PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Folklore/Folklife and Material Culture Studies

Alice Reed Morrison

Folklorists have quipped that there are nearly as many definitions of “folklore” as there are scholars on the subject. The word itself (spelled “folk-lore”) was coined in 1846 by an English antiquarian, William John Thoms, who suggested it as a replacement for the clumsy phrase then in use, “popular antiquities” (Dorson 1972, 1). These popular antiquities being collected by enthusiastic amateur scholars included superstitions and beliefs, sayings, customs, stories, songs, arts and crafts, and farm tools of the rural lower classes of Great Britain. As the academic discipline of folklore formed at the end of the nineteenth century, the term “folklore” came to cover the study of such material as well as the material itself.

In continental Europe, meanwhile—and beginning a generation earlier—philologists and mythologists Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were collecting traditional oral literature from German peasants: folktales, myths, and legends. Their interest was in tracing the German language back to its Indo-European roots, but their documentation of the many different variants of the same traditional tales in different regions demonstrated the concepts of variation within a tradition and regional adaptation which became central to future research in folklore of all genres.

Because of the term “lore” embedded within “folklore” and an emphasis in academe in the first half of the twentieth century on the study of oral forms of folklore (folktales, folk songs and ballads, folk speech, proverbs, riddles, jokes, superstitions, and other forms), the word “folklore” became increasingly associated with only such oral genres, especially among scholars in English departments (where academic folklorists generally dwelt) and in the concurrent-with-folklore forming academic discipline of cultural anthropology. The term “folklife” emerged in the mid-twentieth century because material culture scholars within the field felt that it better described the whole panorama of traditional culture, including the oral folklore as well as material forms. These include folk art, craft, architecture, costume, foodways, furniture, tools, toys, techniques of land use and other facets of agriculture and animal husbandry, customary occupations like fishing and hunting, and settlement patterns.

“Folklife” is a direct adaptation of the Swedish term folkliv and German term Volksleben. “Folklife studies”—Swedish folklivsforskning or German Volkskunde—is the analysis of a folk culture in its entirety, and by folk culture is meant “the lower (traditional or ‘folk’ levels) of a literate Western (European or American) society. Folk culture is traditional culture, bound by tradition and transmitted by tradition, and is basically (though not exclusively) rural and preindustrial” (Yoder 1990, 25). Traditional transmission is defined as by word-of-mouth and example, as contrasted with learning associated with social institutions such as schools, part of elite or upper-class society. The terms folk and tradition are also juxtaposed against mass-produced, machine-made, popular culture such as begin its ascendancy in the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian Era and spread its dominance throughout the next century. The birth of folklife studies is, of course, intimately associated with the social and cultural effects of such industrialization on folk communities. To quote Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”1

In the early and mid-twentieth century, Louisiana State University cultural geographer Fred Kniffen was also actively collecting folklore and folklife, documenting the folkways of the sport of hunting, geographical myths of Louisiana, the costumes of American working men, local foodways, agricultural fairs, folk crafts, covered bridges, and vernacular house types, among other topics (Vlach 1995). He was elected to serve on the Council of the American Folklore Society in 1951 and held the post for three years. His studies of folk architecture culminated in his influential article, “Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion” in 1965 (Kniffen 1965). One can recognize here those key concepts articulated by the Grimm brothers through their collection and analysis of folktales: diffusion of folk culture across space and through time, variation within tradition, and regional adaptation. Certain motifs and themes persist and reappear while changes are made to fit material to a region or community and per individual creativity. He articulated the close connection between cultural geography and folklife in “American Cultural Geography and Folklife,” a 1976 article published within a collection entitled American Folklife (Yoder 1976). Kniffen was a mentor to the young folklorist Henry Glassie, whose 1968 book Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Glassie 1968) inspired another generation of folklorists to begin documenting American folk material culture, region by region.

