Why I Kinda Don’t Care About Origins

As the semester winds down, I like to reflect on what I’ve learned about folklore and being a folklorist in the past few months. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter one of my primary pet peeves (where everyone assumes they already know about folklore) while teaching my folklore class this fall, but in general conversations and reading, I ran into another annoyance I thought I’d elaborate on here.

I sorta don’t care about the origins of most folklore.

There, I said it. This is a big deal since most people assume that folklorists are ALL ABOUT origins. As though wondering about the origins of myths and stories and customs is what keeps us lying awake at night, tossing and  turning in bed until, with frantic eyes and mussed hair, we lurch to our libraries and laptops to look for answers. Maybe that’s the case for some folklorists, but it really isn’t for me.

Allow me to explain. One of the key attributes of folklore is that it’s transmitted traditionally within groups, where “traditionally” can mean through oral culture and word-of-mouth, or it can just mean informally rather than institutionally (yes, folklore exists in institutions, but it’s rarely found in the printed rule books and the official or elite culture of that institution, but rather in the customs and on-the-job knowledge and skills that people acquire from other people).

As Lynn McNeill so eloquently puts it in her new (and awesome) book Folklore Rules,

“The significance of folklore studies as an academic field comes back to the idea that folklore exists as a form of cultural expression without the anchor of institutional culture.” (33) McNeill goes on to use  examples from the literary canon (we can’t just decide to ditch Dickens if we don’t like him anymore, since his contribution to Western literature has become institutionalized) and the law (we can’t simply decide to stop following certain laws if we don’t feel they’re relevant any longer) to illustrate her point.

But when we’re talking folklore, we’re in a different realm entirely: “Folklore, on the other hand, isn’t institutionally determined. That urban legend no longer speaks to something we  care about? Gone. That custom no longer meets the needs of that family? Done – never happens again. While we may record the legend or a description of the custom in an archive so that we remember it was once relevant, there’s no formal organization still making us tell the legend or practice the custom. Unlike reading the past works of a famous author or obeying an outdated law, the moment folklore is no longer relevant, we simply stop using it.” (33-34)

The amazing insight here, which McNeill has highlighted beautifully, is that “if folklore is currently circulating, it must be important” (34, italics in original) That means we can use folklore as a way to measure and interpret the concerns of people today, if we’re studying today’s folklore… and we can use folklore of the past to understand the concerns of people in the past. Both are legit, but both are not automatically the purview of folklorists.

See, if I’d wanted to study the past, I’d have become a historian, or at least a folklorist who is more historically-oriented than I am now. I am definitely interested in some historical origins of things, like when it comes to one of my favorite genres, fairy tales. But I’m also big on relevance, and most of the time, I find myself confounded by the social groups around me, so I want to use folklore to understand them (not least because the actions of others affect me, especially living in a democracy and whatnot).

Hopefully I’ve shown why it’s erroneous to assume that ALL folklorists are interested in the origins of a given story, or festival, or traditional food. Some of us are, sure, but not all of us. Understanding where something comes from can help us understand how it’s become the way it is today (assuming that it’s still practiced/told/transmitted), and that in its own right can be a fascinating example of the twin laws of folklore, tradition and variation, at work. But tracking down the origins of something won’t help us understand why it’s relevant today, or the functions it serves in today’s society. It might give us some hints, but it won’t yield the full picture, not the same way researching its contemporary uses will.

So now you know: not every folklorist is into chasing down the origins of a given item or genre of folklore. You’re welcome.

About Jeana Jorgensen

Jeana Jorgensen studied folklore at Berkeley under Alan Dundes, going on to complete her MA and PhD in folklore at Indiana University. She specializes in narrative folklore (particularly fairy tales), dance, body art, feminism and queer theory, and folklore in literature. She splits her time between teaching college courses in anthropology, folklore, and gender studies, and working in the field of adult sex education as a scholar, teacher, and writer.