The Importance of Folklore

Tonight I’m reading Simon J Bronner’s The Practice of Folklore. Essays toward a Theory of Tradition. I want to rant about the importance of folklore and folkways to our lives. They help us reach out to people and share. They are also magically important in novels, which is why I’m researching the theory right now.

In a chat somewhere online a few days ago, someone stated very firmly that they had invented a fantasy world and that what we knew of this world didn’t apply. In theory, this is true. In practice, however, we (human beings) have things that connect us to the world., In novels, storylines that kinda reflect what we think we know are easier to read. If we think that very green grass means much rain and wonderful grazing (I’ve been dreaming of Ireland) then if we have a wet climate with much grass and a character walks out onto it and it’s hard and dry and fractured, like the Australian outback during a drought, it will be really hard to envisage the world. If we talk about living in houses and how deep the foundations are and then show those houses floating, foundationless, in mid air, we will be fretted and want to find easier reading. One way that some of the bets writers hold worlds together while still challenging what we think we know is to use folklore, popular culture, and folkways. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union does this rather wonderfully from one direction and his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay does it just as wonderfully from another.

And yet… most folklore studies are descriptions of folklore. I have a pile of photocopied jokes from my father and I used it when someone asked me for a piece on folklore, twentysomething years ago. I described the collection and gave some examples of the jokes. That was my father’s folk collection. My own is food and foodways. I have a rather nice little collection of community cookbooks.

These descriptions and studies are tremendous for writers. They are such vast resources. Nevertheless, it’s studies such as Bonner’s that teach us how to use folklore most effectively. I’m reading Bronner’s book now in order to better analyse fiction, but I own the book as much for my own writing as for my analysis of others.

The more we understand the role folklore, folkways and all their related subjects play in our lives, the more fuel there is for writing and the more joy there is in reading. And now you know what I’m working on for the next three months. Folklore and folkways in just one writer’s work. It’s part of my big project, the sequel to my Story Matrices work. And it’s so much fun. If I can understand theories of tradition, just think of what it does for my own novels, how enriched my worldbuilding will be.

There’s one single extra big and very important component. Nancy Jane Moore reminded me that I promised a post today and told me that it was Juneteenth. Juneteenth is very alien to me, culturally, because I’m Jewish Australian. Australia’s colonial heritage is very different from that of the US. When the US was enmeshed in civil war, we were still a bunch of British colonies. We have our own history and our own days that are equally difficult, but none of them are Juneteenth.

When I find something that foreign and that interesting and that holds that much historical importance, one very good way to explore it is by understanding the folkways and folklore associated with it. It’s a part of cultural respect.

I can’t tell you what to do or think about Juneteenth, but I can tell you that if you want to understand it, you look at the words and the traditions of those whose day it is. That’s step one in learning to tell stories about people from different backgrounds to ourselves. It’s not a matter of learning a date and noting that it’s important, it’s a matter of finding out why it’s important, how it’s important and what cultural fabric surrounds it. Bronner’s book doesn’t talk about Juneteenth at all, but his chapters on other subjects help give me a path to follow as I respectfully start learning.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Folklore

  1. If you want to understand Juneteenth and why it’s good that it’s now an official US holiday (celebrated this year on Monday June 20, instead of June 19, because almost all US holidays are officially celebrated on Mondays), I highly recommend Annette Gordon-Reed’s short book On Juneteenth. Gordon-Reed is an historian and a Texan of many generations and African American. She was raised with Juneteenth and has thought about it.

    I would also note that Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American” newsletter for June 19 pointed out that telling the enslaved people of Texas that they were now free included these words: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Which is to say that the Emancipation Proclamation, delivered two and a half years late, was only the bare beginning of the shift from a society built on slavery. Celebration is only part of the story and if we ignore the rest we miss the point. Which I think fits in with what Gillian said on folklore.

    1. Thank you. I’ll read the book – but I’ll also keep an eye open for that folk material. The folk material doesn’t give me the history of the day. It gives me a path into understanding what it means to individuals and how they live it. The role flags play in Texas is one of the things I treasure, because it tells me so much about that element of the lives of Texans. I have two flags (one for Spring and one of a cat) to remind me of this, because it’s so very different from my own culture. I was brought up with no flags on private homes and with somewhat military-like flag etiquette. When I was in primary school, we saluted the flag, said the oath of allegiance, sang God Save the Queen (which many of us sang as God Save our Biscuit Tin, because Australians will always be Australians) and that set the tone in flag0use for my whole life. Seasonal flags, private flags, flags for personal politics…. all these things are not part of my flag culture.
      When I understand the equivalents of this flag culture for Juneteenth in various parts of the US, I’ll begin to understand Juneteenth outside history books.

      1. I think Gordon-Reed’s book will give you some of that, because she starts with Juneteenth as an important part of her life — and her community’s life — going back to her childhood and the lives of her ancestors.

        You know, although the Texas flag culture does include the Spanish, Mexican, and even French flags, I think of it these days as part of the over-sold myth of Anglo culture. Part of that is the emphasis on the Republic of Texas — which lasted 9 years — part is the inclusion of the Confederate flag, which is something Texans ought to be ashamed of, and part is the fact that the Indigenous Texans didn’t fly flags. (If anybody wants to argue with me about any of that, be forewarned that my Anglo Texas and southern credentials are rock solid. I’m talking about my people.)

        I’m living for the day when official Texas folklore includes the non-Anglo cultures that built the damn place. The folklorist Americo Paredes collected and wrote about a great deal of the folklore of the Mexican American community, especially that along the border between Texas and Mexico. You might enjoy some of that. With His Pistol in His Hand is one of his books that was actually made into a movie. There are ballads — corridos — sung about the heroes in that folklore. (I so regret I didn’t know about him back when I was an undergraduate and he was teaching at the University of Texas.)

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