In the 1960s, Indiana University folklore professor Warren Roberts—who received the first Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University in the 1950s with an historic-geographic analysis of a fairy tale—visited Scandinavia and Great Britain and was inspired by their folklife museums and research. He eventually redefined himself as a folklife scholar producing masterful studies of log architecture, tombstones, furniture, hand tools, and German-American folklife (Roberts 1984; 1988).2 Roberts defined folklife research as being “concerned primarily with the traditional society of the past, its persistence into the presence, and its influence of the present,” and that the study of traditional material culture belongs with such folklife research (Robert 1988, 19). If one is studying a material artifact such as a building, for example, one must also study the people who built it and who lived in it. That is the folklorist or folklife scholar’s approach to the study of material culture.

Henry Glassie’s 1975 book, Passing the Time in Ballymenone: CultureandHistory of an Ulster Community, adhered to the folklife model of research, intertwining material culture study of folk architecture, crafts, agriculture, geography, and settlement patterns with oral folklore, folk music, and community and social history. That year, 1975, was also the year I began my study of folklore, writing a senior thesis on fairy tales for my bachelor’s degree in psychology at Reed College in Oregon (coincidentally also Warren Roberts’s alma mater, where he wrote a thesis on ballads). When I entered Indiana University’s folklore department as a graduate student in 1977, Warren Roberts became my mentor and the chairman of my dissertation, which I modeled on Glassie’s Ballymenone study. Like Glassie, the term “community” was a central theme around which I worked, though in my case the rural community was one which had been uprooted from physical space twenty years elarier in order to create a huge, man-made lake, during the tail end of a century of such projects by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Mordoh 1986). I explored the concepts of sense of community and sense of place, documenting the role folk culture had in maintaining such seeming ephemera, both before and after former community members were displaced and physically dispersed. As Glassie had noted in rural Ireland, “The landscape displayed no community. Before me, between tall hedges, a road lifted at a flat sky. Across the green, whitewashed houses scattered in no apparent pattern” (Glassie 1975, 13). And,

Serious study of a community’s history does not begin with a raid to snatch scraps to add color or flesh or nobility to the history of another community. It begins when the observer adopts the local prospect, then brings the local landscape into visibility, giving the creations of the community’s people—artifacts in which their past is entombed, the texts in which their past lives—complete presence (621).

In addition to documenting the material culture that remained on the ridges surrounding the river valley that had been a community of scattered farms and villages and was not Lake Monroe, I collected oral histories from previous residents, describing the farming, foodways, folk crafts, oral narratives, folk beliefs, and family histories. Old photographs helped recreate the cultural landscape now obliterated. I observed traditions that continued in spite of displacement: gardening and animal husbandry, familiar outbuildings and other structures beside new homes, quilting, visiting, foodways: traditional patters that give meaning to human lives both in the past and present.

At this time within the academic discipline of folklore—the last quarter of the twentieth century—the question of the definition of the term “folklore” and the methodology and analysis of folklore research took a new direction. The examination of texts, in oral folklore, or artifacts, in material culture, was declared to have been over-emphasized to the neglect of the individual who was actually telling the tale or singing the song and the context of the event. Those who previously had been referred to as “tradition-bearers” were not called performers and the words “performance” and “communication” replaced “tradition” as central to the definition of folklore: “informal artistic performance within a folk group” and “the enthography of speaking” became the central themes of the field. According to Bauman (1972, xi), “There is an emphasis upon performance as an organizing principle that comprehends within a single conceptual framework artistic act, expressive form, and esthetic response, and that does so in terms of locally defined, culture-specific categories and contexts.” Another key phrase was “dynamics of the folk group,” meaning “the nature of active traditional moments that occur between and among people” (Toelken 1976, 49).

These concepts are more readily applicable to documentation of oral and customary folklore than to material culture, though the folklife scholar’s emphasis on considering all aspects of the individual creator’s construction and use of artifacts and their role within the community would seem to cover such emphasis on performance and cultural communication. Bauman’s 1992 edited collection, Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainment: A Communications-Centered Handbook, is dominated by oral and customary examples, the former renamed “communicative media and expressive genres” (under which is included artifact, clothing, mask, and food as well as folktale, oral poetry, proverb, riddle, speech play, insult, gossip, oratory, song, music, gesture, mime, and dance). Custom is renamed “cultural performances and popular entertainments” and includes on material form, puppetry, along with ritual, festival, drama performance, spectacle, and tourism. Folklore departments became dominated by those with a performance-centered focus and research in oral and customary folklore and the linguistic and behavioral dynamics of human interaction. Material culture and folklife scholars not already holding jobs within the academy were forced to move to the public sector for employment—historic preservation agencies and museums—which was certainly a boon to those fields.

