Thursday, 28 April 2016

Twitter and Folklore (Part 1)

Anyone who has ever sat with me at folklore events will know that I spend a lot of my time fretting about folklore’s status as a discipline in Britain.

Describing it even as ‘marginal’ in academia might be an overstatement. Most of the interest in our subject currently comes from amateurs. There is no academic funding in England and the situation in Scotland, although better, is hardly glowing. Its disciplinary status is almost invisible through this marginalisation.

I have inclined towards a certain apocalyptic tone when discussing the state of affairs but this is the reality of the situation and we have to deal with it. There is no place for academic folklorists to be sniffy about amateur research or scholarship. That is, thankfully, rare enough anyhow, not least because so much of the history of our discipline was shaped by amateur enthusiasts.

I have always argued that academically trained folklorists can and should usefully think about how they might help develop and strengthen such amateur research. If the majority of people actively engaged in folklore research at present are outside academia (certainly true in England), those with academic training can offer skills and expertise to help amateur researchers bring their work forward.

Because, let’s be blunt: scholarship is not the exclusive preserve of academics, no matter what some academics might think or hope. A serious scholarly approach is available to all.

Some proselytising and encouragement will be necessary, but so much amateur research is already going on that that hardly seems the most urgent task. Rather, I think, we should be encouraging more cautious and critical thinking among amateur researchers.

Similar remarks have begun pretty much every contribution I’ve made on the responsibilities of academic folklorists in Britain over the last 10 years or so. Whatever follows is dependent on those ideas.

But I’m musing out loud on this now because of the enormous success of the Twitter hashtag #FolkloreThursday. It’s a clear indication of the widespread interest in folklore. This is obviously A Good Thing, but it is not without its problems. A number of folklorists have grumbled quietly about the lack of attribution of material on the hashtag: there does seem to be a bias towards visual material (as one might expect, given the textual limitations of Twitter), and the source of the images presented is not always identified.

Non-visual material, too, is often presented in a universalising, non-specific way. Even if universalising is not the intention it may be a by-product of the presentation. To take an example unfairly, I today read the unsourced claim that ‘Cattle were made to leap over fires to prevent disease & to protect against the fairies who might sour their milk’. Who did this – farmers, landlords, farm labourers? Where – was it regionally specific? When did this happen
now, previously, a long time before the claim was written down or contemporaneously with it? Who documented it – someone close to events geographically and temporally, or someone at a greater social, linguistic and time remove? Who interpreted it – the person who did it or the person who wrote it down?

#FolkloreThursday has set me thinking about a huge range of subjects, and it’s clear that one post isn’t going to work for them all, so I will come back to this again. For now, though, I want to emphasise the need for concreteness. Folklore is what people do, think and say, informally and collectively. There’s a syncretic aspect to it, certainly
– the folk are adaptive and creative but it isn’t simply an agglomeration of abstract or more-or-less whimsical concepts. Folklore isn’t all mystical or supernatural, although that seems to form a large part of the Twitter material.

I noted on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that the hashtag was making me even more inclined to a performance-related ethnography than I already was. More than that it’s pushing me to an ever-greater insistence on the place of the tradition-bearers themselves in folklore, on seeing folklore in its practice. That's been on my mind over the last few days since the death of that fine scholar William A. ‘Bert’ Wilson. He wrote extensively and well on the folklore of his Mormon background, dealing sensitively with how much is missed by etic researchers without blinding himself to the problems confronting the emic investigator. Having fallen in love and married while a missionary in Finland he also wrote widely on the development of Finnish folkloristics and its relation to questions of nationalism.

William A. Wilson
Browsing through his wonderful 2006 collection of essays The Marrow of Human Experience (available online courtesy of Utah State University's Digital Commons) I came across an insistence on the place of the folk in folklore that bears repeating in this discussion.

