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FOLKLORE. In spite of its relatively short history, the United States has developed a rich seam of folklore that reflects both the nation's rapid transformation from agrarian to industrial and the multicultural society which has emerged from that transformation. Whether it be Mormons in Utah, Pennsylvania Amish, Cajuns from Louisiana, Appalachian mountaineers, African Americans from the Mississippi Delta, Mexican Americans in California and Texas, Minnesotans of Scandinavian extraction, New England Yankees, Chinese Americans in San Francisco, or Jews, Italians, and Irish from New York, Chicago, and Boston, America's heterogeneity, its geography, and its regional characteristics ensure that a diverse and constantly evolving culture contains a folk tradition that renders the United States unique among the industrialized nations. Whereas European countries can situate folk traditions within medieval time spheres, and Japan, for example, possesses ancient customs that represent a purism that links all of its people, America's folk heritage, its unwritten voice, has been aided, if not configured, by a cultural cross-fertilization that has seen different groups borrow from and interact with each other. Although in relative terms the United States can be seen as a young nation, it is also the world's oldest existing fully fledged democracy, and the vigorous nature of America's accelerated metamorphosis has ensured a vibrant folk culture that has manifested itself through various mediums including art and popular culture. It is therefore fitting that the convergent forces existing within a country of extremes should emanate from the "folk" themselves, promoting a national identity that continues to resonate throughout the globe.

American Folk Culture in the Nineteenth Century

The term "folklore" was first coined in 1846 by an Englishman, William John Thoms, and was a phrase used to describe the study of the ancient system of customs and beliefs practiced by common people. Subsequently in other nations, folklore became a means of establishing a unified national culture that also included language, music, and literature. To an extent these criteria applied to the United States in the nineteenth century as it began to forge an identity of its own. In contrast, though, to some nations in Europe where aristocrats sought proof of their own nationhood through the customs and language of the peasant class, America's literate population, already accustomed to a communicative spirit generated by newspapers, periodicals, and books, rejected the concept of an autocratic ruling elite. This is not to say that there was not already a burgeoning folkloric element rooted in Old World mythology such as the witch tales of New England and Appalachia. In general, though, tales and ballads about trappers, hunters, explorers, adventurers, and a myriad of liminal American characters that had experienced captivity, revolution, and the wilderness meant that folklore had taken on an American guise which embodied the country's exceptionalism.

There were also existing aboriginal cultures predicated almost entirely on the oral tradition. However, it was the Native Americans themselves who became objectified within the wider society while their culture remained firmly enclosed within the tribal environment. Subsequently, their myths and traditions remained, and still remain, detached and ethically different from the main body of the nation's folk traditions.

By the mid-nineteenth century, it was increasingly clear that the divisions perceived to exist between folk culture and mass culture were beginning to be blurred. American folk characters of that time embodied the principles of individualism and liberty while perpetuating ideas of nationhood and anti-elitism. All-American heroes such as Davy Crockett and Kit Carson were mythologized through almanacs, newspapers, and dime novels that anticipated the Superman comic boom a century later. The frontier and the West continued to be a source of fascination well into the twentieth century as Crockett and Carson plus a plethora of Western characters from Jesse James to Calamity Jane were, through the medium of the moving picture, ensconced forever within the nation's consciousness.

As well as influencing the course of popular culture, folklore was, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, a topic that required intellectual pursuit. As anthropologists, ethnologists, and historians attempted to situate an unwritten past through songs, myths, yarns, aphorisms, games, and numerous oral histories, folklore became very much a product of modernity. By the time the American Folklore Society (AFS) was founded in 1888, the United States had suffered a civil war and an economic slump; it had also undergone an accelerated industrial revolution that had seen its cities grow from cow towns and industrial ports to sprawling urban landscapes where immigrants and refugees from southern and eastern Europe brought their own folk traditions. The AFS's membership was drawn from mainly middle-class professionals who saw an opportunity for scientific research that reached outside the university curriculum. By the 1890s, the AFS had branches in cities across the United States, eclipsing by far similar organizations in Europe. It would be easy to view such an institution as emblematic of a subliminal yearning for a simpler, preindustrial America idealized through the rose-tinted spectacles of a socially and economically privileged, predominantly eastern, professional class. However, prominent folklorists of the late nineteenth century, for example T. F. Crane and Lee J. Vance, would offer the unearthing of "primitive" materials as valid evidence of humanity's advancement. In this sense, it could be argued, folklore was intrinsic to the modernizing process as folk specialists set about researching isolated communities in order to promote the benefits of what came to be known as the Gilded Age.

African American Folklore

Collectors and folklorists such as the first president of the AFS, Francis James Child, who compiled an extensive catalogue of British-based folk songs the final volume of which was published in 1898; Cecil Sharpe, an Englishman who made several trips to the Appalachians between 1916 and 1918 to document the "Elizabethan" ballads of Kentucky; and Vance Randolph, who initially visited the Ozarks of Arkansas during 1920 and discovered a powerful British influence within the local folk culture, provided a case for those who insisted there was no such thing as a quintessentially American folk heritage. Thus, even in those environments relatively unaffected by mass culture and industrialization, extant folk traditions were unequivocally linked to Great Britain, suggesting a regional homogeneity that was untypical of America as a whole. In this context, how does one assess African American culture and its contribution to an identifiable American folklore?

