Public folklore is a distinct mode within the broader discipline of folkloristics. This guest post by Marcus Cederström will give you the background to understand it better.
The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfurled on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in July of 2012 at the 46th Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, twenty-five years after its inaugural display. In remembrance of the lives lost to AIDS, the quilt features over 48,000 panels sewn together by friends, family members, and allies. It is a beautiful piece of art. It is a beautiful memorial. It is also a wonderful example of public folklore—in this case a project that combines advocacy, expressive culture, community, and folkart to facilitate a conversation about self and identity, life and death, love and loss.
For many public folklorists, its community-based projects like this that led them to the field. For others documentary films or museum exhibitions led the way. Still others came to it through academia, reading folklorists like Diane Goldstein, or Benjamin Botkin, or Burt Feintuch, or Nick Spitzer, or Robert Baron. All of them advocates and practitioners of some form of public folklore. Me? I read Archie Green. A class I took in graduate school about Scandinavian-American folksongs led me to the Industrial Workers of the World. And that led me to Archie Green. And Archie Green, for me, is public folklore.
Green was a man who dedicated his life to the study, documentation, and support of vernacular traditions. A man who wrote countless academic articles, beautifully and easily understood by non-academics and specialists alike. A man who advocated for the creation of the American Folklife Center. For Green, advocacy and scholarship worked hand-in-hand. That complementary approach to advocacy and scholarship informs the field today as young folklorists like Jess Lamar Reece Holler, an independent community-based folklorist in Columbus, Ohio, and Josh Chrysler, an independent folklorist and Folk Arts Consultant at the South Dakota Arts Council, drive the field forward, always advocating for cultural expression and blurring the lines between public and academic folklore.
“Public folklore,” as Reece Holler put it to me, “is the work of making public, co-curating and cultivating experiences, encounters and exchange around the profound power of vernacular knowledge and expressive cultural arts forms (including ways of being and resisting!) WITH—or at least with the consent of—the groups of people whose traditions, skills and knowledges are being documented.”
Chrysler notes the importance in recognizing the everyday as well: “Public folklore, as I see it, works to place value on everyday acts of cultural expression. My hope is that the work we engage in as public folklorists works to validate people’s experiences as part of a culture and community, and encourages people to take pride in those traditional forms of cultural expression, as well as to foster curiosity and respect about other cultures we do not belong to.”
There’s a sense of responsibility that emerges from the work of public folklorists. Responsibility to the field. To the communities we work with. To the audiences we present to and write for. Public folklorists advocate not just for the continued study of folklore, but also for the people who are constantly engaged in cultural expression. Some might consider that a radical enterprise—for some academics, vibrant advocacy distracts, and even detracts, from objective scholarship.
Of course, advocacy can take many forms, from testifying in front of Congress, as Archie Green did, to documenting the ecological farm movement with communities in Ohio, Reece Holler is doing. In fact, it’s specifically advocacy that matters so much to Reece Holler, who says that public folklore “is a way of acknowledging and bridging exchange around the transformative potential of underground, everyday and resistant forms of knowledges, often operating underneath or against oppressive forms of power. It feels like salvific circuitry work amongst real humans—sharing our emerging and applicable community-based solutions and resilient, enduring forms across places; and sometimes across time. And, because public folklore’s forms and modes and goals are public, the work feels engaged and ethical and urgent and necessary in a way nothing else I’ve done ever has.”
Public folklore’s forms and modes can take many shapes. There’s the Norwegian-American Folk Music Portal and films from the Forgotten Upper Midwest Music Project. Or a project I worked on, “Wiigwaasi-Jiimaan: These Canoes Carry Culture,” which includes a blog, a website, and two films. There are online exhibitions like Buckaroo Traditions of Oregon and temporary exhibitions like Hooks, Yarns, and Bars. There are big festivals like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and small ones like the Scandinavian Music festival in Nisswa, Minnesota, called Nisswa-Stämman. And then there are big, multidimensional projects like the one I’m currently engaged with, called “Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest.” All these public folklore projects share a commitment to expressive cultures and the people who practice those cultures, or, as Burt Feintuch writes in his wonderful book, The Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector, these projects make up “a movement stressing public responsibilities derived from both academic discipline and social concern” (1988, 1).
Collaborating with communities to document and distribute their cultural expression isn’t new. In the early 1970s, the term “public sector folklore” was used by Green to lobby Congress in support of folklife legislation. Then in 1975, the University of Texas taught a graduate seminar titled “Folklore and the Public Sector.” A few years later, the term “public-sector folklore” was popping up at universities and in government organizations (Green 2007 , 49–63). And long before that came the work of Benjamin Botkin, the folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project and head of the Archive of American Folk Song. It’s gone by different names—applied folklore, public-sector folklore—but the commitment to accessibility, collaboration, and respect remains constant.
In the past, the divide between academic folklorists and public folklorists seemed more obvious and was sometimes surprisingly contentious. Prominent folklorists like Richard Dorson and Botkin spent plenty of time hashing out their different approaches to the field. In those days, the distinction was clear. Or at least clearer. Academic folklorists worked at universities and wrote articles and books. Public folklorists worked at arts commissions and museums and organized festivals and awarded grants. But, nowadays at least, there is more that unites the different fields of folklore than divides. Public folklorists write academic articles and teach courses. Academic folklorists make documentary films and create museum exhibitions. And independent folklorists do it all—writing academic articles, making films, conducting fieldwork, blogging, hosting #FolkloreThursday, and doing what it takes to bring folklore studies to a broad audience, which is, after all, the “public” in “public folklore.”
And that’s why public folklore matters. Because it helps to bring the incredible work that folklorists are doing to audiences around the world. It is scholarship and advocacy and activism. It is working in collaboration with communities to document and sustain expressive culture. It is optimistic and welcoming. And the field needs you. So check out your local museum, write a blog post about the festival in the next town over, start an oral history project, and support the folk culture you see everywhere around you.
Thanks to Josh Chrysler, who documents western artists and tradition bearers throughout the western United States while listening to Bruce Springsteen, and to Jess Lamar Reece Holler, who documents environmental folklife and cultures of response to everyday toxicity across Ohio—often with her fieldwork assistant Border Collie, Isaly Caledonia, and a host of mostly ruined cassette tapes.
Make sure to check out this community feature on Jess Lamar Reece Holler’s “Growing right” project, an oral history of Ohio farms and farmers.
Marcus Cederström has a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore and currently works as the community curator of Nordic-American folklore at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Along with teaching Nordic-American folklore courses, he researches Scandinavian-American identity and folklore, immigrant folklore, and laborlore, and partners with some wonderful co-workers to put together public programming. For more information about his work, check out his website or follow him on Twitter.