Perhaps more than any other single aspect of the discipline of folklore, the collection, study, and analysis of narrative arts, storytelling, and storytellers has been a central part of folklore scholarship since the field was founded in the mid-Nineteenth Century. European collectors such as Perreault (France – seventeenth century) and the Brothers Grimm (Germany- eighteenth century) collected and published many of the well-loved “fairy tales” known today, including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel. In the twentieth century, American collectors Zora Neale Hurston, Roger Abrahams, Alan Lomax, and others expanded the storytelling canon to include tales with Afro-centric origins. Stories with characters such as Anansi the Spider, Papa Bwa, and the Soucouya, were introduced to a wider audience beyond solely Caribbean and African American communities.Today’s fascination with storytelling is encouraged by the “me” story, fueled by Story Corps, reality TV, Facebook, Snapchat, and a host of other social media that encourages one to tell one’s “story.” This current focus on the individual marks a significant cultural shift away from the historic role of traditional story and storytelling as shared collective expressions intended to stimulate and encourage ideas about family, community, political, secular, and religious values.
If you would like to experience the performative nature of stories, two events are taking place in the Capital District that will provide opportunities. On February 29 (Schenectady) and March 1 (Troy), Nazmo Dance Company will join with folklorists Kay Turner and Rose October-Edun to explore European and Caribbean tales as interpreted through modern dance. Performances will take place at the Schenectady Light Opera and at the Arts Center for the Capital Region in Troy. Tickets can be obtained here: www.nyfolklore.org/grimm.
A second opportunity to hear live storytelling will be the annual conference of Northeast Storytelling. “Sharing the Fire 2020” will offer three days of performances and workshops at the Gideon Putnam Spa and Resort in Saratoga Springs. More information can be found at www.NEstorytelling.org.
Image: Louis C. Jones, 1950
New York Folklore celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding in 1944. The New York Folklore Society was formed as an offshoot of the New York State Historical Association and had the blessing of then-NYSHA President, Ryan Dixon Fox, an educator and President of Union College. Jones writes in Upstate Literature: Essays in Memory of Thomas F. O’Donnell (1985):
“Thompson and I had begun to talk of a New York Folklore Society as early as 1938 when I was finishing my graduate work at Columbia… By the summer of 1944, I had, at Thompson’s suggestion, approached Dixon Ryan Fox, President of the New York Historical Society (as well as of Union College) and found him most receptive to the idea that the new society should be born at a meeting of the Association. It took place at the luncheon meeting held at the Trinity Methodist Church in Albany on October 6, 1944; a few hours later Thompson presided at a session devoted entirely to papers on New York Folklore.”
Jones’s glee of their success is apparent in the correspondence between Louis C Jones and Harold Thompson. Jones related to Thompson in a private correspondence:
I think everything is now set for the meeting next week. By this time you have the program from the Historical Association, which carried everything except the fact that we are going to have a cracker-barrel bull session Saturday morning at 10…… Besides these formal functions, the Jones’s are going to have Open House on Friday afternoon at which we are going to gather in the brighter spirits……..
Jones goes on to describe the party that he is planning, its food and drink, and his and his wife’s attire. We hope that you’ll join us in Ossining on November 16th to create a memory for the next 75 years!
Jones, Louis C. “Early Days of the Folklore Renaissance,” in Frank Bergman. Upstate Literature: Essays in Memory of Thomas F. O’Donnell. Syracuse University Press, 1985.
Louis C. Jones Papers, Collection 410. Courtesy of the Fenimore Art Museum Library.
From February through July, 2019, New York Folklore engaged in a unique partnership project through the United States Department of State and the non-profit organization, World Learning. Involving both a virtual exchange and an in-person exchange, New York Folklore partnered with Youth of Osh of Kyrgyzstan and the US-based Schoharie River Center, as well as Utica College and Duanesburg High School, to involve almost thirty youth and young adults in an exploration of cultural heritage from the vantage points of New York’s Mohawk Valley and the Alay Valley of the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
The project came to fruition with two back-to-back visits by a small delegation from each country. The first visit took place in June 2019, as three Kyrgyz students and two adult leaders were hosted by New York Folklore. After a whirlwind afternoon in New York City, the group was transported to the rural Mohawk Valley to experience the region’s traditional art activities involving textiles, stone, and wood. They attended and participated in the Cooperstown Community Dance, explored the Schoharie Creek watershed by canoe and on foot, and examined the region’s vernacular architecture. As one of the goals of the project was to participate in a service project, the Krygyz and American students worked together to create a timber-framed sign kiosk that they were able to donate and erect for a youth program in Middleburgh, New York. Toward the end of their visit the project presented a mini folklife festival with crafts demonstrations, and music and dance performance that took place at the Duanesburg High School in rural Schenectady County.
Kyrgyz and US exchange participants in high spirits after hiking Vroman’s Nose Trail in Middleburgh, NY
As a counterpart of the June visit by Youth of Osh and their students, New York Folklore Executive Director Ellen McHale, Schoharie River Center Director John McKeeby, and three students traveled to southern Krygyzstan in mid-July for a ten day visit. In keeping with the shared themes of cultural heritage and tourism, we were treated to hands-on workshops with folk artists and fine craftspersons; explored the building technology of the yurt (and got to both build one and sleep in one); and explored the Alay Valley through hiking and exploring its high pastures. A service project took the form of erecting a series of three signs that provided tourism information to those hiking the base of Lenin Peak. At the trip’s conclusion, Youth of Osh staged a community folk arts festival that included traditional music and dance performances, folk arts demonstrations, and children’s games and other activities.
Learning (and playing) a Kyrgyz children’s game with US and Kyrgyz participants. Conor Landrigan of Utica College is performing.
Feature image: Foodways Dinner in a yurt with Kyrgyz and American participants, June 2019
Lessons learned are too numerous for enumerating in this forum. For my part, and for New York Folklore, our circle has widened and there are possibilities for future shared projects and initiatives. We have also made dear friends with Youth of Osh, an important organization that works to ensure a brighter future for Kyrgyzstan and its youth. For the participating young people, they were able to experience another culture – either directly or indirectly. What was perhaps most energizing for the participants, however, was that through the vehicle of cultural exchange they were able to learn about their own culture and to gain a greater appreciation for the dynamics of folk arts and folklife in their home countries.