The unavoidable fact that African Americans were denied, through slavery, the educational and economic advantages enjoyed by the majority of U.S. society provided the conditions for the birth of a vibrant and inventive folk culture. Although informed by both African and European elements, in essence what emerged from the plantations of the South resembled conventional notions of folklore inasmuch that it was a mythology steeped in an oral tradition of trickster tales, animal stories, and work songs. Fundamentally, whereas the rest of America had an already-established written tradition, most slaves were never allowed the opportunity to achieve any adequate level of literacy. Of course there are exceptions, given the proliferation of written slave narratives, but such instances are relatively rare.

In contrast to Native Americans, whose traditions and myths were never allowed to enter into the dominant realm, African Americans, partly because of language and Christian belief, possessed cultural traits that were instantly recognizable to whites. As the songs of Stephen Foster and the blackface minstrelsy craze that proved to be the nation's most popular form of entertainment for the best part of a hundred years would help to testify, there was a long-held fascination with black America. Though distorted by sentimentalism, parody, and racist caricature, it was a fascination which allowed for a certain amount of cultural cross-fertilization.

Beginning with the publication in 1867 of William F. Allen, Charles P. Ware, and Lucy M. Garrison's Slave Songs, there would be a steady flow of African American–oriented folk material that would be absorbed into white society through various mediums including music, literature, and the pages of the Journal of American Folklore. In 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers were first assembled to perform Negro spirituals. The Fisks, who refined the spiritual to make it acceptable as a serious art form to white audiences, would subsequently travel to England, appearing before Queen Victoria. Mark Twain and the Czech composer Antonín Dvo[UNK]ák, who embellished his New World Symphony (1893) with the sacred folk melodies of former slaves, admired the Negro spirituals as truly great American music.

In popular fiction, Joel Chandler Harris's chronicling of slave folk tales, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, published in 1880, provided a predominantly white readership with an amusing foray into the world of the plantation. In writing the Uncle Remus stories, Harris incorporated the dialect of the Gullah islanders, an isolated community that resided off the coast of South Carolina. Believed to have retained many African oral inflections, the islanders were of some interest to folklorists. Years later, George Gershwin would live among the Gullah people while researching his 1934 "folk opera" Porgy and Bess, a musical version of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward's Porgy. Dubose Heyward, incidentally, was a white southerner who spent years observing the folk characteristics of the Gullah community in Charleston.

Although white novelists were initially responsible for illustrating the folkways of black America, it would be African American authors who would successfully combine the oral traditions surfacing from the nineteenth century with modernist literary forms. Although Paul Laurence Dunbar's dialect verse drew national acclaim in the early 1900s, it would be those black writers and poets who rose to prominence in the wake of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance who would successfully intertextualize trickster tales, folk songs, and other folkloric elements into their art. Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, and latterly Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison are all examples of African Americans who would evoke black oral traditions in their written work. Thus, African American literature has taken from folklore in order to give historical license to a people whose past had hitherto only been written through the eyes of the enslaver.

The interchange between the black folk tradition and the white literary tradition suggests a synthesis that transcends racial barriers. To an extent, this is often repeated in American folk music. In the South, historically the most racially segregated region in the United States, there was (and is) a huge public domain of folk songs that have continually traversed the color line. Songs that seem to typify an America undergoing industrialization and urbanization, such as "Casey Jones," "Stagolee," "Frankie and Johnny," and "John Henry," have passed back and forth between the races only to be claimed by both. The South has produced white blues singers and black hillbilly groups, while jazz emerged from its African American folk roots in New Orleans to become a quintessentially American art form. White country music owes much to African American blues. In 1926, one of the first artists to perform on the Grand Ole Opry was a black harmonica player called DeFord Bailey, who improvised nineteenth-century folk tunes such as "Fox Chase" which he had learned from his father, a former slave from East Tennessee. White hillbilly's first million-selling artist, Jimmie Rodgers, who developed his musical style working with African Americans on the railroad, produced a number of highly successful blues sides between 1927 and 1933, while African American blues singers like Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Blind Lemon Jefferson would include traditional white forms in their repertoires.

Put in this context, one could certainly argue that the interchange between southern black and white folk traditions, especially in folk song, produced a synthesis of sorts which could almost be defined as a single southern folk culture.

Folklore, Mass Culture, and Multiculturalism

The blurring of folklore and popular culture that was hinted at during the nineteenth century through the depiction of folk characters in dime novels, almanacs, and newspapers took on another dimension with the technological advancement that succeeded World War I. Radio, the phonograph, and the cinema all provided a facility for mass communication in an era when the unfettered consumerism of the postwar Jazz Age was followed by the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During this period, America was becoming a more fluid society, with African Americans and rural whites from the South migrating to the urban centers of the North and the Midwest. Of course, these migrants brought their folk customs and their traditions with them. Ironically, as many Americans became effectively displaced, they developed a keener sense of their own regional heritage. For example, blues artists who migrated to Chicago during the 1920s would, in many of their songs, express a yearning for their southern homeland—a yearning that reflected the feelings of many whites as well as African Americans.

