- Folklife, Vol. 14 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture
Folklife, the fourteenth volume in the University of North Carolina Press’s massive New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture project, is a remarkably comprehensive and detailed reference work, given the enormous range of subjects it has to cover.
Those looking for a romanticized or nostalgic view of southern culture will have to look elsewhere, however: editors Glenn Hinson and William Ferris, both professors at UNC Chapel Hill, plainly state in their introduction that “Southernness . . . is a claim to imagined connectedness” that “invokes the past,” although “this invocation itself is an act that unfolds in the present” (9). The work is as much if not more concerned about the economic, political, and commercial factors that have shaped and that continue to shape southern folklife as it is about the time-honored stability of those traditions. Essays such as the ones on Bluegrass, Country, and Gospel Music, in particular, could well rankle aficionados with their emphasis on the inventedness of such musical genres, and the ways in which mass media and sales have driven their development.
There is very little in the volume specifically about Appalachian folklife, though entries about basket-making, quilting, and ginseng hunting note the locus or particular aesthetics of these practices in Appalachia. The only specific references to West Virginia are, in fact, in the entries on “Quilting,” “Square Dancing,” and “Storytelling.” This absence does not appear to be due to an editorial effort not to localize particular traditions, or not to discuss sub-regions in detail; extensive examples from specific states—especially Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas—are used to illustrate some types of folklife.
Consequently, the lack of Appalachian examples is puzzling. It may be due to the fact that other regional presses (such as those at the Universities of Kentucky and Tennessee) are well-known for publishing works on Appalachian folklore, or the fact that the West Virginia Humanities Council has recently published its own West Virginia Encyclopedia (2006). It may be due to the perception that Appalachia is both part of and culturally distinct from the “South” as it is configured here. That there are so few references to West Virginia, particularly, may stem from the long debate over whether West Virginia is truly a “Southern” state. Regardless, the volume reminds this reader, anyway, of the need to document our own local examples of the folklife practices described here. [End Page 106]
The work is divided into two sections: the first is a series of forty-eight longer essays about the most widespread, well-known, or complex southern folk practices. The second section is a group of fifty-seven shorter essays about more specific aspects of those larger traditions, or about smaller or more localized traditions. The only criticism to be made of the volume has to do with this organizational scheme: while the two-tiered strategy works, it would be made more effective by cross-referencing related entries (the long essay on “Hunting Dogs” would do well to point the reader toward the short essay on “coon hounds,” for example).
Nevertheless, this is a tremendous reference work, and the index of authors reads like a who’s who of the most influential folklorists working today. The entries’ resistance to generalizations and nostalgia is not only realistic, but refreshing, given the widespread and erroneous laments about the “decline” of local culture. At every turn, Folklife reminds us that any region’s “Culture” is better defined as a complex, overlapping set of “cultures,” all of which are constantly evolving and emerging. At the same time, it includes discussions of regional folk traditions that are new even to this folklorist, such as “Rolley Hole Marbles” and “Womanless Weddings.”