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Introduction to Folklore: Folklore Genres and Analysis Report

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Updated: Jul 3rd, 2019

Folklore is a complex term, whose definition has stirred up mixed thoughts and ideologies in the folklorists’ world. There is no single definition that is universally accepted since different folklorists—in the past and current—have different thoughts. But, these varied thoughts are interlinked with Alan Dunde’s list of folklore, which entails different genres that are difficult to categorize (Oring, 1989).

As a result, varied definitions have been developed to help understand the genres better. To some extent, the two words that give rise to the general term “folklore” influence the folklorists’ work in coming up with a definition. The meanings associated with the words “folk” and “lore” should be envisaged in the general definition of the word.

According to Newell (1890), folklore is “oral tradition and belief handed down from generation to generation without the use of writing” (Oring, 1989, p. 7). Initially, folklore referred to survivals such as legends that enabled the continuation of a practice over time.

The use of tales and beliefs was associated with some kind of mythology and coming up with an articulate distinction between mythology and folklore was fundamental. However, this cause became weak when Newell’s redefinition of folklore surfaced.

Folklorists link folklores to peasantry because the primitive and less privileged people tend to value their cultural practices and values, which are passed on from one generation to another, compared with civilized people. Natural and spiritual facets of folklore have been eroded among the urban civilized people.

The peasantry still value their natural and spiritual lives that have not been distorted by urbanization. A typical example is the current world we are living in, which due to technological change and development has placed more focus on making life better rather than dwelling on maintaining the authenticity of folklore.

A visit to communities that have not been polluted by westernization and its ramifications shows that these societies are still entwined into their ancient practices. I therefore believe that despite the varied definitions of folklore, it is inclined to a particular group sharing a particular “ancient factor”.

Folklore never dies; it somehow finds a way to relive even though not in its original state as long as it thrives in some way. However, it is argued that its value lies in its connection to common daily experiences of the people despite the transformation. Folklore should not merely emanate from institutions.

When folklore evolves over time and is transformed to fit into the contemporary society, then it loses its traditional and ancient aspects that are fundamental in defining folklore. A typical example is in Frank’s (1985) literature that shows Cape Bretoners as people, who have been rapidly expanding their livelihood activities to suit the changing times.

The history of Cape Breton as an industrial society dates back to the 1820s. During this time, mining may have been the traditional economic activity for the people around the coal mines. However, the high demand for labour when civilization permeated resulted in drawing people from their typical livelihoods as farmers and fishers (folklife).

Under such circumstances, the folklife of the people was swept away by the domineering coal companies leading to a change of belief systems and way of life. In addition, the operations of these companies were legislated and structured in a manner that gutted the natural expressions and folklife of the people.

The expressions exhibited by the coal miners “voting for labor candidates, joining co-operatives and building unions” are not folklore. These activities were not voluntary expressions. The people were compelled by harsh treatment from the coal companies to come up with strategies that would safeguard their human rights (Frank, 1985, p.203).

Folklores are meant to pass on specific messages/practices that are relevant to the society in which they are developed over time without themselves getting altered. For example in rural Cape Breton, songs and stories were highly appreciated and valued in the region. In this region, there was a high rate of immigration and ethnic ties were salient.

American anthropologists argue that ethnic ties (folk society) bound people of the same community together. It was difficult for an outsider to penetrate into the folk societies. Folklore domains are a form of cultural identity. Therefore, people with the same background orientation share similar stories, delimit their folk society and they have a similar understanding of issues.

The church was an important social institution for the Cape Bretoners. Despite the fact that the church does not qualify to be folklore, the sentiments, attitudes and belief systems of the people towards the church are folklore (Frank, 1985, p. 204). Merely 23 individuals could not state the religion they were affiliated to hence, an indication that the people had strong faith and belief in the church.

Regardless of people’s strong belief in the church, the formulated and documented activities by the clergymen were not part of the people’s folklore because they were not a true reflection of the followers’ thoughts and ideas. Instead, the church’s activities were aimed at deriving some form of benefit as the church imposed its doctrines on the people.

In his writing, Frank clearly demonstrates this through a folklore genre (joke), “I had to take my hat off every time I saw him and go to church twice on Sunday to hold my position” (Frank, 1985, p. 208). This quote is folklore but at the same time shows how the church, the foundation of people’s faith did not qualify to be folklore. The quote represents an individual’s attitude towards the church.

Most of folklore genres are mainly used for amusement and entertainment like tales, songs, jokes and dances. The ancient characteristic they possess makes them peculiar to the eye, thereby creating a feeling of excitement. In Cape Breton, there was a mixture of music and songs as indicated by Frank (1985). However, music becomes folklore only if it is congruent with the definition of unwritten traditions.

Cape Breton community is an illustration of the role played by music in creating harmony despite its diversity. The songs sung had a common theme shared by the coal miners: “that they did not have a slave-spirited soul” (Frank, 1985, p. 206). The above discussion on understanding folklore shows that folklore forms a basis for cultural identity. Culture is very important because it gives an individual a sense of belonging.

According to “The Intangible Heritage Messenger” (2003), there is a strong link between intangible cultural heritage and folklore.

UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage” (What is Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2003, p.1).

Reasons discussed in this paper form a basis for explaining why UNESCO uses the phrase “intangible cultural heritage (ICH)”. To begin with, the domains under the intangible cultural heritage are abstract systems that different cultures take pride in irrespective of their history. Some cultures are associated with farming while in others, fishing is the livelihood.

Therefore, UNESCO acknowledges the diverse nature of cultures and thus is bent on ensuring that each culture’s intangible heritage is well protected. Folklore on the other hand delimits the genres and especially when transformation is apparent. Manipulated genres are not absolute folklore and more so if they are not part and parcel of people’s lives.

UNESCO does not place restrictions on ICH. Hence, every intangible domain that defines culture, irrespective of its nature and subsequent manipulation, is part of the ICH. An example is the ancient farming society compared with the contemporary farming society.

The current use of workers and machines for commercial production has disrupted the traditional practice of farming, which was fundamental in people’s daily lives because they solely relied on it. While modern farming falls under ICH, it is not folklore.

In addition, literature indicates that the domains listed by UNESCO are not an exhaustive list of folklore hence, it would be misleading to use it as a collective term.

Folklore is a more complex term and using it would require the convention to delve deeper into the past to get all those genres that define ancient people and their practices with the least possible transformation in comparison with UNESCO’s ICH (What is Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2003).


Frank, D. (1985). Tradition and Culture in the Cape Breton Mining Community in the Early Twentieth Century. In K. Donovan (ed.), Cape Breton at 200 (pp. 203- 221). Sydney: University College of Cape Breton Press.

Newell, W. (1890). The Study of Folklore. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, 9, 134-36.

Oring, E. (1986). On the Concepts of Folklore. In E. Oring (ed.), Folk Groups and Folklore Genres (pp. 1-22). Logan: Utah State University Press.

The Intangible Heritage Messenger. (2003). Web.

What is Intangible Cultural Heritage. (2003). Web.

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