As southerners moved north, the children of those immigrants that had poured into the United States over the previous fifty years were gradually being assimilated into the wider society. The first-ever jazz phonograph recording, "Livery Stable Blues," was performed by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white ensemble led by the son of Italian immigrant Nick La Rocca. With the expansion of the entertainment industry and Tin Pan Alley, songwriters such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, Jews from New York's Lower East Side, were composing ditties portraying an idyllic America that evoked Stephen Foster's sentimentalized version of a pastoral South. Gershwin and Berlin, blues singers from Chicago, white jazz bands from New Orleans: none of these were creating folklore; they were instead helping to produce commodities for the mass market. However, they were also prompting an idea of a common folk heritage that was rooted in the pastoral. Similarly, cinema portrayals of western heroes from the previous century added to the illusion of a rural America that predated mass immigration and urbanization. So, even for the children of immigrants, a perception of an American past was constructed that was all-inclusive.

The New Deal epoch and the ascendancy of the Popular Front during the 1930s produced a celebration of the people that was reflected in the photography of Dorothea Lange, whose "Migrant Mother" signified the stabilizing effect of the family and the dignifying presence of women at a time when many men were forced to travel the length and breadth of America searching for work. Lange was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency that was, between 1935 and 1943, responsible for sending folklorists, writers, and photographers out on field trips to observe the cultural mores, oral histories, education, political views, and medical needs of families in case studies that spanned twenty-four states. The work of the WPA marked a trend that had witnessed folklorists and collectors set out to explore the treasures that existed within America's cultural undergrowth.

Prompted by the anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University, Zora Neale Hurston made several exploratory journeys to the South to unearth a wealth of African American folktales, rhymes, and jokes which would find the light of day in her groundbreaking chronicle of African American folklore Mules and Men, published in 1935. For folk music, under the auspices of the Library of Congress folk song archive, John and Alan Lomax first went to the South in 1933 recording folk songs, reels, and obscure country blues by performers, some of whom had never left their locality. John Lomax was also responsible for bringing Huddie Ledbetter out of Angola State Penitentiary and to the attention of folk music. Lomax also conducted several notable interviews for the Library of Congress including Leadbelly, the now-legendary Oklahoma folk poet Woody Guthrie, and the Georgia blues singer Blind Willie McTell. To complement the Lomaxes' field recordings, the maverick avant-garde filmmaker-artist and part-time anthropologist Harry Smith uncovered dozens of vinyl recordings from between 1927 and 1932, a time when record sales plummeted. Smith's collection, which covered southern traditional music from Appalachia to Texas, found its way to Folkways Records and was eventually released as the Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. The anthology would have a huge effect on the folk boom of the early 1960s, a time when folk music had become firmly entrenched as a vehicle for political protest.

Quite clearly the celebrating of a people's culture was a concept held dear by the political left. In 1968, the organizers for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's March set up folklore workshops for African American, poor white, and Hispanic participants. This notion of unity through diversity was evident in folk festivals that were first staged in the 1930s, a time when institutions such as Tennessee's Highlander Folk School took sharecroppers and trained them to be union organizers. One of the tactics employed by Highlander to attract both blacks and whites into workers' collectives was the conversion of Negro spirituals and traditional folk songs into songs of solidarity. "We Shall Not Be Moved," for example, became a rallying cry on the picket line.

Seemingly, the whole political climate of the 1930s and 1940s lent itself to the reinterpretation of folk songs as propaganda. Woody Guthrie rewrote countless traditional folk songs so as to convey a political message. "John Henry" became "Tom Joad," "The Ballad of Jesse James" became "Jesus Christ," and Leadbelly's "Good Night Irene"—itself based on a traditional melody—became "Roll On Columbia." Guthrie came from a generation that was influenced by phonograph recordings. By listening to the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as a young man, he was inheriting an oral tradition, but one which had become universalized by twentieth-century technology. The radio, in particular, furnished a network that spanned the country. The fireside chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt epitomized the "folksy" or homespun quality that has characterized many American heads of state from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan.

The radio then, whether regional or national, engendered a spirit of community that encouraged a perception of American identity among its listeners. The fact that commercial interests became interwoven with folklore established a trend that carried on into television. From the early sponsorship of the Grand Ole Opry and the 1930s King Biscuit Flour blues broadcasts in Helena, Arkansas, to present-day television commercials advertising beer that evoke rural Mississippi and the Delta blues, the business community has promoted folk culture as an exemplar for American identity in order to sell its own product.

In spite of the view that folklore has become more of a commodity than a people's culture, there is still much to suggest that oral traditions, folktales, and songs will continue to flourish in an age of spiraling technology and global communication. The Internet and the World Wide Web now provide access to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute, and any number of folklore centers, all of which contain elaborate chronicles of migrant narratives, field recordings, blues songs, and transcriptions of WPA interviews. American folklore is not static and there is still an immense amount of material that remains unrecorded and underresearched. Events, disasters, and wars all produce their unwritten histories though technology has helped to preserve those histories. Who is not to say that rap music represents an extension of the African American oral tradition, or that the AIDS memorial quilt signifies a folk heritage which predates the industrial age? The revival in American "roots" music, the boom in handicraft sales, and the success of television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies are all examples of how folklore, commercial interests, and popular culture blend into one another. In this respect, folklore allows the past and the present to meet head on and interacts with popular culture and the commercial world in a way that has almost become an American tradition in itself.


