other children. This includes traditional games, street games such as stickball, playground songs, riddles, and rhymes. Noted researchers in this field were Iona and Peter Opie. Children's counting-out games can be defined as behavioral folklore.
Categories of folklore
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Folklore can be classified by ethnicity, region, religion, occupation, and many other categories. Folklore can be a reflection and expression of a group's concerns. Ethnic folklore is a significant indicator of a groups's traditional values.
The "Archie Green Fellows Program" of the Library of Congress honors the legacy of folklorist Archie Green through the Folklife Center’s support of the collecting of occupational folklore. Folklore particular to an occupation will include storytelling, jokes, proverbs, shared beliefs, tools and specialized clothing, and shared knowledge of occupational skills and processes.
National or ethnic
- Australian folklore
- Near Eastern
Folk culture refers to the unifying expressive components of everyday life as enacted by localized, tradition-bound groups. Earlier conceptualizations of folk culture focused primarily on traditions practiced by small foot, homogeneous, rural groups living in relative isolation from other groups. Today, however, folk culture is more inclusively recognized as a dynamic representation of both modern and rural constituents. Historically, handed down through oral tradition and now increasingly through dynamic computer-mediated communication, it relates to the cultivation of community and group identity. Folk culture is quite often imbued with a sense of place. If elements of a folk culture are copied by, or moved to, a foreign locale, they will still carry strong connotations of their original place of creation.
Examples of American folk cultures include:
- Native tribal regalia
- The cakewalk
- Louisiana Creole cuisine, music, and language
- Handmade quilts
- The Hawaiian hula, leis, a pantheon of nature gods, and the concept of aloha
- Shaker architecture and furniture
- Whale-hunting with traditional spiritual rites of some Alaskan tribes
- Hand-gathered Wild rice gleaned in the traditional manner in the United States' northwoods
The above-mentioned have entered mainstream consciousness to varying degrees, but none have been so distorted from their original form as to have lost their culturally specific sense of place. In contrast, blue jeans and McDonald's are cultural icons which have been made so internationalized they have lost their original sense of place, and they are no longer part of folk culture. Similarly, Federalist architecture was created in the United States, but in a style influenced by, and meant to appeal to, outside interests.
Folk culture has always informed pop culture and even high culture. The minuet dance of European court society was based on the dance of peasants. More recently, the archetypal costume of the cowboy has been reinvented in gleaming silver by disco dancers and strippers, and the consciously ascetic culture of the Amish has been portrayed for comic value in Hollywood films and reality shows.
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