INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS FOLKLORE AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Welcome to Folklore 101! This book is my version of a DIY folklore class, compiled from my teaching materials, essays, and blog posts over the years. It’s meant to be accessible and fun, showcasing serious research concerns as well as funny examples while also proving that not all academic writing needs to be boring and dry. Since folklore is a huge topic, I can’t cover every single aspect of it in this book, but I can give you a decent grounding in basic folklore scholarship, so you can go on to explore the folk groups and genres and topics that speak to you the most!
I’m a folklorist by trade: I’ve devoted my entire adult life to the study of folklore (and I was interested in it as a kid before I knew it was an official subject one could study), so obviously I think it’s pretty important. Calling something folklore is a compliment in my book, a statement that it’s worthy of serious study, which is a line I’m borrowing from my mentor Alan Dundes, who received death threats when he wrote about the Bible as folklore. I lucked into studying with Dundes at UC Berkeley as an undergrad, before knowing that he helped establish the foundations of modern folklore studies and that, prior to his death in 2005, he published nearly 40 academic books and 250 scholarly articles.
Of course a folklorist saying, “Hey, that’s folklore!” is the ultimate compliment, which is part of why Dundes perhaps wasn’t expecting the death threats. Classifying something as folklore doesn’t mean it has no truth value or that it’s not meaningful to people (which is where I think the death threats stemmed from; critics were hearing “The Bible is just folklore, it’s untrue” whereas Dundes was saying “The Bible shows many hallmarks of being passed down along through oral tradition before it was written down and standardized”). I open by mentioning this death threat drama because it exemplifies what it’s like to be a folklorist: most of the time, it doesn’t feel like people take folklore or folklorists very seriously, but when folklore does become a hot topic, oh boy, things might get tense!
I mean, I’m sitting here writing this introduction during a global pandemic, which has been fueled in part by urban legends (a folklore genre!) and conspiracy theories around vaccines and the efficacy of home remedies (hello, folk medicine) and which has also inspired lots of homemade arts and crafts, from sourdough baking (foodways!) to whole new levels of crafting (folk art). Folklore is the social glue that holds us together - or helps tear us apart - and boy is it showing right now. What people learn face-to-face, peer-to-peer, through oral tradition or internet tradition, is often aligned with what they value, and hence can fly under the radar of or conflict with official/institutional knowledge transmission. This is one of the reasons why it’s often so tough for pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine people to have a conversation where they both hear each other (as my colleague Andrea Kitta has documented): they’re each drawing on different knowledge registers from different types of sources, plus they’re usually very emotionally invested in the topic. People being invested in beliefs rooted in communally-held values? That comes from our interactions with folklore over our life cycle, whether it’s about deeply-held beliefs about gender presentation (do women have to shave their legs to be feminine?) or what counts as healthy food and healthy bodies (don’t get me started on fatphobia in the U.S.!) or even what counts as a good story or joke. Every single thing related to values in a culture doesn’t necessarily count as folklore, which I’ll define here shortly, but I truly believe that if you want to understand a culture, you must look at its folklore, and that’s what got me started on this journey in the first place.
Enough about me. Whatever brought you to this book – intellectual curiosity, your professor is making you read it, you’re related to me hence obligated to buy it – I am hoping you’ll find something intellectually and/or creatively stimulating here. You don’t have to read the book in order, though if your teacher is telling you to, maybe consider following through on that. I’ve structured the book in four main sections: basic folklore concepts, big categories of folklore, folklore genres, and special topics. My bias towards verbal folklore and narrative genres is evident throughout, so if you’re a fellow lover of stories and/or storyteller, you’ve definitely come to the right place!
To understand what folklore is, you need a basic sense of what culture is first (and here, I borrow heavily from my colleague Lynne McNeill’s excellent book Folklore Rules). I’ll give a few different definitions of folklore in this introduction, but right now my favorite is McNeill’s “informally transmitted traditional culture.”
So what is culture? Again, there are tons of definitions, but I go with McNeill: culture is learned and transmitted, and it’s what you need to know to act normal in a society. Culture is the web of beliefs, behaviors, languages, arts, and so on that fleshes out a society, that gives it a life beyond “here’s what’s legal and here’s what’s illegal, good luck.”
