Unit I: Defining Terms

Louisiana Voices Educator's Guide  
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Study Guide Summary  
Outline of the Study Guides  
Study Unit I Defining Terms  
Study Unit II Fieldwork Basics  
Study Unit III Discovering the Obvious: Our Lives as "The Folk"  
Study Unit VI The State of Our Lives: Being a Louisiana Neighbor  
Study Unit V Oral Traditions--Swapping Stories  
Study Unit VI Louisiana's Musical Landscape  
Study Unit VII Material Culture-The Stuff of Life  
Study Unit VIII The Worlds of Work and Play  
Study Unit IX The Seasonal Round and Life Cycles  
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Unit I Outline:

Defining Terms (this page)

Lesson 1: What is Folklife?

Lesson 2: Folk Groups

Lesson 3: Folk Genres

Unit I Resources





Henry Dorsey, Cotton Bins, FAF 1997Unit I
Defining Terms

By Paddy Bowman, Sylvia Bienvenu, and Maida Owens

In Louisiana Indian communities, there now exists a new genre of folklore--mostly concerning anthropologists and folklorists. Stories abound about the "giants of academia. . . ." Perhaps the most astounding thing to Indian people is the apparent inability of these "trained" people to remember what they see or hear. One Coushatta elder put it candidly, "Why can't anthropologists learn our language or remember what we say--they have to take notes or make tapes. We all learn without doing that!" Indians somehow noticed that professors were terribly "slow learners" by Indian standards. In Indian communities some people knew three to four languages; anthropologists and folklorists were having trouble learning what children already knew!

––H. F. "Pete" Gregory, Natchitoches Parish


Unit Introduction

This unit provides the foundation for Louisiana Voices, so teachers as well as students should master these basics, which begin with the key terms used throughout the Louisiana Voices Educator's Guide. Use the student activities and worksheets to reinforce terms and concepts defined indepth in the student essay, What Is Folklife and Why Study It?. Find additional discussions in the Louisiana Folklife Program's Key Folklife Definitions.

Teachers already use folklife in their classrooms, although they may not always be aware of it or use the same terms that folklorists use. Throughout the guide, click on words in bold typeface to link to the definition in the Glossary, designed for use by teachers. If you are using a print version, you'll know each time you see a word in boldface that it is in the Glossary.

No matter what the terms, the content and methods of folklife scholarship give students new perspectives on themselves and their communities and enliven their studies through real-life, student-centered primary source research. Just as teachers are already using folklife in their teaching, they're using some folklorists' methods as well. For example, what folklorists call "context," educators call "setting the frame." Users can easily translate what this guide offers into many teaching needs and lesson plans. Review lessons and borrow freely.

Lesson 1 introduces the meaning of folklife and how it is transmitted through everyday learning. The lesson also asks students to look for motifs and variants and to wrestle with the gray areas of cultural processes. Note Unit III Lesson 1 offers an alternate strategy to introduce these concepts using children's games and play.

Lesson 2 introduces the concept of folk group and asks students to inventory the folk groups in their own lives. For another way to introduce folk groups, see Unit III Lesson 2, in which students identify various folk groups within the school community.

Lesson 3 tackles folk genres and leads students through activities that help them to classify collected folklore into genres and also brings together the three concepts of folklife, folk groups, and folk genres.

This guide uses the following key terms: folklore, folklife, folk group, context, fieldwork, and folk, popular, and elite cultural processes. These terms are at the core of folklore scholarship and of this guide. Learning them will enhance students' views of themselves as tradition bearers improve their vocabularies, and provide the building blocks for studying folklife and conducting the primary research Louisiana Voices encourages.

Background Information for the Teachers

The discussion below serves as teachers' background information for the lessons in this unit. Students can use the essay What Is Folklife and Why Study It? If the essay is written above your students' reading ability, refer to the Adaptation Strategies for ways to adjust and modify it to levels that students can understand.

Folklore / Folklife
Folklore is a term that means different things to different people. Sometimes we use "folklore" to signify a "story" or even a "falsehood." We'll say "that's just folklore" as if to mean "that's not true." Sometimes people associate folklore with something that's "backward," but nothing could be further from the truth. Folklore is indeed a complicated term. The roots of the word folklore lie in 19th-century European scholarship of the life of rural peasants, whom scholars thought of as "folk."

Folklife is a more recent term that is more embracing of all cultural traditions, including material culture and customary behavior, than the term "folklore." The general population tends to associate folklore mainly with verbal traditions or "quaint" holdovers rather than modern life and our myriad dynamic forms of living folk culture. Louisiana Voices uses the term "folklife" interchangeably with "folklore."

