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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring 1962

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Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring 1962

Norman Studer

THE amazing growth of interest in American folklore in the past fifty years is one of the most significant and hopeful signs of the times. At the same time that a growing army of scholars and amateur collectors is hard at work gathering folklore of many varieties, singers and instrumentalists are also bringing folksongs and music to an ever-widening audience. This cultural movement that has come into its own in the past decade has important implications for the schools, all the way from first grade to the graduate seminar.

This burgeoning activity around the collection and use of folklore is not an accident of history. It comes significantly at a time when we have been transformed from a rural culture to one that is mainly urban and suburban. There was a time when a large majority of the American people spent their lives in one place, near the earth, surrounded by neighbors who made up an organic community. We are fast becoming a nation on wheels and wings. This change, along with the growth of the mass media of communication, has created a culture of the displaced persons, removed from the roots that gave life a sense of continuity. As we become alienated from our roots we are being fed with a sterile and empty culture of commercialism, epitomized by the wasteland of TV, with its exploitation of violence and lust as staples of entertainment.

I see this turning back to the traditional folk culture as the expression of dissatisfaction with the spiritual nourishment of the times. A look at the quality of our folk culture will show why at this time folk music records are a flourishing business and why hundreds of young people are learning to play their guitars and sing folksongs collected all the way from Alabama to Indonesia. The folk culture of our heritage was developed at a time when men and women believed in themselves and their destiny. It blossomed in the age of homespun, which unlocked the creativity that is a potential of all people. In the homespun days the sense of clean and functional form was not the monopoly of a few esthetes, but was a part of a way of life. A feeling for the beauty of simple form went into the shaving of a butter paddle, a flail swivel or a sap yoke; it was also present in the work of the housewife, stitching her patterned quilt or hooking a rug. This was indeed a do-it-yourself culture. Recreation had to be homemade, and story-telling flourished around the stove of the general store, in the frontier saloon, the foc’sle of a whaler, or in the bunkhouse of a lumber camp. In my twenty years of collecting varieties of folklore in the Catskill region, I have been greatly impressed over and over again with the widespread evidences of the creativity of what we used to call the common man—the sense of form and the artistic pride that went into the carving of a useful wooden utensil, the singing of a song, or the telling of an anecdote....

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