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American Studies 66 American Folklore

American Studies 66 American Folklore

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1 American Folklore Professor Allen Jovenel Jeanty September 30, 2009

Who are the folk? What is their lore? For years folklorist have had debates on these key questions. Many have sought to define folklore. Each group in the 19th century was limited to as what they perceive to be folklore. Some have regulated folklore to a certain social class or era. Once regulated to a certain social class or era during the 19th century, what can be deemed as folklore has expanded considerably. Contemporary folklorists have played a major role in bringing about an increase as to what is now considered folklore. Alan Dundes's definition of folk is as follows “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one factor” (Dundes 1). When you use the folklore definition as unofficial, artistic communication in small groups it becomes more universal and diverse. If you take Alan Dundes's definition of folk one can see why 19th century folklorist would've have a hard time classifying the joke as folklore. Though I consider it to be somewhat of a broad definition nevertheless it allows an unprecedented amount of material to be folklore. During the late 18 th and early 19th century in Europe varying groups arose to describe folklore. Each group set limitations as to what can be considered folklore. Romantic Nationalists viewed the folk as belonging only to the peasants. Their lore was the items and materials they use such as songs, stories, crafts, communication etc. This sought of nationalism throughout Europe led many to feel that those who were uncivilized contained all the folklore. This would mean that those who were civilized lacked any folklore. British Antiquarians saw folk as being relative to the past. They collected items such as songs, fairy tales and compared them. The British

Antiquarians didn't see folklore as something that is continually being created. They felt that


if they wanted to find folklore all they had to do was look at historic items and materials. Evolutionary Anthropologists saw folklore as divided up into primitive, barbarian and civilized stages. They sought to explained folklore by referencing it to human beings biological evolution. Contemporary folklorists would consider the joke folklore because they had a more universal approach. They If this joke was told by an elite member of society the Romantic Nationalist would not consider it to be folklore. If British Antiquarians came across this joke they would first want to trace its history before labeling it as folklore. This universal approach allowed for folklorist to not only look at the past but the present. Also the definitions stated by contemporary folklorist enable them to look at every group being capable of containing folklore. There was a possibility that items not label as folklore would be lost. The contemporary folklorists were not limited in their mindset as to what can be considered folklore. The ability of contemporary folklorist to see folk as being universal and diverse enables them to see this joke as folklore as opposed to their 19th counterparts. A joke itself can establish the existence of a folk group and their lore. Contemporary folklorist would be able to use this joke to identify any folk group. With the joke provided you have many possible folk groups. In the joke it mentions Orthodox Jews, Italian and depending on who is telling the joke, could contain many other ethnic backgrounds. So one piece of information that contemporary folklorist would need to analyze this joke would be the performer. Who is telling the joke? The performer plays a role in the way the joke may be told and viewed. Who is the audience? What is the makeup of the audience? Depending upon the audience and their composition the performer may alter the joke. One of the biggest pieces of information a contemporary folklorist would used to analyze a joke would be its context. The

3 context of an item according to Dundes is the “specific social situation in which that particular item is being employed” (Dundes 23). It explains why the performer may or may not change the joke. The context can explain why the joke is being told. If a contemporary folklorist knows the context of a joke they can understands the joke’s background. So if within the joke the mention of dating an Italian was replace with either a Black or Puerto Rican the contemporary folklorist can used the context to create a better analysis. The ability to obtain the context of a joke leads the contemporary folklorists to understand its social function. When we say function we mean the joke’s role or purpose. With the joke being used the folklorist can relate a particular function to this joke. I can see this joke being used for several purposes. A contemporary folklorist may see this joke as a way of validating beliefs or cultural norms among particular groups. Multiple groups can used this joke to validate their claims about an ethnic group. Another function can be escapism. This joke can be told to relieve tension from a stressful situation. This joke can also be used as an educational tool. It can warn someone about ethnocentric ideals. The ability of contemporary folklorist to assign social functions to is in some ways continuous. Jokes and many other cultural texts can move between the categories of folk, popular, and elite culture. Each culture regularly interacts with one another constantly. Elite takes some features from popular culture. Popular culture derives some of its features from the elite setting. Folk cultures take there background from both elite and popular culture. There is constant sharing among the three. So inevitably the three are bound to come together sometime. Due to the various modes of communication today everyone group’s culture is equally available. The joke in this exam can spread by any mode of communication used by the three groups. Elite culture tends to use the written word. They’re set up in schools and other

4 institutionalized settings. Folk culture’s mode of communication tends to spread orally. Its nature of communication is through small group settings. Popular culture’s mode of communication tends to be towards the use of electronics or what some call mass media. It is mass media that put an end to the three hierarchical systems of elite, popular and folk. A joke such as the one in this exam is no longer regulated to the few. You now have cds, internet and many other electronic means of spreading all three cultures. The nature of communication with popular culture tends to include informal, impersonal and large group settings. For the joke used in this exam it can be written in a book and pass along. It can be recorded on a cd, copied and distributed throughout the world. This joke can be passed verbally from one family to another. Depending on the conditions this joke would easily spread through all three cultures. In summary contemporary folklorists have played a huge role in stamping

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