Vol. IX, No. 4, 1996

Folklore: What is it?

by Donald R. Holliday

Ozarks folklore is the unrecorded traditions of Ozarks people. It is all the things we say and do and build that we, as a people, learned by listening to and watching life around us.

Folklore is not formal or elite culture, what is commonly regarded as high culture--history texts, symphonic music, all architect-designed, one-of-a-kind house, classic literature, and all the other subjects of traditional higher education. However, elite culture sometimes borrows folklore and uses it, as Gershwin and Copeland have written symphonies and other classic forms of music based on folk music and folk themes, and Mark Twain's and Laura lngalls Wilder's novels are liberally sprinkled with folk language, folk belief, and folk tale.

Folklore is not popular or normative culture, what is commonly regarded as commercial culture. Histories written by professional writers (but probably not professional historians) about popular subjects like Davy Crockett or Jack Kennedy are popular histories, as are historical romances. Folklore is not rock-and-roll or country-and-western or other forms of popular music, or any other art produced more for profit than for art. Nor, to follow the parallels of elite culture, is it a row house in a subdivision, which may be designed by an architect and then reproduced with little variation by the dozens. It is not a mystery or western or romance novel or short story or movie produced according to a formula determined by the market. However, popular culture often borrows folk ideas and mass-markets fakelore or folklure from them. Elite and popular objects are copyrighted or patented by their owners, in their original forms on the dates of their creation, and are thus frozen in form. Folk culture is fluid, never dated, never owned, always free to be varied according to taste and need by whoever repeats a folk text, such as a folk tale, or the form of a folk object, such as a log cabin.

Folklore is divided into three categories: verbal, partly verbal or customary, and non-verbal or material culture.

Verbal Folklore

Oral folklore includes all tradition we learn and pass on by word of mouth. It includes everything from simple language to complex texts such as myth, legend, and folk tale. The first evidence of folk culture is dialect. When Ozarkers drink a bottle of pop instead of sodie or fizz or refer to flout' gravy as tie-hackers' jelly or pronounce there; as thair (rhymes with hair) or acadian as cajun, they participate in folk culture. Other areas of oral folklore can be simply demonstrated as follows:


A stitch in time saves nine.
Madder'n a sore-tailed tom cat.


What walks on four legs in she morning, two through the day and three in the evening? (Humans crawl, walk, and use a cane through lift.)

Rhymes and poetry:

Mao, had a little dress
That was so light and airy
It never showed a speck of dust,
But it showed lots of Mary.

Such rhymes are often learned and passed on in written form in school yearbooks and carved on school desks (when desks were wooden and boys--and many girls--carried pocket knives). Many are also sung or chanted to small children: This little pig went to market; etc. Though folk texts may be transmitted in printed form, they retain their fluidity, ready to be varied by their next user, as the Mary rhyme above illustrates.


Jack of diamonds, Jack of diamonds,
I know you of old,
I Know robbed my poor pockets,
Of silver and gold. etc.


Come in, come in, my old true love,
Come in, come in, said she,
It's been three-fourths of a long, long year,
Since together we have been. etc.

Both folksong and ballad have long interacted dynamically with the recording industry. Many folksongs and ballads have been recorded by commercial singers, but just as many art songs and popular songs have been taken up in Folk tradition and passed on by word of mouth and varied according to the memory and need of the singers. One of the best-known examples of an art song which has gone folk is the wedding march from Lohengrin: Here comes the bride, Big, fat, and wide. See how she wobbles from side to side.


Myth and Legend: Both myth and legend are, or were, believed to be true. They differ in the time and place of setting and in characters. In the remotest of time, such as "before the earth was formed, when all was dark and void," myth deals with creations, by gods and goddesses, sometimes in human and sometimes in animal form, of the universe, of natural lite forms, and of nations or peoples. Only among Native Americans is myth yet a living form in the United States. In less remote time, ranging from ancient oral history to within living memory, legend deals with the lives and acts of renowned people, such as George Washington's throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac or Davy Crockett's hunting prowess. Many small towns have legends of extraordinary people, sometimes as lowly as town drunkards. Local legends of extraordinary landforms and town names abound in the Ozarks. In this issue, the legendary life of Miss Virginia -- Dr. Virginia Craig, a professor of English and Speech at Southwest Missouri State University for a half a century--is represented by Ginger Casebeer's "Magic Shoes." Legend is also represented in this issue by "Tobe Kills a B'ar," as the story was collected by Vance Randolph, and analyzed by Donald Holliday, although the story has long since lost its connection to its origins in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. Legendary, or at least proto-legendary, is Jamie Cox's "Down by The Riverside," a story of the Riverside saloon and restaurant near Ozark, Missouri.

Folk tale: Folk tales are not believed to be true. They are fiction, although good Ozark story tellers always look their audiences right in the eye and perform the stories as though they were reaching far back into their memories for the true details, just as they actually happened. Folk tales are realistic in that they are set in the present and often in a specific place and deal with characters who are like us or, except for divine grace and a good upbringing, could be us. Ozarks folk tales, even off-color ones, often are moralistic. Five examples, four of them variants of stories Chaucer put in print and one of them a variant of a Shakespearean story, all collected in the Ozarks by Vance Randolph, are analyzed in this issue by Donald Holliday.

Customary Folklore

Customary folklore, a large category that will only barely be defined in this short paragraph, is partly verbal and partly non-verbal. Customary folklore is usually a combination of speech and action, such as a square dance accompanied by a square dance call. Superstitious beliefs, likewise, are usually recited along with a concrete action. In the same way, folk medicine combines herbal and chemical preparations and consumption or application. Both superstition and medicinal lore were represented in "Samuel Baker's Animal Remedies and Other Lore" in the medicine issue of OzarksWatch, "Health and Healing," (Vol VIII, No. 1, 1995). Gestures, a special category of non-ver-bal communication, we also learn from our folk cultures, in the same way we acquire the rules of games and social performance, especially for such ceremonial customs as weddings and funerals. We also celebrate calendar customs, such as those observed on July 4th and at Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving.

Material Folklore

Material folklore is the technology of folk cultures. The design of houses, barns, spring houses, and other structures as well as toys, costumes, musical instruments--all, if learned from traditional sources are folklore. In this issue, the preservation feature on the Michael Looney house illustrates some basic patterns of American, southern folk housing. An early issue of OzarksWatch, "Craft," (Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 1991) deals broadly with material culture without distinguishing sharply between folk and commercial culture.

This issue of OzarksWatch cannot give a complete definition, nor definitive illustration, of what folklore is. Indeed, folklore is an academic discipline, closely akin to anthropology, wherein university specialists debate the definitions and theories of their field. However, at the core of any debate is common ground--which this "Folklore" issue attempts to survey.

Ozarks hybrid banjo with a cheap factory neck and a Homemade rim.


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