Immigrant Folklore, Study of. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Study of the importation of folk traditions by foreign nationals who immigrate to the
United States, settle, and form their own communities. As Andrew M.Greely observes,
“the immigrants brought many pieces of cultural baggage with them when they came to
the New World. Art, political styles, religious perspective are but a few such pieces. But
none was as important as the ‘how’ of being a family. It provided a stable continuous
pattern of development in the new surrounding” (Greely 1974). As part of this cultural
baggage, old-country folklore becomes crucial to the foundation of New World
settlements; it is intimate, like a family, and it allows the foreign-born pioneers to
establish their new national identity model and pass it on to their American-born children.
Immigrant folklore is distinguished from the folklore of earlier English, Scottish,
German, French, and Spanish colonists who populated large regions of the American
continent between 1607 and 1850; these earlier pioneers were culture builders on
uninhabited virgin land that inspired them to create their own regional dialect of a
commonly formed basic American folklore. But the immigrants who streamed into the
United States in masses from impoverished countries of Europe and Asia after the Civil
War, and who kept coming until Wbrld War I, landed on civilized grounds and sought
employment in the labor forces of established cities, industrial areas, and rural areas.
Under such conditions, their folklore developed betwixt and between the mainstream in
small enclaves close to the workplaces where the processes of transgenerational
transformation passed through the ethnic stage and ended up in cultural integration,
persisting only in a “symbolic ethnicity” (Gans 1979) of personal choice, thus
conforming to the governmental “melting pot” policy of the time.
Mass immigration to the United States uprooted bankrupt small farmers and farm
workers from their peasant existence in Europe. Their exodus coincided with the
introduction of large-scale commercial farming and the construction of cities and heavy
industry where they found employment. Immigrants’ success depended on their ability to
adjust to new labor conditions and to the multinational environment; they had to adapt to
a lifestyle suitable for establishing social relationships. The immigrants’ cultural
knowledge—peasant selfsufficiency, worldview, and oral and ritual artistry—helped
them to cope in the new situation, but at the same time it prolonged their reliance on a
heritage that kept them alienated from their homeland and isolated in their new colony
from other colonists. As Oscar Handlin aptly observed, the immigrants knew “…they
would not come to belong…. The only adjustment they had been able to make to life in
the United States had been one that involved the separateness of their group, one that increased their awareness of the differences between themselves and the rest of the
society” (Handlin 1951:285).
The folklore of the immigrant generation, disjointed bits and pieces of an archaic
cultural system, since the 1880s attracted the attention of American folklorists as
fascinating and exotic. Items of foreign origin surviving in American towns keep
appearing on the pages of folklore journals up to this day, and they cover a broad field.
Superstitions, curses, magical medicine, evil-eye beliefs, witchcraft, weatherlore,
proverbs, riddles and nursery rhymes, stories and myths, customs and rituals (weddings,
baptisms, and funerals), celebrations of holidays (such as Easter and Christmas) abound.
Scholarly presentations of arts, crafts, and costume could fill volumes, proving the
continued interest in the folklore repertoire of the unacculturated alien population.
However, the contents of most of the so-called “memory culture” items in folklore
collections remain unrepresentative of either the old or the new country; rather, they are
evidence of alienation from both. One example is the collection made from a Finnish
immigrant woman from Vermont, who after forty-three years in America told her stories
for the first time, upon direct questioning by the folklorist (Kongas 1960). Another
example is that of a traditional Macedonian guslar (singer of epic verse) in Gary, Indiana,
who recited his lengthy epic at a Croatian tamburitza festival while eager young dancers
barely concealed their disdain. On another occasion, a seventy-four-year-old east Chicago woman, president of the Ladies Aid Society of the Hungarian Reformed Church,
remarked, “I am a guest in America for sixty years.”
Yet, the heritage of an imported folklore residue of immigrants must determine the
future formation of the folklore of American ethnic subcultures. It also determines either
the survival or the demise of ethnic identity. Greely and William C.McCready’s
investigation of the persistence of Old World cultural heritage among children and
grandchildren of Irish Catholics and Italians goes back to the roots of the traditions. They
argue that the present behavior of American ethnic groups would be difficult to
understand without knowing something about the cultural background of their country of
origin (Greely and McCready 1975:229). A field study of a Hungarian farming community founded ninety-four years ago on the Great Plains, by settlers from two
different regional subcultures in the old country, showed that loyalty to different regional
identities rather than to the common national one can maintain long-term hostilities and
lead eventually to assimilation (Dégh 1980).
