Sunday, April 29, 2007

Community folklore in changing communities

Today I performed (well briefly before injuring my foot and spending the rest of the afternoon sitting with my foot elevated and iced) at Belvedere Planation in Spotsylvania called "Take a Walk through out Past and into Our Future." The event was planned by Spotsylvania county and intended to showcase Spotsylvania's past. The reality is that it was a conglommeration of various reenactment groups representing the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Virginia Renaissance Faire. There was also a group of Native reenactors, although I'm not sure if they were representing a particular tribe or time in history. Ironically the Renn Faire was there to represent Spotsylvania's future as the county hopes to turn it into a tourism draw, it doesn't really have much to do with the county's past.

What caught my attention though was that all the staff from the plantation that I saw were Latinos. Judging by the carneceria, Latin grocery store, and "Se Habla Espanol" signs I saw, Spotsylvania, like many locales, has a growing Latino population. Latinos were nonexistant as patrons, however, and there were certainly no groups representing Latinos as part of the county's past or future.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a man who ran a museum in Manasses; he said they were often criticized for not involving the local population in activities, but he was having a hard time gathering public interest in Civil War battlefields, because the demographics of the area had changed so much with the influx of immigrants. He didn't know how to interest the new community in a past that was not really thir own.

I'm wondering how this affects public sector folklorists--if you're struggling to maintain the cultural traditions of an area, what do you do when the population changes? How do you keep the community involved?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Authenticity and Value

In class on Monday we discussed Regina Bendix's book on authenticity, its relation to the commodification of culture, and its legitimizing powers, both for culture and for folklore as a discipline. I ran across an item on an arts e-marketing blog that touches on authenticity from a different angle. The blogger, Gene Carr, reported on a Poynter Institute study that said the following:
Live, documentary news photos -- photos of real people doing things in real time -- got more attention than staged photos. Studio or staged photos received little attention. [emphasis in original]
Carr encouraged marketers to use action, candid, or backstage images instead of publicity stills, adding that online,
"Authenticity is more important than almost anything else."

Why is that? Authenticity, or at least the perception of authenticity, clearly adds value. I think that for one thing, people want to feel knowledgeable, to feel like insiders. That includes getting a peek behind the slick, packaged images that we see everywhere. We like being able to know the difference between reality and virtuality. It's that eternal quest to be (or seem!) smart enough to get at the truth. More than that, however, maybe it's another way that we look for connection. We've talked in class about how folklore has been seen as an antidote to the alienation of the modern world, and that latching on to tradition - any tradition - simulates community and a sense of being grounded in time or place with other people.
Seeing a candid photo of an artist gives the illusion of really knowing him or her as a person, of being a part of that community (though this feeling is as artificial as the staged publicity photos). And it seems that this feeling of connection, of being one of the savvy few, adds value to a cultural experience.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"He loves me..., He loves me not..."

“He loves me..., He loves me not…” Some thoughts on the authenticity issue.

I have not finished the reading for this week yet but I wanted to pull together a few thoughts on the authenticity issue as I understand (?) it at this point. Regina Bendix writes, of folklore studies at the turn of the century, that:

“The marginality of the field institutionally, however, sharply contrasts with the deep attraction of folklore across society, an attraction not least to be explained by the connections of folklore to diverging searches for authenticity. Ultimately, it may be the poorly verbalized spectrum of authenticity cravings, from the treasured to the spiritual, from the purifying to the existential, that have allowed for the subject’s maverick status.” (153)

As I was thinking about this I was reminded of that game we used to play as kids, you know the game where you pick a daisy and pluck off the petals one by one, chanting while plucking the first petal: “He loves me..” and, while plucking the next: “He loves me not…”, and so on, until all the petals have been plucked. The idea being that whichever of the statements coincides with the last petal plucked must in some secret way coincide with the way the other person feels. The poor flower, as we know when we are quite rational, cannot actually have anything to do with how someone feels about us, but love is not quite rational. It seems to me that there is an element of this lover’s perspective in the folk song collecting that was being done outside of the academy by people like the Lomaxs. There is a certain sincerity, a kind of emotional authenticity, to this way of plucking at culture. It is understandable even if it is destructive of both the flower (the songs) and of the beloved (the people), as both are supposedly joined in and to the lover by this process. Do you suppose that it was a matter of indifference to the singers that their songs were actually inspiring to those who came collecting?