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Grundy, Pamela. "'We Always Tried to be Good People': Respectability, Crazy Water Crystals, and Hillbilly Music on the Air, 1933–1935." Journal of American History 81, no. 4 (March 1995): 1591–1620.

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Forms of verbal art

Some functions of verbal art


Folklore means folk learning; it comprehends all knowledge that is transmitted by word of mouth and all crafts and techniques that are learned by imitation or example, as well as the products of these crafts. Objects which are mass produced and knowledge which is acquired through books or formal education are a part of culture, which includes the total body of learning, but they are not folklore. In nonliterate societies folklore is virtually identical with culture, but in literate industrialized societies it is only a fragment of culture. Anthropologists and humanists have defined folklore differently, but their definitions are in fundamental agreement in excluding all learning that is transmitted by writing.

Folklore includes folk art, folk crafts, folk tools, folk costume, folk custom, folk belief, folk medicine, folk recipes, folk music, folk dance, folk games, folk gestures, and folk speech, as well as those verbal forms of expression which have been called folk literature but which are better described as verbal art. Verbal art, which includes such forms as folktales, legends, myths, proverbs, riddles, and poetry, has been the primary concern of folklorists from both the humanities and the social sciences since the beginnings of folklore as a field of study, and it is with this principal segment of folklore that this article is concerned.

European interest in folklore goes back at least to the sixteenth century and the age of exploration, but the modern study of folklore is generally considered to date from the early years of the nineteenth century, when the Grimm brothers began collecting German folktales in the field. The term folklore was first introduced into English in 1846 by William John Toms, who urged that accounts of “the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, &c., of the olden time” be recorded in Britain for future study and for comparison with the materials which were being recorded in Germany by the Grimm brothers and other scholars.

Forms of verbal art

A variety of forms or genres of verbal art have been distinguished by folklorists, but neither the categories nor the terminology has been standardized. The following categories have proved useful.

Prose narrative. Myths, legends, and folktales are three important kinds of prose narrative or “tale,” which is one of the most widespread forms of verbal art. The differences between myths, legends, and folktales are hotly disputed, but distinctions similar to those made here are recognized in some nonliterate societies and have long been employed by students of European folklore.

Myths. In the society in which they are told, myths are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the past. They are taught to be believed, and they can be cited as authority in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief. Myths are the embodiment of dogma; they are usually sacred, and they are often associated with theology and ritual. Their characters are usually not human beings, but they often have human attributes. Myths account for the origin of the world, of mankind, of death; for characteristics of birds and animals; or for features of the landscape. They may recount the activities of the deities, their victories and defeats, their friendships and enmities, their love affairs, and their family relationships. They may “explain” details of ceremonial paraphernalia or ritual, or why taboos must be observed.

Legends. Like myths, legends are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are usually secular rather than sacred. Their principal characters are human, and they concern a period less remote than that of myths. They tell of migrations, wars and victories, deeds of past chiefs and kings, and succession in ruling dynasties. They include local tales of buried treasure, ghosts, fairies, and saints. Legends correspond to Sagen in German and traditions populaires in French.

Folktales. Prose narratives that are regarded as fiction are called folktales. They usually recount the adventures of animals or humans, but ogres and even deities may appear in them. A variety of subtypes can be distinguished, including drolls or noodles, trickster tales, tall tales, dilemma tales, formulistic tales, and moral tales or fables. Folktales are known as Marchen in German and as contes populaires in French. They have been known as fairy tales in English, but this is inappropriate both because fairies seldom appear in folktales and because narratives about fairies are usually regarded as true. Some folklorists use the term Märchen in English while employing “folktale” to include all three categories, but this is unnecessary when “prose narrative” better serves this purpose.

The distinction here between truth and fiction refers only to the beliefs of those who tell and hear these tales, and not to our beliefs, to historical or scientific fact, or to any ultimate judgment of truth and falsehood. In diffusing from one society to another, a myth or legend may be accepted without being believed, thus becoming a folktale in the borrowing society. Occasionally the reverse may also happen. In a period of rapid cultural change an entire belief system and its mythology may be discredited. Even in cultural isolation there may be some skeptics who do not accept the traditional system of belief. Nevertheless, it is important to know what the majority in a society believes to be true at any given point of time, for people act upon what they believe to be true.

Aphorisms . Proverbs, maxims, and similar terse, sententious sayings can be grouped together. Again usage varies, but in this article proverbs are distinguished from “proverbial phrases” or metaphorical comparisons and from maxims or mottoes like “Honesty is the best policy,” which can be applied only in the literal sense. Proverbs have a deeper meaning, one which can be understood only through the analysis of the social situations to which they are appropriate. While prose narratives are world-wide in their distribution, proverbs are primarily an Old World genre, important throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Proverbs have been reported from the Americas and from Oceania, but not in large numbers and not with sufficient documentation to determine whether they are in fact proverbs or some other form of aphorism.

Riddles . Riddles differ from proverbs in that they require an answer, but they may also be concisely stated. African riddles are usually phrased as short declarative sentences, rather than as questions, so that they resemble proverbs in form and so that initially it may be difficult for an outsider to recognize the implicit question to which he is expected to provide the correct answer. Riddles vary considerably in their form of statement; and many European riddles take the form of rhyming poems, as in the case of Humpty Dumpty. Riddles again are primarily an Old World genre, although some have been recorded in other parts of the world.