It is interesting that this situation is reminiscent of Fred Kniffen’s decision in 1959 to resign his membership in the American Folklore Society, which caused MacEdward Leach, then secretary-treasurer, to write him in distress, inquiring why he was doing so. Kniffen answered, “My chief interest has always been in the material manifestations of folkways, such things as are of concern in the folk museums of Scandinavia. It appears that few members of the Society share any interest” (Vlach 1995, 330-31). He was unhappy with the dominance of oral folklore genres as subject matter for publication in the society’s Journal of American Folklore. The journal has continued to neglect work in material culture and folklife since that time up to the present.

Those folklorists already within academe in the 1970s sought to make their material culture research fit the new performance-centered analytical model. Folklorist Simon Bronner, a professor in the American Studies department at Pennsylvania State University, addressed this issue in his 1985 edited collection of essays by numerous material culture scholars, American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue (Bronner 1985a). In Bronner’s own contribution to the volume, he states that rather than treat an artifact as an object one must treat it as a “process related to influencing systems, which include social, political, psychological, and economic. We need to understand the artifact in light of its natural habitat and its makers and users. …’Material culture’ hence describes much more than objects; it strikes deep into the relation of human existence and expression. It is a study of people and their wrought reality” (Bronner 1985b, 18).

This description is a restatement of Roberts’s and other folklife scholars’ dictum per the methodology required in material culture research. One of the articles in this collection, Bernard Herman’s “Time and Performance: Folk Houses in Delaware,” makes a direct attempt to force the research of historic architecture into the performance model (Herman 1985). Others claimed a shift in emphasis since the 1960s from what artifacts reflect of sociocultural matrix to how objects communicate and what they actually do in “exchange systems” and “the influence of interactional patterns—social, economic, residential, kinship—on both the consistency and the variability of stylistic features” (Babcock 1992, 212).

Henry Glassie, who at this time moved from a focus on folk architecture to folk art, continued with the folklife model of research and analysis, articulating the connection with performance: “Material culture is the conventional name for the tangible yield of human conduct. …Culture is pattern in mind, inward, invisible, and shifting. Material things…stand solidly out there in the world. …[T]he study of material culture uses objects to approach human thought and action” (Glassie 1999, 41). His subsequent ethnographic studies of folk art in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Japan from the 1980s to the present explore every dimension of the context and creation of the material artifacts (Glassie 1985; 1997; 1999; 2008).

After completing my dissertation in 1986, I continued my folklore research using the folklife model espoused by Roberts and Glassie. The use of a particular local material for creating artistic landscape features and architectural elements available in the so-called “geode belt” running through southern Indiana intrigued me (Mordoh 1989). The variations within a local tradition of this folk art were apparent and documentation of the physical objects as well as observations of and conversations with their builders and users constituted my methodology and analysis. As Glassie states, “Neither tradition nor variability alone makes folklore. The key is their simultaneity, their interdependence. … Folklore celebrates and symbolized the willing submission of individuals to their own cultures” (Glassie 1989).

I continued studying these themes of variation within a tradition, continuity of traditional motifs and themes through time and across space, and the dynamic between individual creativity and conservative tradition in my documentation of the farms just north of the Ohio River in the German-American settled region of southern Indiana near where Warren Roberts had explored (Morrison 2001; 2002). I was struck by the German Catholic folk beliefs and folk art exemplified in local Mary shrines and grottoes (Morrison 2004). Though the current buzzwords amongst academic folklife scholars are “social use and meaning of the built environment,” “production of locality,” and “communication of social values through material and verbal discourses and recurrent action” (Williams 1991; Roberts 2006, 1), it is the same folklife model being used in the investigation of material folk artifacts, rural custom, and regional identity.

