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What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?

16 Dec 01 - 10:31 PM (#611340)
Subject: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: marty D

I hope nobody thought I was about to ask What is folkmus...? I may not have been in this since the cradle like some here, but I know NEVER to ask THAT question!

I DO have some question tho. What exactly defines a Folklorist? If someone treks thru the woods and mountains collecting old songs, does that MAKE them a folklorist? Does a folklorist have to publish? If they don't, do they just get run over by academics in any discussions about folk songs? Is a University degree in fact neccessary for one to be considered legit?

I know that people like the Lomaxes, and Child were Folklorists but what about Carl Sandburg or even Pete Seeger (I know his father was one)? On Mudcat is Sandy Paton or Wolfgang or Malcolm Douglas or Art Theme or Don Firth a folklorist or are they simply people who know a lot about traditional music?

I started thinking about this after reading the thread about whether a composed song could be a folksong. So are there any definitions that most agree on? Thanks.


16 Dec 01 - 11:09 PM (#611355)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: Uncle Jaque

Well, I dunno fer shore, but it sounds like a "Folkloreist" might actually be able to make a living at it.

There seems to be a lot more to "Folklore" than the music, although that aspect is to you & I one of the more significant components. I'm thinking of the "Foxfire" books and that sort of thing; it incorporates cultural evolution, regional beliefs, history, traditions, rituals, relationships, technology, agriculture, the arts (including but not limited to music) and lots more along those lines - that's just all I can pull off the top of me head right now.

Without looking it up (too lazy) I'd guess that a "Folklorist" is one dedicated to observing, studying, recording, preserving and sharing the complex social systems which have their being in the context of circumstances where a lot of these unique nuances are not apt to be written down or intentionally kept for succeeding generations against inevitably encroaching cultural influences, such as TV, the internet, and manditory public endoctrination (AKA "education"). (*Gasp*; that sure was a long sentence!) How's that?

In a way, Reenactors are amature "folklorists" I suppose. In order to develop a credible impression, we need to study not only what a Civil-War (or whatever period one is doing) Soldier (etc.) would have looked like, but what they would have used for everyday activities; how they would have spoken and expressed themselves. In what sort of dialect or "accent"? Word usage has changed a lot since the 1860's; Remember when "Gay" used to mean "happy"? Folklore. How did the folks back home run the farm? What books have you been reading? What did you learn in School? Can you Cipher? More folklore. Did you like music? Oh; no radios or TV? You must've sung while you worked or played some instrument to help pass the time between toiling and Battle... What did you sing/play? How? Which songs had special meaning for you? Which songs did some of the Officers forbid you to sing? Why?

Yup; "Folklore" again, and we do it all the time. For free. And we love it!

By the way; I also "collect" music of the 19th Century, both "Folk" and "published". That's not different, per se; it's an integral part of the "Folklore" proccess.

Hope this helps sort it out a little for ye, Marty!

Regards: Uncle Jaque, Fifer

3rd Maine Inf. Regimental Field Music

17 Dec 01 - 12:16 AM (#611380)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: Sorcha

Damn good question! And I think all the names you mentioned should be in the Pantheon. Also, some guy who several years ago got a grant from somebody to research and record the "Wyoming" fiddle "bunch" was on the rough recording and got credits in the final, but none of us was actually on the Final Cut.

I'll look it up tomorrow when I have light in the front room.......seems like the title was "Wyoming Homesteaders////something". (Everybody is in bed except me....)

17 Dec 01 - 12:23 AM (#611383)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

Folklorist is a ballpark term, as Uncle Jaque shows. It involves studying traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances or art forms, according to the dictionary. Art forms may be anything from verbal to concrete items. The OED says the same in different words but adds "of the common people." I guess from that if the nobility is (are, British) involved, it ain't folklore (folk-lore, Br.).
Just for the fun of it, I looked up folksinger. Webster's says it is one who sings folk songs (folk-songs Br.) or sings in a style associated with folk songs. That's broad enough to cover most of the involved attempts at explanation that have appeared in the several threads that are in Mudcat.
Incidentally, although the OED defines folk-song, it doesn't mention folksingers, hyphenated or otherwise (1987 supplement). Beneath mention?

