Researching Folklore (Part 1)

Hey Lodge Members!

This is the first installment in our series about researching folklore, looking for sources, finding tools and effective methodologies and so much more. I’m not a folklorist, but a lot of the research that we’ve undertaken over the last few years has definitely involved putting on the folklorist hat. Trying to answer the question of whether a place defines the people that live there, or if the people re-define the place has always been central to the Penny Royal project. 

Broadly defined, the folklorist seeks to understand the significance of the beliefs, customs and objects of a group of people. These cultural units are only transmitted from individual to individual because they have some continued relevance within the group and perpetuate the group’s identity (and I would also argue, promotes the group’s survival). 

This past Saturday, I organized a meeting between a musical group I work with, The Local Honeys, and Dan Dutton at his Dandyland farm so that he could “transmit” a 1200 year-old ballad to the band. Linda-Jean and Montana (the Honeys) are themselves collectors of ballads and have done a large amount of field work and research tracking down ballads so that they can preserve them in their music. 

The goal of the day was to explore whether or not a ballad could be transmitted digitally. Both Dan and the Honeys believed that it was not possible to transmit a traditional ballad digitally, and that transmission required direct contact. If we filmed a ballad performance and allowed someone to study the video, the transmission would be ineffective and inefficient. The singer and listener, the transmitter and receiver, needed to be in the same physical place. There was the timber of the singer’s voice, the micro-movements that can only be detected by being face to face with someone, and the lack of an intermediary medium. A ballad, as transmitted oral tradition, is already a “telephone game” of sorts. Adding a digital 720p or 1080p layer with mediocre audio simply muddies the fidelity of the message.

It’s my opinion that these same principles apply to studying folklore. It’s not enough to read about a place, or read about the people that live in that place. One of the foundational principles, for me, in attempting to understand a place, and therefore understand its folklore, is to directly interview and interact with the people that are part of that story. They’re a reflection of place, and the medium through which cultural units are transmitted. 

Folklore requires direct transmission, in the same way that ballads require direct transmission. Both involve feedback loops created through observational relationships. And these types of feedback loops require direct unmitigated observation.

So I would urge everyone to dig into their local folklore, since that’s the place where you live and the place where you have direct access to the people that define that place. Richard Spence said it best in our interview with him, “It’s not just happening in San Bernardino, or just Somerset… it’s happening everywhere.” Wherever you are, there’s an occulted sub-strata, an unseen layer, that’s not just mysterious but magical. And I think we can all discover a deeper narrative, and a deeper understanding of our identities and those identities in the context of place, if we engage directly with the folklore generated through the relationship between people and place.

The second thing that I’ll mention is the folkloric artifact that is the local newspaper. Not always unbiased, and maybe biased as a necessary mechanism, the local newspaper is direct documentation of a place’s folklore. 

And to that end, we were lucky enough to receive from Rod Zimmerman, local DJ and historian, access to the digital archives of the Commonwealth Journal, Somerset and Pulaski County’s newspaper. It’s actually a public facing archive that’s free to use. It’s maintained through a partnership between the Pulaski County Library and the Community History Archive, so you may discover that local newspapers in your area are also in the collection.

Have fun digging! I know that we have. 

I also have a subscription to that I use almost daily to perform research. It’s unfortunately not free (and a bit pricey) but it’s an absolutely fantastic resource. A lot of the connections that we’ve made would not have been possible without being able to find varying viewpoints and coverage of events and news. 90% of the Guterma research required access to all the newspapers in the US. And the most fruitful finds were usually the most obscure bits of information that at first glance you might exclude. These often contain signposts pointing to aspects of a story you might not have even considered. It’s these stories, in which the authors and witnesses may not even be aware of the significance of the information they’re conveying, that end up being extremely important parts of putting together the whole story, and capturing a holistic view of the folklore that you’re studying. 

Once I get the articles and clippings organized on the Lodge section of the website, I’ll share those with you as well. It’s a vast webwork.

And if you guys come across anything that you’d like to share, please do!

Thanks for all the support!

 – Nathan

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