Poetry, tongue-twisters, and verbal formulas . Poetry is widespread, at least in the form of song texts, but has received far less attention than the forms of verbal art mentioned thus far. Tongue-twisters have been recorded in various parts of the world but have been little studied. Incantations, invocations, passwords, greetings, and other verbal formulas have also been neglected by folklorists, although they appear in linguistic studies and in ethnographic descriptions of ritual and etiquette. Like tongue-twisters and some song texts, verbal formulas are often obscure in meaning and both difficult and almost pointless to translate. Comprehension is often less important than correct recitation, and verbatim accuracy may be essential to their religious, magical, or social effectiveness. In view of this it is not surprising that these forms have received less attention than prose narratives, proverbs, and riddles, in all of which both comprehension and communication are involved.

These forms of verbal art are not watertight compartments, as the case of rhyming riddles suggests. Dilemma tales, which are widespread in Africa, leave the solution up to the audience. Often classified with riddles, they are clearly a borderline form; they seem usually to call for argumentation rather than a correct answer. Trickster tales may be either myths or folktales; and ballads are narratives in songs. Some tales incorporate songs in the development of the plot, and others end by quoting a proverb to summarize a moral. The social significance of verbal art is stressed in the following section, but its aesthetic attributes are also important. Their study provides a common meeting ground for the humanities and the social sciences that is rarely if ever equaled in other data on human behavior. Language imposes limitations on the artist in folklore as the medium of expression does in the graphic and plastic arts, music, or the dance. In the case of verbal art the medium of expression is the spoken word, and verbal art is subject to the limitations of the phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary of the language. For this reason linguists are best qualified to consider the question of style, which can be defined as what the artist is able to achieve within the limitations of his techniques and media. Linguists have, in fact, contributed several important discussions of this subject. More often they have recorded prose narratives as a convenient means of collecting texts for linguistic analysis, with the result that many of the most accurately recorded and carefully transcribed collections of verbal art are to be found in linguistic studies.

Some functions of verbal art

Amusement is an obvious function of folktales, riddles, and tongue-twisters, but verbal art has other, more important functions.

Education . In nonliterate societies verbal art plays a major and often explicitly recognized role in education. It is important to learn myths and legends because they contain information that is believed to be true. Proverbs are often characterized as the distilled wisdom of past generations. Learning the values of a culture as they are expressed in proverbs is similarly considered important -in its own right; without some command of proverbs, individuals in many African societies cannot effectively fulfill their roles as adults. Whereas African proverbs are considered to be the province of adults, riddles are for children. Riddles teach the characteristics of plants, animals, and other things in nature, as well as some features of technology, material culture, and social structure. Even folktales that are regarded as fictitious are recognized by Africans as important in the education of children, because so many of them are moral tales. The importance of verbal art in education has been noted in nonliterate societies throughout the world. Verbal art provides a medium for the transmission of knowledge, values, and attitudes from one generation to another and thus contributes to the continuity of culture.

Social control . Verbal art helps to maintain conformity to cultural values and accepted patterns of behavior. It is widely used to express social approval and disapproval, to apply social pressure, and to exercise social control. Proverbs, songs of ridicule, and even riddles and folktales may be used to criticize those who deviate from the accepted norms and social conventions. On the other hand, proverbs, praise names, and praise songs give recognition and reward to those who conform. African proverbs are especially important in this respect. When action is contemplated that may lead to social friction, open hostilities, or direct punishment by society, proverbs can be used to express warning, defiance, or derision of a rival or enemy. They may also express advice, counsel, or warning to a friend.

Because of the high regard in which they are held, and because they are considered especially appropriate to adult life, African proverbs are highly effective instruments of social control. Because they express the morals and ethics of a society, they are convenient standards for appraising behavior in terms of the approved norms. And because they are pungently, sententiously, and wittily stated, they are ideally suited for commenting on the behavior of others.

Social authority . Verbal art serves to validate social institutions and religious rituals. Malinowski showed how, in the Trobriand Islands of the Pacific, myth provides a warrant and a charter for magic, ceremony, ritual, and social structure. Myths can be cited as authority on questions of religious belief and ritual procedure, and to justify rights to land, fishing grounds, social position, tribute, or political authority. This important function can be seen in many societies, but it is not confined to myth. When dissatisfaction with or skepticism of an accepted pattern is expressed, or when doubts about it arise, there is usually a myth or legend to validate it; however, a moral folktale or a proverb may serve the same purpose.

Sociopsychological function . Verbal art provides a psychological release from the restrictions imposed on the individual by society. Ever since Greek myths were recorded in writing, it has been recognized that characters in myths do things that are regarded as shocking, sinful, and even criminal in daily life. Myths and folktales provide an opportunity for people to talk about kinds of behavior that society prohibits them from indulging in, and about kinds of success that they can scarcely hope to achieve themselves.

This can be illustrated in our own society by “dirty jokes” and, formerly, mother-in-law jokes. In the case of the latter, their popularity has declined as fewer young couples live with their in-laws and the family is increasingly fragmented. In American Indian societies that practice mother-in-law avoidance, the trickster violates his own mother-in-law. Tales of polygynous marriages feature far more prominently among the monogamous Pueblo groups than in societies where polygyny is accepted. In West Africa the Ashanti and Daho-means recognize the value of being able to criticize and laugh at authority and other matters, both secular and sacred, in a way they cannot do normally, through folktales and songs. Even riddles and tongue-twisters, although considered the province of children, sometimes involve sexual references that are considered off-color by adults.

