- About Folklore
- Folklore Studies within American Studies
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Broadly defined, folklore is the study of cultural traditions. Folklorists study a range of cultural forms, practices, and performances, including everything from folk art and craft making; to oral storytelling; to dancing and music; to festivals, rituals, and folk beliefs. While early folklorists tended to study rural or isolated communities and heavily focused on orally transmitted traditions, folklorists more recently have dramatically expanded the scope of their research to include the study of urban and suburban communities, as well as the study of how media and technology play a role in folk traditions.
Recent studies by folklorists include:
- Trevor J. Blank and Andrea Kitta, eds., Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives on Disability, Health, and Trauma (University Press of Mississippi)
- Rachel Valentina González, Quinceañera Style: Social Belonging and Latinx Consumer Identities (University of Texas Press)
- Michael Dylan Foster, Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai (University of California Press)
- Fernando Orejuela and Stephanie Shonekan, eds., Black Lives Matter and Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection (Indiana University Press)
- Joseph Sciorra, Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City (University of Tennessee Press)
- Jeanne Pitre Soileau, Yo‘ Mama, Mary Mack, and Boudreaux and Thibodeaux: Louisiana Children’s Folklore and Play (University Press of Mississippi)
- Levi S. Gibbs, Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in China (University of Hawaii Press)
As an academic discipline, folklore was largely developed in the late nineteenth century. The American Folklore Society was established in 1888 as a professional umbrella for literary scholars and anthropologists who were both concerned with the study of traditional cultures. Some of its charter members included leading scholars such as anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia and Harvard’s Francis James Child, a noted scholar of folk ballads. It also included leading artists and public figures, such as authors Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston, and former US president Rutherford B. Hayes.
Today, folklore is an integral area in the humanities and social sciences throughout the world. Folklorists can be found in museum settings, non-profit arts or governmental agencies, libraries and archives, and colleges and universities, among many other places. Folklorists conduct ethnographic fieldwork, produce documentary films, organize exhibits and festivals, and play a role in cultural sustainability efforts. Although there are relatively few standalone academic departments of folklore in the United States, training for folklorists is offered at many universities through departments of English, anthropology, and American studies, among other areas. Degrees offered span the full range from undergraduate to graduate levels as well as various certificate or credentialing programs. Many students also study folklore as an emphasis within their degree. For example, Penn State Harrisburg does not offer any official degrees in folklore studies, but it does offer a wide range of courses on folklore and ethnography available to students through the American Studies BA, MA, and PhD programs. Penn State Harrisburg also offers a graduate certificate in Folklore and Ethnography that serves as an indication of this concentration on the graduate level.
Folklore is an exciting field that captures many diverse forms of traditional culture. Many people do not realize how often they partake in and transmit folklore in their lives. As this page demonstrates, folklore does not constitute every aspect of culture but is a significant part of our everyday lives. Folklorists throughout the world are working not only to preserve cultural practices, but also inspire others to observe the culture around them.
For further background information about folklore studies, below is a list of books that can help to introduce you to the basic concepts and methods of the field:
- Simon J. Bronner, Folklore: The Basics (Routledge)
- Alan Dundes, International Folkloristics (Rowman and Littlefield)
- Lynne S. McNeill, Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies (Utah State University Press)
- Elliott Oring, ed., Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Utah State University Press)
- Martha Sims and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions (Utah State University Press)
- Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore (Utah State University Press)
The Penn State Harrisburg Model
By Simon J. Bronner
Penn State has a long history in folklore studies, and the university formerly had a Folklore Program. Some notable scholars who have taught at Penn State include:
Archer Taylor (1890-1973)
Archer Taylor was a folklorist who specialized in proverbs, riddles, literature, and cultural history. Taylor taught at several universities throughout his career, including from 1910 to 1912 at Penn State, then known as Pennsylvania State College. His research interests focused on both American and European folklore. Taylor’s publications which explore his research interests include The Proverb; The Black Ox: A Study in the History of a Folk-Tale; “Edward” and “Sven i Rosengard”: A Study in the Dissemination of a Ballad; A Bibliography of Meistergesang; A Bibliography of Riddles; and English Riddles from Oral Tradition, among others. During his career, Taylor served as president of the American Folklore Society from 1936 to 1938 and as an editor for California Folklore Quarterly (now Western Folklore) and the Journal of American Folklore. Taylor was honored in 1960 with the publication Humaniora: Essays in Literature, Folklore, Bibliography: Honoring Archer Taylor on His Seventieth Birthday. Additionally, the Western States Folklore Society annually celebrates Taylor’s work with the Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture. Today, his library collection is located at the University of Georgia and his ballad collection is located at the University of California, Berkeley.
Samuel Preston Bayard (1908-1997)
Samuel Preston Bayard was an early folklorist and musicologist. He received his BA in English from Penn State, then known as Pennsylvania State College, in 1934. After graduate study, Bayard returned to Penn State to teach courses in English and comparative literature at the University Park campus from 1945 to 1973. Additionally, Bayard also established the folklore program at the University Park campus. During his career, he also served as the president of the American Folklore Society from 1965 to 1966. His research interests included the use of fiddle and fife tunes in traditional music. Bayard is also noteworthy for the concept “melodic families,” which refers to how tunes are related to one another. At the time, most folklorists only collected the texts of folk songs; however, Bayard’s interests emphasize the importance of melody to text. Between 1928 and 1963, Bayard collected recordings of fiddle and fife tunes from southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. Publications that expand upon his interests in these field recordings include Hill Country Tunes and Dance to the Fiddle March to the Fife. Penn State holds a significant collection of Bayard’s papers and has digitized his folklore recordings.