Wilson recounted an experience at a faculty social event where, after an initial confusion over his work as a folklorist, he observed the sharing and discussion of legends. He made his point elegantly and graciously to his colleagues, and then to his readers:

‘More than almost any other subject, folklore must be experienced directly in actual life, as I experienced these narratives, to be properly understood. In twenty years of teaching, I have discovered that my students can listen to my lectures, can read assigned books and essays on the subject, and can still leave the course not understanding folklore unless they have encountered it in the actual settings in which it is performed.’ (p.83)

Wilson (interestingly, given his so close identification with a specific religious grouping) saw folklore’s development along group transmission lines as a secondary characteristic: ‘I am convinced that we generate and transmit folklore not because we belong to a particular nation or to a particular group – not because we are westerners, loggers, Catholics, or Finns – but because we are human beings dealing with recurring human problems in traditional human ways.’ (p.20)

For this, of course, you need to examine what these recurring human problems are. You need to look at the context of practice. I’ll come back in a later post to the question of the material being circulated, but what I often feel is lacking from the #FolkloreThursday material is people, the people doing and saying these things. There’s no need to exoticise folklore, or look only for the mystical and supernatural: people do interesting stuff all the time.

As an example I’ll finish with something that came up during a Twitter conversation yesterday. The wonderful duchas.ie collection had tweeted the following skipping rhyme recorded from Ballyshannon:

Up the long ladder


And down the short rope

To hell with King William

And god bless the Pope.

To which an Irish historian responded that she had skipped to the song:

Vote vote vote for de Valera.

In the discussion that followed she confirmed this was sung to the tune of George Root’s ‘Tramp Tramp Tramp’ [the boys are marching], although she didn’t know the song by name. I mentioned that is recorded as being used for election songs in England, often sung by gangs of locally recruited youth and so liable to remain in circulation as a children’s song. (It’s also noted in association with strike songs, particularly a very famous one relating to the 1883 Great Docks Strike, but that’s probably a different discussion). At this point one of the historian’s followers announced that his father, when a young boy, had sung it campaigning for Leslie Hore-Belisha in Devonport in the 1930s.


This is the sort of thing that passes into oral traditional circulation although its background may quickly be lost. Being able to document actual use and practice is worthwhile in and of itself and may also be able to fill out a broader record. It’s fun and it’s valuable, and that's where folklore research should be aiming.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Under the Clock

Recently I read Robert Fraser’s biography of the poet David Gascoyne. It isn’t a terribly satisfactory book, for reasons related to Surrealism and poetry rather than to folklore. Fraser’s other work, however, is directly connected to folklore – he has written extensively on James Frazer and The Golden Bough, and one of my more interesting discoveries in the Gascoyne book was that Enitharmon, Gascoyne’s later publisher, was founded by Alan Clodd, grandson of the hugely important Folklore Society President Edward Clodd – so I might well find myself coming back to him. (I have tried to avoid J.G. Frazer as far as possible but he keeps cropping up: he might ultimately prove to be unavoidable).

What did catch my attention as a folklorist was a passing reference in Chapter 29, dealing with Gascoyne’s period of hospitalisation in Whitecroft Hospital, also known as the Isle of Wight Mental Hospital or the Isle of Wight County Asylum. Construction on Whitecroft began in 1894. Like other mental hospitals of the period its outbuildings centred on a clock-/watchtower. The phrase that caught my attention was Fraser’s comment that ‘The local expression for admission to this monument to Victorian philanthropy, or for simply losing one’s mind, was to go “under the clock”’ (p.352).

Fraser cites no source for this statement, and it sounds (particularly given the tenor of the rest of the book) like an unattributed reference from a local history pamphlet. The hospital closed in 1992, and I wondered how far (if at all) the phrase remained in current usage. I’ve noted previously how older usages hang on (and die out), and I was curious about this one.

A brief and unsystematic look online revealed that the phrase is still in use locally on the Isle of Wight, but how widespread that is remains to be seen. One reason I was interested was because I was in the process of moving to the Island myself: as if I hadn’t had enough going on in my life lately I was moving house. This may also have triggered my interest in the phrase (and concept) of being ‘under the clock’. We arrived about a month ago, and I am slowly beginning to get my eye and ear in. I’m hoping that the move will see me easing gently back into fieldwork after the disruptions of the last two years.

One other area of interest has already begun to make itself apparent. Whitecroft Hospital has now been converted into accommodation, with Fraser noting tartly that the developers’ ‘glossy introductory brochure makes no references to its original function as a mental institution’. Maybe not, but one should never underestimate the capacity to generate legends of place, particularly around former hospital sites.

A 2014 tourist article by Jo Macaulay noted Whitecroft as ‘another huge haunted site’, where ‘former inmates are thought to inhabit its walls, screaming in mental or physical pain’. She remarked that ‘Perhaps unsurprisingly the flats are not selling particularly well and the development has had a few starts and stops in the past ten years’.