Like most people in this audience, I am still always drawn to explore the local material culture and landscape wherever I go, and to document it if possible. In my current professional life, I have, curiously, returned to my earliest academic roots in psychology, becoming a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychotherapist. One technique of therapy I use is that of sandplay, which incorporates a tray of sand and hundreds of miniatures, material objects as symbols. My many years of collecting folk carvings and other artifacts, secular and religious, have been invaluable in this new profession.


1 “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Joni Mitchell, folk singer, wrote these lyrics for her song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” which she released in 1970.

2 A bibliography of Roberts’s publications can be found at the end of the festschrift dedicated to him, The Old Traditional Way of Life: Essays in Honor of Warren E. Roberts (Walls and Schoemaker 1989).


Babcock, B. 1992. “Artifact.” In R. Bauman, ed., Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-centered Handbook. New York: Oxford University Press, 204-216.

Bauman, R. 1972. “Introduction.” In A. Paredes and R. Bauman, eds., Toward New Perspectives in Folklore. Auistin: University of Texas Press, xi-xv.

_______, ed. 1992. Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-centered Handbook. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bronner, S., ed. 1985a. American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.

_______. 1985b. “The Idea of the Folk Artifact.” In S. Bronner, American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 3-39.

Dorson, R., ed. 1972a. Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_______. 1972b. “Introduction: Concepts of Folklore and Folklife Studies.” In R. Dorson, Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1-49.

Glassie, H. 1968. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

_______. 1975. Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

_______. 1985. Turkish Traditional Art Today. Turkish Studies Series, XI. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

_______. 1989. The Spirit of Folk Art. New York: Henry N. Abrams.

_______. 1997. Art and Life in Bangladesh. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

_______. 1999a. Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

_______. 1999b. The Potter’s Art. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Herman, B. 1985. “Time and Performance: Folk Houses in Delaware.” In S. Bronner, American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 155-175.

Kniffen, F. 1965. “Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 58: 549-577.

Mordoh, A. M. 1986. “Portrait of a Lost Community: A Folklife Study of the Salt Creek Valley of South Central Indiana and the Effects of Community Displacement Following Formation of the Monroe Reservoir.” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.

_______. 1989. “The Tradition of Geode Construction in Southern Indiana.” In R. Walls and G. Schoemaker, The Old Traditional Way of Life. Bloomington, IN: Trickster Press, 96-110.

Morrison, A. R. 2001. “Ethnicity and Acculturation: German Immigrant Homes and barns of Southern Indiana: The Schaeffer Farmstead, 1845-2000.” Material Culture 33(3): 29-63.

_______. 2002. “Ethnicity and Acculturation: German Immigrant Homes and Barns of Southern Indiana, Part II: From Log Timer Frame; German Houses and English Barns, and a German American Subtype—the Broken-roof English Barn.” Material Culture 34(1): 1-39.

_______. 2004. “Grottos in the New World.” In S. Bronner, ed., Encyclopedia of American Folklife. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

A. Paredes and R. Bauman, eds. 1972. Toward New Perspectives in Folklore. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Roberts, K. 2006. “Storehouses of Abundance and Loss: Architecture Narrative and Memory in West Virginia.” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.

Roberts, W. 1984. Log Buildings of Southern Indiana. Bloomington, IN: Trickster Press.

_______. 1988. Viewpoints on Folklife: Looking at the Overlooked. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.

Toelken, B. 1976. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Vlach, J. 1995. “Fred B. Kniffen’s Milestones in American Folklife Study.” Journal of American Folklore 108(429): 328-333.

Walls, R. and G. Schoemaker, eds. 1989. Old Traditional Way of Life. Bloomington, IN: Trickster Press.

Williams, M. A. 1991. Homeplace: The Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Yoder, D., ed. 1976. American Folklife. Austin: University of Texas Press.

_______. 1990. Discovering American Folklife: Essays on Folk Culture and the Pennsylvania Dutch. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.


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