Why Study Folklore?

Because it's pervasive, informative, and fun. What do you think of when a black cat crosses your path? Why do we put lights on the Christmas tree? Why are popular jokes created about Hurrican Katrina or the death of Michael Jackson? I have discovered that folklore can stimulate our intellectual, creative, and aesthetic desires. It has much to tell us about people's attitudes, beliefs, and concerns. I rarely read even the newspaper without coming across some significant aspect of folklore. An article in the Chronicle pointed out Reebok's gross error in naming one of its athletic shoe models "Incubus." Only after 53,000 of these shoes were shipped to America was it pointed out to a horrified Reebok spokesman that "Incubus" refers to the evil medieval spirits believed to attack sleeping women and have sex with them. The July 21, 2002 Sacramento Bee had a most interesting article on current rumors and legends concerning the government. For example, there is the widespread rumor that airplane contrails are the result of the dumping of hazardous waste by the Air Force, there is the recurring hoax that there will soon be a tax on each e-mail message, and a popular legend in the African American community tells of a $10,000 slavery reparation check or tax credit for each African American. Such persistent rumors and legends, though they do have much to tell us about folk group fears and desires, require the government to expend significant time and money in combating them. According to the IRS, around 80,000 taxpayers filed for the bogus reparation tax credit for the 2001 year.

A study of folklore also helps to fill in the blank spots that our literature, anthropology and art classes often do not address. Not only can we learn about our family and cultural heritage, and how our past continues to shape us, we can examine our interesting present-day folk responses to everything from arachnids to zombies. Knowing more about where we have been as a culture/species, as well as where we are, might help us better see where we are likely to go. In June of 2002, I asked the author of your textbook, Jan Brunvand, "Why should a student be interested in folklore?" You can listen to his response.(or read a transcript of the response) During the same interview, I asked him how he became interested in folklore and in what ways, if any, has folklore impacted his life. You can listen to his response. (or read a transcript of his response)

Michael Lind, a historical commentator, argues in The Next American Nation, that the very destiny of America--its "fourth image of just married multi-racial coupleAmerican Revolution," will be due to the "emergence of a multi-racial middle-class American majority united by a common language, customs, and culture." Lind believes "The fund of common knowledge that most Americans share, like common folkways and the common language, shows the blending of diverse cultures into a new national culture in the United States." He points out that these "folkways--not abstract moral codes, but particular ways of acting, ways of dressing, conventions of masculinity and femininity, ways of celebrating major events like births, marriages, and funerals, particular kinds of sports and recreations, conceptions of the proper boundaries between the secular and religious spheres. And there is a body of knowledge--ranging from historical events that everyone is expected to know about to widely shared but ephemeral knowledge of sports and cinema and music--that might be called common knowledge. Common language, common folkways, common knowledge--these, rather than race or religion or political philosophy, are what identify a member of the American cultural nation."

What people think has happened in history, what they say to each other about history, can effect the present and future. Many Americans believe that George Washington proved he was an honest guy by confessing to the wanton destruction of a cherry tree (read the real story about George); that Columbus discovered the world was round; that Lincoln walked miles to return a penny. None of these beliefs are true, yet they helped shape our country's ethical and historical foundation. The importance of belief is so often underestimated. I am fond of quoting the old saying that "It's not what we don't know that gets us in trouble, it's the things we know that ain't so." People most often act, sometime foolishly or violently, not on what is known to be true, but on what they believe to be true, and an attempt to change even the most outlandish folk beliefs can be a daunting task.

Egypt's educated medical profession, for example, is making little headway against female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision--a deeply rooted tradition practiced on 70--90% of Egyptian girls just before puberty. Take a look at the Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project site  --you will certainly gain a better understanding of how resistant to change some aspects of folklore can be. As budding folklorists you will eventually have to confront the "dark side" of folklore--and there will likely be customs you disagree with, jokes you find offensive, and art that may appear to have no value from your perspective. Whether you end up becoming a cultural relativist, a moral relativist, or someone that believes in taking an ethical stance on every issue, I encourage you to follow Einstein's suggestion: "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." Also, during the course you will become very familiar with urban legends, superstitions, and fairy tales. While some might imagine such folklore to be insignificant and primarily entertaining, I believe they can offer, at least to the questioning folklorist, as much insight into popular fears, needs, and desires as a tall stack of sociology and psychology texts. As a folklorist, and you are now one, you will see that nothing in our culture is truly meaningless. Whether joke, custom, or tale--you can use each bit of lore to better understand the human race, local culture, and even yourself.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of folklore study is how broad the field really is, and how it seems that the more one knows about folklore the more questions one has. It has been said about science that "the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder"--this is most certainly true of folklore. In fact, although I am the instructor of the course, I expect to learn a tremendous amount of folklore from you, the student. During the last year or so I have had the pleasure of reading student project papers on such diverse topics as: The Traditions of the Rocky Horror Picture Show; Nude Folk Dancing; Common Folk Medicine for Colds; Changes in the Customs of the Karok Tribe; Wicked Stepmothers--Fact or Fiction; The use and Abuse of Expletives; The History and Versions of The Strawberry Roan; Cyberlore; Folk Art--Portraits, Landscapes, and Seascapes; Latrinalia along I-5; The Bawdy Side of Ozark Folktales; Urban Legend about Disneyland and Disney Movies; Local Graveyard Epitaphs; Gambling Superstitions; Ghost Stories of Siskiyou County; Medical Humor; Folk Cures for Hiccup; Coca-Cola Coke Lore; The Language of the Blues; Totem Poles; Jewish Wedding Traditions; Irish Folktale; Superstitions About Cats; Myth, Magic, and Masks; Local Lore of the Virgin Mary Statues in Yreka... Who wouldn't want to read a few of these?