I want to focus on the fact that culture is learned: it may be inherited via family systems, but it is NOT inherited genetically. There’s nothing in your genes that makes you predisposed to one cultural thing over another. I sometimes see biological deterministic language applied to culture (Dawkins and memetics, I’m looking at you) and I’m not a fan of that approach. There might be some useful overlap in natural phenomena and cultural phenomena worth exploring, but culture is distinct from nature precisely because it is transmissible outside of the natural sphere; culture can encourage people to contradict their instincts instead of giving in to them. You can change your culture by moving elsewhere and acclimating to a new one, but you can’t change your genetic makeup (yet?). And so on.
Culture has many components to it, and according to my favorite definition, folklore is a part of culture. It’s located within culture. But where a cultural anthropologist might specialize in any number of the different parts of culture like kinship or migration, a folklorist specializes in the portion of culture that is informally passed along and is traditional in nature.
Folklore refers to the parts of culture that are not institutionalized in the same way that the government or religion are (though folk religion is definitely a thing). “Informally transmitted” means that folklore is performed and passed on through means that exist outside the official sphere of…whatever. Laws, the education system, medicine, and so on. Those locations still have people saying and doing and making folklore, but it’s not necessarily found in the HR handbook or the legal code: it’s just people in their jobs having slang and stories and customary ways of doing things (more on this in the chapter on occupational folklore). We’re especially likely to find folklore where people gather face-to-face and don’t have the same kinds of weighty hierarchies as in institutions.
While there’s been a lot of interesting scholarship on risk in folklore – like if you tell an off-color joke, what are you risking? What are the consequences for you in different contexts? – folklore is in some ways inherently less consequence-bound than official/institutional culture. Like, if you break the law while driving, you could be facing a ticket or fine or jail time. But if you tell a joke badly, or don’t manage to pull off a traditional holiday dish…there might be social consequences? Maybe even rather nasty long-term ones? Those look pretty different than being tossed into the criminal justice system, though.
There are at least two other interesting things about folklore being informally transmitted. The first is that folklore can, as a result of this trait, take damn near any shape that humans can come up with. No one’s gatekeeping it the same way that blockbuster movies require financial backing, advertising, a whole team to make it go and give it a chance of success. So if you’re skimming the Genres section of this book and you’re like “how are a fairy tale and Halloween and folk medicine all basically the same thing?!” it’s because what makes these things folklore is not that they all look exactly the same superficially, it’s because people transmit them informally rather than through institutional channels. The other neat thing is that tradition and variation (covered more in-depth in the next section) are hallmarks of folklore, meaning that – unlike with the law – there’s no “official” version of any one kind of folklore. When a movie is filmed, or when a book is published, that product is the official version, barring a ten-year-anniversary release with added/updated material or something like that. But with folklore, your version of a knock-knock joke is as valid as mine, and while one of us might tell the joke with more artistry, or more incisive social commentary, neither one of them is necessarily truer or righter or better.
Nope, I lied, there are at least three interesting things about folklore being informally transmitted, and this last one I’ll talk about here ties back into the purpose of this introduction: explaining why folklore matters. See, because folklore is passed along informally, it maintains relevance or it dies out. There aren’t generally laws saying we need to keep traditions alive in highly specific ways; there isn’t a folklore canon the same way there’s a literary canon. If folklore doesn’t meet people’s conscious or unconscious needs somehow, there’s no reason to transmit it, and it ceases to be. I go into this more in the chapter on functions, but this is, in a nutshell, why folklore matters: by tuning in to it, it allows us to keep a finger on the pulse of what people actually care about, whether or not they admit it to themselves. And that, in my mind, is very powerful indeed.
Okay, on to the other word in my preferred folklore definition: tradition. As in, folklore is informally transmitted traditional culture. As I mentioned above, tradition will get its own discussion, because it’s that important. Briefly, tradition doesn’t necessarily have to mean centuries-old stuff that’s remained unchanged that whole time. Tradition refers to anything that is continuous or stable over time, and moreover, a stable-over-time thing that is shared to some degree (yes, there is a debate over personal/solo traditions; no, I’m not getting into it right now). If it’s shared and it’s stable enough to document popping up in multiple instances, that counts as tradition for our purposes. And indeed, this is why folklorists count memes and lolcats as traditional: their time on this planet may be very short indeed, but enough people are sharing them that they’re definitely a thing.
