Is Folk A Four-Letter Word?

By John Laudun


Folklorists would like to believe that the word "folk" carries exactly the meaning they intend for it to have. The problem, for those coming to the field for the first time, is that they don't seem to have any one particular meaning for it. Rather, it is, perhaps, a too flexible term, bending as far as one folklorist who took it to mean "any two people with something in common."

That's not a very helpful definition. Nor are those conceptions of folk that would seem to delimit it to certain groups, rural peasants, or working class populations who already face enough day-to-day problems without additionally being labeled "folk."

There are two things to keep in mind as you continue your exploration of folklore studies. First, for folklorists "folk" is not a fixed category or term. Rather, it is a rhetorical term, a term we use when we want to call upon certain cultural and/or institutional resources. If calling someone a folk artist enables a folklorist to get that person an exhibition of their work or funding for a project then that is what it takes. (This brings us to an important point which I will address later about who controls the use of the term "folk"—it's important to remember that it's not necessarily folklorists.)

That brings us to the second thing to keep in mind: you are not obliged to use the term "folk" at all. Many folklorists prefer to talk about individuals simply as artists, artisans, painters, philosophers, engineers, or whatever other term makes the most sense for them. (And always ask people how they like to be called: some have no particular preference; others do. And folklore studies, at its foundation, is about respecting others.) What matters is that people whose ideas might otherwise never be known, whose works of art might never otherwise be appreciated, and whose hard work might never otherwise be acknowledged find a place in an expanded understanding of history and of art.

Origins of the Term

The term "folklore" was first introduced into the English language in 1846 by William Thoms, who urged fellow scholars, who had principally been focused on studying classical European civilizations, to get out into the world and find out what people were doing in their everyday lives. It is true that he had a very particular understanding of who those people were: much the same folk that the Grimms brothers had and which had led them to collect stories from peasants, many of whom were women servants. (The original title of the Grimms' collection was Haus- und Kinder-märchen, literally "Household and Children Tales.")

Europe at the time of the Grimms and of Thoms had just come through the Napoleonic Wars, wars which had emerged out of Enlightenment ideas about equality, fraternity, and liberty. No one was prepared for the suffering that could come when these words were wielded as weapons. And let us also not forget that these ideas were emerging at the same time that the slave trade was reaching its peak.

European intellectuals were aghast by how their fine ideas had been used to rationalize terror and suffering. They were also beginning to realize just how big a juggernaut capitalism, finally fully realized in colonization and the establishment of plantations, and the industrial revolution were. They were hard pressed to cope with what they sensed was the radical estrangement of the working class and, for a few writers, the enslaved.

They turned to the peasants, whom we might recognize in our own contemporary American society as being not unlike how we mythologize family farmers: people tied to the land, in full possession of not only the means of their own survival but also able to produce something of an income. It was a very pastoral view of the world. To be clear, they did not imagine the folk as what Marx would later call the proletariat—that would come later.

Who's Calling the Folks?

This is where the troubles for the word "folk" begin. There continued to be a scholarly tradition, understanding the word "folk" in a positive way and ever increasing the range of people it covered. What the Grimms could not have known—what no one ever imagined—was just how popular their collection of Household and Children's Tales would become. The volume was a blockbuster, and it went through many printings and several editions. With each edition, it got cleaned up just a little bit more, became a bit more acceptable to the bourgeois classes that were happy to have a safe way to transmit a national identity to their children without them having to mix with the people themselves.

Did I mention that the whole idea of belonging to a nation is all tied up in this? Until this moment in history, the idea of a state was whoever had the power. Usually this was a king or emperor, and the boundaries of state went as far as his army could enforce. With the rise of romantic-nationalism, there emerged the idea that a state consisted of all those people who spoke the same language, lived in the same area, did the same things, and believed the same things. This is a nation. We still imagine this world today. Sometimes we call it ethnicity. (Notice the distinction between how we imagine the world and how it is actually constituted: many would argue that most of our states are really dynastic in nature and are still a function not of the people within them but of those in power.)

Romantic-nationalism is an interesting idea. Certainly it is provocative. William Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets wrote a lot of verse about shepherds and other country folk—you didn't think they were called Romantics because they thought sheep dung was so much fun, did you? But it's also a dangerous idea: if you don't speak the same language or look like me, maybe you shouldn't even be alive. One can hardly use the word "ethnicity" today without being reminded of "ethnic cleansing," a somewhat polite way of talking about genocide. The idea runs through the slave trade, the Indian Wars, the Holocaust, Bosnia, and Rwanda. I could name a dozen more instances in other places around the globe, but I think the horror of these examples are enough for you.

They are also enough for modern folklorists, who, like you, have seen how powerful an idea like nationalism is. Which is not to say that folklorists haven't been culpable in some way. Folklorists have made mistakes, make mistakes, and will make mistakes, but they remain committed to the discipline's founding idea, which can be found back in the Grimms and Thoms: that any state is more than those who are in power. When everyone else was paying attention to great men and their great wars or converting the working class into one big lump, folklorists were on the ground, talking to people, listening and taking down their stories, their ways, their history.

