Key Folklife Definitions

In its programs and projects, the Louisiana Folklife Program defines folklife as living traditions currently practiced and passed on within groups by word of mouth, imitation, and observation over time and space, such as family, ethnic, social class, occupational, regional, and others. Everyone and every group has folklore.

The Louisiana Division of the Arts acknowledges a variety of traditional activities. In addition to performing traditions (music, dance, storytelling) and traditional arts and crafts (domestic, decorative, ritual, and occupational crafts), folklife expressions may concern religious traditions (dinner on the grounds, saints' day processions, St. Joseph Day altars), festive traditions (building a Mardi Gras float), occupational traditions (boatbuilding, making hunting horns), and foodways traditions (Czech pastries, filé making).

Folklore/Folklife is:

  1. Living traditions passed down over time and through space. Since most folklore is passed down through generations, it is closely connected to community history.
  2. Shared by a group of people who have something in common: ethnicity, family, region, occupation, religion, nationality, age, gender, social class, social clubs, school, etc. Everyone belongs to various groups; therefore, everyone has folklore of some sort.
  3. Learned informally by word of mouth, observation, and/or imitation.
  4. Made up of conservative elements (motifs) that stay the same through many transmissions, but folklore also changes in transmission (variants). In other words, folk traditions have longevity, but are dynamic and adaptable.
  5. Usually anonymous in origin.

Folklore/Folklife is NOT:

  1. Learned primarily through workshops, classes, books, or magazines.
  2. Something that is necessarily old or an antique; in fact, it is often contemporary and dynamic.
  3. Written history, nor historical re-enactment (re-creating the past with actors).

Cultural Continuum

Another way to look at folklife is to place it in the context of culture. Culture may be classified into three categories, each of which is learned in a different way:

  • Elite (or High, Academic, or Fine): learned formally through society's institutions such as schools, universities, museums, concert halls, books
  • Popular: learned through mass media such as television, radio, popular magazines, advertising, the Internet, newspapers, movies
  • Folk (or Traditional): learned by word of mouth, observation, and imitation through folk groups such as family, age, or region over time and space.

It is helpful to think of this as a continuum:    Folk           Popular           Elite where the boundaries between these kinds of knowledge blur and overlap.

For more information on defining folklife refer to Unit I Defining Terms in Louisiana Voices: An Educator's Guide to Exploring our Communities & Traditions.

Folklore and Everyday Life:

Folklife is so pervasive in our lives that it often remains all but invisible; because it is so much a part of how we live our lives, we rarely examine it. Yet it is precisely in the mundane activities of our daily routines that we learn much of what we need to know in our lives: whether it is the "tricks of the trade" that teachers (and doctors, salespeople, clergy, gardeners, hobbyists, or good cooks) share with each other and that often distinguish the expert from the novice, or the values (of cleanliness, literacy, religious practice, affectionate play) that are embodied in the routines with which we end the day for our children. Folk traditions are an important basis upon which cultural groups establish and pass on shared values and specialized knowledge. By focusing study on such traditions, we may gain a better understanding of how members of a particular group of people communicate with each other, what they value, and how they perceive the world and their role in it. Folk groups, the groups in which humans spend most of their time, share commonalities as well as differences. By studying the folklife of folk groups, we can develop conceptual frameworks within which to examine and reflect on both differences and commonalities. (Adapted from Standards for Folklife Education. Pennsylvania Alliance for Arts Education, Diane Sidener, ed. 1997.)

The American Folklife Preservation Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1976, defines folklife as "the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction."

Folklife Research

Folklife research on a specific group, topic, or theme is usually done through fieldwork, which entails going into a community and using observation and interviews to obtain firsthand information through the use of tape recordings, photography, notes, and sketches. The collection of the research results in writing, tapes, photographs, etc. is termed documentation. Today folklorists usually provide such studies with the total context of the folk tradition, working toward an ethnography, a term referring to the documentation of the total culture of a community or group. Culture may be defined as a whole way of life: the patterns of behavior and expressions learned and acquired by members of a particular group that define that society and set it apart from other cultural groups.

There is a fine line between folklife research and oral history, in which the focus of research lies more in the past than the present. Oral history comprises part of folklife research and contributes to a complete community ethnography.

For more information about planning a folklife fieldwork project, refer to Unit II Fieldwork Basics in Louisiana Voices: An Educator's Guide to Exploring Our Communities and Traditions.

Also refer to the Louisiana Voices Glossary.

For information on folklife genres, refer to Suggestions for Folklife Fieldwork and Presentations.

Who is a Folk Artist? Who is a Tradition Bearer? Criteria for Including Artists and Tradition Bearers in the Louisiana Folklife Database

Selection of individual folk artists and tradition bearers for inclusion in the database is based on the following criteria.

  1. Artist or tradition bearer must be a Louisiana resident or former resident. No out-of-state artists will be included.
  2. Artist or tradition bearer must meet the criteria of a traditional or folk artist as defined below. A folk artist or tradition bearer:

• practices a traditional artistic activity or skill that is passed along from person to person within a cultural group and has value and continuity for the group as a whole. The artistic skills are those that remain within living memory and still function within a community, rather than those that died outlong ago.

• practices this art or tradition within the context of a particular cultural group or community. Community may be defined by many different factors including occupation, ethnicity, region, neighborhood, religion or family. Folk artists should be members of the cultural groups represented by the arts they practice.

•learned the skill informally from others within the community, orally or by example, rather than through books, classes, or other means of academic or commercial instruction. Folk artists usually learn their repertoire from older community members.

• expresses community's traditional values, aesthetics, and needs through this work. Although individuals may be creative and innovative, they do not depart so far from traditional styles, forms, and repertoires that their work no longer reflects the community's ongoing standards of beauty and function.

• creates work primarily (or at least partially) for use within the community. Artists who create work exclusively for an outside audience or market (e.g., tourists) will not be considered folk artists.

• Artist's work must be worthy of public programming. Artists must be recognized as competent in their art form or skill within their own community. Novices will not be included.

• Artist must be capable of some kind of public programming: festival presentations, concerts, museum exhibits, or school programs, for example. If the artist is deceased or no longer active in the tradition, he or she must have a body of work that could be included in an exhibit, recording, film, or other means of public programming.

• Musical groups are listed both under the band's name and the leader's name. Other band members will not be listed separately in the database unless they make public Presentations as individual musicians or perform regularly with several different groups.

According to the criteria above, the following are not included in the database:

  • Historical re-creators or practitioners of antiquarian arts.
  • Out-of-state artists.
  • "Collectors" or "interpreters" of folk arts who are not themselves traditional practitioners of these arts (for example, folktale collectors or popularizers).
  • Artists who have not learned their skill in a traditional manner (for example, professional storytellers who learn their tales from books, or artists who do not belong to the cultural group represented by the art they practice).
  • Scholars who have an academic knowledge of a particular cultural group or art form, but who are not themselves tradition bearers.