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Laying a wreath at the grave of William John Thoms © Paul Cowdell

‘Folklore’? What do you Mean? And Why?

You’re obviously already interested enough to know what folklore is, right? Yet the more we look at folklore, the less confident we can be about straightforward certainties. The comment ‘That’s just folklore!’ meaning something untrue, not to be taken seriously, may hurt our pride a little, but it has to be taken into account – it’s a genuine popular usage of the word, even if it’s not quite the same as ours. It’s more encouraging to find other people looking at things we hadn’t previously considered as folklore, or excluding things we take as read are folklore. (Comments like ‘I know urban legends/ballads/etc aren’t folklore…’ aren’t uncommon).

One of the most exciting things about folklore is its breadth. Folklorists study a staggering and constantly expanding range of material. What might start out as straightforwardly about personal taste quickly starts to look more complicated.

What, then, is folklore? And how come?

We can get some sense of where we are now, and why, by looking at the idea of folklore historically.[1] From the very moment in 1846 when William John Thoms coined this new word ‘folklore’, folklorists have tried to illustrate what they mean by listing some of the subjects it covers. Thoms mentioned the ‘manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc. of the olden time’. This was clearly not meant to be exhaustive but representative.[2]

It also points to what folklore was supposed to be, survivals from a supposedly more primitive past into the present. The decision to found the Folklore Society (FLS) in Britain talked of ‘Popular Fictions and Traditions, Legendary Ballads, Local Proverbial Sayings, Superstitions, and Old Customs’, which were described as being ‘almost the only traces of the primitive mythology of [the British] Islands’.[3] Folklore was stuff showing the traces of primitive culture, and it needed documenting before the modern world destroyed it completely. In John Aubrey’s (1626-1697) words:

‘the many good Bookes, and variety of Turnes of Affaires, have putt all the old Fables out of doors: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away Robin-goodfellow and the Fayries’.[4]

That question of primitive survivals was much discussed throughout this early period and beyond. Folklorists still seek cultural trends and underlying older material, but the seductive notion of folklore as some universal primitive survival is not much in favour these days. I’d caution against being too quickly persuaded by some outdated universalists whose works are still popular and easily obtainable, like JG Frazer and his followers, where primitive elements are assumed or speculated to ‘explain’ current folklore. Folklore’s what’s been passed down, it’s what people actually do.

Along with attempts to define folklore by content there was also some attempt to define it as what we’d now call intangible heritage – words and thoughts rather than objects, what Charlotte Sophia Burne called ‘the mental equipment of the folk as distinguished from their technical skill’. Her example was ‘not the form of the plough … but the rites practised by the ploughman when putting it into the soil’.[5] At the same time, however, the related study of that material, tangible heritage also developed. This study of folk life has grown up alongside folklore, and even those who study one or the other see their connection. The 1960s turn towards seeing folklore as performance-related (the intangible) was followed by the emergence of public folklore: this celebrated performance whilst also promoting the more tangible craft aspects of folk life. Among contemporary folklorists you’ll find a willingness to embrace and address every aspect of folk life, tangible and intangible.[6]

Folklore is, if you like, the nitty-gritty bits and pieces of our informal everyday culture, the stuff that circulates by word of mouth (or online equivalent) somewhat under the radar of ‘official’ culture. It’s been well described as ‘Vernacular expressions performed in recurring, culturally important situations’.[7]

That covers a huge amount, and the skills we’ve developed to study it mean we can push its scope ever further: one recent book has applied folkloristic research methods to stand-up comedy.[8] Confusing though it may be, one of the easiest ways to suggest what this informal stuff might cover is still to offer representative lists, even though (as Alan Dundes acknowledged after 24 lines of one), they cannot be exhaustive.

It’s also useful because it highlights what folklorists do in identifying and studying this material. We identify items by genre, because that helps us look at how the items function in culture. You might find the same story being told as a tale (not true), a legend (true-ish), a myth (true to the point of having cosmological significance), a joke, or part of a song or ballad: understanding what the folk actually do with their lore is as important as recognising the lore itself.

We all have folklore, and it is the very stuff of our everyday culture: what could be more satisfying than to study that in its entirety?

References and Further Reading

Aubrey, John, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, ed. James Britten (London: W. Satchell, Peyton, for the Folklore Society, 1881)
Brodie, Ian, A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-Up Comedy (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2014)
Burne, Charlotte Sophia, The Handbook of Folklore (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1914; repr. London: Senate, 1995)
Cashman, Ray, Tom Mould, and Pravina Shukla, eds, The Individual and Tradition: Folkloristic Perspectives, Special Publications of the Folklore Institute 8 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011)
Cowdell, Paul, ‘Folklore: More than just a word’, (The folklore podcast, Season 2, episode 15)
Dundes, Alan, ed., The Study of Folklore (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965) The Folklore Society,
Iwasaka, Michiko, and Barre Toelken, Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1994)

[1] You can hear me talk about this at greater length at the folklore podcast.
[2] For his complete introductory letter to the Athenaeum magazine, see William John Thoms, ‘Folklore’, in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 4-6.
[3] These comments are from the early minutes of the FLS. For more information on the FLS see link
[4] John Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, ed. James Britten (London: W. Satchell, Peyton, for the Folklore Society, 1881). It isn’t an accident that this work was only published for the first time by the FLS.
[5] Charlotte Sophia Burne, The Handbook of Folklore (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1914; repr. London: Senate, 1995), p.1. She was the FLS’s first woman President.
[6] For an idea of the range of subjects one folklorist can encompass have a look at the festschrift given to Henry Glassie, whose own interests range from vernacular architecture to local legends, covering all points in between: Ray Cashman, Tom Mould, and Pravina Shukla, eds, The Individual and Tradition: Folkloristic Perspectives, Special Publications of the Folklore Institute 8 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).
[7] Michiko Iwasaka, and Barre Toelken, Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1994), p. 45.
[8] Ian Brodie, A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-Up Comedy (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2014).

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Paul is currently a Council member of the Folklore Society and on the editorial board of the Folk Music Journal. He did an MA in Folklore, and studied contemporary belief in ghosts for his PhD. He has written on ghostlore, cannibalism, charms against rats, and tongue twisters. He is fascinated by quite a lot. Follow Paul on Twitter or visit his website.

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