Richard Dorson, Folklore, and Recent Historical Scholarship
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Posted by: Frank de Caro
A Comment on Interdisciplinary Communication
by Frank de Caro --
The last few years have seen the publication of two books of
significance by historians which involve the use of folk materials in
the study of American history, Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (Nelson 2006) and Robert V. Wells’ Life Flows on in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History
(Wells 2009). As someone who wrote a dissertation (de Caro 1972) on the
larger question of folklore and history and who has tried to keep an
eye on the occasional work done in this area since that dissertation
disappeared into the stacks, I find these books of considerable
interest, though Nelson’s work, which attracted much interest in some
quarters, seems not to have gotten much attention from folklorists (as I
write, Wells’ book is quite recently published, at least as scholarly
books are reckoned). One thing that I find striking about both is that
neither mentions the work of Richard Dorson, the American historian who
went on to become a key figure in folklore studies and who wrote
extensively about the history-folklore connection. It seems ironic at
best that the work of a man who devoted a great deal of his energy to
calling attention to the potential of folklore for American historical
study should have his work forgotten or perhaps ignored or thought
irrelevant by two historians who, over twenty years after Dorson’s
death, finally get around to undertaking important studies of just the
sort he hoped for.
Nelson’s book is based or some rather
brilliant detective work done by its author. The American "folk hero"
John Henry, best known from the eponymous ballad but whose national fame
grew out of popular rather than folk sources, had intrigued folklorists
and others since early decades of the twentieth century. His folkloric
death following his successfully beating a steam machine in a contest
clearly appealed to anyone interested in the man versus machine theme.
Whether there really was an historical John Henry was a question that
engaged many, including the early folklorists Guy Johnson and Louis W.
Chappell, whose books first called concerted attention to the hero and
his traditions. The consensus seemed to be that John Henry had been real
and that his noted exploit had taken place during work on the Big Bend
Tunnel in West Virginia, though some commentators had suggested other
possibilities and opinions. Working from various clues and documents,
Nelson determined that John Henry had been a convict and looked at the
story in the context of the practice of leasing prisoners to perform the
very dangerous work of railroad building and especially tunneling in
the creation of Southern railroads after the Civil War.
book might perhaps be seen as a series of studies. In the first chapter,
for example, he discusses how "Tom Dooley" "provides evidence for a
number of historical trends" (p. 2), noting among other things the
post-Civil War context of the song and pointing out the history behind
it as "far more complex and engaging than the ballad suggests" (p. 1).
Or in the second chapter, he writes about folksongs as commenting on
sexual morality and the mores of courtship and marriage. A later
chapter, "Just Lookin’ for a Home: Traveling On," uses "Sweet Betsy from
Pike" and other songs to consider what American folksongs have to say
about American mobility and migration. Overall Wells’ intentions are to
understand "that folk songs must be understood via the context of the
past from which they emerged" (p. xi) and "to explore the historical
side of the songs and what they tell us about American history" (p. xi).
Though some readers may feel that Wells is tending more toward thematic
analysis and generalized discussions of American worldview as reflected
in folksong than to historical considerations as such, he clearly means
to comment on historical trends and to provide "Americans a version of
their past they had never encountered before" (p. 5).
both fine books that should interest folklorists, though, as I said
above, I find it a little surprising that Richard Dorson gets not a
mention in either. Of course there may be obvious reasons for this. He
gave little attention to folk song for example, Wells’ concentration of
interest (and, in a different way, Nelson’s too). Some of his writing in
this area is a little vague and theoretical. Most of what he wrote has
no direct bearing on the situations Nelson and Wells are dealing with.
Still, one might have thought that a book called American Folklore and the Historian
(Dorson 1971) would have attracted the attention of such authors as
Nelson and Wells and at least a passing mention. Earlier Dorson (1965)
had even written a Western Folklore article about John Henry.
Dorson seemingly gets ignored, even by Nelson, does suggest to me a
couple of things. First, there’s the consequence for historians
venturing into folklore, as Nelson and Wells do quite well, in terms of
their reaching folklorists. Admittedly folklorists have been ambivalent
at best about Dorson’s legacy, probably more because of his personality
(clearly he annoyed some people in the field; he enjoyed getting into
intellectual fights; he didn’t hesitate to wield the power of his
position) than because of his work and ideas (though he did get
associated, I think incorrectly, with some perspectives that folklorists
have rejected). Nonetheless, it may seem to some folklorists that
historians like Nelson and Wells have, while using folklore, not
succeeded in connecting their work to a tradition of folklore
scholarship and will thus not give the new historical work due
attention. (Folklorists have not, it seems to me, given much attention
to another important book by an American historian which has relevance
to folklore, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed
[Hackett 1989], though probably for a variety of reasons.) Second and
more important to folklorists, however, the absence of Dorson in the two
books makes me wonder whether we folklorists are, indeed, just mumbling
to ourselves, as often does seem to be the case. That is, we very much
want and hope to reach other disciplines with our ideas (and sometimes
do), but the effort may be mostly futile. Dorson, who was very eminent
and hardly invisible, did not speak in a quiet voice. He directed plenty
of words to his fellow historians. He spoke cogently. For his day, his
ideas were sound and well-supported. Yet he seems to have had no impact,
and Robert Wells even expresses his surprise that historians have not
used more folklore (in his case, songs) as documents, an idea that
Dorson pressed again and again. I’m not so surprised and wonder if
anybody but other folklorists even listens to what we have to say,
though we feel that we have things to say that scholars in other fields
should find of considerable interest and relevance.
Caro, Francis A. 1972. "Folklore as an ‘Historical Science’: The
Anglo-American Viewpoint," Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.
Dorson, Richard M. 1965. "The Career of ‘John Henry,’" Western Folklore 24: 155-163.
_____. 1971. American Folklore and the Historian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fischer, David Hackett. 1989. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nelson, Scott Reynolds. 2006. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wells, Robert V. 2009. Life Flows on in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.