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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, December 1973

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NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XXIX, No. 4, December 1973

THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER SKIFF AND THE FOLKLORE OF BOATS
Richard Lunt

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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