The Folklore Wiki > About Folklore > What is Folklore?
Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and
practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and
behavioral example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares,
as a central part of that identity, folk traditions–the things that
people traditionally believe (planting practices, family
traditions, and other elements of worldview), do (dance, make
music, sew clothing), know (how to build an irrigation dam, how
to nurse an ailment, how to prepare barbecue), make
(architecture, art, craft), and say (personal experience
stories, riddles, song lyrics). As these examples indicate, in most
instances there is no hard-and-fast separation of these categories,
whether in everyday life or in folklorists’ work.
The word "folklore” names an enormous and deeply significant
dimension of culture. Considering how large and complex this subject is,
it is no wonder that folklorists define and describe folklore in so
many different ways. Try asking dance historians for a definition of
"dance,” for instance, or anthropologists for a definition of "culture.”
No one definition will suffice–nor should it.
In part, this is also because particular folklorists emphasize
particular parts or characteristics of the world of folklore as a result
of their own work, their own interests, or the particular audience
they’re trying to reach. And for folklorists, as for the members of any
group who share a strong interest, disagreeing with one another is part
of the work–and the enjoyment–of the field, and is one of the best ways
But to begin, below we have cited several folklorists’ definitions
and descriptions of folklore, given in the order in which they were
written and published. (One of them uses the word "folklife” instead,
which American folklorists, following their European colleagues, have
used more frequently of late.) None of these definitions answers every
question by itself, and certainly none of them is the American Folklore
Society’s official definition (we don’t have one), but each offers a
good place to start. From time to time we’ll add the views of other
folklorists to this page.
One thing you’ll note about these definitions and descriptions is
that they challenge the notion of folklore as something that is simply
"old,” "old-fashioned,” "exotic,” "rural,” "peasant,” "uneducated,”
"untrue,” or "dying out.” Though folklore connects people to their past,
it is a central part of life in the present, and is at the heart of all
cultures–including our own–throughout the world.
For more information about folklore and about what folklorists do,
please see the other sections of this "About Folklore” chapter, as well
as the other chapters of this AFSNet web site.
And if you have further questions about folklore or folklorists’
work, we invite you to contact the university folklore program or public
folklore organization closest to you, or the American Folklore
Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and their Traditions. Pp. 1-2. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005.
is many things, and it’s almost impossible to define succinctly. It’s
both what folklorists study and the name of the discipline they work
within. Yes, folklore is folk songs and legends. It’s also quilts, Boy
Scout badges, high school marching band initiations, jokes, chian
letters, nicknames, holiday food… and many other things you might or
might not expect. Folklore exists in cities, suburbs and rural villages,
in families, work groups and dormitories. Folklore is present in many
kinds of informal communication, whether verbal (oral and written
texts), customary (behaviors, rituals) or material (physical objects).
It involves values, traditions, ways of thinking and behaving. It’s
about art. It’s about people and the way people learn. It helps us learn
who we are and how to make meaning in the world around us. [Pages 1-2]
Dorothy Noyes. Folklore. In The Social Science Encyclopedia. 3rd edition. Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, eds. Pp. 375-378. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Barbro Klein. Folklore. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 8. Pp. 5711-5715. New York: Elsevier, 2001.
is a metacultural category used to mark certain genres and practices
within modern societies as being not modern. By extension, the word
refers to the study of such materials. More specific definitions place
folklore on the far side of the various epistemological, aesthetic and
technological binary oppositions that distinguish the modern from its
presumptive contraries. Folklore therefore typically evokes both
repudiation and nostalgia. [Page 375]
Mary Hufford. American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures.
Washington: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1991.
'Folklore' has four basic meanings. First, it denotes oral narration, rituals, crafts, and other forms of vernacular expressive culture. Second, folklore, or ‘folkloristics,’ names an academic discipline devoted to the study of such phenomena. Third, in everyday usage, folklore sometimes describes colorful ‘folkloric’ phenomena linked to the music, tourist, and fashion industries. Fourth, like myth, folklore can mean falsehood. [P. 5711]
What is folklife? Like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, folklife
is often hidden in full view, lodged in the various ways we have of
discovering and expressing who we are and how we fit into the world.
Folklife is reflected in the names we bear from birth, invoking
affinities with saints, ancestors, or cultural heroes. Folklife is the
secret languages of children, the codenames of CB
operators, and the working slang of watermen and doctors. It is the
shaping of everyday experiences in stories swapped around kitchen tables
or parables told from pulpits. It is the African American rhythms
embedded in gospel hymns, bluegrass music, and hip hop, and the Lakota
flutist rendering anew his people’s ancient courtship songs.
