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  • In Defence of Fakelore January 4, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    ***dedicated to RJ***

    Fakelore – fake folklore – is a term which we owe to Richard Dorson, who first employed the word in print in 1950. Beach recently followed suit in an article and was surprised at the howl of rage from several readers. It seems that fakelore is off-limits in decent society: whoops! Here is Francisco Vaz da Silva In the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales explaining why.

    Clearly, the notion of fakelore presumes the authenticity of folklore. But both folk and authenticity are tricky terms. Folklore exists only through variation, which comes about in the creative acts of the folk. Given that the folk modify data in producing folklore, the assumption that tinkering with folklore yields fakelore presupposes a dichotomy between those who can produce legitimate variants and those who cannot. So the question would be: who are the folk?… Because fakelore is the shadow image of the Romantic construct of authentic folklore, it is fading away alongside its master construct.

    In other terms, who are we to say that any story is true or false?

    Beach has sympathy with this position. However, he’s not sure that this covers all possibilities. Let’s imagine that a witchcraft museum in Wales has a skeleton on display (actually an anatomical prop bought by the museum founder in the 1930s).

    a) Generations of children dragged along to the centre create the myth that the skeleton is a witch called Joanna and that she’ll curse you if you don’t touch her left foot.

    b) The museum’s publicity department encourages the idea that this is a witch called Joanna killed in 1682 and that you can touch her left foot for luck, something visitors enthusiastically do.

    For Dorson (b) is fakelore: in a bad mood he might even include (a) as being something modern and vulgar. Vaz da Silva has no problem with (a) but also defends (b): after all it doesn’t matter where folklore comes from, only that it takes hold among ‘the folk’. Beach might add that lots of ‘classic’ folklore probably began with the medieval or early modern equivalent of a publicity department dreaming up a yarn, which was then enthusiastically taken up by the hoi polloi:. ‘So let’s say that our ancestor met this fairy…’

    However, there is a third possibility.

    c) The museum’s publicity department encourages the idea that this is a witch called Joanna killed in the great witch hunt and that she’ll curse you if you don’t rub her foot as you pass, but no one takes a blind bit of notice.

    That, to Beach’s mind is fakelore. The failed attempt to cobble together folklore.  It might be possible to slither forward with an argument that the ‘folk’ in the publicity department are people too and that they believe it but… Well, they don’t. ‘Fakelore’ is worth preserving for these rather clumsy attempts to impose folklore from above: attempts that come from commercial ventures, internet startups and, the worst offender of all, the modern state. There is a lot of it about.

    In other words, used properly fakelore should be about results not origins.

    Full disclosure. Beach used ‘fakelore’ wrongly in his printed work and will not do so again: bad academic, bad academic. But he can imagine circumstances in which he would wheel the word out…

    Any other views on fakelore: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Ron James, a great folklorist, 8 Jan 2017: I enjoyed your essay on fakelore; thanks for sending me the link. As I have indicated, my main problem with the term is its sense of judgment. You cite some good material that expresses that concern. The romantic drive of the early folklorists sought to weed out the “bad” elements so that it would be possible to consider the “genuine” tradition, free of outside influences. It was an absurd goal because folklore has always thrived on all sorts of influences. It is by its nature dynamic and creative, and absolutely everything is grist for its mill.

    For example, imagine European folklore without the Bible and its influences. The romantic folklorists hoped to do just that, to consider the tradition without that imported influence so they could clearly examine the traditions and beliefs of Iron Age people. And yet, remove the Bible and Christianity from European medieval and post-medieval folklore and it would be very much poorer. Should the religion not have come north, the oral tradition would have been vibrant and rich and it would have been different, but it would have changed one way or another. What the Bible introduced was a literary influence, but it did not make the folklore shabbier in any way. It simply affected it. What it left behind was no less folklore, nor was it weakened. The interplay between the written and the oral word is millennia old, enriching both, and we should not regard that process with judgment.

