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Folklore And Legend

Pocahontas, Native American Powhatan: Buy at Art.com

Folklore is the general term for the verbal, spiritual, and material aspects of any culture that are transmitted orally, by observation, or by imitation. People sharing a culture may have in common an occupation, language, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. This body of traditional material is preserved and passed on from generation to generation, with constant variations shaped by memory, immediate need or purpose, and degree of individual talent.

Both rural and urban life, are interspersed with accounts and traditions of ethnic group traditions, customs regarding planting, cooking, marriage, death, celebrations, and recreation. The word folklore was coined in 1846 by the English antiquary William John Thoms to replace the term popular antiquities.

Scholars define folklore as the body of traditional customs, beliefs, tales, songs, and the like that are transmitted by word of mouth from one generation of a small society to the next. Such precision of definition, of course, is necessary to every academic discipline. In fact some folklorists deplore what one of them, Richard Dorson, has termed "fakelore" - that is, stories and characters popularly believed to be folklore, which are actually the product of a single writer or of the media. This academic definition of folklore is confined by exactitude. On the contrary, if characters such as Paul Bunyan and Snoopy, if stories about John Smith and Pocahontas and the jumping frog, have had such a strong hold on the American imagination it would be wrong to exclude them from lore. There are a myriad of stories, tales, legends, anecdotes, poems, and songs from every era. Some of the stories here have not been told for a hundred years, except by a few scholars, and yet they constitute solid beams in the structure of American tradition that is even yet a-building.

The wisdom, imagination, and spirit of the common people that shine through all lore inspire the customs, language, and superstitions of our country. Many of our finest literary works were inspired by what first belonged to the folk. Rousseau's philosophical romance with the "noble savage" germinated in tales about the American red men that reached the Continent; the historical Daniel Boone filtered through the fictions of several popular biographers and the folk to Cooper's pen and came out as Natty Bumppo, hero of the Leatherstocking Tales.

Fabulous creatures and fascinating stories are what we think lets you discover a deeper dimension to the word "American." Americans, more than most other people, have always sought a sense of identity. Among nations whose origins go back thousands of years, the search for identity is not difficult, but to us it is, for we are a society composed of many national backgrounds, many languages, many customs. Some American families have been here only a few years; Indians excepted, none have been here much more than three centuries. Yet we all wish to be recognized as "Americans."

Tradition is a chief ingredient in any identification. In most countries tradition, based to a very large extent in folklore, history, and geography, has grown up over the centuries. Unfortunately, the U.S. is too young a country, and its inhabitants too diverse in character and too much on the move, for a folk tradition of the Old World type to have grown up.

Folklore, by definition, is the traditional knowledge of the folk. "Folk" are small groups of people living in isolation who pass along by word of mouth the information and opinions that enable them to live and thrive. This material has no known author or source. It is ancient and covers a plethora of topics from myths and legends, weather and planting lore, songs and games to medicine and language. Above all, it is oral and is known to a relatively small number.

Not only is folklore rather clearly defined by academic folklorists, but a clearcut system of classification of terms and methods of study has been established. Myth, for example, refers to a certain kind of material with theological overtones. Folklorists talk of the Christian Myth much to the despair of the churchman who has been taught to believe "myth" is a polite way to say "colossal lie." On the other hand, legends are stories that tend to be based in historic fact, are narrowly located geographically, and are often an exaggeration of ethnic fears and aspirations. While folklorists make careful distinctions limiting superstitions, beliefs, and customs, the public is convinced that superstition is "anything not proved correct by scientific investigation and in which I do not personally believe."

Generally speaking, the academic folklorist is committed to an austere and rigorous method that requires that lore be set down in its entirety, including all textual mistakes and distractions. The scholars also prefer that stories and lore be grouped into such categories as occupations, fractions of history and geography, and calamities. There is a vast, restless, variegated land where people of every trade and background have mixed together to form a popular consensus of tradition that we call "American."

A story by Washington Irving would not be considered folklore by folklorists even though it is based on an authentic folktale. Nor would Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" or Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp" qualify as folklore by academic criteria. Yet these very items are major ingredients in our popular lore. Americans derive a kind of shared experience by hearing that Washington cried for his troops on Christmas Day, that Barbara Frietchie risked her life for the American flag, or that General Jackson was so tough he was called Stonewall. It matters little that old George was crying because his false teeth hurt, that Frietchie never existed, or that when Jackson refused to attack, an irate officer exclaimed, "There stands Jackson just like a stone wall!"

Americans have been taught at home and in school, popular stories, poems, songs, and a considerable amount of folklore that has crept into the popular beliefs of modern Americans. American folklore and legend should help to develop that sense of identity so hard to find today an understanding of our national viewpoint and personality. Here are heroes different from those of other nations, a special kind of violence, humor, and sentiment that appeals to the majority of Americans. Where but in the United States does one lay so much stress on movement, low birth, self-education, upward mobility, cleverness, and large (if not colossal) heroes with a flair, not always intentional, for the comic?

