- After the Revolution: Folklore, History, and the Future of Our Discipline
(American Folklore Society Presidential Address, October 2015)
i have always fancied myself an accidental folklorist. Perhaps most of you are too. I entered a doctoral program in Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania having never taken a folklore class. Nor, I am ashamed to admit, had I even read a serious work of folklore scholarship. Truthfully, the traditional stuff of folklore study did not attract me to the field. I attended a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, coincidentally also the alma mater of Don Yoder, who eventually became my dissertation advisor. He claimed for Franklin and Marshall College the distinction of creating, in 1948, the first Department of American Folklore in the United States (1963:52). By the time I attended, not a remnant of this curriculum remained, and I continued to be ignorant of the academic field. Instead I drifted into anthropology. Although I loved being an anthropology major, my interests always seemed to fall betwixt and between. The pastness of archaeology seemed too past. Cultural anthropology, at the time, seemed little interested in the past at all.
Luckily I obtained a work study job at the college museum, and that experience ultimately led to a full-time job as a curator at another museum after graduation. Only through a series of chance encounters did I subsequently discover that there was such a field as folklore, and (perhaps like many of you) once I found it, it felt like home. The backgrounds and interests of my new classmates were quite diverse, but we all entered the discipline on the heels of a major revolution (or perhaps a series of revolutions) that radically changed the composition of our field. Gradually, as I immersed myself in my new calling, it dawned on me that had I been searching for a field of study 15 years earlier, I would not have become a folklorist.
I suspect that many of my generation who entered folklore in the mid-to late 1970s felt as if we had just missed all the excitement. We had not been there to storm the ramparts. As authors and filmmakers have noted, living a revolution in the making is far more exciting than dealing with its aftereffects.1 However, after most revolutions there is a time, however brief, of florescence—before the new orthodoxies harden. A time when all things seem possible. Of course, as Dell Hymes once suggested, we [End Page 129] can traditionalize even a particular time and place of graduate study (1975:354). But in retrospect, the period directly following the revolution of the “new folkloristics” seemed to be one of promise and optimism for the field.
From our current perspective, we easily remember the new folkloristics as the period of performance studies, a new contextualism, a greater emphasis on the ethnographic method—things that all made sense to a former anthropology major. Although often treated as a totally separate phenomenon, it was also an important time for the maturation of public folklore. Folklife studies, if noted at all, is often treated as an odd—and perhaps quaint—sidebar to that history. While Don Yoder’s use of the term “folklife” to refer to a holistic approach that encompassed traditional folklore within a broader scope of study was not fully embraced by the academic discipline (though the term is now commonplace in public folklore), the “movement” (as Yoder characterized it) did much to push forward the acceptance of material culture and belief studies as an essential part of our discipline as well as to encourage specific areas of study such as foodways and vernacular architecture (1963:43).2
Like most revolutions, the new folkloristics contained inherent contradictions. Many, while still focusing on the oral/aural components of expressive culture, sought to break away from the backward-facing orientation of the discipline. Folklore was emergent and dynamic. Tradition was constantly being reinvented; we could think of it as a verb, to “traditionalize” (Hymes 1975:353). However, despite the seemingly anti-historical thrust of the new folkloristics, the 1960s and 1970s also brought us new ways to engage history...