Of course one might expect a proliferation of such stories around defunct hospital sites, and there is evident enthusiasm for them across the Island. The site of the former Chest Hospital (now the car park for Ventnor Botanic Garden) is another site regularly identified as haunted. Macaulay, in passing, also manages to highlight how local publications become part of legend negotiation. Pointing to local author Gay Baldwin’s series of books on the Island’s ghosts, begun in the 1970s, Macaulay writes that ‘Everyone knew the old stories that had been passed down by oral tradition, but nobody laid claim to having seen a ghost in print until Gay started to prompt them. But once the gates were open, stories began to flood in …’ Macaulay used Baldwin’s books as the basis for her own tourist piece.

It began as a moment of curiosity and minor irritation at an unsourced comment. That's how research starts.

Friday, 1 January 2016

A Return


Over 18 months ago I posted a short piece announcing my intention of resuming this blog on a more regular basis again. I outlined some ideas for continuing the blog, looking to overcome a few of the impasses I had reached with it in the previous period.

There’s nothing like foresight.

At the time of writing that piece I was at the beginning of a known medical situation that I expected would see me out of action for a month. As it happened, complications left me hospitalised for several months. After discharge I continued to have ongoing serious medical problems. I am definitely on the mend at long last, but I have been out of action for over a year and am even now still not 100 per cent. I am expected to be back to full health before too long, but I am still in the process of recovery.

The physical impact is easy to assess. I have not been able to return to fieldwork yet, and have only been gingerly easing myself back into work more generally.

The mental impact is harder to gauge. My intellectual stamina and concentration levels are still diminished. For a long period I avoided attempting to engage with theoretical questions, even reading articles, because I wasn’t really up to it. That is, happily, changing now, but I am still not back to my best. (I have always had unreasonably high expectations of my ability to engage with arguments, however, regarding this as a proper part of any engagement with a discipline and its theory).

I am, though, now beginning slowly to get back into thinking about folklore. Earlier in the year Professor James Grayson, the current President of the Folklore Society, was kind enough to read a version of a paper of mine at the Society’s AGM Conference on ‘Folklore Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. An earlier version of the paper can be found here. I can hardly claim to have been actively involved in the AGM conference but I wanted to be present somehow: the future of folklore (and basing that future on the history of the discipline) was definitely always going to be something I wanted to throw myself back into when I could. 

James Grayson
More recently I made it to (and through) the Folklore Society’s 2015 Katharine Briggs lecture, given this year by that estimable scholar Julia Bishop. I confess to bias – Julia was one of my tutors on the folklore MA at Sheffield, and she’s one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve ever been privileged to study with – but it was also an excellent overview of a century of collecting children’s lore. Hearing a lecture on research outside my usual areas of interest may have made it easier for me to manage, but it also gently set me thinking again about more general theoretical questions. I’m starting again to read on folklore, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to start writing about some of these things again before too long.

Julia Bishop
It wears me out, but it’s what I want to do. It’s nice to be back, even tentatively. Thanks for bearing with me. See you again soon. Happy New Year.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The 1st of May is garland day ...


I took a little break from this blog because I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it.

I certainly haven’t stopped investigating and researching folklore. A couple of articles have been published since I last posted here. I’ve also managed to carry on giving talks, papers and lectures in various different arenas. I’ve revisited cannibalism at sea for SELFS, I gave a lunchtime talk on ghosts at the Museum of English Rural Life, I went back to class readings of folksong for a Folklore Society conference, and I gave two guest lectures on ghost belief at the University of Tartu.

On reflection, I’m still not entirely sure what to do with the blog, but that may be about the problems of being a folklore scholar in England rather than my scholarly or folkloristic pursuits. So when better than May Day to announce that I’m going to bumble on? (The picture was taken on May Day last year in Lyric Square, Hammersmith).

I’ll continue to use this as a forum for airing the beginnings of ideas and snippets of collectanea, part of my working notebook towards more realised work in journals and lectures.

In that spirit I’ll note here a rhyme I overheard from two children (c.7) on a train from Waterloo heading to the Folklore Society conference (11/04/14). I remembered the first part of the rhyme from my own childhood, but don’t recall having heard the second part:

Made you look, made you stare
Made you lose your underwear.
Underwear, I don’t care
I can buy another pair.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Dr Buck Ruxton

The last of my classes at the City Lit folklore summer school on Saturday dealt with contemporary folklore. I was highly delighted when one of the students, Carol, started thinking about the new development of songs.