Some of the accounts will strike us as limited now or perhaps even racist. But the fact of the matter is that many Native American groups find the best resources for recovering their languages and ways that otherwise would have been lost are the materials recorded by one of the founders of American folklore and American anthropology, Franz Boas. (Another founder of the American Folklore Society, by the way, was W.E.B. DuBois, who in fact titled his book, The Souls of Black Folk.) Boas was the teacher of Zora Neale Hurston, whose books many African American scholars now find central to our understanding of African American life in the south in the middle of the 20th century—Alice Walker once said that if she had to take only two books with her to a deserted island, she would take Hurston's Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God. In her day, however, Hurston was attacked by Richard Wright for representing African Americans as "happy, dancing peasants."

The Use of "Folk"

For many folklorists, folklore studies has two missions. The first is to widen the historical record, which is a fancy way of saying that we believe that history must be made up of more than the rich and famous. For every George Bush, or some other political leader, who will have dozens of books written about him, there must be at least one book about or one tape of someone like Creole musician Canray Fontenot, Acadian weaver Gladys Clark, Creole ballad singer Inez Catalon, Isleño décima singer Irvan Perez, Mardi Gras Indian Tootie Montana, Cowboy singer Brownie Ford, and Chitimacha basketweaver Ada Thomas to name some people who have been recognized beyond their own communities and have received National Heritage Award Fellowships. These men and women will otherwise find that they are simply part of a larger category, like Cajun or Creole, in some economics or sociology text. That is, if they get mentioned at all—I trust I don't need to remind you that Louisiana history texts continue to leave out even vague references to groups like these?

In short, without us—and that "us" now includes you teachers and your students—being out there, documenting people's lives in a way that ennobles them and reveals them for the intelligent, creative people they are, they will leave behind the kind of paper trail that we all possess: parking tickets, insurance claims, utility bills. None of us want to be remembered that way. None of us want to be remembered only as one of the boxes we are forced to tick off for the U.S. Census. For me, folklore studies is the one way I have of shoving something back into the maw that threatens to swallow us all whole, leaving no trace of us, except as the gleam of a digit in some bank account of some corporation.

"Folk" in this context means "everybody else." Often this gets reduced to the working class or an ethnic group, but it's often the case that these are the groups of people that might otherwise get forgotten.

Folklorists and "Folk"

There aren't that many folklorists—our annual meetings generally run between 500 and 800 people, and that's for all of the U.S. and much of Canada. And there are so many wrongs to right. For instance, the word "folk art" was coined in an attempt to get what were once called "primitive painters" or "rustic craftsman" recognized as artists. Before the creation of the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, it was unlikely that the NEA was going to allow any money to be given to someone making quilts in Mississippi, so folklorists invented the category as a way to force the NEA's hand. They got Congress to make it law, give the NEA funds, and instruct the NEA to give the money to folk artists and not only to opera singers and other academically trained artists.

The term caught on. In fact, it created an explosion in interest in what might otherwise simply be known as traditional arts and crafts: pottery making, chair building, quilting, and a whole lot more. The art world in particular, coming as this did during the 1970s and a kind of "back to the earth" sensibility, really "dug it." This was also when the women's movement and the Black Arts Movement were beginning to gain ground, and many involved in these movements were happy to find a way to talk about all those people who had been creating art all this time but who weren't white guys splashing paint on a canvas.

But the art world is a really a commodity market, and it is driven by the need to make money. And many gallery owners discovered that you could put just about anything in an exhibit, call it folk art, and make a lot of money off it. And they did. And they continue to do so. Folklorists have fought back, trying to re-claim the word "folk art" for its original purpose, but the art world makes a lot more money, publishes a lot more books and magazines, and, in short, has a lot more power than folklorists, and they have managed to make folk art mean just about anything they say it is.

The same is also true for folk music. As a label, it is much more in the hands of the music industry than folklorists. Even within the university, political scientists are much more likely to control the use of the term "folk" than folklorists. As always, follow the money and you will find the true place of power. Political think tanks and lobbyists prefer the word "folk" to become something quite trivial, something tame and digestible. But I hope this little history has given you reason to believe that the word can have power. But don't mistake the word for the idea, for the attitude about the world and the people in it that are contained within the idea behind the word. It's the idea that matters, not the word.

Because the word can cause so much trouble, many folklorists I know simply don't use the word in public any more. We will talk about traditional art, if we are trying to convey the sense that the art is part of a larger community tradition and that there is an already existing way that the art is received and used. We will, in the case, of many artists or craftspeople, simply use the term they prefer, especially when talking in public. Occasionally we still counsel the use of the term, because being a "folk artist" sometimes has advantages: at some festivals, folk artists either don't pay to exhibit or get a substantial reduction in fees—or in some cases they get paid.

Use the word "folk" with care then. Or, if you like, don't use it at all. It's a powerful word with a complex history. But remember its meaning: getting people into history who otherwise wouldn't be, getting art to be appreciated that wouldn't otherwise be seen or heard. What makes me proud to be a folklorist is this: we are a discipline which remains fundamentally committed to the idea that it's about people. Not people as lab rats. Not people as numbers. Not people as pawns of larger historical and political forces. But people as born into a complex world who possess the wit and grace to navigate it as best they can.

This essay was originally written for teachers attending the LiFT / Lessons in Folklife and Technology Institute, a Louisiana Voices Folklife in Education Project in collaboration with Tulane University Deep South Regional Humanities Center, New Orleans, July, 2003. Dr. John Laudun is a folklorist in the Department of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.