Meanwhile the academics take a different look at the relationship. While acknowledging the emotional attraction (at least of the white race toward the customs and peoples of other races deemed, by them, to be somehow more authentic than their own) they strive to be more rational about the whole affair. I wonder if any studies have been done concerning the attraction of the “primitive” person to the cultures and articles of (or even to the individual) outsiders who come to study them. The academics want to question the beloved himself, to hear from his own mouth some profession of love or at least a confession to the fact that he has in fact plucked a daisy and chanted this chant as we once did, or would like to do, except that we know better now. Instead of asking if we are loved in return we ask to see the daisy field, and to watch the rituals, to record the chanting and photograph the whole process. Does this protect the beloved from our love while leaving him pure in his, or does it perhaps destroy his love while we somehow get to keep ours; by having renounced it in exchange for the privilege of collecting evidence of “belovedness” from others? I’m not sure Bendix will address these questions but I am looking forward to reading her next chapters.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Nomination and Name

Hi everyone,

I hope I’m doing this right. I’ve never created a blog before. I’m very sorry I missed our class tonight.

In light of our reading for the past week and in lieu of an opportunity to participate in discussion I wanted to share a few thoughts with you regarding the term “folklore” as a name for a subject, discipline and practice.

What happens if we consider “biology” alongside “folklore?” We can study biology and we can study folklore but we don’t usually think of biology as a thing in itself except as we think of it as a field of study. We don’t go out and collect biology as we do (or have thought we could do) with folklore. We do study the biology and folklore of various places and things. We understand that we are biological but, when it comes to folklore, we have thought that only some of us, sometimes, are “folklorical.” That seems to be changing with the shift in emphasis toward performance based studies.

I can understand the material importance of the debate over folklore as a name. Many people’s careers hinge on the field’s chances for funding at universities, and certain names, like folklore, can have a negative connotation. The authors we read for tonight point out the importance of folklore scholarship to other departments like anthropology, sociology and linguistics (and more recently to the business world) while folklore departments themselves seem to languish. Some of this languishing is attributable to the name but I wonder if the debate over the name improves this situation for university folklore departments. On one level I think it does. BKG quotes Raymond Williams on the value of explicating keywords not as a means of resolution but as a means of attaining an extra "edge of consciousness."

BKG concludes that the issue for folklore is “what our future might look like as a postdisciplinary formation informed by a distinctive intellectual history whose character we more fully embrace.” She says that: “As we bring that formation into focus, we will find its name.” I get the impression that she is saying we shouldn’t dwell on the name too much, that folklorists will do more for their field (whatever it ends up being called) if they get on with their work wherever they find it. She seems to be nominating folklore – not the name “folklore” but the entity – almost like nominating someone for office. From the perspective of the nominator the name of a candidate is not so significant as a belief in her abilities. If the candidate is a person named Folklore does she decide she can never be president because her name is odd? Does she have to change her name to get funding or to get elected? BKG seems to be saying that, if Folklore found herself nominated for president and got there by being who she is, she ought to consider her name but ultimately trust her nomination and look to her campaign. After all, her definition only exists, and is only going to continue to be effective, interactively.

I wonder if others read this the same way. I would be interested in hearing your perspectives if you have time to respond.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Film and Folklore

We've discussed the use of fairy tales and fairy tale themes in the movies in class. There are the Disney "classics" that forever cement one version of a tale in the collective minds of late modern consumers, and there are films that play with fairy tale genres to varying degrees. Julia Robert's Pretty Woman (Cinderella) is such an example.

In many of these films, the fairy tale references are very obvious or even commented upon by the the characters (Julia Robert's character does just that). I saw the DVD Just Like Heaven over the weekend, and I was surprised to find that this film is clearly an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.

The film stars Reese Witherspoon (clearly the Beauty) and Mark Ruffalo, two people who need to be loved and saved from themselves. Sleeping Beauty is eventually awakened by Ruffalo's kiss, yet the film made no other direct references to the fairy tale. It is one of the best film adaptations of Beauty and the Beast that I have watched, however.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Folklore, Fairy Tales, and the Market

The link above will take you to a product promotion site by Caress body wash. They are promoting a new line of "exotic oil infusions," and to promote their products they've created fairy tale variants of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. There is even a link to upload your photo (and your prince charming!) so you, too, can be part of the Caress on-line fairy tale.