It occurred to her, she said, because her grandmother had been treated by Dr Buck Ruxton. Ruxton, an Indian-born GP in Manchester, murdered his wife and housemaid in 1935. He was subsequently arrested and executed for the murders.

The case was extremely high profile. As with the Maria Marten Red Barn murder of the previous century there seems to have been a theatrical dramatisation of the crime. As also happened with the Red Barn murder, Ruxton's crime also prompted a folkloric response. Across the country we find records of people singing, to the tune Red Sails in the Sunset:


Red stains on the carpet,
Red stains on the knife
Oh Dr Buck Ruxton
You murdered your wife.

I was pleased to find someone who remembered the song from within her family, but even better was the family legend that accompanied it. According to family legend, Ruxton treated Carol's grandmother on the very day that he had dismembered the corpses of his victims. He arrived at the patient's bedside, it was reported, with a cut on his hand, which he claimed he had done on a tin can.

It's a wonderful story. I have some doubts about its veracity, because there are many records of earlier criminals being used to scare children (Jack the Ripper turns up as an East London bogeyman in the early part of the 20th century, for example). Whether true or not, it's exactly how folklore tradition works with details of crimes. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the event in class was that a younger student didn't recognise the name, so Carol got to relate the whole story to her. Folklore in action!


Saturday, 6 July 2013

SIEF Congress and questions confronting fieldworkers

I'm just back from Tartu, where I had a brilliant and exhausting time at the SIEF Congress. (I took this picture of the university building on my 'phone because I was so overwhelmed by its scale and elegance).
 I'd had to miss the 2011 SIEF Congress in Lisbon because I was busy writing up my thesis. The last one I'd attended was Derry in 2008, so it was very nice to meet up again with some old friends and admired colleagues I hadn't seen since then: one or two even remembered me. I was particularly happy to run into Barbro Klein, whom I had only met once before, at an Anglo-Scottish Young Folklorists Conference in Edinburgh in 2005. (The picture below was taken at that event by Gunnella Þorgeirsdóttir).

One reason the Congress was so exhausting was the sheer volume of papers and discussion. I couldn't possibly summarise the event as a whole, but I found one recurring topic of discussion particularly interesting. It's possible I identified it because it's always been of interest to me, but it cropped up in a number of panels and sessions.

It was first flagged in a panel on archives and their use. Discussing making archive material available to a broader public, Kelly Fitzgerald of University College Dublin raised a question that was left hanging somewhat: what are the implications of this for fieldworkers? She was questioning above all what this meant for the training of future fieldworkers. I found this highly thought-provoking: are we in danger of trying to structure incoming field collections, and thus shaping field collection itself, in line with future output? How are archives to deal with the slightly random and unpredictable character of fieldwork? How are fieldworkers to deal with it?

This was followed a day later by a stimulating panel discussion on the role and responsibilities of the fieldworker in politically controversial and ethically contested situations. John Helsloot had given a brilliant opening presentation dealing with the concerns raised by Zwarte Piet (see, for example, the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign). Michael Herzfeld had contributed some interesting comments on the responsibility of the fieldworker both to express disagreement with participants and to engage politically on their behalf where necessary.

It was disappointing, then, to find that position expressed in a rather more conservative way in Michael Herzfeld's subsequent keynote address. Herzfeld's warning against prostration before arguments alleging evolutionary inevitability ('things are changing and there's nothing you can do about it') is sound enough, and is a useful corrective to a progressive positivism that was certainly voiced during the Congress, but in the absence of an articulated alternative there is a danger that this just leads us back to an uncritical nostalgia for what already exists. Some speakers in the floor discussion highlighted this in relation to the examples he had advanced.

The critical response brought out, too, that this nostalgia had led to a misreading of the evidence. Where Herzfeld read the lack of sociability with other customers in chain coffee shops as a destruction of social exchange, other speakers pointed to it as demonstrating new forms of social interaction. People on their mobiles and using social media on their laptops aren't failing to be sociable just because they're not being sociable with the staff and other customers of the coffee shop they're using as a venue. That may not be ideal, or even to be celebrated, but ethnologists, folklorists and anthropologists have a duty to understand how such new forms of social interaction work for our informants and participants. Otherwise any political engagement on their behalf is likely to be misjudged.

These are not easy questions, and I enjoyed the opportunity to think about them in the company of some really excellent scholars. I hope that I can bring them to bear in some useful way on my own work.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Rough music: what reaction does it get?

