Maryland's maritime folklorist
Baltimore — ''Being a folklorist means you have to explain yourself a lot,'' says Paula Johnson, a folklorist at the Calvert Marine Museum in the village of Solomons on Chesapeake Bay.
''When folks ply me with questions about my work, I explain that folklore isn't just studying artifacts and buildings; it is studying a way of life, a whole system of skills and values. It isn't just looking at things but interpreting what those things signify.''
The fundamental task of the folklorist, she explains, is to collect, preserve , study, analyze, and present the expressive traditions of societies in all parts of the world. Her unusual profession involves the study of folklore/folklife as it appears in song and story, speech and movement, work, custom and belief, and craft and ritual.
Miss Johnson's own fast-evolving career has for the past three years involved her in researching, writing, and co-curating exhibits on local maritime history and culture for the museum in Solomons. She has tape-recorded interviews with watermen, packinghouse workers, boatbuilders, and many others who live and work in the area.
The new permanent exhibit that she has researched and helped to install is called ''Seasons of Abundance, Seasons of Want: Making a Living from the Waters of the Patuxent.'' It focuses on the development and decline of the commercial fishing, clamming, crabbing, and oystering industries of Maryland's Patuxent River region.
For the exhibit, Miss Johnson located maps, graphics, and historic photographs. She not only interviewed workers but photographed them harvesting and processing seafood and celebrating their community festivals. The gear used by local Chesapeake Bay watermen, as well as processing equipment used by local businesses for packing seafood, is also on display.
The warmly human exhibit that has emerged is the story of the local maritime industries, as told by the people who have experienced firsthand both the bounty and the decline. It is in the former J. C. Lore & Sons Oyster House building, on the site where three generations of the Lore family operated a seafood packing company from 1888 to 1978. The company was forced to close because of the severe decline of seafood resources in the region.
Asked what qualities are necessary to pursue a career as a folklorist, Paula Johnson replies, ''Physical stamina, because the research is exhausting. Empathy , because you have to want to listen and understand what people do and what it means to them. A capacity for friendship with the down-to-earth, genuine folks you are interviewing and who come to trust you. A willingness to commit many, many hours to successive visits in order to keep good communication flowing.'' And in addition to all that, ''a responsibility for maintaining the good community relations that are developed through the work.''
She admits that, as a native of the Corn Belt, she had to steep herself in maritime lore when she came to the area three years ago. ''My initial unfamiliarity worked, however, to my advantage. Being an outsider, people took special pains to explain things to me and to make sure I understood.''
After graduating in 1976 from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., with a degree in English, Miss Johnson took a job as administrative assistant at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
While still with the center, she did a three-month stint in 1979 as a folklife fieldworker for the Montana Folklife Survey. By that time her fascination with folklore had grown to the point that she spent the next two years at the University of Texas, earning a master's degree in anthropology with a concentration in folklore.
During this period in Texas she also was researcher for a conference on world puppetry traditions as well as for an exhibition called ''Celebration: A World of Art and Ritual,'' sponsored by the Folklife Program of the Smithsonian Institution at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Ralph E. Eshelman, director of the Calvert Marine Museum, says it is unusual for museums to have folklorists on their staffs, but he predicts that many more might be looking at this type of research and presentation in the future.
About Paula Johnson, he comments, ''She has compiled the largest folklife collection in the Chesapeake Bay area, and she has demonstrated tremendous ability to collect oral histories and folklife-type histories of the watermen in this southern Maryland area.
''Her work, all done with the help of grants from such sources as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland Humanities Council and Arts Council, has enabled us to document the life of the watermen and the related commercial enterprises. Ten years from now they may all be gone.
''We have now applied for yet another grant which would keep Paula with us for another 18 months in order to catalog the collection she has accumulated for us. If she were a permanent member of our staff we would call her Curator of Folklife.''
As a professional in her field, Miss Johnson also prepares and presents illustrated lectures about her work to seminars, universities, historical societies, and other museums.
Some of her lectures include such colorful titles as ''Sloppy Work for Women: Shucking Oysters in Southern Maryland,'' and ''Black Walnuts, Blue Boats, and Whistling Women: Traditional Taboos Among Chesapeake Bay Watermen.''