- Public Folklore by Robert Baron and Nick Spitzer
The third edition of Public Folklore confirms the lasting significance of this publication. This is a book with a dual nature. On one hand, it is a useful source for those studying folklore because it represents a seminal time in the history of folklore studies. On the other hand, it provides a starting point for an engaging dialogue on the discourse of public folklore theory, inspired by its authors’ experiences in folklore practice. The 1987 meeting of the American Folklore Society gave folklorists from the academic and public sectors an opportunity to meet and discuss the discipline. Some of this book’s contributions came from this meeting; others are complementary original essays.
Public folklore has certainly come of age in the two decades since this book was first published. In this third edition, the editors offer a new preface titled “Cultural Continuity and Community Creativity in a New Century,” which stresses the collaborative and dialogic character of folklore, describes recent changes in the field, and comments on its current status. They also review some of the publications that followed the first edition of their book.
The volume is divided in three parts: “Reflections and Directions,” “Metaphors and Methods of Practice,” and “Recovering a History of Public Folklore.” The first part posits issues of terminology. The editors’ choice to name the representation and application of folk traditions in new contours and contexts as public folklore is well aimed, because this rubric consolidates the multiple faces of the public character of folklore. The first group of essays from Roger D. Abrahams, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Archie Green, and Bess Lomax Hawes explore the “name issue” through the shifts between academic and public folklore. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s classic essay “Mistaken Dichotomies,” reprinted from the Journal of American Folklore, has provoked numerous discussions about the relationship between academic and public folklore over the years. Here the editors devote a whole page of their introduction to their argument that Kirshenblatt-Gimblett failed to debunk the dichotomy between academy and practice, and they stress their disagreement with many other points in her article.
The second part of the volume focuses on methodological issues. It is, in fact, the most crucial part of the book because it examines how practice converses with theory and vice versa. It also explores whether practice can create new theory—an argument that the editors strongly support. Nick Spitzer poses the problematic of the community’s interests and priorities versus the researcher’s ones. In fact, this is a tricky issue for every folklorist who also holds an academic post. Consequently, many might ask at this point: Do the interests of a researcher coincide with those of the community? Does the ethnographic work become reincarnated in public folklore products? Should the ethnographer orient the audience or the opposite? The late Gerald L. Davis, an academic folklorist, describes his experiences as an African American working in corresponding communities and highlights emicetic issues during his constant effort to train his “cultural eye.” Bob McCarl’s essay, “The Pattern that Connects,” is a wonderful account of a folklorist who left academia to dedicate himself to public folklore. His work serves as a paradigm of theory flourishing in practice, and of how public folklore can benefit community members. Essays by Frank Proschan and Susan Roach also offer useful paradigms of folklore work.
Festivals are among the most prominent cultural performances, as Milton B. Singer mentioned (When a Great Tradition Modernizes, Praeger, 1972), as they envisage tradition, authenticity, and representation. The Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Life (now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival), established in the 1960s, marked the beginnings of the professionalization of public folklore. In this volume, Richard Kurin, now Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian, describes [End Page 97] a long-term cultural exchange program between the Smithsonian’s Office of Folklife Programs (which produces the folklife festival) and the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Culture. His detailed discussion of the exchange, which began...