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  • Operation Resurrection: British Folklore July 3, 2017

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

    British folklorists badly screwed up their own discipline in the late nineteenth century. When they should have been collecting the rich crops from the home counties and the north and midlands they, instead, indulged in premature comparative work, looking overseas for answers to stupidly ambitious questions. The comparison with some of Britain’s smaller European neighbours including Finland, Ireland and Sweden, where folklore collection was taken seriously, is almost humiliating. Work was done in the UK, but it was done unsystematically. Some regions were covered fairly well (particularly in the Celtic fringe), some regions were covered poorly, some regions got practically zero coverage.  By the time the Great War came to an end it was too late. Traditional folk material had died out over most of the island to be replaced by urban legends and anemic ghost stories. The harvest had been left to rot in the field.

    Or had it… We will never be able to go back and retrieve tales from 19C oral sources, but there was a surprising amount of unsystematic collecting. This appeared in three main areas: ephemera (newspapers, magazines etc); local history pamphlets and books; and private unpublished collections. In say, the 1970s, it was impossible to search ephemera (unless you knew what you were looking for); local history pamphlets and books were difficult to find; private collections were available but their content lists were rarely publicly available. Thanks to digitization all this has changed. The result is that we can (like Gatsby) turn back the clock. In fact, Beach is three-quarters convinced that we might be able to write, in 2017, a better folklore guide to some British counties than was possible in 1890.

    Of course, saying this is one thing, proving it is another and Beach wants to take up the challenge. He has looked with some care at British counties and, after some consideration, he has come up with a short list of five that have particularly poor folklore records. He will pick one of these – he has his eyes on a particularly unattractive southern county – and will try and gather everything possible from the three sources listed above, just to see how much can be retrieved. The internet and online databases make this all credible. However, they are not enough. The key is to get local knowledge. It is not that nineteenth-century legends are still kicking around in the pubs or gardens: it is that in this or that village there is knowledge of what was published at the parish level and the books, parish magazines and the like are often available for consultation. Say it quietly but the worst period for digitization is now 1910-1990 where Archive.org gives little and where Google Books is useless.

    So Beach’s question is this. How do we get down to the local level? Back of an envelope style Beach has come up with the following suggestions, basing himself on previous drives in various countries for folklore data.

    Outreach through local papers.

    A county website to bring in material.

    Contact local bodies – cub scouts, Women’s Institute etc, history socs. – to look for local experts.

    A presence in social media.

    Any others? Drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com.

    MW writes, 31 Jul 2017: This sounds like a great project. One thing you didn’t mention was radio – local radio is obvious, but national radio might get people who have the knowledge but have moved away from the area. How you would go about getting mentioned on any one of the big-hitters like Today or Woman’s Hour I don’t know, but it does seem like it’s something that they might include. The other area would be local folk music groups, as there’s a good crossover of people interested in folklore and folk music – and they may have already been digging in local publications and parish magazines looking for music-related things.
    The great Mike Dash writes, 31 July 2017: Reading about your very exciting and worthwhile county folklore project just now, it occurred to me that it would potentially make sense to try to tie up with the Victoria County History Project, which does indeed seem to have competent boots on the ground at a parish level. If you marry your shortlist with a list of their more recently published titles (some counties haven’t been updated in ages) and get their help, you might be able to recruit a lot of very knowledgeable local historians of a very high calibre. Also (obv.) there will be a county record office to approach, and I would make an effort to recruit the tens of thousands of genealogists who pore over their own family histories and can get very excited at the discovery of fragments of local “colour” amidst the generally drab records they have to examine.