It's been a while since I posted anything here. I've been busy with various things: I had a great time at the Folklore Society's 'Urban Folklore' conference in Cardiff in April and I'm gearing up for the next SIEF Congress, and I also had a very jolly time co-hosting a Folklore Society social event last week.

There's also been a lot going on in the world around me. I've been fascinated for a while by political protests using rough music, and the unfolding events in Turkey have offered a clear sense of how rough music is understood by the people at whom it is directed.

A week and a half ago, after police had cleared protesters out of Gezi Park with tear gas, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed a rally of his supporters on Istanbul's waterfront. Erdogan's speech sought to distance the country at large from the protests in Taksim Square, and blamed foreign governments and media for their destabilisation of Turkey.

One of his comments was particularly striking. Turkey, he told his supporters, 'is not the one banging pots at night'. For all that this was supposed to be a ringing denunciation to encourage his own forces, Erdogan's comment underscores the impact rough music has on its targets. There is a definite sense that the moral disapproval being expressed has registered. The reaction to it demonstrates the effectiveness of the practice.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Popular reactions to the death of Thatcher

The death of Margaret Thatcher has, predictably, elicited strong reactions. While the media coverage has tended to be respectful and/or celebratory, popular public reactions have taken a different course. Much of this is folkloric.

News reports have covered a number of spontaneous street parties. There has been a great deal of music. In Russell Square on Monday I heard a man burst into a tuneless but enthusiastic musical rendition of the phrase 'She's dead' at full volume. 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead', from Wizard of Oz, has been much sung. (April 8 was also, fittingly, the birthday of its lyricist, Yip Harburg).

Discussions on Twitter are encouraging two minutes of national rough music during her funeral as a peaceful expression of moral condemnation, in a way familiar from rough music protests elsewhere.

There has also been graffiti. This will likely be removed quickly, so documenting it becomes ever more urgent. These impassioned tags were photographed at a bus stop on Gower Street, WC1, the day after Thatcher's death.



I will make every effort to document more of this as I see it. Given her official standing, it is likely that the media record will chart official reactions better. It is one of the strengths of folklore that it can focus on this other, informal, material.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Kalevala and Folklore

My announcement last month that I'd had a haircut may have been surprising to some. I was scrubbing up because I'd been invited to speak, in my capacity as a member of the Folklore Society, at the Finnish Ambassador's Residence. The occasion was the launch of an English-language audiobook of the Kalevala. I hope that Naxos won't mind me reproducing the rather beautiful cover to the audiobook.
The launch took place on 28 February, which is Kalevala Day. When Elias Lönnrot first assembled the book from Karelian oral poetry in 1835 he did so with the intention of creating a Finnish national epic. That there is a national day dedicated to the book indicates his success. The audiobook was recorded by its translator, Keith Bosley, and I found myself giving a potted introduction to the poem's significance in a room full of people much better equipped to do so than me. Naxos posted a nice summary of the event here, while the Finnish Embassy reviewed the speeches by Irma-Riita Järvinen and myself in this nice article.

Below is the text of my speech on 'The Kalevala and Folklore'. It's somewhat rudimentary, but I hope it conveys a little of the excitement and enjoyment I got reading this great work for the first time.
* * *

Mr Ambassador, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.



I am delighted and deeply honoured to be able to participate tonight in celebrating the (long-overdue) release of an English-language audiobook of the Kalevala. I should preface my brief remarks here by extending greetings and congratulations from the Folklore Society here in Britain. The Folklore Society is pleased to welcome this audiobook, which sets the seal on the splendid translation of the Kalevala by Keith Bosley, who is one of our members. The Folklore Society was founded in 1878: it was among the first such societies internationally to identify itself as a ‘folklore’ society, but we have some eminent forebears and predecessors. I’d especially like to pay tribute here to our colleagues in the Finnish Literature Society (which was founded in 1831 and has a magnificent folklore archive) with whom we still have good and close relations.



So, I am delighted and honoured, but also rather daunted to be speaking about the Kalevala in front of an audience which has grown up with this as their cultural patrimony and in front of someone who has spent so long living inside the poem, first translating it and then recording it. However, one of the things we’re celebrating tonight is the enormous global cultural significance of the Kalevala. This significance of Elias Lönnrot’s publication was quickly recognised far beyond what would become Finland’s borders, and these poems had an international impact in a number of fields.



