The July 23, 2020 release of Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, begs the question, “What is folklore?”. Refinery 29, the media and entertainment company dedicated to women’s perspectives, asks, “what does folklore mean anyway?” Natalie Morin, writing for Refinery 29, explains that “folklore is the traditional customs preserved among a community, like stories, legends, songs, sayings, dances and popular beliefs,” and also “folklore is a belief that’s been widely circulated and well-known without any supporting evidence.” (Morin, Refinery 29, July 23, 2020).
As the Executive Director of New York Folklore – New York’s statewide organization for the field of folklore– I am writing to suggest a more accurate portrayal of folklore and its role in human life. While often portrayed as “inaccuracies,” or “quaint and old-fashioned,” folklore is much more than that misunderstood characterization. Although folklore does connect people to their past, the expression of folklore is an integral part of life in the present. Its manifestation is at the center of the idea of culture. While folklore may include, as Morin states, “traditional customs,” as well as ideas that are not backed up by “evidence” (the multiple reports of Bigfoot occurrences nationwide, for example), folklore is, more accurately, the human, creative responses to very real, lived experiences. Perhaps Laura Snapes’ review in The Guardian, (July 24, 2020) gives us the best rationale for the album’s title when she says that Folklore shows an “authentic” side to Swift.
“Authenticity” is an important concept to folklorists and those who follow and study folklore. Every group of people that shares a sense of identity shares folklore as part of their identity. Folklore is the “authentic” way that people comment upon their shared experiences. Folklore during the current COVID-19 pandemic is all around us and it is easily apparent in the ways that people are responding creatively to their experiences. Folklore is visible through the creative fabrications of the home-made facemasks. Folklore is expressed through the changing ways that teens and schools are marking an important rite of passage by creatively re-working high school graduation ceremonies. Folklore is visible in the Black Lives Movement through the memorials and street art created by communities expressing their grief over the murder of George Floyd, and through the ways that the shared experience of being Black in America is commented upon and creatively expressed through folk narrative, folk art, folk music, and practice throughout the Black community – no matter the geography, social class, educational attainment or age of the individual.
I ask those who are intrigued with Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, to use this moment as a stepping-off place to find out about folklore in your own communities. Folklorists are working throughout New York State – in arts organization, museums, universities, and libraries – to draw attention to the diverse ways that folklore is apparent in our communities and to support folklore and folk arts at the grassroots. One doesn’t have to look far, as there are vast resources at your fingertips – including New York’s statewide organization, New York Folklore (www.nyfolklore.org), the American Folklore Society (www.afsnet.org); and the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, (www.loc.gov/folklife). Like Swift’s song titled “Cardigan,” you may find that folklore is that part of yourself that is familiar and well-worn, yet evocative and deeply meaningful. Folklore is complicated.
On May 1, 2020, New York Folklore and folklore programs across New York State will launch a collaboration to present traditional arts and culture from throughout New York State. Each weekday in May, from 4:00 -4:30 p.m., traditional arts activities will be presented through a livestream from New York Folklore’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/New-York-Folklore-76410462500/
“May 2020: 20 Folk Artists/20 Days” amplifies the artistic excellence found within New York’s communities. To view this daily initiative, simply tune in to New York Folklore’s Facebook page each weekday in May from 4:00 – 4:30 p.m. to experience a free, live-streamed event by one of New York State’s folk artists or tradition bearers.
The initiative showcases the artistic excellence and diversity of traditional arts and culture in New York State. Folk arts and cultural expressions are nurtured and perpetuated within communities. They are shared by those who have common regional affiliations, ethnic heritage, occupations, avocational interests, gender, and many other identifiers of interconnection. Artistic excellence is determined by a shared community aesthetic with innovation occurring within the bounds of the interests and concerns of the shared community.
Partners: Coordinating and partnering organizations from throughout New York State include the following: New York State Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Glow Traditions, Long Island Traditions, Los Pleneros de la 21, Arts Mid-Hudson, Brooklyn Arts Council, Arts Westchester, Center for Traditional Music and Dance, Rochester Institute of Technology, and The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE). Presenting folklorists and cultural scholars include Karen Canning, Andrew Cowell, Hannah Davis, Julia Gutíerrez-Rivera, Elinor Levy, Jorge Arévalo Mateus, Ellen McHale, Chris Mulé, Aaron Paige, Naomi Sturm-Wijesinghe, Emily Socolov, Valerie Walawender, and Christine Zinni.
Many talented folk music groups are touring New York State in 2019. Below, find a sampling of upcoming performances, and get your tickets before they’re gone!
Click to view.
Picker’s Paradise: From Balkans to Bluegrass | featuring Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć (Pittsburgh, PA) and Danny Knicely’s Next Generation (Virginia)
5/10/2019, 7:30 pm and 5/11/2019, 7:30 pm at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, NY
6/22/2019 and 6/23/2019 at Lake Placid Center for the Performing Arts, Lake Placid, NY
General Admission: $15
Student Tickets: $5
Check with performance venue to confirm dates and times.
Dust off your best dancing shoes and join us, in partnership with the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, for a fun-filled evening of dance and music that celebrates two virtuosic string music traditions—bluegrass and old-time from the mountains of Virginia, and Balkan music known as tamburitza from the urban community halls of Pittsburgh. Whether you are a beginning-level dancer eager to learn, active in the local contra scene, or a Balkan dance enthusiast, this special evening presents an exciting opportunity to learn traditional dances from master dance teachers and try the steps you learn to the playing of two great bands.
Country Blues and Dance | featuring Phil Wiggins Blues House Party (Takoma Park, MD) and The Harris Brothers (Lenoir, NC)
5/31/2019 and 6/1/2019 at Flushing Town Hall, Flushing, NY
Check with performance venue to confirm dates and times.
Throughout the Piedmont and Appalachians, shared musical traditions have existed for centuries that were equally popular among rural blacks and whites. This program explores the roots and connections of these regional rural music and dance traditions as expressed in the artistry of contemporary masters of tradition. Phil Wiggins, the nation’s foremost player of acoustic blues harmonica, leads an ensemble featuring Piedmont blues sounds that were once a staple of rural dance parties. With master dancer Junious Brickhouse, they “reconnect the dance with the dance music,” now most often experienced in concert (without dance). North Carolina songsters extraordinaire, The Harris Brothers, a delightful two-man band with a suitcase drum, draw from the many currents of vernacular music, including old-time, bluegrass, country, and mountain blues, that they were exposed to growing up in the North Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a hotbed of traditional music.