The familiar theme of rags to riches, the widespread tale of the magic flight or of the seven-league boots, and tales of resurrection after death are also meaningful in terms of psychological release. Viewed in this light, verbal art reveals man’s attempt to escape in fantasy from the restrictions of his geographic environment, from his own biological limitations as a member of the human species, and from the repressions imposed upon him by society, whether these result from social and economic inequalities, from sexual taboos, or from the Ashanti taboo against laughing at a person afflicted with yaws.

Cultural continuity . When the functions of education, control, authority, and release are viewed together, it can be seen that verbal art has the broader function of maintaining the continuity and stability of culture. It is used to inculcate customs and ethical standards in the young, to reward the adult with praise when he conforms or to punish him with criticism or ridicule when he deviates, to provide him with rationalizations when he questions the institutions and conventions of his society, and at the same time to provide him with a compensatory escape from the hardships and injustices of everyday life. It operates to ensure cultural continuity from generation to generation through its role in education, by emphasizing conformity to the accepted cultural norms, and through the validation of social and religious institutions. By providing a psychological escape from the institutions and norms which it sanctions and enforces and by providing discontented individuals an opportunity to talk about forbidden forms of behavior, rather than practicing them, verbal art preserves the established customs and institutions from direct attack and change.

Political uses of verbal arts . Despite the fact that verbal art serves to continue and stabilize culture, it has also been used for the purposes of political propaganda and social change. During the emergence of the independent nations of Africa, myths, legends, and song texts have been used to promote ethnic unity, regionalism, nationalism, anticolonialism, and pan-Africanism.

The Yoruba creation myth provided the basis for the Society of the Children of Oduduwa (Egbe Omo Oduduwa), established for the purpose of uniting the people of the Western Region of Nigeria, and Bakongo mythology has been used for political purposes by Joseph Kasavubu’s Abako party in the Congo. In Katanga a common myth has been cited by politicians to show why the Lunda, Luena, and Chokwe should unite in support of Tshombe and his Conakat party, or, conversely, why the Luena and Chokwe should join in opposition to the Lunda. African praise songs have been adapted to honor new political leaders; songs of allusion have been used to criticize colonial officials and rival politicians; and the hymn “God Bless Africa,” first sung publicly in 1899, has been adopted as a closing anthem by the African National Congress and as the unofficial national anthem of several African countries, and it was sung at the 1958 Conference of Independent African States in Accra, Ghana.

In the Soviet Union in 1936, the Communist party “discovered” the effectiveness of folklore as a political weapon. Scholars reversed earlier theories that regarded folklore as a product of the upper classes filtering down to the lower classes, and claimed that the working people were the creators of folklore.

Folktales and songs have been used to advance the theme of the class struggle in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cuba, and elsewhere. The Nazis used Teutonic mythology to promote their idea of a master race. In earlier times Krylov used fables to needle the Russian aristocracy, and the first Chinese edition of Aesop’s Fables was suppressed by officials who recognized their satire and suspected that they had been invented locally. Further study of the political uses of verbal art, which have only recently been recognized by folk-lorists, will undoubtedly reveal other instances of this kind.

The recording of verbal art is a well-recognized field technique in linguistic and anthropological research, and it can be helpful in studying political attitudes. Verbal art provides useful materials for school curricula and important data for the study of law, values, psychology, and history in non-literate societies. Writing and industrialization have undermined its social significance far more in urban United States than in most literate societies, but they have never destroyed verbal art or the other segments of folklore.


[Directly related are the entriesCOMMUNICATION; DRAMA; HISTORY, article onETHNOHISTORY; Music, article onETHNOMUSICOLOGY. Other relevant material may be found inCRAFTS; HISTORIOGRAPHY; MYTH AND SYMBOL; PRIMITIVE ART.]


BASCOM, WILLIAM (1954) 1965 Four Functions of Folklore. Pages 279-298 in Alan Dundes (editor), The Study of Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: PrenticeHall. ⇒ First published in Volume 67 of the Journal of American Folklore.

BASCOM, WILLIAM 1955 Verbal Art. Journal of American Folklore 68:245-252.

BASCOM, WILLIAM 1965a Folklore and Literature. Pages 469-490 in Robert A. Lystad (editor), The African World: A Survey of Social Research. New York: Praeger. ⇒ A bibliography appears on pages 558-560.

BASCOM, WILLIAM 1965b The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78:3-20.

BENEDICT, RUTH 1935 Zuni Mythology. 2 vols. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 21. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

DORSON, RICHARD M. 1959 American Folklore. Univ. of Chicago Press.

FISCHER, JOHN L. 1963 The Socio-psychological Analysis of Folktales. Current Anthropology 4:235-295.

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Edited by Maria Leach. 2 vols. 1949 New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

GRIMM, JAKOB; and GRIMM, WILHELM (1812-1815) 1948 Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Complete ed., rev. Translated by Margaret Hunt; revised by James Stern. London: Routledge. ⇒ First published in German.

