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AFS Review: Essays

Richard Dorson, Folklore, and Recent Historical Scholarship

Wednesday, February 22, 2012   (3 Comments)
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.

Wells’ 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).

These are 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.

That 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.

References Cited

de 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.


Rachelle H. Saltzman Ph.D. says...
Posted Monday, February 27, 2012
Unfortunately, American historians, unlike British social historians (especially the Marxists, neo-Marxists, and history workshop bunch) and those of the French Annales school, have a long history, so to speak, of ignoring folklorists and our publications.
Simon J. Bronner says...
Posted Saturday, February 25, 2012
I agree that Dorson needs more attention today by historians and by folklorists. In the field of American history, I daresay that Lawrence Levine, former president of the OAH, probably had more of an impact on the promotion of folklore within historian circles than Dorson, and Dorson embraced Levine for that reason. But to strike a positive note, Dorson's work was very evident in a book that in 2010 the Folklore and History Section awarded its Wayland Hand Prize to for an outstanding book combining folklore and history: Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan by Michael Edmonds (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). More than any other historical debate, Dorson's Paul Bunyan campaign lingers in popular imagination.
Lee Haring says...
Posted Friday, February 24, 2012
Thanks to Frank de Caro. Whatever revelations have been or will be furnished about a historical John Henry, the fact remains that it is a generic name, which never loses its sexual meaning. Ignoring the resonances of the hero's name is as much an omission as leaving Richard Dorson out of a folklore-and-history book.

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