One final thing, and this is something I think my favorite definition sadly lacks: truth value. Folklore has a neutral orientation towards truth value. Calling something “folklore” in the slang sense of the word might mean you’re saying “oh, that’s just folklore” or “oh, that’s just a myth” or “oh, that’s just a fairy tale” or “oh, that’s just an urban legend” – all of which are used to mean “oh, that’s fake.” We don’t use any of those terms in folklore studies to mean fake. As you’ll see, each genre I just named has its own specific conventions and traits that, among other things, specifically help the audience go in with an assumption about that genre’s truth value or lack thereof. When we call something “folklore” in this academic area of study, we are NOT saying anything about its truth value. That assessment is not built into the definition of folklore, like, at all. It is a definition that tells us about folklore’s relationship to the rest of culture, indicating that folklore is more likely to be a bit more ever-shifting and variable than the mass media or the institutions of law, government, and medicine. I know that fairy tales as folklore are usually not true in any factual sense of the word (no one thinks “Once upon a time” leads into a true biographical story), though fairy tales may reveal emotional truths, or truths about a culture’s core values. By the same token, I know that some folk medicine may be factually true: people were chewing on willow bark to help with pain before anyone figured out that the active ingredient, salicylic acid, could be turned into aspirin.
So please please please, mentally separate “folklore” and “true/untrue” in your mind. When we’re categorizing something as folklore, we generally want to know more about the how of its transmission than the what of its contents, though that turns out to be important on the level of genre classifications later on, too.
If you’ve gotten this far in the introduction, congrats, you now have a working definition of folklore as informally transmitted traditional culture! I’m going to nerd out about folklore definitions a bit more here, so feel free to keep reading if you want to dig deeper, and then I’m going to end this chapter by debunking some falsehoods and assumptions about folklore and folklorists.
Two other short-ish definitions I like for folklore are “artistic communication in small groups” by Dan Ben-Amos and “creativity in everyday life” by Pravina Shukla. Hopefully these make a lot of sense given the discussion of the various ramifications of “informally transmitted” and “traditional culture” above, but what I like about these definitions is their special focus on art and creativity: we’re not tuning into Art-with-a-capital-A as in the fine arts, the masterpieces created by (mostly) dead white dudes, or the classical music composed by more of the same. Those things are great and all, but they’re not the same cultural data jackpot that folklore is. Folklorists care about what people do in their daily lives that connects them to a tradition, past, and/or community that is larger than they are. We look for the balance point between the individual and the group, between the mundane and the transcendent. Sometimes folklore can feel mundane since it’s not always surrounded by neon blinking lights saying “Important Art/Culture Stuff Happening Here!!!” But small acts of daily connection can also be incredibly meaningful: shared rituals like prayers at the dinner table or like using the blanket knitted or quilted by a relative can imbue simple things with emotions and memories. And we think these things are worth paying attention to.
That last paragraph was all very affirming, but we also hit some complications when we look at other definitions of folklore. The term “oral tradition” has been used synonymously with “folklore” for a while now; back in the 1800s, “popular antiquities” was another recurring phrase to describe the same type of stuff (though it also has some problematic assumptions baked in, such as the notion that folklore is inherently super old, which is not always true). As Alan Dundes, among others, has pointed out, saying that folklore = oral tradition can be misunderstood when you’re looking at a culture that’s nonliterate or doesn’t rely as heavily on literacy to transmit knowledge. Does that mean every single piece of information they pass on using the spoken word is folklore? Of course not. There are also some genres of folklore that aren’t transmitted in the spoken word at all; some genres exist entirely in writing, such as latrinalia and yearbook verses and chain letters, while others aren’t transmitted in language so much as in bodily behavior (like body art and folk medicine).
