Who Gets to be Folk?

Folklore is the stories, customs, and beliefs of a community that are passed from generation to generation through word of mouth. The idea of folklore began in Europe in the 19th Century with the Brothers Grimm. The first collectors of folklore, they published their classic Children's and Household Tales in two volumes in 1812 and 1815. It was these two German brothers who saw something valuable in the stories that the common folk were passing from one to another, something that spoke directly from the soul of the German people.

So goes the story. But, like a lot of folklore, the actual story is something different.

The Brothers Grimm weren’t German. There were from Hesse-Cassel, one of the tangle of Palatinate States that would be forced into becoming Germany when the Prussian Empire had expanded violently enough to absorb them all in 1871. And Children's and Household Tales wasn’t the first published book of folklore. It wasn’t even the first one published in German. The Yiddish Ma’asehbuch is a collection of Jewish folktales and stories which had been circulating in various manuscript forms since the 15th Century. Compiled and published in Venice in 1601, the Ma’asehbuch had already been translated into German and published in 1612.

And as for a purely oral tradition, folklore collections have been a mainstay since the invention of books. Story collections such as the French Fabliaux, the Italian Decameron, and the Canterbury Tales were all widely known and circulated even before the invention of printing. Aesop’s Fables have survived for 2,600 years because they were written down.

What the Brothers Grimm did introduce into this picture is the idea of Volk and Volksseele, the idea of a “National Soul” that was growing in prominence in German philosophical and social discourse as the country began its long move towards unification. This is the idea that people have a shared identity that is intrinsic to them through heredity and expressed trough language and culture. The Brothers Grimm weren’t recording a national identity, they were actively creating it.

Implicit in this is idea of national identity is that some people are folk and some aren’t. That German translation of the Ma’ashebuch included a series of annotations noting how these stories illustrated the foolishness and duplicity of the Jewish People. Germans were Folk. Jews weren’t.

The creation of identity is a political act. Using stories to define identity is not free from that. And, like any political action, it will be affected by power dynamic. Who is given a voice in the society to tell stories, Who is allowed access to publication. Who is allowed to shape their own narrative. This is the dynamic that has haunted folklore ever since.

The use of folklore in America to shape national and regional character reflects all of these tensions.] Henry Alsberg, the first director of The Federal Writers’ Project, went out to build the infrastructure to record what he called “A self-portrait of America.” Alsberg’s vision was, for its time, very inclusive. The Writers’ Project recorded the stories of formerly enslaved African-Americans, it recorded folklore, folksongs, and customs from across the American cultural and economic spectrum. Its methods were not without their flaws, but the body of literature it produced is a unique and compelling picture of American life at the time.

The work of the Federal Writers’ Project fueled a wave of interest in folklore and folk customs in America. A Folk Revival movement began in the 1940s, when artists such as Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and Burl Ives began recording and popularizing traditional American music forms. Following on their heels, popular groups like The Kingston Trio, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary performed in coffee shops and on college campuses across the nation.

One of the key ideas of the Folk Revival movement was that of authenticity, the closer to the source, the more “real” the music or story was. Sitting at the foot of an old banjo player in the mountains and learning a tune was more authentic than learning a tune from hearing it off the radio. This idea of authenticity was, and still is, a simplified construction which ignores the real complexity with which culture is created. That mountain banjo player teaching you that authentic tune may have learned it himself off the radio last week.

Authenticity also has a complicated relationship with history. Take that banjo. It’s an instrument which is now very strongly associated with white Appalachian culture and Bluegrass music. But the origins of the instrument are African. The Bluegrass style of picking didn’t originate until the 1940s, with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, and is style heavily influenced by jazz. And in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the banjo was more strongly associated with minstrel shows and blackface performance. Along side this was an African-American string band tradition, particularly strong in North Carolina, that was never as commercially exploited the same way Bluegrass music was. The association of the banjo with white mountain culture is so strong that a few notes of Bluegrass picking on a movie soundtrack are enough to set the tone for an entire scene. The music carries with it an entire set of cultural assumptions and associations. It's a sound of constructed authenticity.

The process of constructing this authenticity was defined by commercial interests. In the early 20th century, musical styles crossed racial and cultural boundaries, but the buying of records happened in a very segregated America. Music publishers categorized and sold music accordingly. Country music, Bluegrass, and string band music were sold to white audiences. Blues was sold to black audiences. Artists whose race didn't match these categories of musical styles couldn't get recording contracts.

This segregation of musical styles was so thorough and happened so quickly that when white artists such as Elvis Presley or Led Zeppelin began drawing on what were packaged as black musical forms, they were presenting their white audiences with sounds that had been present all along but which they had never before heard. Whether this is an act of inspiration or appropriation, the fact is that this musical segregation was an artificial imposition from commercial interests that served the narrative of the power structure of its time.

A similar thing happened with published folklore. The work and the output of the federal writers project was integrated. Classic collections, such as Gumbo Ya-Ya from Louisiana, and Bundle Of Troubles And Other Tarheel Tales from North Carolina, presented African-American and white folktales together, bound in the same pages. Again, this representation wasn’t perfect. But it was present.

However, the publication of collections of folklore that followed did not maintain this integration. In collections of supernatural folklore from North Carolina from the 1950s through the 1970s, many of which drew directly from Bundle Of Troubles And Other Tarheel Tales, stories told by African-Americans disappear or are altered to make the black characters appear more foolish or servile. The Native American presence is similarly minimized. Some of these are acts of simple omission, which may have been shaped by the authors selecting only the stories which were most resonant to them. There are other books in which the explicit racism is obvious.

Lack of representation in ghost stories is certainly not the most serious crime of the Jim Crow era South. But, because these stories were presented as folklore, as the story of the people of America, of the South, and of North Carolina, this omission and these changes were not without harm. It eliminated the voices of people who were native to, who built, and who were integral to the fabric of the state from these stories. Their contributions were erased from history.

These books are ones which are sold in museum gift shops, at historic sites, and in bookstores across North Carolina. They have, from this association with authority, the position of power to subtly dictate whose stories are worth hearing in the state. Who is folk, and who isn't.

And yes, this site has been complicit in that. I have unthinkingly passed along stories which support these power structures and which perpetuate stereotypes. I accept that responsibility. I will work to do better.

The past few decades have seen an interest in the revival and revitalization of Southern foodways. Scholars and authors such as Michael Twitty, Toni Tipton-Martin, and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor have reexamined the roots and connections of foods in the South. Restaurants like Durham’s Mama Dip’s Kitchen have shown that simple Southern food can be a high art.

The approach that these authors and chefs have taken, acknowledging the pain in the history, correcting the erasures, all while reveling in the genuine joy that can be found in good eating, seems like a good way to go about correcting this problem. It’s an approach to folk culture that can be literally shared and enjoyed by everyone. It’s a welcome table.

It’s my hope that we can build a new approach to Southern folklore along this model. That we can think critically about these stories while still telling and enjoying them. There are more stories to tell, more voices to be heard, and different perspectives to be brought to the table. There are different approaches to how we think about ghosts, about our ancestors, and about how we interact with the world of the past that we are still connected to. But these approaches will require us to be conscious of the stories we tell, and why we tell them.

We can all be folk. Our traditions can interact with one another, can learn from each other, can grow and take on new shapes that pay tribute to difference and recognize commonality. There are stories to be told, the are rituals to be formed, new mojos to be worked. new branches to grow from old, deep roots.

Make them flower.

Craig Payst, 2018