The flow of peasant immigration from Europe and Asia was stopped by World War I,
but new waves soon followed as new political and economic conditions forced people to
leave their countries of origin and seek their fortunes in North America. Emigrants and
exiles came from all over the world, so that the earlier argument for the dominance of
Europeans in the racial-ethnic composition of Americans had to be reconsidered.
Likewise, the Anglo-centric cultural model changed to recognize multiculturalism. Over
the last decades, the schedule of immigrant timetables accelerated as the number of
arrivals grew, and the speed of transgenerational acculturation began to change. New
population groups keep showing up on the borders of the United States almost daily,
seeking admittance to a safe haven and deliverance from political upheavals, “ethnic
cleansing,” genocide, and hunger. In the 1990s, Asian, South American, and African
immigrants outnumber European arrivals, and under given conditions their adjustment to
American life is smoother and faster than that of their European predecessors.
The latest wave of immigrants skipped the bird-of-passage stage and settled for good
from the start. They may form large self-contained urban or suburban settlements where
their native language, religious philosophy, and imported cultural values may be
maintained. An informed public may support continuation of the immigrants’ heritage.
The ideological spheres of folklore are manifested not only in private, but also in the
public representation of identity via spectacular customs, rituals, and artistic displays
aimed partly at the outside world. This is a far cry from the situation of groups such as
unskilled European laborers in the West Virginia mining towns, or workers in the
company towns of the Midwest. We cannot yet measure the transgenerational ethnic
process of acculturation of the folklore of current immigrants to mainstream America,
because time has been too short to judge the future.
Each wave of immigration and each category of arrivals need to be examined
separately, considering the origin, culture, and status of the immigrants, the motivation
for their immigration, and the intercultural contacts they make in their settlements.
Changing governmental policies toward immigrants have greatly influenced retention or
extinction of imported folklore. The masses of peasants arriving at the receiving port of
Casde Garden in the 19th century, and later at Ellis Island, were regarded as inferior
aliens—“illiterate peasants who differ greatly in enterprise and intelligence from the
average American citizen,” wrote one observer in 1907, adding that they settle “in
communities by themselves, where they continue to speak dieir native languages and are
slow to assimilate American ideas.” Governmental agencies always saw these miserable
creatures as candidates for happiness in the new country, depending upon their ability to
assimilate. Schools for immigrants were established, in hope of soon helping them forget
the tortured memories of their homes of birth and embrace the opportunity to become
Americans fast. So-called “International Institutes,” founded in the 1920s and 1930s in
large industrial cities, receiving great numbers of immigrants were the only governmentsponsored organizations that encouraged folk-art programs. These had the purpose of
stilling the pain of homesick immigrants. In the early 1970s, following the civil rights movement, the tide turned from speedy enforcement of acculturation toward a politically
conceived multiculturalism.
The idea of a “nation of immigrants” became the leitmotiv for Washington’s
celebration of America’s Bicentennial in 1976, with the attendance of all contributing
nations. In preparation for the program of “Old World—New World” unity, the
Smithsonian Institution hired trained folklorists to collect folklore materials from ethnic
American communities (the New World) in order to provide for the performance of
spectacular programs or exhibits and demonstrations of arts and crafts on the National
Mall. The Smithsonian also invited folk-art ensembles from the countries of origin (the
Old World) in order to renew ties between compatriots on American soil in front of a
national audience. While new fieldwork enriched archival holdings, creating a gold mine
for future research, it did not induce innovative scholarly study of immigrant and ethnic
folklore, and it did not generate any new theories. Instead, it opened the way to publicsector propagation of folklore, turning traditional performers into merchants of heritage,
functioning to entertain a nostalgic urban-industrial audience that eagerly consumed
defunct folkloric symbols of the past in abstracted, condensed, and simulated forms on
the stage. The 1976 Washington festival started the series of summer folklife festivals
sponsored by the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs. It is no longer limited to
immigrant folklore, but the original idea behind the program has not changed. The aim is
still to present the life of the American folk—natives, races, regionals, ethnics, and
immigrants together—following the politics of multiculturalism. The high rating of the
recently arrived immigrants’ imported folklore—that of the Hmong, the Vietnamese,
Cubans, the Yuruba, and Bosnians, for example—may help extend its lease on life, with
the assistance of the American Folklife Center’s team of folklore fieldworkers and
European scholars saw America as a relic area where foreign nationals, detached from
their mother culture, would be able to preserve long-forgotten treasures of their
homeland. Between 1916 and 1918, Cecil Sharp visited the southern Appalachian region
in search of surviving British balladry. He “often pictured in imagination what it would
have been like to have been born a few centuries earlier, when English folksong was the
common musical expression of old and young alike. And it seemed almost like a miracle
when he discovered that England of his dreams in the United States of America…”
(Karpeles 1967:140). In 1962 Norwegian folklorist Reidar Christiansen noted that North
America “consists of people from practically every European country…. All arrived with
their store of tradition,” but they were “absorbed within a generation or two,” emerging
as Americans two generations later (Christiansen 1962:15). He suggested that British
tradition is fundamental to American culture, absorbing others, and that the English
pattern appears to be the main strain in American folklore (Christiansen 1962:122–123).
