FOLKLIFE: vol. 14 in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture Edited by: Glenn HINSON & William FERRIS; Charles Reagan Wilson. University of North Carolina Press (2009) Chapel Hill 424 pp. – multiple entries: index of contributors; subject index; 40 illus. $45.00 (hb), $22.95 (pb).
“what is the beauty of the whole thing is that once you realize what folklore is, it’s everywhere.”[i]
One always has to deal with “What is folklore”, or “What is folklife” and generally one has not got much of a concrete definition to wave around save Dan Ben Amos’ 1971 statements in JAF. It’s sort of like attempting to nail mercury to the wall, yet we usually have some idea of what folklore or folklife is: occasionally of what it is not. This knowledge may go no further than the old saw from the late Kenny Goldstein: “If it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and swims like a duck, it probably is a duck.” That definitional looseness and uncertainty is what keeps the field of folklore & folklife alive and vibrant, not trapped and moldering away within some limiting hidebound walls. It is also often the source of many disagreements between individuals, but that’s how it generally goes in this field (and life). The “that’s not folklore” argument is usually shorthand for “that’s not my kind of folklore”! Peggy Bulger states above what is so wonderful about folklore (or folklife) and what helps distinguish it from other areas in the Social Sciences… it’s a living, breathing, flexibly growing, and changing entity! That preamble of mine leads us to the volume under consideration here.
This is not the sort of book one curls up with on a cold night before the fire for an entertaining escapist read – to try and read it straight through from front to back would be folly. It’s an encyclopedia! This is the sort of book that one takes from the shelf when needed in order to dip into while searching for information about some of the usual (and unusual) topics that can be lumped under the rubric of “folklife”. This volume is merely one of twenty four making up the second edition of the huge 1989 encyclopedia – going from one back-breaking door stop of a book (as I found out when I purchased a used copy in Sydney some years back!) to two dozen smaller, yet still hefty, ones. Each book in the series is a reference library within itself. This one draws on experts in all manner of folklife/folklore realms ranging from “aesthetics” through to “zydeco” and it contributors are not limited to academics, which is a very good thing. As is true in folklore and folklife, many of the entries could be slotted into other volumes in the series as well (and may well be) as our favorite field of study is and has always been a movable feast with very messy borders. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Having picked my way through many of the pieces here, I can say that this is a great reference work for any serious library – for individuals, it’s a bit on the dear side financially, especially if buying all 24 books! I probably will not be able to fiscally afford them all myself and I’m not sure what libraries in Australia have the set (if any). I’ll make do as best I can – maybe I can find them through on-line library listings when needed. All concerned with this series, editors and contributors alike, should be proud of their accomplishments – all of us should support their efforts in whatever way we can. Folklore is truly everywhere!
“I think that all of the people can learn a great deal about themselves by finding out what it is that’s brought them to the point where they are, and I think that by learning about traditional expressive culture people can better understand not only themselves but can understand others because if they understand how their being has come into place, then they might also have a little bit more tolerance about someone else’s being.”[ii]
[i] 1- “What is Folklife”; Peggy Bulger – MUSIC FROM THE FLORIDA FOLKLIFE COLLECTION, State Library and Archive of Florida: selection 1. (n.d.) compact disc.
[ii] 2- “Understanding Folklife”; John Marshall – MUSIC FROM THE FOLKLIFE COLLECTION, State Library and Archive of Florida: selection 10. (n.d.) compact disc.