January-February 2013

Who put the “Folk” in FolkWorks?

By Audrey Coleman

Once upon a time there were the Folk. All kinds. The wee Folk. The country Folk. The hale and hearty singing Folk. Did they play instruments? Yes, they did. They played their pipes and beat their drums. Nothing complicated. It went on like that for a long, long time.

But then one day towns began to sprout up where trees had been growing. Towns multiplied like mushrooms. Towns blossomed into cities as busy as a beehive. Many of the Folk were dismayed at this development and lost touch with the old ways of music, disappearing into forests, mountains, split-levels, and high rises.

About two centuries later there happened what people called the Folk Revival. It came in waves in different parts of the world. In North America, folk singers surfaced in the 1950s and 1960s. Joyous gatherings brought musicians and singers together with hungry listeners. Then folk rock and hard rock came to pass and the old music threatened to disappear once again. But here and there signs of the Folk and their music and the hungry listeners persist. If you are still reading this, it is a sign.

Questions lurk about this whole folk business: Whence came the fairy tales about the Folk? Who has decreed that certain folk music and folk tales shall be deemed authentic?

Even before folklore (the scholarly study of folk music) had a name, it had early champions in the pre-romantic Romantic and Romantic movements in Europe as Rousseau-influenced ideas about nature, the Noble Savage and the rural population took hold of the poetic imagination. German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe collected folksongs in his spare time, when he wasn’t intertwining science, imagination, morality, or extolling nature and the life of the spirit in his poetry. Folk songs reinforced the Romantic notion of nature’s purity in danger of corruption by civilization. It was just a hop and a skip to the conclusion that the people who lived closest to nature were equally unsullied.

Johann Gottfried Herder, a theologian, philosopher and poet whose life straddled the 18th and 19th centuries, championed a newly emerging expressive culture, the Romantic urge to take inspiration from nature and write about it (Naturpoesie) as something different from cultivated poetry that reflected values of the French Enlightenment, merely imitating nature (Kunstpoespie). As translations of English Romantic poetry became available in Germany, intellectuals began to distinguish between the truth based on reason and the truth of the imagination. German poet Johannes von Muller declared that the search for cultural authenticity would be through “native,” i.e., the people’s “natural poetry.” (Bendix, 1997, p.34) Let’s hear it for the Folk!

The discovery of manuscripts of medieval German poetry such as Parsifal and the Nibelungen had important ramifications for the development of folklore studies. With their anonymous origins, folk tales and myths spoke well to sense of German national pride (without the nation yet). A new aesthetic of the Folk included values of simplicity and sincerity that Romantics contrasted with the superficiality of the European nobility. A new, appreciative perception of the common people’s language (Volkspoesie) was on the rise as well.

This development was riddled with contradictions. Surrounded by a rising wave of Romantic German cultural pride, Johann Herder acknowledged and accepted ethnic differences among the peoples of Europe. A devout Christian with pluralist and humanist leanings, he boldly opposed the anti-Semitism that was common across the classes. His view of the Folk from whom scholars collected the treasures of poetry, lore, oral expressions, and song had more than a dash of Rousseau’s Noble Savage image, the uncorrupted, exotic Other. The Germans of the Sturm und Drang social and literary movement had an idealized image of the pastoral life. So far, this all sounds pleasant.

But what about numbers of the Folk who were streaming from the country to the city during the 19th century, seeking work in newly emerging industries. As a matter of fact, most Romantics had no use for the urban poor. Even Herder applied a strange, crude logic to this paradox “Volk does not mean the rabble in the alleys; that group never sings or rhymes, it only screams and truncates.” (Bendix, 1997, p. 40)

In 1806, Achim von Armin and Clemens Brentano published the Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a collection of anonymous German-language folk songs. It fired the imaginations of poets and attracted members of the growing bourgeoisie. It was the new coffee table book. Dedicated to Goethe, it evoked commentary centering on its purity –of sources, spirit, and artistry. It also fed a hungry, developing German nationalist identity.

Oh dear. Do we really owe so much of our folk heritage to nineteenth-century German pride? Suck up and keep reading.

Remember the Brothers Grimm? Having a background in excavating centuries-old texts and transcribing stories, they were concerned with authenticity in folk tales. The Grimms’ notions of authorship differed from those of their contemporary Carl Lachmann, who saw value in determining and acknowledging the individual authors of tales. The Grimms, on the other hand, associated authentic folklore with a collective anonymity of sources.

In their introduction to the first edition Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales) in 1812, the Grimms advanced the discipline of folklore by discussing categories of folk literature. Only seven years later, in their second edition introduction, they expressed anxiety regarding the inevitable disappearance of unspoiled folk material. There was so much which could not be collected before it was contaminated by other cultural influences and/or forgotten. With the Grimms in the lead, the collection of folk material in Germany took on a nationalistic urgency as if the folk scholars were embarking on a crusade to protect the patrimony.

During the 19th century, a new and growing source of folk material came from beyond Europe as more members of the upper and middle classes traveled to colonies such as India. August Wilhelm Schlegel translated the Bhagavad Gita while Franz Bopp studied and published on India’s cultures, literature, language, and mythology. Myths, legends, and folk tales from Asia stimulated curiosity among the more educated classes; they also inspired questionable fiction and fantasy about the “Orientals.” In the latter part of the 19th century, world expositions such as the one in Paris in 1889 showcased musics of India, Indonesia, and even indigenous Americans, among others.

World music had found its first major foothold in the West. Or was this another kind of folk music—just not our kind? And another thing: Worries about purity and authenticity did not seem to apply to these temporary imports to Europe.

Enough of Europe already, you may cry. What about folklore in the good old U.S. of A.?

That is a tale for another day…and a future column.

Thanks to:

Bendix, Regina. 1997. In Search of Authenticity: the formation of folklore studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Professor Jonathan Ritter, University of California, Riverside for sharing his insights and assessing my understanding of foundations of folklore and ethnomusicology.

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of world musics and the cultures from which they spring. She is also a graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Riverside.


All Columns by Audrey Coleman