American folklorists also accepted the characterization of American folklore as
essentially Anglo-American, and they viewed the process of Americanization of aliens as
assimilation to the Anglo-American model. Richard M.Dorson’s distinction between
colonial, regional, and immigrant cultures remained consistent with the melting-pot idea,
yet Dorson’s determination to find and characterize folklore in the urbanindustrial
settlements of the Calumet region of the Midwest led him to experience a multicultural
coexistence of ethnics with other entities, regional, racial, and occupational (Dorson
1981). Dorsons description of the position of ethnic individuals within their groups, their behavior, community involvement, and display of their identity in terms of their folklore
opened new perspectives to immigrant folklore study in a multicultural society.
American folklore as a scholarly field emerged from European antecedents, borrowing
and applying methods and theories to specific New World conditions. From a culturalhistorical perspective, Dorson proposed a new field that studies folklore in emergence
within the course of American history—a contextual study of “American folklore vs.
folklore in America” (Dorson 1978). The outline of his proposal was provided in the
chapters of his book American Folklore in 1959, and he established an innovative
university curriculum at Indiana University to train specialists in that field and to have
them test the validity of his assumptions in their term papers and doctoral dissertations.
Dorson’s immigrant folklore was only a part of what he wanted to explore. The
monographic studies Dorson directed between 1961 and 1977 researched folklore in the
immigrant-community contexts of Greek, Finnish, Yiddish, Sephardic, Danish, Swedish,
Ukrainian, Italian, Mexican, and Romanian settlements; they were conducted by native
ethnographers—ethnic Americans and immigrants themselves. This innovative series had
its own strengths and weaknesses. Lacking experience, linguistic competence, and a
balanced familiarity with both Old World backgrounds and immigrant conditions, the
authors were guided only by common sense and their findings. They highlighted the most
conspicuous and most attractive features, finding almost incredible evidence of the
preservation of archaic songs and customs. Yet, the variety of case studies revealed the
differential roles that immigrant lore can play in the lives of the settlers. They also
revealed that the maintenance of heritage does not necessarily foster ethnic survival,
though invented identity markers may substitute for it in the construction of ethnic
awareness by the first American-born generation. The questions that the studies raised
opened vistas for the study of ethnicity: What motivates people to settle? What happens
to the inherited tradition after they leave their country, settle in an unfamiliar place, learn
a new language and new skills? How and in what ways can their imported anachronistic
folklore be maintained after the passing of the first generation? What is the contribution
of immigrant lore to an all-American folklore?
With reference to the study of acculturation and assimilation of immigrants and their
descendants by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, Stephen Stern reviewed the
publications of Dorson, his disciples, and other folklorists up to 1975. Stern criticized
them for focusing on the nature and function of the immigrant generation’s heritage and
the potentials of its survival (Stern 1977). Calling this “survivalistic perspective” one that
is “based on preconceived notions of what the materials of ethnic folklore studies were to
be, namely Old World immigrant forms of expression,” Stern charged that researchers
ignored the development of new forms and the creativity of American-born ethnics and
idealized the importations from the Old World; any noticeable alteration, folklorists
would refer to with terms like “demise” or “contamination” (Stern 1977:12). A
misapplication of Alan Dundes’ “devolutionary premise” (Dundes 1969) was used to
argue against the rigorous analysis of immigrant folklore—imported baggage that
exhibited natural variations between devolution and revolution, contamination,
revitalization, wear and tear. All folklore has its life trajectory from inception to high
tide, ebb, and demise; at the end of the cycle, new forms emerge from the remains of the
old. This is what Stern misconceives as survivalist belief, but the replacement of
dysfunctional older forms is a natural and healthy process that opens the door for the production of new folklore. This process belongs to the ethnic stage, not to the study of
the immigrant generation. The student of immigrant folklore has to reach back to the
roots of the immigrants’ baggage and to experience and follow its functions within its
own context and authority. Only such focused research can solidify the basis of studying
the total cycle of the folklore process from immigration to ethnicity and integration.
Linda Dégh
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——. 1981. Land of the Millrats: Urban Folklore in Indianas Calumet Region. Cambridge:
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