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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

American folktales/folklore

A couple weeks ago I received an email with the curious subject header “act now to preserve American culture.” Preserve American culture? If it said Lakota culture, Yiddish culture, Appalachian culture or even French culture I wouldn’t blink.* But American culture? I figured it was an email from some racist organization going on again about how everyone would be speaking Spanish in the US in fifty years because we’re evidently being invaded by “breeding aliens” from Mexico.** But American culture? I was in Israel at the time and everywhere I looked I seemed to see a picture of Justin Bieber staring at me from the Hebrew edition of Disney Magazine. Not to mention lots of Justin Bieber coming out of radios intermixed with the occasional Lady Gaga and Jay-Z. Heck, it seems at times here in Spain that I can’t escape from American culture, so why would it need to be preserved? Luckily I opened the email and saw that they were referring not to pop-culture but to American Folklore, and in the case of this particular group to American folktales. And that is very much a tradition that needs to be preserved and further disseminated.

Many Europeans make two self-contradictory claims about American culture. The first is that there is no such thing (“it’s just a mix of British culture with a bunch of other things”) and the other is that it’s inundating their own culture. The second claim of course refers to pop culture and is unfortunately true. What many Europeans and for that matter many Americans don’t realize is that the US has an extremely rich folk culture. Some of the culture is characteristic of particular ethnic groups (Cajuns, Blacks, Scotts-Irish Appalachians, American Indians etc) but much American (read USA-ean) folkloric tradition transcends any racial or ethnic origins and was/is shared by most Americans through common retelling in education and entertainment. It is through this folktale tradition that true apolitical American values are transmitted. And despite the disastrous and sometimes even evil foreign policy of the US government and the ridiculous influence US pop-culture has on the rest of the world, there are still lots of values and ideas in American folk-culture that are worth maintaining at home and trying to export abroad. Ideas the rest of the world would benefit from having.

American folktales define a culture that is constantly grappling with the relationship between individual liberty and the communal good. Although rooted in the American south and old west, the American folktale tradition is a profoundly anti-racist and humanist tradition. American folk heroes Jim Bridger ,Bufallo Bill David Crockett and Johnny Appleseed were all anti-racists who actively opposed the genocide of American Indians. Bridger himself married two different Indian women and faced public ridicule for having “gone native.” To say that Johnny Appleseed effectively began the modern environmental movement is only slight hyperbole. We still eat apples from trees he planted (and their descendents) after all.

Beyond content, American folktales have a certain method of being told in person that is both as distinctive as it is hard to put into words. They are the types of stories that are best told by one person to another individually or at most to a group of no more than a dozen. They are stories in which both the listener and the teller willingly suspend disbelief for a laugh or a moral all the while citing real historical events and personages. They are stories that are told as one works or travels. Stories that lose something when read or even listened to or watched on video. They are stories that thrive on one on one human interaction.

One of the reasons I’m so fond of the American folktale tradition is that I grew up with it. A childhood friend’s grandmother would come to my elementary school every week and tell folktales. The Boy Scouts, which were an enormous part of my childhood and teenage years, is built on a mythology rooted in the American folk tradition. Although many of the stories were admittedly corny for us as teenagers and many times overly didactic***, they are one of the single biggest factors that make the scouts so successful.

Growing up in Philadelphia we swapped tall tales of the exploits of neighborhood drug dealers, along with more famous nationally known criminals like D.B. Cooper just like Americans three generations ago reveled in the exploits of gunslingers in the Wild West. Going to college in New Jersey I also continued living within the folk tradition. New Jersey has been famous for its folktales and local legends for two hundred years and no amount of modernization or globalization will be able to endanger the tradition there. In fact, recent developments such as the magazine Weird NJ (which has since been franchised around the country) have helped to preserve interest in folk culture. (It may sound ridiculous to some of you but Weird NJ is essentially a folklore magazine!). Whenever a group of students at Rutgers decide to go hunting the Jersey Devil or to see the Miggetville in Jefferson Township, they’re participating in the folktale tradition. Several well known urban legends have been credited as starting at Rutgers, including the “garden gnome story.” Of course, when good urban legends age they become folktales.

“Getting one over” on someone is also a big part of the American folktale tradition. People in some western states (especially Wyoming) still try to pass off the Jackolope to tourists as being real. Reagan once brought a jackalope to a meeting with foreign heads of states and tried to convince them that it was a real. Recently I heard a really good Jackalope related urban legend that goes something like this. Some guy at a taxidermy store in Utah was down on his luck when a Japanese tourist happened to come in. He sarcastically told the tourist that the Jackalope in the store was in fact the last of its kind and the Japanese man not only believed it but paid him 5,000 dollars in cash for the dead rabbit with antlers glued on its head. The man bragged all around town about his sale and used the money to start a savings account for his infant son. A week later while walking to work a limo pulled up and a Japanese man got out and kidnapped the man at samurai-sword point. The man was brought to Tokyo (who knows how, again, suspend disbelief!) where he had antlers crazy glued on his head and was paraded around Tokyo as the “hick-a-lope” for a fee. The man kept his exotic creature until he had raised his lost 5,000 dollars and enough money to ship the “hick-a-lope” back to the US.

So in conclusion, although individual historical figures and motifs may disappear from American folktales, I don’t see the American storytelling tradition dying any time soon. That said, I am very pleased to hear about organizations such as the American Folklore Society and the National Storytelling Association which promote the American storytelling tradition. The NSA’s annual storytelling festival draws 10,000 people annually. I know where I’m going next summer .

*I receive emails from organizations dedicated to the preservation and vitality of Lakota culture, Yiddish culture, Appalachian and French culture in Louisiana. Because I’m on these mailing lists I sometimes get emails from groups representing other cultures or in this case, “American folk culture.”

**The idea that the Mexican government is somehow coordinating the massive illegal immigration of poor Mexicans as a “reinvasion” in revenge for the US stealing 1/3 of Mexico’s land in the 1840s is surprisingly widespread. Because US immigration law recognizes any person born on American soil as being a citizen, even the children of illegal immigrants, many feel that anyone who comes working (legally or illegally) is a potential “breeding alien,” an unabashedly racist phrase which I’ve heard used on both CNN and Fox News.

***One of the most annoying things would be when a scoutmaster of another troop would tell what sounded at first like a really good folktale that would somehow devolving into a warning not to do drugs. “Indian chief had told Satamo not to go to rattlesnake hill and like Satamo you’re faced with your own rattlesnake hills in the forms of drugs and alcohol.” Good grief! I can’t think of a quicker way to lose everyone’s respect.

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