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Folk-Say. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

A term coined by Benjamin A.Botkin and first publicly used as the tide of the regional
literary anthology he created and edited from 1929 to 1932 while teaching at the
University of Oklahoma. The Folk-Say volumes contained literature of the folk, literature
about the folk, and discussions of the meaning of the terms “folk” and “lore.” Throughout
a long career, Botkin continued to use the term and to elaborate on its meaning. After a
lifetime of studying folklore, he wrote,
“My dual interest in the folk values of literature and the literary values of
folklore, with which Folk-Say began, did not end with the series but
continued to grow and expand in a number of directions, interregional and
interdisciplinary, with special emphasis on the interrelations of written
and unwritten traditions and history and sociology-”
Given both the academic and the popular understanding of the term “folklore” in 1929
(and later), Botkin thought he needed a new word to cover the cultural phenomena he
wanted to examine and to encourage. From the beginning, the word “folk-say” was
associated with Botkin’s belief in the value of regional folk traditions, in interdisciplinary
approaches to the study of the folk and their lore, in an accep tance and celebration of
American diversity, and in a role for the student of folklore in promoting intercultural
understanding and a cultural renaissance through the study and appreciation of folklore.
By using the term “folk-say,” Botkin also wanted to call attention in particular to the
relationship between oral and written literature (between “folk-say and book-say,” as he
once put it), and in general to the constant interaction he saw in the modern world among
folk, popular, and high culture. The very term “folk-say” described a contemporary
activity and, therefore, constituted an implicit rejection of the idea that folklore was a
vanishing survival of an early stage in humankind’s evolution that was destined to
disappear with progress.
Botkin coined folk-say, he later wrote, “not as a substitution for ‘folklore,’ but as an
extension of it.” He wanted a word “possessing a wider and fresher connotation, not fixed
by academic usage.” Botkin thought folk-say emphasized “folklore as literature rather
than as science,” called attention to the “oral, linguistic, and story-telling…aspect of
folklore and its living as well as anachronistic phases,” focused on “literature about the
folk as well as literature of the folk” (emphasis in original), and, unlike the word
“folklore,” did not have the ambiguous “double sense of the material and its study.” (This
last explanation is the same as that given in defense of the term “folkloristics,” a subject
of more recent debate.)
When Botkin became folklore editor of the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project
(FWP) (1938–1939), he saw an opportunity to present folk-say to a larger audience than
he had previously. As in the Folk-Say anthologies, his idea involved experimenting with
ways of offering this material to a diverse American audience. Looking back at his work on the FWP, Botkin wrote: “Next to collection, the most important problem was
presentation. In the attempt to reach a large audience, we emphasized the folk-say (oral,
linguistic, and story-telling) aspects of folklore.” He also noted a shift in emphasis from
his use of the term during his Oklahoma period. Earlier he had employed folk-say to
indicate his rejection of evolutionary anthropology’s view of history and the role of
studying folklore as a relic useful in reconstructing earlier stages in human history.
Working on the FWP, Botkin wrote, he had moved from a primary concern with folk-say
as literature to an exploration of folk-say as history. A direct connection runs through the
mix of materials that Botkin included in the FolkSay volumes, his encouraging creative
writers on the FWP Living Lore units he created to listen actively to ordinary folksay,
and the editorial procedures that governed his selection of materials for his later work,
such as A Treasury of American Folklore (1944) and his other regional and topical
folklore treasuries.
Richard M.Dorson’s 1950 neologism “fakelore” attacked not only the legitimacy of
the materials Botkin called folk-say, but also the role Botkin advocated that folklorists
play in the larger culture. Botkin, nevertheless, or perhaps in response, reiterated the idea
that the term “folk-say,” indicated not only a new definition of the material to be studied,
but also a new role for the folklorist and a new relationship between the folklorist and the
layman. At a time when his critics, such as Dorson, regarded interdisciplinarity as a threat
to their effort to establish folklore as a respected discipline in the academy, Botkin
insisted that a proper study of folk-say was inherently interdisciplinary.
Botkin gave a central place to the history of his use of the term “folk-say” in his 1953
essay “Applied Folklore: Creating Understanding through Folklore,” a major theoretical
statement about the role of the folklorist and the utilization of folklore (Botkin 1953). In
this article, Botkin noted that while working on the FWP, “folk-say came to mean what
the folk have to say not only for but about themselves, in their own way and in their own
words,” what he began to call “own stories” and folk history. He had viewed it as his
responsibility as a folklorist to see that the FWP shared with other Americans what it had
learned from the folk-say it had recorded. In an unpublished 1967 conference paper that
constituted an intellectual biography of his ideas about folklore, Botkin declared, that “in
the interdisciplinary and intercultural folklore studies of the Federal Writers’ Project, I
made the workers’ and their informants social problems so much mine that ‘living lore,’
folk-say, myths, and symbols came alive for me in a very personal and practical way and
I acquired not only a social point of view but a liberal social education” (Botkin 1967a).
In a 1967 article, Botkin commented on the history of folk-say in American
dictionaries (Botkin 1967b). He reported that the term had been noted for the first time in
the American Collegiate Dictionary in 1947 and in the Random House Dictionary of the
English Language in 1966. In both cases, there was a narrow emphasis on sayings of the
people. In the 1990s, lexicographers largely ignore Botkin’s neologism. Nevertheless, the
term reflects not only the outlook of a prominent American folklorist, but also an
important phase in the history of American folklore studies. Although the use of the term
has narrowed and declined, the values that Botkin advocated in his use of folk-say are
now shared by many folklorists.
Jerrold Hirsch
References
Botkin, Benjamin A. 1931. Folklore and Folk-Say. American Speech 31:404–406.
——. 1946. Living Lore on the New York City Writers’ Project. New York Folklore Quarterly
2:252–263.
——. 1947. Tall Yarns Re-Spun in the American Manner: How Our Professional and Folk
Narrators Made Good Stories Better. Philadelphia Inquirer Books. August 24.
——. 1953. Applied Folklore: Creating Understanding through Folklore. Southern Folklore
Quarterly 17:199–206.
——. 1958. We Called It “Living Lore.” New York Folklore Quarterly 14:189–198.
——. 1967a. Applied Folklore: A Semantic-Dynamic Approach. Unpublished Manuscript.
——. 1967b. Folklore in and out of the RHD. New York Folklore Quarterly 23:67–69.
Hirsch, Jerrold. 1987. Folklore in the Making: B.A. Botkin. Journal of American Folklore 100:1–
38.

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