American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures
Folklore & Folklife
Folklife is the traditional knowledge – such as skill, language, music, art and craft – shared within each of the world’s many ethnic, occupational, religious and regional groups. Folklore is an older term that has been used by many to mean oral traditions. Oftentimes, the activities of daily life lead to, or are accompanied by, songs, stories, rituals and objects. When these creations express shared experience and values, when they are kept alive and carried on over time, they become folklife traditions.
Associating with Others
Most of us share with others at least some of the experiences of family life, ethnic origin, occupation, religious beliefs, age and recreation; thus we belong to one or more cultural groups. Some cultural groups have existed for hundreds of years, while others come together temporarily for a particular concern. Folklife flourishes in all associations, from a neighborhood watch group to organized trade unions.
Family Ties & Customs
Family is often our first experience with a cultural group and folklife. Traditional family customs are often taken for granted. They are “ invisible” because they are so familiar. But parents, grandparents and other family member provide models and establish patterns that influence young people for the rest of their lives.
A Folklore of Their Own
While family, school and religion are imparting their customs to children, the children themselves are often busy with a folklore of their own – language, customs, and beliefs that they share primarily with other children, and through which they acquire verbal, physical and social skills. The culture of childhood is so strong that it sometimes cuts across lines of race, class and nationality.
The Persistence of Folklife
Folklife traditions can have ancient origins. Halloween, for example, derives from Samhain [SAH-WIN], a pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead. The festival was celebrated on November 1, when the souls of those who had died traveled to the underworld. When Christian holy days were set to coincide with Celtic holy days, old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. In the ninth century, Samhain became All Hallows Eve, which became Halloween – where to this day images of the dead continue to be a central theme.
Something to Keep You Warm
One form of cultural expression is the creation of useful things such as tools, eating utensils and items of clothing (which folklorists call “material culture”). The quilt, for example, is a familiar item in most cold-weather cultures. While the quilt is intended to perform a useful function, it may be beautiful as it becomes a symbol for the transformation of everyday things into artful expressions.
Ethnic Traditions in America
An ethnic group is one that shares common language, customs and social views. The United States is made up of ethnic groups from nearly every country in the world. Sometimes first-generation immigrants cling to traditional ways, while subsequent generations embrace all things “American.” Cultural retention is also a matter of function or need; traditional ways are often developed in response to a particular time and place, and are not as important in a different setting.
Emblems of Identity
Within traditional communities, many members accept traditional roles and customs without question. However, some members experiencing an emerging sense of change question the “old ways.” For new immigrants, settling in America brings many challenges to traditional ways of life. But young and old alike often want to retain certain ethnic traditions so as to be both Americans and members of an ethnic community.
Blueprints for Living
Whether learned from parents, other children, religious congregations, friends or neighbors, customary ways become blueprints for living. Folklife traditions offer stability and guidance in an ever-fluctuating world. The American Indian powwow, for example, originated in the Great Plains but has now spread to most of the United States and to many Canadian provinces. For Native Americans, the powwow has also become the setting for cultural conservation: an opportunity to transmit, reaffirm and intensify traditions, and to share what it means to be an American Indian.
Folklife in Anywhere America
While popular culture – as represented by TV, the movies, shopping malls and fast-food restaurants – seeks to make everywhere in America just like anywhere in America, folklife works quietly to maintain differences. Responding to the demands of life in the same region, for example, individuals may assume regional identities such as Southerner, Westerner or Hoosier. Distinctive ways of speaking, dancing and cooking become ways for expressing regional identity.
Tools of the Trade
Many occupations have their own special languages, stories, tools and customs. Some occupations have developed special events to celebrate the goods and skills of the trade. The county fair gives farmers a chance to show off their best crops and livestock.
The Rules of Play
Recreation frees us from the world of work, but many recreational activities are themselves governed by complex procedures. Hunting and fishing, for example, are highly structured activities based on the need for food and the methods devised for securing it. Baseball, soccer and games like chess and bridge depend on the mastery of techniques and understanding the rules of play.
Tradition & Change
Traditions do not simply pass along unchanged. In the hands of those who practice them, they are remodeled according to personal taste and new social or cultural situations. Traditions may change with the passage of time; in the move from one place to another, they may be used to link the past and present, and to provide a sense of coherence and continuity.
Cultural Sharing & Exchange
From the beginning, our nation has been a meeting ground of many cultures. That fortunate circumstance has allowed cultural groups to borrow from one another. The foods associated with particular ethnic groups (Italian and Mexican, for example) are available to all – as are musical forms like jazz, blues and spirituals (contributions of African-Americans).
A Commonwealth of Cultures
The search for identity involves making choices to participate or not participate in the activities of the many groups that surround us: from immediate family and friends to larger social, political, religious and occupational groups. By embracing or rejecting aspects of cultural heritage, by accepting or declining association with one group or another, we define ourselves as individuals – and as Americans. The diversity of American folklife allows Americans to observe and participate in a free-flowing exchange of cultural ideas. It enriches the nation and makes us a commonwealth of cultures.
The American Folklife Center
In 1976, Congress created the American Folklife Center and placed it at the Library of Congress – with a mandate to “preserve and present American folklife.” The Center includes the Archive of Folk Culture, one of the most significant collections of cultural research materials in the world. The Center serves federal and state agencies; national, international and local organizations; scholars, researchers and students; and the general public. Programs and services include field projects, conferences, exhibitions, workshops, concerts, publications, archival preservation, reference service and advisory assistance.
Credits – This presentation mostly comes from a brochure that was compiled and written by James Hardin and was adapted from the American Folklife Center Booklet, American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures by Mary Hufford. Photos: Byron Wiley and Theresa Martin