Christmastide 1620 saw work parties going ashore daily from the snow-swept Mayflower to build the first thatched huts of Plymouth. Many of the Pilgrims were deathly ill, but their hopes of founding a new society in the wilderness were as healthy as when they had embarked. Because that dream came true and gave birth to the American dream, Plymouth Rock has been rightly called "the cornerstone of a nation." Unlike New Englanders, New Netherlanders were not given to grandiose visions of the future. Hudson Valley planters remembered Holland as a lost paradise. But the patroons flourished; and so did their trade with the Indians.

Others arrived from England and the Continent, where wars and economic woes were making life unbearable for many who were now eager to believe that the Earthly Paradise which folk tradition had long situated in the West might possibly lie just across the Atlantic Ocean in America. So they flocked in, settling Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia. Most prominent of these colonies (and diametrically opposite in temper to New England) was Virginia, founded in 1607, 13 years before the coming of the Mayflower; its lore was Elizabethan in flavor, embodying all the aspects of rural Merry England that were anathema to the Puritans. However, the newcomers were all alike in that they tended to see the novel and wondrous things of the New World in terms of European folk stereotypes, making factual reports that seem to us today impossible (50-pound lobsters, pigeons so thick they darkened the sun), passing on rumors as eyewitness accounts, and interpreting evidence from the standpoint of the day (a dinosaur footprint was the track of the Devil, for example). But they were also well aware that their own deeds were opening an unprecedented era in human history.

The legend is a story, a traditional narrative or collection of related narratives, popularly regarded as historically factual but actually a mixture of fact and fiction. The medieval Latin word legenda means "things for reading". During certain services of the early Christian Church, legenda, or lives of the saints, were read aloud.

A legend is set in a specific place at a specific time; the subject is often a heroic historical personage. A legend differs from a myth by portraying a human hero rather than one who is a god. Legends, originally oral, have been developed into literary masterpieces. Among the most famous legends of all time are the classic epics the Iliad and the Odyssey of ancient Greece and the Aeneid of ancient Rome. From the Middle Ages come legends about Arthur, King of the Britons; Charlemagne; and the German alchemist Faust.

It had all started in the 1760's, despite the Crown's admonition not to go over the mountains. The land beyond the Appalachians was scouted by long hunters (Legendary Backwoodsman), so called for their protracted fur-hunting jaunts. Most famous of them all was Daniel Boone, who led a party of pioneers through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. When the settlers spread out into the backwoods country west of the Appalachians, they developed a special strain of rugged individualism - brutal, brash, and boisterous. A new social type - the frontiersman - was born, As a legendary figure he was to be the prototype of all subsequent "western" heroes. More often than not, based on the exploits of real characters such as Boone and Davy Crockett, the frontiersman legend accurately reflects the fortitude and tribulations of the 300,000 who traveled up Boone's trail, the Wilderness Road, during the heroic period of westward expansion. Others, passing through Ohio, camped down next to apple orchards planted by Swedenborgian missionary "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman (one of the rare white men to be well received by the Shawnees, whom he regaled with stories of visitations from spirits and angels). In a futile attempt to oppose the white invasion of their territory, the Indians of the Old Northwest formed a defensive confederation under the leadership of the Shawnee war chief Tecumseh (Shooting Star) and his prophet brother. They allied with the British in 1812, but the confederation collapsed when Tecumseh fell in a battle in 1813 won by the U.S. About a year later, frontier sharpshooters under Andrew Jackson inflicted a crushing defeat on British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans. Overnight, the legendary frontier type was embodied in Jackson, a national hero destined to be the first "people's president."

There was but one hope, America! one immigrant said. His terse statement summed up the motivation of millions like him who poured into the United States between 1870 and 1920. In numbers approaching thousands daily, they appeared-Irishmen, Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Greeks, East Europeans, and Chinese-fleeing famine, oppression, poverty ... and, seeking opportunity, jostling predecessors in the mines and sweatshops of the New World a rung or two up the social ladder as they came.

For all, it was a heady atmosphere, and yet, behind the optimism and excitement lay a nostalgia for the Old World and a memory of the anxiety of parting, passage, and arrival - immigrant lore combines the exhilaration of the new with yearning for the old, and occasional discouragement. "America is God's crucible, the great melting pot where all the races are melting and re-forming," enthused popular playwright Israel Zangwill in 1908, prompting less hopeful comment that America was not so much a melting pot as a collection of unmeltable ingots. It did seem that way at times. Belief in the doctrine of "Anglo-Saxon superiority" extended from the nativist grassroots to the White House; anti-immigration sentiment was being translated into federal law; bigotry and the ethnic slur were the order of the day - all this comes through in the lore of turn-of-the-century America. As folklorist Duncan Emrich puts it: "Folklore carries with it the evils and stupidities and prejudices of humanity as well as the great goodness of the human race. That is an obvious historical fact . . ." Both sides of the coin are with us yet. But - lest some of the stereotypes and images that follow seem a bit too close for comfort - we should remember that America has come a long way since 1900.

Readers Digest. American Folklore and Legend . Readers Digest, New York, New York, U.S.A. 1978.



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