Folklife is the sung parodies of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic”
and the variety of ways there are to skin a muskrat, preserve string
beans, or join two pieces of wood. Folklife is the society welcoming new
members at bris and christening, and keeping the dead incorporated on
All Saints Day. It is the marking of the Jewish New Year at Rosh
Hashanah and the Persian New Year at Noruz. It is the evolution of
vaqueros into buckaroos, and the riderless horse, its stirrups backward,
in the funeral processions of high military commanders.
Folklife is the thundering of foxhunters across the rolling
Rappahannock countryside and the listening of hilltoppers to hounds
crying fox in the Tennessee mountains. It is the twirling of lariats at
western rodeos, and the spinning of double-dutch jumpropes in West
Philadelphia. It is scattered across the landscape in Finnish saunas and
Italian vineyards; engraved in the split-rail boundaries of Appalachian
"hollers” and the stone fences around Catskill "cloves”; scrawled on
urban streetscapes by graffiti artists; and projected onto skylines by
the tapering steeples of churches, mosques, and temples.
Folklife is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad
forms and interactions. Universal, diverse, and enduring, it enriches
the nation and makes us a commonwealth of cultures.
Henry Glassie. The Spirit of Folk Art. New York:
"Folklore,” though coined as recently as
1846, is the old word, the parental concept to the adjective "folk.”
Customarily folklorists refer to the host of published definitions, add
their own, and then get on with their work, leaving the impression that
definitions of folklore are as numberless as insects. But all the
definitions bring into dynamic association the ideas of individual
creativity and collective order.
William A. Wilson. The Deeper Necessity: Folklore and the
Humanities. Journal of American Folklore 101:400, 1988.
Folklore is traditional. Its center holds. Changes are slow and
steady. Folklore is variable. The tradition remains wholly within the
control of its practitioners. It is theirs to remember, change, or
forget. Answering the needs of the collective for continuity and of the
individual for active participation, folklore…is that which is at once
traditional and variable.
Barre Toelken. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton
Surely no other discipline is more concerned with linking us to the
cultural heritage from the past than is folklore; no other discipline is
more concerned with revealing the interrelationships of different
cultural expressions than is folklore; and no other discipline is so
concerned …with discovering what it is to be human. It is this attempt
to discover the basis of our common humanity, the imperatives of our
human existence, that puts folklore study at the very center of
Tradition [means] not some static, immutable force from the past, but
those pre-existing culture-specific materials and options that bear upon the performer more heavily than
do his or her own personal tastes and talents. We recognize
in the use of tradition that such matters as content
and style have been for the most part passed on but not invented
by the performer.
Jan Brunvand. The Study of American Folklore: An
Introduction, 2nd edition. New York: W.W.
Dynamic recognizes, on the other hand, that in the
processing of these contents and styles in performance, the
artist’s own unique talents of inventiveness within
the tradition are highly valued and are expected to operate
strongly. Time and space dimensions remind us that the resulting
variations may spread geographically with great rapidity (as
jokes do) as well as down through time (good luck beliefs).
Folklore is made up of informal expressions passed around
long enough to have become recurrent in form and context,
but changeable in performance.
…modern American folklorists do not limit their attention
to the rural, quaint, or "backward" elements of
the culture. Rather, they will study and discuss any expressive
phenomena–urban or rural–that seem to act like
other previously recognized folk traditions. This has led
to the development of a field of inquiry with few formal boundaries,
one with lots of feel but little definition, one both engaging
Folklore comprises the unrecorded traditions of a people; it includes
both the form and content of these traditions and their style or
technique of communication from person to person.
Folklore is the traditional, unofficial, non-institutional part of
culture. It encompasses all knowledge, understandings, values,
attitudes, assumptions, feelings, and beliefs transmitted in traditional
forms by word of mouth or by customary examples.
Edward D. Ives. Joe Scott, the Woodsman-Songmaker. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1978.
No song, no performance, no act of creation can be properly
understood apart from the culture or subculture in which it is found and
of which it is a part; nor should any "work of art” be looked on as a
thing in itself apart from the continuum of creation-consumption.
Dell Hymes. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic
Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
[Folklore study is] the study of communicative behavior with an
esthetic, expressive, or stylistic dimension.
Dan Ben-Amos. Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context, in
Américo Paredes and Richard Bauman, eds. Toward New Perspectives in
Folklore. Austin: University of Texas Press for the American Folklore
…folklore is artistic communication in small groups.