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American Folklife

By Janice Leslie Hochstat-Greenberg

"What is folklife? Like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, folklife is often hidden in full view, lodged in the various ways we have of discovering and expressing who we are and how we fit into the world. Folklife is reflected in the names we bear from birth, invoking affinities with saints, ancestors, or cultural heroes. Folklife is the secret languages of children, the codenames of CB operators, and the working slang of watermen and doctors. It is the shaping of everyday experiences in stories swapped around kitchen tables or parables told from pulpits. It is the African American rhythms embedded in gospel hymns, bluegrass music, and hip hop, and the Lakota flutist rendering anew his people’s ancient courtship songs. Folklife is the sung parodies of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the variety of ways there are to skin a muskrat, preserve string beans, or join two pieces of wood. Folklife is the society welcoming new members at bris and christening, and keeping the dead incorporated on All Saints Day. It is the marking of the Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the Persian New Year at Noruz. It is the evolution of vaqueros into buckaroos, and the riderless horse, its stirrups backward, in the funeral processions of high military commanders. Folklife is the thundering of foxhunters across the rolling Rappahannock countryside and the listening of hilltoppers to hounds crying fox in the Tennessee mountains. It is the twirling of lariats at western rodeos, and the spinning of double-dutch jumpropes in West Philadelphia. It is scattered across the landscape in Finnish saunas and Italian vineyards; engraved in the split-rail boundaries of Appalachian "hollers” and the stone fences around Catskill "cloves”; scrawled on urban streetscapes by graffiti artists; and projected onto skylines by the tapering steeples of churches, mosques, and temples. Folklife is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad forms and interactions. Universal, diverse, and enduring, it enriches the nation and makes us a commonwealth of cultures."--from "Mary Hufford. American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures. Washington: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1991. http://www.afsnet.org/?page=WhatIsFolklore -- last visited 5/10/13