William Bernard McCarthy (1939-2008)
William Bernard McCarthy was Professor Emeritus of English at Penn State DuBois. McCarthy taught courses related to English and folklore at the DuBois campus from 1989 to 2004. His scholarly interests included ballads and folktales in the United States and Scotland. His book The Ballad Matrix: Personality, Mileu, and the Oral Tradition explores the life of Agnes Lyles of Kilbarchan, a ballad singer considered to be part of Scotland’s golden age of ballad singing. In addition to this book, McCarthy is also the editor of Jack in Two Worlds: Contemporary North American Tales and Their Tellers, which explores the tradition of Jack tales in North America, and Cinderella in America: A Book of Folk and Fairy Tales, which collects together various folk tales from across the United States. McCarthy was also a longtime member of both the American Folklore Society and the International Society for Folk Narrative Research. He also served as a member of the Société Internationale d’Ethnologie et de Folklore’s Ballad Commission. Penn State holds a collection of McCarthy’s papers.
Henry Glassie (born 1941)
Henry Glassie is College Professor Emeritus of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Prior to his tenure at Indiana, Glassie was the State Folklorist of Pennsylvania from 1967 to 1969 while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He later served as an assistant professor in the American Studies Program at Penn State Harrisburg in 1969. His research interests include folk art, material culture, oral narrative, and vernacular architecture. Glassie’s work examines folklore in the United States as well as Bangladesh, Turkey, and Ireland. His notable publications include Passing the Time in Ballymenone; Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States; Turkish Traditional Art Today; Art and Life in Bangladesh; and Vernacular Architecture. Glassie also served as a president to both the American Folklore Society and the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Since 1999, the Vernacular Architecture Forum awards the Henry Glassie Award each year to vernacular architecture scholars and folklorists whose research contributes to the field. Indiana University also awards the Henry Glassie Award each year for excellence in teaching.
David J. Hufford (born 1944)
David J. Hufford is University Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. Hufford taught courses in the medical humanities, behavioral sciences, and family and community medicine departments at the Penn State College of Medicine from 1974 to 2007. During his tenure, he also served as Chair of Medical Humanities and Director of the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine. Beyond his retirement from Penn State, Hufford served as the Senior Fellow in Spirituality for the Religious Studies Project at the Samueli Institute in Alexandria, Virginia from 2010 to 2016. His research interests include understanding the relationship between spirituality and health and spiritual belief in experience. Hufford’s book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions examines the folklore of extraordinary spiritual experiences during sleep paralysis. He is also currently conducting a study with the Department of Defense to examine the spiritual experiences of combat veterans.
Kenneth A. Thigpen (born 1948)
Kenneth A. Thigpen is Associate Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Penn State. He taught courses in English and comparative literature at the University Park campus from 1973 to 1999. Nine years after his retirement, Thigpen returned to Penn State to serve as director of academic affairs at the Lehigh Valley campus from 2008 to 2017. During his career, Thigpen was a co-founder and secretary of the Documentary Resource Center at Penn State, which sought to preserve and promote film documentaries for research purposes. In addition, Thigpen served as president of both the Pennsylvania Folklife Advisory Commission and the Pennsylvania Folklore Society. Thigpen’s research interests primarily focus on Romanian American folklore, but he also examines Pennsylvania and American folklore and popular culture. Topics explored include immigration folklore, American comedy, Pennsylvania folk legends, Halloween celebrations in State College, and Pennsylvania’s Rattlesnake Festival. He is the author of Folklore and the Ethnicity Factor in the Lives of Romanian-Americans and co-editor of Headwaters and Hardwoods: The Folklore, Cultural History, and Traditional Arts of the Pennsylvania Northern Tier.
Bill Ellis (born 1950)
Bill Ellis is Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Penn State Hazelton. He taught courses in English and American studies at the Hazleton campus from 1984 to 2009. Ellis has been a longtime contributor to the American Folklore Society, including in his role as president of the Children’s Folklore Section. Since 2012, the AFS has awarded the Bill Ellis Prize to graduate students in the New Directions in Folklore Section whose essays combine folklore studies with popular culture and digital and new media studies. This award category stems from Ellis’s own research interests in folklore, which include Japanese popular culture (especially Manga and Anime), contemporary and urban legends, new religious movements, folklore and the internet, and modern adaptations of fairy tales. His publications include Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media; Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live; and Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folk and Popular Culture. Ellis also co-authored The Global Grapevine: Why Rumor and Legends about Immigrants, Terrorists, and Foreign Trade Matter with Gary Alan Fine.
Sue Samuelson (1956-1991)
Sue Samuelson was a folklorist whose research interests included American holiday celebrations and traditions, children’s folklore, foodways, regional identities, and applied folklore, such as using folklorist as witnesses in litigation proceedings. She taught courses on foodways, festivals, and regional cultures in the American studies department at Penn State Harrisburg from 1984 to 1987. Samuelson also served as a public folklorist during her time in Pennsylvania at places such as the Pennsylvania State Association of County Commissioners, the Dauphin County Library System, the Pennsylvania Office of State Folklife Programs, and Fort Hunter in Harrisburg. Samuelson was a prominent figure in the children’s folklore and foodway sections of the American Folklore Society. Her numerous publications appear in folklore journals including Western Folklore, Indiana Folklore, Folklore Historian, and Folklore and Mythology Studies. In her memory, AFS awards the Sue Samuelson Award to the graduate student with the best paper on foodways each year, and the American Studies program at Penn State Harrisburg awards the Sue Samuelson Award to an outstanding doctoral candidate each year.
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