Today, folklorists study all kinds of old and brand-new traditions in every setting imaginable: urban streets, oil rigs off the Gulf Coast, rodeos, middle-class homes, corporations, even the Internet. Crucial to the definition of folklore is the term folk group. All of us belong to many overlapping groups of people who share common language, worldviews, beliefs, interests, customs, and identities. Examples include our immediate and extended families, neighborhoods, communities, regions, religious affiliations, occupations, age groups, genders, ethnic groups, language groups, hobby enthusiasts, on and on. By interacting with people with whom we share identities, we are interacting within a folk group. See more about the concept of folk group below.

Folklore includes traditions, which are not necessarily old, that folk groups. learn and pass on. These traditions are passed on over time and through space by 1) word of mouth, 2) observation, 3) imitation, or 4) some other "informal" method of communication. For example, you might email a joke you just heard to your cousin in Shreveport, and he might respond, "That's an old joke. I heard it at a conference in Tennessee two years ago." This traditional, anonymous narrative has traveled not only from person to person, but place to place--over cyberspace! Cyberspace, in this instance, is being used informally, almost feeling like "face-to-face" communication.

Why does folklore last? The functions of folklore vary greatly, but among them are entertainment, education, relief of cultural tension, marking of cultural boundaries, validation of cultural norms, and overturning of cultural norms. Cajuns may tell "Boudreaux and Thibodeaux" jokes to laugh at themselves and reinforce identity as cultural insiders. (But when an outsider tells the same joke, it might appear to be stereotyping and not funny!) Parents may tell their own personal experience narratives to teach their children a lesson or educate them about their family history. Folklore often reinforces the shared norms of a community; however, sometimes an individual within a community might vary folklore to resist shared norms. For example, a musician may add a verse to a traditional song protesting current events.

Variants, Motifs
Folklore is dynamic, changing from teller to teller, maker to maker, in many versions, or variants. However, these variants maintain elements or patterns that stay the same, which folklorists call motifs. For example, a fiddler plays a tune she learned from the master Cajun folk artist Dewey Balfa, adding a flourish but keeping the core tune intact.

Watching your grandmother make tea cakes over and over, you remember how to make them for your own children, but perhaps you vary the recipe a tiny bit. Or, seeing that an email correspondent has used cyber code called "emoticons" to express a smile, you adapt it yourself [:>)], tinkering with it to add other moods [:-(], then passing it along the Internet.

Folklore is usually anonymous, meaning that we often don't know where it comes from. Computer virus hoaxes, knock-knock jokes, plastic babies in King cakes, tunes for songs, tricks for making a roux, barn styles, jump rope rhymes, ghost stories--there may be no definitive author of these whom we can track. Family folklore, differs, however, since sometimes a creator is known: Uncle Percy's adventure with an alligator, MawMaw's sweet potato pie recipe, or Daddy's nickname for Mama.

Folklorists learn to research, document, and interpret folklore in university courses. In their profession, they study the context of stories, objects, songs, customs, and other folklife traditions carefully. They try to understand the setting, the players, the history, and all the circumstances surrounding a tradition, a tradition bearer, a folk group, a community, or a region. By examining the background of people, processes, and artifacts, folklorists try to understand why a tradition continues and what it means to its practitioners. As they analyze the overt and hidden meanings of cultural expressions--from dialect to beliefs, occupational crafts to parades--within various folk groups and society, they uncover the universal as well as the unique among diverse cultures.

Cultural Processes
cultural processes are at play in our matrix of daily learning, teaching, and living. While we learn folk or traditional culture through word of mouth and observation, we also learn from and interact with popular culture from radios, televisions, the Internet, magazines, and other mass media. There is also academic or elite culture, which we acquire at formal institutions such as schools, colleges, museums, music conservatories, and art schools. These three cultural processes constantly and fluidly intermingle and exchange influences. A Venn diagram of three overlapping circles illustrates how intertwined folk, popular, and academic cultures are in our lives.

For example, a museum might purchase a traditional Koasati basket for its permanent collection and advertise an exhibit of traditional baskets in a popular culture magazine. A classical music composer might borrow a folk motif from traditional music, and a traditional zydeco accordionist could pick up a new technique from a pop recording he hears on his truck radio. Garth Brooks' pop country hit, "Friends in Low Places" has roots in traditional music, but it has its own folkloric element. The song has a secret stanza that is not on the recording, but insider fans know it and sing along with him in live concerts. This secret stanza represents a folk tradition attached to a popular culture song.

Most students probably do not know that virtually all pop music is deeply rooted in traditional music and that Louisiana is one of the most influential seedbeds not only for rock and roll but for rhythm and blues, country and western, rockabilly, gospel, and jazz. Through imperceptible cultural processes, all of us exchange and create all kinds of cultural information daily.

