Folk Arts & Culture
Folk arts and culture offer self-definitions for different groups of people. Not only do they describe ethnicity, place, occupation, religion, sexual orientation, and other groupings, they help us connect the past with the present, to understand ourselves and others. New York State is rich with diverse peoples, and in this section of the site, we explore some of the important elements of our state’s traditional arts and culture.
“Folklife is part of everyone’s life. It is as constant as a ballad, as changeable as fashion trends. It is as intimate as a lullaby, and as public as a parade. In the end, we are all folk.”—The American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
What Is Folklore?
We start with the this basic question. Many people have sought to define it, to explain it, to classify it. Here are some of the best attempts.
Traditional Music & Dance
We often thinks of folk music, or folk dance, when we contemplate traditional arts. And here, we spotlight, interview, and celebrate some of New York’s most outstanding practitioners and artists who honor traditional repertoire, as well explore genres, and music and dance in specific regions in the state.
Folk Art and Material Culture
Folk artists weave baskets, carve duck decoys, make quilts. They are stone carvers, furniture makers, boat builders. You can read about Pinto Güira and the namesake instruments he crafts in Queens. Or the traditional Hungarian Kopjafák (wooden graveposts) carved by Ferenc Keresztesi. Listen to an interview about Quinceñera dress making here.
Celebrations and Festivals
Ever heard of Woodstock? No, not that one. Did you know that Ulster County Folklore Society held the First Annual Woodstock Folk Festival during three days in September, 1962? “The air of Woodstock was alive with the twanging of banjos and guitars and the voices of singers, square-dance callers, and tellers of tall tales.”* From the Russian Winter Festival in Albany that celebrates Russian folk arts and traditions — to the Dance Flurry in Saratoga that brings together thousands of traditional dancers — to the annual Waterford RiverSpark Canal Festival — to the Grassroots Festival of Music Dance in Trumansburg — to the Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally in Binghamton — to the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham...the list is as long and diverse as the peoples of the state. Find a partial listing of celebrations, big and small, and links here.
Foodways describe the cultural and social practices related to cooking and consuming food. We’ve long carried a Foodways column in our publications with delightful recipes and stories, like that of The Grape Pie, maple johnnycakes, bulgogi, alcapurrias, and the Spiedie. Our writers have explored the arts of bagel-making, peirogi- and babka-making, and rolling and stuffing grape leaves. Eniko Farkas writes that, “Except for politics, there are few subjects that can as easily incite strong feelings in Hungarians as the subject of the proper kinds of spices and vegetables that go into the goulash,”** and she offers up her own authentic recipe.
Folk Tales & Legends
We have information about storytellers, about the transmission of legends across oceans and generations, and collections of stories available in our bookstore (The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale; Tales from the Featherland; . Steve Zeitlin, in his Voices column contemplates scientists as storytellers, to explain the universe or just their own particular theory. In fact, our publications abound with stories and tales - did hear the one about The New Game Warden? Or the Cropsey Maniac? NYFS Board member Libby Tucker tells some supernatural ones, and writes about “legend quests” to spooky locations. The stories sacred to Native Americans are the focus of others— Jack Gladstone retells traditional Blackfeet tales in his songs.
Occupations are another kind of community. Shared practices and experiences, jargon unique, orally transmitted jokes and stories are unique to occupations as different as welders and Wall Street workers. Ellen McHale describes the backstretch of the Saratoga racetrack as community “forged through a common occupation—the care of the racehorse. The occupational folklore of New York City subway workers the subject of an article by Ryn Gargulinski in Voices. You can listen here to an interview with fisherman Everett Nack about the folkways of shad fishing on the Hudson River.
Erie Canal Arts Inventory
The New York Folklore Society was selected to conduct cultural surveys of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, in relation to canal-related heritage tourism. With a team of folklorists recruited from throughout the state, NYFS developed an inventory of sites that reflect New York State’s rich artistic and cultural history and connection to the canal.
Folklore and Allied Professions
Folklorists recognize the value of collaboration, and we’ compiled here a list of organizations and professionals involved with folklore and folk arts, and with allied fields of archives, ethnography, anthropology, museum studies, heritage tourism, historical societies and libraries, arts, and educational organizations.
Collection summaries and some of the results of documentation of communities’ expressive cultures are presented here. You–ll find a Survey of Finnish and Hungarian Archival Resources, and Hip Hop Archives here.
NYS-based NEA Fellows
The NEA National Heritage Fellowships recognize artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to traditional arts. NEA Fellows based in New York are found here.
*New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, p. 290.
**New York Folklore Society Newsletter, Summer 1998.