HERSKOVITS, MELVILLE J.; and HERSKOVITS, FRANCES S. 1958 Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-cultural Analysis. Northwestern University African Studies, No. 1. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

JACOBS, MELVILLE 1959 The Content and Style of Oral Literature: Clackamas Chinook Myths and Tales. Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Publications in Anthropology, No. 26. Univ. of Chicago Press.

MALINOWSKI, BRONISLAW (1926) 1948 Myth in Primitive Psychology. Pages 72-124 in Bronislaw Malinow-ski, Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press; Boston: Beacon.⇒ A paperback edition was published in 1954 by Doubleday.

OPLER, MORRIS E. 1940 Myths and Legends of the Lipan Apache Indians. Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, Vol. 36. Philadelphia: The Society.

RATTRAY, R. S. 1930 Akan-Ashanti Folk-tales. Oxford: Clarendon.

RAUM, O. F. 1940 Chaga Childhood: A Description of Indigenous Education in an East African Tribe. Oxford Univ. Press.

THOMPSON, STITH 1946 The Folktale. New York: Dryden.

THOMPSON, STITH 1953 Advances in Folklore Studies. Pages 587-596 in International Symposium on Anthropology, New York, 1952, Anthropology Today: An Encyclopédic Inventory. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Folklore has played a vital role in the lives of the Russian people and has exerted a considerable influence on the literature, music, dance, and other arts of Russia, including such major nineteenth-and twentieth-century writers and composers as Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Igor Stravinsky.

A folklore tradition has existed and flourished in Russia for many centuries, has been collected and studied for well more than two hundred years, and is represented by a variety of large and small genres, including oral epic songs, folktales, laments, ritual and lyric songs, incantations, riddles, and proverbs.

A simple explanation for the survival of folklore over such a long period of time is difficult to find. Some possible reasons can be found in the fact that the population was predominately rural and unable to read and write prior to the Soviet era; that the secular, nonspiritual literature of the folklore tradition was for the most part a primary source of entertainment for Russians from all classes and levels of society; or that the Orthodox Church was unsuccessful in its efforts to repress the Russian peasant's pagan, pre-Christian folk beliefs and rituals, which over time had absorbed many Christian elements, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "double belief." The fact that the Russian peasant was both geographically and culturally far removed from urban centers and events that influenced the country's development and direction also played a role in folklore's survival. And Russia's geographical location itself was a significant factor, making possible close contact with the rich folklore traditions of neighboring peoples, including the Finns, the nomadic Turkic tribes, and the non-Russian peoples of the vast Siberian region.

Evidence of a folklore tradition appeared in Russian medieval religious and secular works of the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries, and conflicting attitudes toward its existence prior to the eighteenth century are well documented. The church considered it as evil, as the work of the devil. But memoirs and historical literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries indicate that folklore, folktales in particular, was quite favorably regarded by many. Ivan the Terrible (15331584), for example, hired blind men to tell stories at his bedside until he fell asleep. Less than one hundred

years later, however, Tsar Alexis (16451676), son of Peter the Great (16961725), ordered the massacre of practitioners of this and other secular arts. Royal edict notwithstanding, tellers of tales continued to bring pleasure to people, and on the rural estates of noblemen and in high social circles of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Moscow, skillful narrators were well rewarded.

The earliest collection of Russian folklore, consisting of some songs and tales, was made during the seventeenth century by two Oxford-educated Englishmen: Richard James, chaplain to an English diplomatic mission in Moscow (16191620), and Samuel Collins, physician to Tsar Alexei (during the 1660s).

The first important collection of Russian folklore by Russians was that of folksongs from the Ural region, made during the middle of the eighteenth century and published early during the nineteenth century. At about the same time a real foundation was laid for folklore research and scholarship in Russia, due largely to the influence of Western romanticism and widespread increase in national self-awareness. This movement, represented in particular by German romantic philosophers and folklorists such as Johann Herder (17441803) and the brothers Grimm (Jacob, 17851863; Wilhelm, 17861859), was mirrored in Russia during the early years of the nineteenth century among the Slavophiles, a group of Russian intellectuals of the 1830s, who believed in Russia's spiritual greatness and who showed an intense interest in Russia's folklore, folk customs, and the role of the folk in the development of Russian culture. Folklore now began to be seriously collected, and among the significant works published were large collections of Russian proverbs by V. I. Dal (1801-1872) and Russian folktales by A. N. Afanasev (1826-1871).

But the latter part of the nineteenth century signaled the most significant event in Russian folklore scholarship, when P.N. Rybnikov (18311885) and A.F. Hilferding (Gilferding, 18311872) uncovered a treasury of folklore in the Lake Onega region of northwestern Russia during the 1860s and 1870s, including a flourishing tradition of oral epic songs, which up to that time was believed to be almost extinct as a living folklore form. This discovery led to a systematic search for folklore that is still being conducted during the early twenty-first century.

During the Soviet period folklore was criticized for depicting the reality of the past and was even considered harmful to the people. Until the death of Stalin in 1953 folklore scholarship was under constant Party supervision and limited in scope, focusing on social problems and ideological matters. But folklore itself was recognized as a powerful means to promote patriotism and advance Communist ideas and ideals, and it became a potent instrument in the formation of Socialist culture. New Soviet versions of folklore were created and made public through a variety of mediaconcert hall, radio, film, television, and tapes and phonograph records. These new works included contemporary subject matter: for example, an airplane instead of the wooden eagle on whose back the hero often traveled, a rifle for slaying a modern dragon in military uniform, or marriage to the daughter of a factory manager rather than a princess.