Fieldwork is the term that folklorists, oral historians, anthropologists, and other social scientists use to describe their methods of collecting, preserving, and analyzing data. In this case the data come from the everyday lives of ordinary people as well as the masters of traditional arts and crafts. Armed with tools such as the Yellow Pages, local newspapers, notepads, pencils, audio and video recorders, and cameras, folklorists seek out tradition bearers to document how they have learned their traditions and how they teach and pass them on to others. Unit II Classroom Applications of Fieldwork Basics outlines the process of planning, conducting, and assessing interviews and categorizing and analyzing findings. It also suggests products and projects that students can create through their fieldwork and gives thumbnail sketches of projects from around the country.

Folk Groups
Folklife and folklore, by definition, include traditional activities that take place within a community of people who share an identity. Called a folk group, this community may share traditions, values, beliefs, and worldviews. Jan Harold Brunvand, in The Study of American Folklore, has identified several types of folk groups, including those that share occupational, age-related, and/or gender-based folklore. Folk groups are also formed around region, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. It is important to stress to students that they belong to many different folk groups, and that folk groups are not necessarily large. In fact, folklife, more often than not, is practiced within small groups. Is it also important to point out that folklore is not an "individual habit" that one person alone practices.

Identifying the beliefs and practices of folk groups helps us to understand how communities cohere and why like-minded people sustain folklore. In the transmission of folklife, there is an inevitable "coming together" of a folk group to maintain practices over space and time. Individuals within a group can, however, resist and change certain traditions, so that folk groups embody complex characteristics. It is as important to study the differences within a group as it is to study the shared practices.

Before introducing this concept to students, think about your own folk groups––perhaps the occupational folk group of teachers. What values and beliefs do you share with other teachers? What traditions, customs, and artifacts are important to your classroom? What special language do teachers use that others would not understand? What makes you feel like an insider within the field of teaching? How do you feel like an outsider? Does the occupational folk group further subdivide on the basis of gender, age, or ethnicity? Are teachers within your discipline and grade level different from other teachers? Are teachers from your region different from those in other regions? How does a folk group of "teachers" differ from that of "administrators?" What about the "American" education system that informs your folklore? Answering these questions reveals much about your identity as a teacher within a like-minded community.

Students will also need to explore their own folk groups. Many will never have thought before about why they belong to certain groups of people, and forcing them to analyze their own "ways of belonging" can help them not only to understand themselves better but also the people around them.

Folk Genres
Folklorists also spend time classifying different kinds of folklore into folk genres. The Louisiana Voices Glossary defines folk genres as "categories or types of traditions." Because folklife is so vast and varied and permeates so many different aspects of everyday life, it is helpful to classify it into different folk genres according to shared characteristics. The categories below are general guidelines for classifying folklife. However, you should always bear in mind that the categories are not hard and fast, and that one tradition can embrace several genres. A recipe may be sustained in a family, for example, solely because a story is told with it. Also, folklore can sometimes intersect with popular and elite culture. It is as important to recognize all these gray areas as it is to classify folklore into established genres.

Basic genres of folklife include the following:

  • Oral Tradition: spoken words, sayings, jokes, legends, riddles, stories, poems, etc. that are passed along by people within a folk group. Oral traditions can be written down, but they are often best when being told, face-to-face.

  • Folk Music: traditional songs and styles of music shared in folk groups. Some examples are lullabies, ballads, Cajun music, zydeco, blues, old time country, and traditional jazz.

  • Folk Dance: rhythmic movement learned within folk groups and passed on in a traditional manner. The "Cajun Two-Step" is an example of folk dance. Some movements may not be considered "dance" by group insiders. For example, people who clap their hands and move rhythmically at church may not call it dancing. It is important to look at the situation—or context—of the movement and to call it what the insiders call it.

  • Material Culture: artifacts and foodways. In other words, material culture is the stuff that people make in a traditional manner. Examples include quilts, Mardi Gras Indian costumes, carved duck decoys, crawfish traps, handmade baskets, homemade Halloween costumes, folded paper airplanes, and family recipes.

  • Belief: an acceptance that something is true. People who are really frightened by Friday the 13th truly believe that something bad might happen on that day. This category is very tricky because some outsiders will call someone's "belief" a "false superstition." It is important to view beliefs from an insider's point of view.

  • Custom: a common practice or habit of a folk group. The custom is very important to the group and is often expected or even required. Examples include birthday celebrations; secular and sacred holiday celebrations and community events, such as dinner on the ground on fifth Sundays; and rites of passage such as weddings and funerals.

  • Body Communication: certain gestures, facial expressions, or body movements that are learned in a traditional manner. Many gestures are "culture specific." In other words, you must know what culture the person is from to understand what a gesture or movement means.

For more examples, see Suggestions for Folklife Fieldwork and Presentation.

No matter what the terms, the content and methods of folklife scholarship give students new perspectives on themselves and their communities and enliven their studies through real-life, student-centered primary source research. Just as teachers are already using folklife in their teaching, they're using some of folklorists' methods as well. What this guide offers can be easily translated into your classroom needs and plans.


Unit I Resources

Unit I Outline


National Endowment for
            the Arts.

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