NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XXIX, No. 4, December 1973
THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER SKIFF
AND THE FOLKLORE OF BOATS
FOLKLORISTS in North America, when confronted with
the subject of boats, have customarily examined not the
traditional nature of boats themsehes, but rather have
been more interested in the associated forms of oral folklore or
social custom. We hake treatments of boat associated superstitions
(never whistle when aboard a boat, for example. It brings
to much wind), boat songs such as sea chanteys and ballads of the
sea and ships, and boat legends such as spectre ship tales. There
has ahvays been an awareness that ships and boats are associated
with these folklore genres, but considerations of the water craft
themselves as the products or artifacts of traditional culture have
been slow in coming in the literature. Henry Glassie has been
one American folklife oriented scholar who has treated some
such examples in his writing (as in his discussion of the Louisiana
pirogue, a dugout canoe, described in Pattern in the Material
Folk Culture of the Eastern United States). Horace Beck has
briefly discussed lobsterboats in Maine, and my own research on
Maine lobsterboat building has appeared only in paper form.
European Folklife scholarship on boats has been much more
extensive. The German Study Segelboote des Deutschen Nordsee is a thoroughly descriptive study of a region’s water craft paralleled
in this country only by the studies of M. V. Brewington concerning
Chesapeake Bay types, The writings of American historians
on ships are voluminous, but small craft are markedly less
well treated except by Howard I. Chapelle who is really a naval
architect turned historian. The poverty of research in this area
by American folklorists is probably due to the fact that most of
us have yet to fully align ourselves with Scandanavian folklife
research interests and methods and, that most of such material
culture researchers as do now exist here have interests primarily
in house and barn architecture and the various subsistence craft
traditions. However, there is no theoretical reason why the study
of boats cannot be equally as rewarding a path of inquiry into
the characteristics of folk culture. It is quite clear that boats,
especially the small craft under fifty feet in length, are exemplary
of such well known folkloric traits as the development of type,
regional variation and subtypification, individual creativity, response
to use and social context, and the various aspects of craftsmanship
which interest the material culture folklorist so greatly
in other areas.
It is the purpose of this paper to examine the nature of one
traditional North American boat type and to point out the kinds
of concerns about boats which can be of interest and value to
folklorists, and of course to other students of traditional culture
as well, such as regional historians.
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