    Then there is the question of deliberate introductions and what that means. The director at the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum in Virginia City, Nevada, where I did a lot of work, abhorred stories about ghosts in her building (there were only a few “real” snippets of “sightings”, but in general the building was devoid of any ghost tradition). In spite of her reluctance and as part of the evening’s entertainment, she told a story she invented one Halloween about the ghost of a girl at the top of stairs. Ever since that one telling, the community has told the story about this ghost as a true, living tradition. People come and ask about the ghost and belief in her is widespread. The introduction of the story was not some cynical manipulation of local folklore, but it did foster a real tradition, which is no less now a part of local folklore. It is rare when we can see the actual point of origin of a tradition, but seeing it and understanding how this came about does not diminish the tradition. If anything, it lends insight into how the process works and into how much the folk simply needed there to be a ghost inside that old school. The smallest spark ignited the flame.

    So, was the director of this school engaged in “fakelore”? That would seem to me to be an unfortunate way to characterize it since the term seems so judgmental and the invention of this story was so innocent. Here, I believe, we are wiser to turn to that new book (and term) “Folkloresque.” This new term and the concept it describes can be used to frame a number of things. These include the adaptation of material from living folklore into a new medium, but it also describes those who create new material after the fashion of folklore. Hans Christian Andersen did this, after all, but I don’t think he deserves the judgment of a term like “fakelore.” The same is the case with Tolkien. And that innocent museum director with her Halloween story. They crafted stories in the fashion of folklore, and sometimes these flow back into oral tradition. Many Irish storytellers took up Snow White after Disney’s movie (which was many steps removed from “real” folklore) appeared on the screen in 1936, but when a storyteller sat by the hearth and told the story, the act was no less one of folklore.

    When Dorson created the term fakelore, he sought a purity in oral tradition that is illusive and never really existed. To employ the term is to imply that the person who uses it embraces that romantic goal or is unaware of the issues embedded within it.

    Bruce T: Isn’t all folklore just fakelore with a history of positive feedback that gives it a sheen of credence over the years? Vestiges of abandoned worldviews that still cling to the modern psyche. In a few hundred years, many of our current cherished beliefs that linger in a whispered sub rosa context will surely be considered folklore, the beliefs of simple folk in simple times. I’m for a return to the time of shape-shifting rabbits, the tales of which could get you a free pint.

    NH writes, 31 Jul 2017:  If only it were that simple. I’m going to throw two grenades in – these don’t help resolve the argument – unless they help destroy the basis for the argument.

    My first grenade is Adam Fox’s book ‘Oral and literate culture in England, 1500-1700’ (Oxford, 2000). Fox demonstrates the complex intertwined relationship between oral and written culture in early modern England. People did not have to be readers to enjoy printed works. Fox argues that oral use is sufficient for the preservation, maintenance and communication of a word, phrase or story, but that literary use is required for distribution.

    My second grenade suggests that the act of collection changes the character of what is collected, and that folk tales may not be immune from literary influence. R. S. Thomson’s ‘The Development of the Broadside Ballad Trade and its Influence upon the Transmission of English Folksongs’ (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1974) is remarkable not only because it is rarely cited but also as huge work of scholarship in the pre-digital age. He compared the collections of the great English folk song collections with printed ballads. For instance, Alfred Williams collected from the upper Thames Valley between 1914-1916 755 songs. Of these >600 (i.e., >80%) can be traced to ballads printed in the region in C18 and C19. Thomson found the same is true of the collections made by Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger. What is more, in many cases the singers knew that that these songs were from printed sources, but as they also knew the collectors didn’t want to hear that they didn’t tell them. This seems to have contributed to the divergence between the folk song tradition in the USA where printed forms were respected as sources and in England where they were anathema, and hidden though used. In addition, the singers would remove from songs words that might offend the middle class (spinsters) who were collecting them, (e.g., in ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’), especially lady collectors like Miss Broadwood and Miss Baring Gould.