17 Dec 01 - 01:10 AM (#611399)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: M.Ted

Uncle Jaque cut it,fit it, nailed it and sealed it!

17 Dec 01 - 01:14 AM (#611400)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: Bert

Why ask us? There are no folklorists here, otherwise a thread about a potato wouln't have more postings than a thread about the traditional folk activity called pantomime.

17 Dec 01 - 08:38 AM (#611479)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: catspaw49

It's a new field of folklore study Bert.....just opened up. The "Trad Potato and the Thong"....bound to be very in depth as time goes by.

Uncle J done said the rest!


17 Dec 01 - 08:50 AM (#611486)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: GUEST,Desdemona

And if I'm not mistaken, isn't the "Trad Potato and the Thong" a morris dance as well?!

More folklore......

17 Dec 01 - 11:29 AM (#611607)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: George Seto -

I'm thinking Uncle Jaque's message is prety well right on. I think of a collector as the one out there getting the material from the informant, but the folklorist would have to do more with the material. For instance, Helen Creighton of Canada was a folklorist in the true sense of the term, although there was no such person during the majority of her active years in the field. She has been acknowledged to be one of the foremost collectors of folklore(she collected EVERYthing, not just songs), but had no university degree in any way. She'd be classed as an amateur folklorist by some people, I'm sure. But the Lomaxes and Folkes thought highly of what she did. She had good relations with many people such as Pete Seeger. However there were problems in some respects, due to her politics, and the fact she was a female of high society. Some informants would not be passing on to her, nor would she, I suspect, have promoted the naughty songs. Dr. Helen Creighton was against communism, and would not collect union songs therefore.

Despite these shortcomings, she, singlehandly, assembled one of the largest collections of folklore in North America in her lifetime.

17 Dec 01 - 11:57 AM (#611632)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: GUEST,Frank

A folklorist usually is a collector. You can get a degree in folklore from academia. You don't need one to collect. You can be an amateur folklorist which most collectors are otherwise why do it?

Field work can be done by anyone who cares to without credentials. Some of the best has been done by non-academic types.


17 Dec 01 - 12:09 PM (#611647)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: Rick Fielding

Hmmmm, good question.

So far you're getting many answers, and I think that's the way it will continue. A few thoughts that come to my mind are:

To be a 'recognised' folklorist you must be knowledgable in how to get Grants from the Government or private sector. So often I've read about collectors' works being subsidised by various foundations etc. I'd certainly say "yes" to your question about 'the need to publish'. Without his many teaching books, Ken Perlman would not be known world-wide as a guitar and banjo trad styles expert. So, an interest in getting your work "out there" HAS to be a major part re: the 'recognized' aspect.

Certainly in any discussion, the folklorist who can quote chapter and verse from an obscure tome, will at least APPEAR more knowledgable than his/her adversary. If they can quote from their OWN book, so much the least from an 'authority' standpoint.

I'm not sure how the Mudcat folks you mentioned here would view themselves vis a vis "folklorist". Perhaps they'll notice this and chip in.


17 Dec 01 - 12:45 PM (#611685)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: Leeder

I don't have formal education in the field, but I hang out, in CSTM, with many people who do. Nowadays they tend to call themselves "ethnomusicologists"; "folklorist" seems to have a vaguely old-fashioned feel. (Edith Fowke used to insist, rather defiantly, that she was a folklorist, not an ethnomusicologist.) I think ethnomusicologists will deal with non-traditional as well as traditional music, as long as it's culture-based. Also, folklorists will deal with non-music material, such as folk tales, customs, adages, etc., as long as it's traditional.

A "collector", as someone said above, is someone who learns music directly from informants within a tradition. Just to further complicate things, a "compiler" puts together collections of material that other collectors have collected.

