That's folklore. Jokes of old-timers, CEO speeches, and crafts: folklorists study them all

WHERE have all the folkies gone - that mass of '60s guitarists and fiddlers who resurrected traditional folk songs and created new ones? Well, many of 'em are folklorists now. They've hung up their bows to study those songs (and jokes, crafts, dances, and other signs of group culture) and bring them to the light of the world. A bushel of them gathered at the American Folklore Society's celebration of its 100th anniversary here last week. They were dressed like the prosperous municipal employees they are now, with badges bearing titles like ``Illinois State Folklorist.'' There was nary a pair of jeans in sight. But this was plainly not an IBM convention. Sure, the now-graying men participants wore suits, but they were funky ones, with skinny leather ties.

As their garb has adapted to the times without capitulating to it, so has the study of folklore. No longer just scribbling down the comments of quilters and fiddlers, folklorists today are apt to videotape girls in playgrounds doing jump-rope rhymes, dissect speeches given by corporate heads to find out how they're trying to create a new organization, and look at the ritual behavior of newscasters.

Jim Leary and his wife are free-lance folklorists from northern Wisconsin. Her specialty is fishermen's tales, his is joke telling and polka music in the northern Midwest. ``I grew up in a logging town in northern Wisconsin, and down the road was an old-timer who was born in the 19th century and worked in the camps,'' Mr. Leary says. ``I used to go down and hang around with him a lot. I just liked stories from old-timers, so I went after him. I came up with about 39 jokes.''

The society is bookending its centennial year with this celebration in Cambridge, and another in Philadelphia next year. The first filled four days with craft demonstrations, performances, films, and 100 seminars and panels covering just about every sliver of group activity from ``Blind Performers of Ukrainian Epic Poetry and Their Repertory,'' to ``Military Folklore,'' to ``The Body as Tourist Site: Women in American Spa Culture.''

Things were much simpler back in 1888 when the society was founded. Then, a group of folklore enthusiasts met at Harvard University to organize a society dedicated to studying ``the fast-vanishing remains of folk-lore.'' The society attracted many of the best thinkers in American literature and science: explorer John Wesley Powell, who ``discovered'' the Grand Canyon; Samuel Clemens; Oliver Wendell Holmes; James Russell Lowell; and the ballad scholar Francis James Child. And it was one of the first groups to encourage women to join and actively participate.

All along the society has been figuring out what constitutes folklore, and who are the folks.

``Folklore began in the late 19th century in the US at least to capture, preserve, and study mostly the verbal and musical traditions of various cultural subcategories in the US: American Indians, Afro-Americans, various ethnic groups,'' says outgoing president (and fiddler) Alan Jabbour.

Interest in material culture - things made with the hands - went through cycles of popularity; in the last 20 to 30 years it's come ``roaring back,'' Mr. Jabbour says. And the society has broadened its reach to all sorts of everyday expressions, like the way families divide up making a Sunday dinner or how to do a particular job.

These days Los Angeles folklorist Susan Auerbach documents Samoan songs and zydeco dances. That a city has its own folklorist is indicative of the swelling of interest in the field in the last 15 years. Membership in the 1,500-member society is at an all-time high. ``Almost all states, territories, and possessions have someone working in folklore,'' says Tim Lloyd, executive secretary of the society.

And interest in folklore isn't confined to its scholars. ``I went to the Mexican-American Independence Day celebration at the Latin-American Club in Defiance, a small town in rural northwestern Ohio in September,'' says Mr. Lloyd, ``and there were a couple of folklorists and media people doing documentation, but there were three times that number from the community using their own equipment shooting.''

Sometimes contemporary culture throws a boomerang at folklorists used to tracking traditional activities.

Ruth Stotter, a storyteller from San Francisco who has a mane of wavy white hair, said, ``When I was up in Alaska telling stories in one of the villages, they were doing Eskimo dancing. I knew that Eskimo dancing tells a story. So I said, what is that story? And they said: The village was hungry, and the man went out and he killed three seals, and he brought them home and he saved everyone's life in the village. Then they did another dance. And I asked, What is that? And they said, the man was trying to start his snow machine so he could go to the next village and win the bingo game. And I thought, What! That's not traditional! But that's exactly what folklore is - it's both traditional and dynamic.''

Beverly Robinson, a professor of theater arts and folklore at the University of California, Los Angeles, says, ``There has been a spirit that has been brought over by the people of Africa that has kept them alive in a way that up until now most scholars have never realized.... What my grandmother called the way people kept a grip in their crawl when they couldn't walk.''

These include games from the days of slavery that are played today by children of all ethnic backgrounds. ``Head Shoulders'' originated when blacks were ridiculed because it was assumed they didn't know the parts of the body or how to count:

I know my head from my shoulders and I can count 1, 2, 3;

I know my knee from my ankle and I can count 1, 2, 3,

Even I can hoe the ground, baby 1, 2, 3.

I can pick the cotton, baby, I can sweep the floors....

Dr. Robinson adds: ``That's what's amazing about the country that we live in where we have people from so many backgrounds, but somehow as time goes on, all the boats are left at the shore and suddenly we're just making new nets and casting them together, not knowing where a lot of the history has arisen. Yep, that's folklore.''

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