Since the 1970s, Russian folklore has become free from government control, and the sphere of study has expanded. During the early twenty-first century, folklore of the far-flung regions of the former Soviet Union is being collected in the field. Many of the older, classic collections of Russian folklore are being republished, old cylinder recordings restored, and bibliographies published, mainly under the direction of the Folklore Committee of the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in St. Petersburg and the Folklore Section of the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow.

Among the most important narrative folklore genres are Russian oral epic songs and folktales, which provide a rich diversity of thematic and story material. The oral epic songs are the major genre in verse. Many of them concern the adventures of heroes associated with Prince Vladimir's court in Kiev in southern Russia; the action in a second group of epic songs occurs on the "open plain," where Russians fight the Tatar invaders; and the events of a third group of songs take place near the medieval city of Novgorod in northern Russia. The stories are made up of themes of feasting, journeys, and combats; acts of insubordination and punishment; trials of skill in arms, sports, and horsemanship; and themes of courtship, marriage, infidelity, and reconciliation. Some popular songs are about the giant Svyatogor, the Old Cossack Ilya Muromets, the dragon-slayer Dobrynya Nikitich, Alyosha Popovich the priest's son, and the rich merchant Sadko.

The leading genre in prose, one that is well known beyond Russia, is the folktale, which includes tales of various kinds, such as animal and moral tales, as well as magic or so-called fairy tales, similar to the Western European fairy tales. Russian magic or fairy tales often tell a story about a hero who leaves home for some reason, must carry out one or several different tasks, encounters many obstacles along the way, accomplishes all of the tasks, and gains wealth or a fair maiden in the end. Among the popular heroes and villains of Russian folktales are Ivan the King's son, the witch Baba Yaga, Ivan the fool, the immortal Kashchey, Grandfather Frost, and the Firebird.

See also: firebird; folk music; pushkin house


Afanasev, Alexander. (1975). Russian Fairy Tales. New York: Random House.

Bailey, James, and Ivanova, Tatyana. (1998). Russian Folk Epics. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ivanits, Linda J. (1989). Russian Folk Beliefs. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Miller, Frank J. (1990). Folklore for Stalin: Russian Folklore and Pseudofolklore of the Stalin Era. Armonk, NY:M.E. Sharpe.

Oinas, Felix J. (1985). Essays on Russian Folklore and Mythology. Columbus, OH: Slavica.

Oinas, Felix J., and Soudakoff, Stephen, eds. (1975). The Study of Russian Folklore. The Hague: Mouton.

Sokolov, Y.M. (1971). Russian Folklore, tr. Catherine Ruth Smith. Detroit, MI: Folklore Associates.

Patricia Arant

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folklore, the body of customs, legends, beliefs, and superstitions passed on by oral tradition. It includes folk dances, folk songs, folk medicine (the use of magical charms and herbs), and folktales (myths, rhymes, and proverbs). The study of folklore emerged significantly in the 19th cent., partly out of the rise of European romanticism, with its interest in the past, and partly out of nationalism, with its stress on the indigenous. Today most folklorists and anthropologists regard folk customs, legends, and beliefs as an imaginative expression by a people of its desires, attitudes, and cultural values. Folk heroes (e.g., Frederick Barbarossa in Germany, the Cid in Spain, Robin Hood in England, Cuchulain in Ireland, Paul Bunyan in the United States, and Yü in China) have been said to reflect the civilization from which they sprang. Many theories have arisen to explain folk tales—Max Müller, a philologist, interpreted the legends as linguistic corruptions; Jakob Grimm saw them as corrupted cosmic allegories; the German school considered them as personified elements of nature; Edward Tylor and Andrew Lang held them to be survivals from a savage society; Freud and the psychoanalytical school found them fraught with sexual symbolism. Folklore has become increasingly important in the study of primitive societies and in understanding the history of mankind. Almost every country has a folklore society which collects, analyzes, and publishes folk material (e.g., in the United States the American Folklore Society publishes the Journal of American Folklore). For further information, see games, children's; monsters and imaginary beasts in folklore; mythology.

See C. L. Daniels and C. M. Stevans, ed., Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World (1971); D. Emrich, Folklore on the American Land (1972); R. M. Dorson, ed., Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction (1972); T. P. Coffin and H. Cohen, Folklore from the Working Folk of America (1973); R. M. Dorson, America in Legend (1974); A. Dundes, Analytic Essays in Folklore (1975).

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folk·lore / ˈfōkˌlôr/ • n. the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. ∎  a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people: Hollywood folklore. DERIVATIVES: folk·lor·ic / -ˌlôrik/ adj. folk·lor·ist / -ist/ n. folk·lor·is·tic / ˌfōkləˈristik/ adj.

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folklore Traditions, customs and beliefs of people. The most prevalent form of folklore is the folk tale. In contrast to literature, which is transmitted through written texts, the folk tale has an oral basis and is transmitted mainly through memory and tradition. Often the tales take the form of myths, fables and fairy tales. The best-known study of folklore is Sir James Frazer's anthropological study The Golden Bough (1890).

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folklore •Danelaw • in-law • son-in-law •sister-in-law • by-law • outlaw •folklore • coleslaw • subfloor

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