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.