Defining Folk Arts and Folklore

Folk Arts and Folklore. . . may not be what you expect

What’s your name? What was your favorite game when you were little? What do you eat at Thanksgiving? How did you learn to tie your shoes?

Yes, folklore includes quilts and fiddle tunes, but it also includes all that we learn informally in everyday life: skateboarding tricks, how to set a table, texting, jokes, memes, even classroom conduct.

Folklore includes the memes of the 2020 pandemic, as one example. How do we communicate? Build community? Share fears? Often through folklore–the creative expressions of people.

Everyone has folklore. It is universal and infinitely varied, yet it is unique to each person, family, cultural group, and community. We learn traditions in our various cultural groups such as families, neighborhoods, age cohort, friends, clubs, and so on. Some traditions are new, some are old. Innovation and variation keep them alive.

Folk arts include oral narratives like stories, jokes, anecdotes; music; movement and dance; beliefs; customs; and material culture, such as food, hairstyles, or crafts.

The study of folk arts and folklore can happen easily in any subject area with any age group and allows us to deepen self-identity, better understand cultural differences, and strengthen cultural stewardship.

Educators. . .

Discover that folk arts and folklore connect to community and to ways of knowing that underpin personal, family, and regional identity. They can engage students through primary research into local culture that relates to regional, national, and international history, literature, music, art, dance, drama, science, economics, and mathematics.

Learn more about how folk arts and folklore may connect to education standards…

Young People. . .

Find out that local learning, culture, and art forms relate on a continuum to the present and the future as well as the past. By starting with what they know best–themselves–they can begin to explore new ways of looking at others, different points of view, and civic engagement.

Find activities for learners of all ages interested in Learning Locally…

Family and Community Members. . .

Uncover common ground and fresh approaches that open doors to collaboration and communication across generations and differences. Folklore provides rich content for conversation and discovery as well as research methods that help record cultural treasures.

Folklore and folk arts do not exist in a vacuum but are very much alive in contemporary life, letters, and popular culture. Folk or traditional knowledge is as important and prevalent as the academic knowledge and culture we pass along in schools and academies and the popular culture that we interact with through mass media.

Learn much more about folklore and folk arts in these excellent essays, available online.

American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures by Mary Hufford

Folklife is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad interactions. It is universal, diverse, and enduring. It enriches the nation and makes us a commonwealth of cultures.

Sharing with others the experience of family life, ethnic origin, occupation, religious beliefs, stage of life, recreation, and geographic proximity, most individuals belong to more than one cultural group. Some groups have existed for thousands of years, while others come together temporarily around a variety of shared concerns — particularly in America, where democratic principles have long sustained what Alexis de Tocqueville called the distinctly American “art of associating together.”
The traditional knowledge and skills required to make a pie crust, plant a garden, arrange a birthday party, or turn a lathe are exchanged in the course of daily living and learned by imitation. It is not simply skills that are transferred in such interactions, but notions about the proper ways to be human at a particular time and place. Whether sung or told, enacted or crafted, traditions are the outcroppings of deep lodes of worldview, knowledge, and wisdom, navigational aids in an ever-fluctuating social world.

An Accessible Aesthetic: The Role of Folk Arts and the Folk Artist in the Curriculum  by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

What better way to convey to children the cultural nature of art and the rich artistic
traditions of their own community than through living practitioners, through the folk
artists themselves? We take children to museums so they can experience the power of
the authentic, the original object, and not have to settle for facsimiles and reproductions.
In a sense, the world we live in is a living museum, an opportunity to have primary
experiences with aesthetically vibrant works and their makers.

What Is Folklore? American Folklore Society

Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, folk traditions-the things that people traditionally believe (planting practices, family traditions, and other elements of worldview), do (dance, make music, sew clothing), know (how to build an irrigation dam, how to nurse an ailment, how to prepare barbecue), make (architecture, art, craft), and say (personal experience stories, riddles, song lyrics). As these examples indicate, in most instances there is no hard-and-fast separation of these categories, whether in everyday life or in folklorists’ work.