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4.3: Folk Culture

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  • The term folk tends to evoke images of what we perceive to me traditional costumes, dances, and music. It seems that anything with the prefix folk refers to something that somehow belongs in the past and that is relegated to festivals and museums. The word folk can be traced back to Old Norse/English/Germanic and was used to refer to an army, a clan, or a group of people. Using this historic information, folk culture (folktales, folklore, etc.) can be understood as something that is shared first among a group of people and then with the more general population. It is a form of identification. Folk is ultimately tied to an original landscape/geographic location as well. Folk cultures are found in small, homogeneous groups. Because of this, folk culture is stable through time, but highly variable across space.

    Folk customs originate in the distant past and change slowly over time. Folk cultures move across space by relocation diffusion, as groups move they bring their cultural items, as well as their ideas with them.

    Folk culture is transmitted or diffused in person. Knowledge is transmitted either by speaking to others, or through participating in an activity until it has been mastered. Cooking food is taught by helping others until an individual is ready to start cooking. Building a house is learned through participating in the construction of houses. In all cases, folk cultures must learn to use the resources that are locally available. Over time folk cultures learn functional ways to meet daily needs as well as satisfy desires for meaning and entertainment. Folk cultures produce distinctive ways to address problems.

    Houses tend to be similar within a culture area, since once a functional house type is developed, there is little incentive to experiment with something that may not work. Food must be grown or gathered locally. People prefer variety, so they produce many crops, plus relying on only a few foods is dangerous. Clothing is made from local wool, flax, hides, or other materials immediately available. Local plants serve as the basis of folk medicinal systems. People are entertained by music that reinforces folk beliefs and mythologies, as well as reflects daily life. Folktales or folklore exists as foundational myths, origin stories or cautionary tales.

    Holidays provide another form of entertainment. Special days break the monotony of daily life. A holiday such as Mardi Gras, which has its roots in the Catholic calendar provides an occasion to flout cultural norms and relieve tension. Another way of providing escape from monotony is provided by intoxicants. Although often not considered when discussing culture, human beings have been altering their own mental states for millennia. The production of alcohol, cannabis, tobacco or coca demonstrates that folk cultures understood the properties of psychoactive substances. Later these substances would be commercialized into modern products.

    As folk cultures have receded there has been a return to valuing the folk. The Slow-food movement and the growth of cultural tourism has largely been driven for the desire experience elements of folk culture. As early as the German Grimm Brothers (19th Century Germany) people have wanted to preserve and promote folk culture. John Lomax (1867-1948) traveled the United States trying to record as many folk songs and folk tales (including slave narratives) as they faded from human memory.

    Folk culture can also be expressed as craftsmanship versus factory work. Hand production of goods requires a great amount of knowledge to select materials, fabricate components, assemble and finish a product. Contrast this with industrial production in workers need to know very little about the final product, and have little relationship with it. This difference in modes of production was first discussed by Ferdinand Tönnies and Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. These two words denote the relationship between people and their communities, and by extension, their landscapes. Gesellschaft is the way life is lived in a small community. Gemeinschaft is the way that life is lived in a larger society.

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