Not least of these was in poetry itself, where Longfellow’s adoption of Kalevalic trochaic tetrameters set an uncomfortable model for English ears of how this verse might sound. So it’s an additional delight that the audiobook we’re celebrating tonight is the work of Keith Bosley, whose fine translation avoids that misleadingly plodding character and come closer to the flexibility and vitality of Lönnrot’s texts.



More importantly, as a folklorist, I have to point to the impact Lönnrot’s book had on the emerging discipline of folklore. There have been ebbs and flows in this. Taken initially as a body of folkloric material, the Kalevala played an important role in shaping the discipline of folklore as scholars argued over how folkloric it actually was. The discipline of folklore received all sorts of theoretical boosts from investigations that actually ruled out studying the Kalevala as folklore at all, treating it rather as literature. Lönnrot probably wrote about 600 lines, around 2% of the total, and we’ve now come to a much more satisfyingly complicated appraisal of the text, which acknowledges Lönnrot’s literary achievements as editor and writer, the oral poetic achievements of the Karelian rune singers whose traditional material Lönnrot shaped, and the folkloric material contained within the texts: the point, though, is that this book continues to stand at the centre of a whole nexus of argument, thinking and appreciation.



It’s appropriate, at an occasion where we’re celebrating the broader availability of the cultural masterpiece, to note that the Kalevala has from the start been part of an international discussion of folklore. Lönnrot was influenced by the Grimms and the German Romantics in his attempts to merge these oral texts into a Finnish mythology. That was reciprocated: one of the early champions of the Old Kalevala was Jacob Grimm, who gave enthusiastic lectures on it in 1845. One of the most important early critics of the Kalevala, who really fought to identify the traditional religious material within it even when Finnish scholars were treating it predominantly as literature rather than folklore, was the Italian folklorist Domenic Comparetti.



Here in Britain the pioneers of the Folklore Society were quick to champion the work and its significance. In 1888, just 10 years after the founding of the Folklore Society, W.F. Kirby announced his intention of producing an English version from a German translation of the Kalevala. There was an outcry among scholars in the new discipline of folklore: among the eminent scholars who insisted that Kirby really must work from the Finnish were Andrew Lang and Max Müller – I believe it is one of the few occasions on which those eminent folklorists ever agreed with each other. (Although the result was in a Longfellow metre, we should at least give Kirby credit for taking their arguments seriously enough to learn both Finnish and Estonian before undertaking the translation).



Studies of the Kalevala were to shape whole schools of folklore research. This began, appropriately enough, in Finland itself. All of the literary and oral materials on which the Kalevala is based are still in existence, and are held in the folklore archives of the Finnish Literature Society. Lönnrot preserved all his field diaries and journals, and there is clear evidence of every stage of the development of the text as we now have it. This body of material provided a stimulus to the early development of scholarly research into folklore there. It’s not a coincidence that one of the earliest chairs in folklore was established in Helsinki in 1898, and the department in Helsinki remains internationally important.



Julius Krohn, who was born 3 months after first publication of the Old Kalevala, began his studies of the genetic transmission of oral poetry and folklore with an examination of the Kalevala. He concluded that Lönnrot’s texts were not in origin homogeneous, or even specifically Finnish/Karelian, but brought together folkloric themes known from a wide area. (He pointed out that even though this was the case it didn’t preclude the material in its present form being taken to the Finnish heart).



Through the work of Julius Krohn and his son Kaarle, a whole school of folklore research developed, which became known as the Finnish or (later, when non-Finns were more involved) the Historic-Geographic method. This attempted to identify the origins and movement of individual folklore items and motifs by putting together all the known records and charting them historically and geographically. This has fallen somewhat out of favour now but it shaped a whole way of approaching folklore material that’s ultimately proved very useful with the Kalevala.



Looking at the source material we can identify four broad groups of poetry historically. Lönnrot was most interested in constructing a mythology, a spiritual or supernatural account of origins and situations. Much of the mythic material here seems to be the oldest poetry included. There is a later phase of magic and shamanistic poetry, perhaps dating up to about AD600. After this shared motifs with Scandinavian sagas start to appear in Baltic-Finnish material, and we see the development of more adventure poetry. A whole body of material also directly reflects the Christianisation of the region. Kalevala poetry began to decline from the Middle Ages, but there were periodic resurgences of the form for propaganda (16th/17th centuries) and 18th century plaints. This material existed disparately, and Lönnrot was able to blend the periods and themes together, so the shaman of one poem can also be identified with the adventure hero of another, or the god of one myth has his status changed to that of shaman throughout.