This is the use of folklore that would make Richard Dorson scream fakelore! It is an interesting use of fairy tale form, although there are too many puns and mixed metaphors. I particularly loathe Carson (of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fame) as the "fairy" god mother.

Thanks, Christina, for bringing this site to my attention.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

One of the more interesting uses of folklore on the web is the site I have linked above, When I first came upon it, I thought it must be a mulit-topic site dedicated to occupational or workplace folklore. I was right, sort of. The site is actually subtitled "The Original Macintosh," and chronicles the development of Apple's original Macintosh computer through a number of stories and anecdotes about the process and the people who were involved.

The site is in some ways a surprise. The Mac founders get it in a way that most folklorists can tell you a lot of people do not: they seem to understand that folklore is linked with storytelling and storytelling is linked to people who share at least one common feature. Also surprising is that they decided to name their blog "" as opposed to any other number of names that might have been more accurate or precise to fit their site's content. MacLore, for instance, is the first thing that comes mind, but that would probably raise copyright and other issues.

Another cursory web search will show that the understandings of the term "folklore" are pretty broad, and in many cases, imprecise. For instance, the site Living Folklore is the business site for a company of the same name. The site does not offer much in the way of information about the organization, although it is clear that they have theatrical productions that include clowns. When i wrote to Jacob Devany about the groups connection to folklore, he responded saying,
Our connection to folklore is more traditional than academic, though we have a lot of academic viability. Clowns and tricksters are in every culture around the world, and often relate cultural wisdom through humor, metaphor. We came to our work as artists, performers because of the need to make the stories live through art. In that way we are participants in evolving culture, sharing it, etc. instead of looking at culture in a box like traditional academics often do. We picked the name Living Folklore to remind people that life is a story, and it is our responsibility to live that story with respect to past and future generations, and the web of life on earth. We felt that too many people are disconnected from the life-blood that stories and myths share about who we are.

There is a lot to consider in this statement. My first response is, "well, they must never have worked with folklorists in the field," as it has been a long time since folklorists looked at folklore as "culture in a box." But more importantly, it isn't clear from the site that Living Folklore (the organization) has much to do with folklore at all. They are a performing arts troupe, they do base their work on characters and motifs associated with folklore, and they do cite connections with Native American groups. Yet none of this is necessarily folklore--depending on how you define it.

My question this morning is, what are the associations of the word folklore for others, those "civilians" and others who have not dedicated their lives to the study of folklore? Should folklorists be more involved with the use of the term, and if so, how should we interface with the world, particularly those who feel a strong connection to the idea of folklore, but might not have a connection to folklore in its varied professional contexts?

Monday, April 2, 2007

Folklore on the Web

If you do a basic Google search on "folklore," you will hit thousands of websites, many of which are published by amateur folklorists. The content and quality of these sites vary greatly (like all web material), but if the web is any indication, there is more than a casual interest in folklore at the moment.

The result of one of these searches was the discovery of "Home Town Tales," a public access cable television show dedicated to folklore and stories of unexplained or bizarre events across the nation. The voice over at the start of the show rattles off a number of folklore genres with the slogan, "We call them Hometown Tales, because every town has one."

The shows are all brief,about 6 minutes in length, and appear to be filmed with hand held cameras and edited with lots of special effects to make the creepy stories seem a wee bit creepier, darker, and mysterious.

The Hometown Tales creators definitely document community folklore, as the episode below, "The Legend of La Llorona" demonstrates. What is missing here is context, particularly the fact that the Santa Fe legends presented are not the only location of the La Llorona legend, that there are many variants of this tale and that it originated in Mexico.

Nevertheless, Hometown Tales is one example of amateur folklore, or as I prefer to refer to it, folklore collected by the folk. The broader question I would like to pose here is how should professional folklorists respond to folklore by the folk? There is a move within public sector folklore to train community member to collect their own folklore. That level of collaboration empowers communities to make decisions about their traditions regarding what should be collected and preserved, which is (I believe) the heart of folklore scholarship. We are collaborators; the material belongs to the people who produce it.

But what of the web-based collections? Some of these are not necessarily community based projects collected from local insiders. Similarly, a number of folklore books written by non-folklorists effectively divorce the content from its creators.

I encourage you to take a look at, and comment upon, the "Legend of La Llorona" presented here.