What Is Folklore?

Folklore and folk arts are the essential ways of communicating heritage. Every group of people that shares a sense of identity shares folklore as part of that identity.  Folklore is a way that people comment upon and creatively make sense of their shared experiences. Examples of folklore and folk culture in New York State include geographically localized traditions such as  Adirondack fiddling, the traditional arts of specific populations such as African-American quilting or Karen weaving, and urban expressions such as hip hop style in clothing and performance.

Folklore’s dynamic is in the way you cook, the way you clothe yourself, and how you celebrate your favorite holiday. Folklore and folk arts expressions are so diverse that they may seem unrelated, but they’re all tied together by the way that they are transmitted aurally or through example, and the importance that they have for the preservation of culture and heritage within communities.

Folklore is a wide-ranging subject that has supported an entire field of academic study. There are many definitions of folklore. Here’s one definition that works for us at New York Folklore:

Folklore: “Traditions that are passed down from one person to another, often by word of mouth or informal mentoring. Folklore often has a historical dimension, but it also includes the passing of current traditions that are emerging all the time.”

Fiddlers and quiltmakers learn their craft by interacting face-to-face with experienced folk artists. Hip hop culture and dockworker slang evolved naturally within small communities. Your grandmother probably learned pie making from her mother, or from someone in her community, rather than a recipe book. Folklore is art, craft, knowledge, and practices that are learned firsthand rather than from reading or from studying art within a school setting. Folklore and folk arts reflect a group’s idea of what is beautiful or important to maintain, rather than focusing on an individual’s own artistic statement and mission. However, within an established canon, folk artists are masterful and innovative, using the cultural materials at hand to craft their own expressions within the canon. Even though folklore often has roots in the past, it is contemporary and of today’s world. Folklore and folk art includes live music and dancing, recent craft, fresh recipes, and recent phrases that are very much a part of our collective stories today.