17 Dec 01 - 01:15 PM (#611701)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: Malcolm Douglas

You don't have to collect, but it does tend to go with the territory.  For myself, I'm only an amateur student of the subject, with a very long way to go; I wouldn't actually describe myself as a folklorist, as I haven't really done any primary research.  I did do a study of toilet graffiti (!) when I took my degree (in languages, but it did include folklore studies) which was quite unusual at the time, but a girl at Leeds got the credit for doing it first -a year after me as it happens, but the Folklore Survey at Sheffield was relatively new at that time and kept my piece quiet for fear of frightening the horses; for a long while it was only available by special request.  In another life I might have spent less time in the pub and more time studying, got a better degree and taken the academic route; but I was young and not very focused.  Maybe I'll go back to it seriously one day, as some of my friends have done; meanwhile, it's an absorbing interest and a perennial excuse for skiving off work.  Leeder's point about ethnomusicologists is a pertinent one; several play in one of our local sessions, which has featured in a couple of MMus dissertations, so in a small way I've been a subject of study as well as a student.

17 Dec 01 - 02:16 PM (#611740)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?

Most accurate answer is probably "it depends upon who you ask."

As others have pointed out, there are many amateur folklorists, and many academically trained folklorists, and sometimes the two are even the same (ie end up going on for further formal study and training in the academic disciplines of folklore, cultural anthropology, or ethnomusicology).

There seems to be some confusion about whether folklorists actually study folk music. Many do, many don't. Folklore and anthropology don't study/collect music cultures exclusively, and many in those fields never study/collect music at all. However, ethnomusicologists always do both if they are formally trained. I have yet to meet anyone who has referred to themselves as an amateur ethnomusicologist--it seems to be a title only those who have university training/degrees in the field seem comfortable wearing.

As to the "only if it is traditional" definition, this is largely a myth. Academic and amateur folklorists now study the contemporary folklore of many cultural groups, from corporations to royalty--not just "the common people" by any means. That aspect of the "definition" of folklore is as outdated now as is the term "antiquarian" (which is what cultural anthropologists and folklorists were called before they were called folklorists and anthropologists).

18 Dec 01 - 01:00 AM (#612182)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?
From: marty D

I should have also mentioned Kytrad and Barry Finn who seem very knowledgable about traditional music. Would they consider themselves 'folklorists'?

Thanks for the response. This is very interesting.


18 Dec 01 - 08:54 AM (#612282)
Subject: RE: What is a Folklorist? Same as Collector?

To me, there are actual several groups of people involved in folk music. First there are the musicians who, whether long dead or just getting started, are "the folk" who write the songs and pass them on. The only standards they seem to adhere to seems to be whether or not a song is any good, whether they like the song or not, and whether anyone will listen to them sing it.

Then there came the people who decided, usually for nationalistic reasons, that "the songs of my people" needed "collecting" for posterity. These are the people who formed endangered folk song societies, had "revivals" and other such things. Their self-invented job description was to decide just what was and wasn't going to be a folk song. Depending on where in the world you live, and which English and/or Anglo American antiquarian/folklorist/folk song collector made it to your doorstep first, the approximate date this phenomenon began varies from about the 18th c. down to the early 20th. Later if you happen to have the misfortune of being one of the best folk singers in Tora Bora and other remote and exotic locales.

Doesn't matter whether you are talking about the printing press, the gramophone, the rise of the capitalist music industry dividing the "folk" music world by five in order to conquer it, or the MP3--there has pretty much always been somebody around "recording" folk songs, even just in their own memory, so they could steal the song and make the version they prefer that hallowed thing known as "the standard version" which will bring them fame or fortune, hopefully both. Many a song and a singer have been exploited (Alan Lomax/Leadbelly story is an easy example to refer to) by these zealous collectors on a mission from God to save those songs. This was done easily because the musicians were vain enough to believe their own version was, without a doubt, the best.

And then came the "academic discipline" folk. They got tenure and fabulously secure academic lives by closely examining what everyone else was doing. This last group of PhDs-come-lately are generally viewed with contempt by the above two groups. Unless one of these expert authorities agrees with them. These are the publish or perish vultures you sometimes see circling in the air above "traditional music communities" waiting for a song or a singer to die so they can swoop down upon it, and carry it off to their nests and live off it, hopefully for the rest of their lives so they don't have to keep going back out to do that terrible fieldwork (the native folk have such terrible amenities, you know).

And finally, we have the audience. The punters. The traditional community. The inconspicuous and conspicious consumers of folk. They are the ultimate arbiters of folk--the final judge, jury, and executioners, who decide whether to let the song and/or singer live on as folk, or whether to let them die. Needless to say, this last group is the least popular of all.