Comparetti noted the huge number of charms that appear throughout the Kalevala, describing it as ‘an epic of charms’. Lönnrot assembled a text which pointed to an ancient monotheism, what’s been called ‘a “good” paganism’: he adduced the charms as evidence of this practice, but seems not to have noticed always the christianisation evident within individual items.



Now I, as a folklorist, of course find this stuff fascinating, and worthy of closer attention. I can talk about the history of folklore till the cows come home, but the point of this audiobook is that it actually makes available in a direct, oral, form, the content. The stories themselves – the origin myth, the tragedy of Kullervo – are accessible enough, but the poem brims with other folkloric material. Folklore is the minutiae of people’s lives, the informal and unstated fabric of how people live and think, and this poem teems with it. Some of it is straightforwardly about folklife, about how people conduct/conducted themselves: the runes concerning the preparation of the bride for her new home tell you all sorts of things not just about relations between the sexes but also about how young couples are treated by their older relatives during betrothal ceremonies.



Given the blending of different source material from different historical periods you get a shimmering sense of different folklore passing before you. Some of them will find echoes in folklore familiar across the British Isles, too, for example the notion in rune 43 that singing on board a ship is unlucky.



Does it really matter, when you read or hear this captivating poem for the first time, whether Väinamöinen is a god or a hero, whether Lemminkäinen is a hero or a shaman? What’s more important here is the sense of something magical and possible, that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone who knows any of the English-Scottish ballad tradition. In rune 27, when Lemminkäinen duels with the Lord of Pohjola they sing each other into different forms – a pond, a bullock, a wolf, a hare – in much the same way as the protagonists of the ballad ‘The Two Magicians’ or the fairies in ‘Tam Lin’. The dreadful results of Kullervo’s seduction of his sister are echoed throughout ballads like ‘Edward’, while making a magical musical instrument from bones is also an important theme in the ballad ‘The Three Sisters’.



For those of you more familiar with the earthier end of English folksong, the Great Ox of rune 20 has a lot in common with the widespread (and often quite scatological) ‘Derby Ram’, while the creation of beer – and the warnings about its power – in the same rune have parallels in ‘John Barleycorn’.


Folklore is the minutiae of people’s lives. It’s fascinating, but not in the abstract. It’s fascinating because it’s about people, about their lives and thoughts. We can celebrate that in the Kalevala, and we can celebrate it now being more accessible to  us through Keith’s magnificent work. -->

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Historypin for folklorists?

I am currently doing some work for the University of Hertfordshire for the second phase of the Heritage Lottery Fund backed All Our Stories project. (I suspect the reason academic writing is worsening is that academics have to write sentences like that to keep their sponsors happy).

I'm basically helping out on the oral history front, but I the University is also setting up a Historypin project with the aim of bringing together various of the local researches. I recently went to an introductory session run by Historypin's Rebekkah Abraham that pointed the local groups towards what they could do on the site.

The site definitely has potential, and any social historian will want to keep an eye on it: it's possible to upload images, film and audio items, pinning them to GoogleMaps. It has some limitations at this stage. It's not yet well set up to upload text documents, and it relies on a number of other platforms for the uploading (film and audio can only be uploaded via YouTube, and registration is only available through a Google account). Even with these limitations it does offer the opportunity of comparing a range of historical material about specific locations. It feels like one to watch, rather than one that's already there.

For a folklorist who does not deal so much with specific geographical locations I think it'll be of perhaps even more limited application, but I'm keen to try and use it to interlace folklore (oral and ephemeral artefacts of social cultural life) with a more orthodox social history. I'm thinking about ways of using it as a platform for some oral documentary material that is specifically place-related (local legends etc), but that will require paying some attention to how informants are prepared to let me use their recordings.

More straightforwardly it offers the possibility of uploading photographs of folklife etc. I've set up an account, and I'm looking to put up the photographs of wayside shrines there sometime in the future. In the meantime I've made a small start to using it as a documentary platform for my photos of graffiti, and am hoping that if I can assemble enough it will be possible to organise them thematically and historically. The pedestrian underpasses of Hatfield, for example, have proved rich sources of evidence of popular attitudes. I snapped this comment on the financial crisis there last week.