Because of all these difficulties, Alan Dundes famously pivoted away from the folklore = oral tradition definition, instead asserting that if you break “folklore” down into “folk” and “lore,” you get folk groups (with its own chapter below!) which are groups that have any single identifying factor in common. A folk group could be as large as a nation, ethnicity, or religion, or as small as a family, hobby group, or set of classmates. These folk groups would then have traditions they call their own, shared beliefs and knowledge and behaviors and stories that reinforce their sense of identity with one another. That’s the “lore” side of things.
Of course, this could all come across as still too abstract to wrap one’s head around, and that’s why Dundes decided to provide an itemized list of folklore genres to give beginners something to latch on to. I’m replicating that list here in case it’s helpful for y’all.
Folklore includes myths, legends, folktales, jokes, proverbs, riddles, chants, charms, blessings, curses, oaths, insults, retorts, taunts, teases, toasts, tongue-twisters, and greeting and leave-taking formulas (e.g., See you later, alligator). It also includes folk costume, folk dance, folk drama (and mime), folk art, folk belief (or superstition), folk medicine, folk instrumental music (e.g., fiddle tunes), folksongs (e.g., lullabies, ballads), folk speech (e.g., slang), folk similes (e.g., blind as a bat), folk metaphors (e.g., to paint the town red), and names (e.g., nicknames and place names). Folk poetry ranges from oral epics to autograph-book verse, epitaphs, latrinalia (writings on the walls of public bathrooms), limericks, ball-bouncing rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, finger and toe rhymes, dandling rhymes (to bounce children on the knee), counting-out rhymes (to determine who will be “it” in games), and nursery rhymes. The list of folklore forms also contains games; gestures; symbols; prayers (e.g., graces); practical jokes; folk etymologies; food recipes; quilt and embroidery designs; house, barn, and fence types; street vendor’s cries; and even the traditional conventional sounds used to summon animals or to give them commands. There are such minor forms as mnemonic devices (e.g., the name order Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the spectrum in order), envelope sealers (e.g., SWAK—Sealed With A Kiss), and the traditional comments made after body emissions (e.g., after burps or sneezes). There are such major forms as festivals and special day (or holiday) customs (e.g., Christmas, Halloween, and birthday). (Dundes 3)
No need to memorize that list, thank goodness, but hopefully you can see how everything named would also count as informally transmitted traditional culture rather than something handed down through the literary canon or law or med school. It’s not an exhaustive list, either; memes didn’t exist when Dundes was writing it in the 1960s, though xerox-lore in office settings at that time might provide a close parallel.
Finally, I’ll clear up some misunderstandings that exist about folklore and folklorists:
- “Folklore” can refer both to the subject matter and to the field of study, so often you’ll see us distinguishing between the two by calling the subject matter “folklore” and the field of study either “folklore studies” or “folkloristics” (modeled after how the study of language is called linguistics)
- “Folklore” as a word does not get pluralized; it doesn’t make sense to write or say “folklores.” If you really need to indicate that something is plural, go with “folklore items” or “folklore texts.” It also works better as a noun than an adjective; I would just append “folk” in front of nouns that I want to indicate are folkloric in nature, so I’d be more likely to say, “I’m analyzing folk stories” than “I’m analyzing folklore stories.”
- Folklorists don’t always perform the genres we study. I am terrible at telling jokes, and yet I study jokes. However, there are plenty of examples of scholars who get so immersed in their fieldwork that they do end up picking up a musical instrument in the folk music tradition they’re studying, or perhaps their personal interest in a given genre is what got them started studying folklore.
- Folklore encompasses more than fairy tales and urban legends; I happen to be one of the folklorists who primarily studies fairy tales, but you can’t assume every one of us can give a lecture on the Grimms at the drop of a hat.
- Most folklorists don’t write children’s books or worship everything written by Joseph Campbell and we get cranky when you suggest these things to us (many of us don’t have the time or inclination to write popular fiction, and Joseph Campbell has misrepresented and cherry-picked examples of folklore in ways that annoy us).
Hopefully this introduction has given you everything you need to understand what folklore is and why it matters. Remember, folklore is transmitted voluntarily, because it is relevant to people’s personal and social lives in some way, even if that way is not immediately obvious. By tuning in to folklore, you’re tuning in to what actually matters to people, the kinds of culture they are choosing to keep alive by participating in it.