1. Folklore
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1 CHAPTER 1 Folklore We know you have heard it before:“It’s just folklore.”We hear it when newscasters are announcing the report of a popular home remedy that does not really cure people (and may actually harm them). We hear it—or might even say it—when a friend is telling a story about the haunted house on the winding street in our neighborhood. People often call something “folklore” to dismiss the validity of the subject they have been discussing. To some people, the term folklore commonly suggests something untrue, not real—just a story or an old-fashioned belief. But that is a misconception. Some people come to folklore study expecting to learn only about quaint cultures from the past or contemporary cultures of those who are less educated, less fortunate, and less sophisticated than they are—primitive or simpler groups. That, too, is a misconception. In the following sections we will clear up misconceptions about folklore by considering what folklore is and isn’t.We will also look at genres and important concepts of text and context and offer a short history of the study of folklore as a foundation for our own exploration. What is Folklore? A Working Definition Folklore is many things, and it’s almost impossible to define succinctly. It’s both what folklorists study and the name of the discipline they work within. Yes, folklore is folk songs and legends. It’s also quilts, Boy Scout badges, high school marching band initiations, jokes, online avatars, chain LIVING FOLKLORE 2 letters, nicknames, holiday food, and many other things you might or might not expect. Folklore exists in cities, suburbs, and rural villages; in families, work groups, and residents of college dormitories. Folklore is present in many kinds of informal communication, whether verbal (oral and written texts), customary (behaviors and rituals), or material (physical objects). It exists in the physical world and in virtual settings online. It involves values, traditions, and ways of thinking and behaving. It’s about art. It’s about people and the way people learn. It helps us learn who we are and how to derive meaning from the world around us. As we explore some attempts to define the field of folklore, we want to ask you to expand your concept of folklore or at least to let go of any preconceived ideas of what folklore means. One of the most useful ways we have found to clarify these distinctions is to talk about what folklore is not. Folklore is not necessarily untrue or old fashioned. Have you ever eaten pan de muerto on the Day of the Dead? Sent an email chain letter to everyone in your address book? Carried a special object or worn a particular article of clothing to bring you luck? Made a wish before blowing out candles on your birthday cake? These are all examples of folklore. Some have been around for many generations ; some are relatively new. Some are meaningful to large groups of people; some are relevant only to a few people. First, whether or not these examples are true isn’t relevant. In what way could a loaf of sweet bread be true? And it doesn’t have to be true that special clothing will help someone win a race for a track star to wear the same socks to every meet. Second, these examples are not possessed or performed only by simple, primitive people, nor are they quaint or old fashioned. The fact that you recognize the above examples—or know other similar examples—illustrates that folklore is not simply the historical behaviors of other cultures; folklore is alive, developing, and changing in our lifetimes. Every one of us experiences and shares folklore. Folklorists avoid the use of terminology such as“true,”“primitive,”or“simple” when they talk about folklore. These terms imply that folklore is fake or exists only in old-fashioned, nonliterate cultures. For example, some people might see quilts made by hand rather than by machine as simple, or they might consider paintings and sculptures by poor,rural,unschooled artists as primitive,but these labels assume a hierarchical value related to formal education systems.When we don’t evaluate it by outside standards, we can see that this kind of art is simply the creation of artists who have ideas and values they wish to express within (or about) their own group or community. Folklorists go into the field in contemporary societies to observe,record,and write...