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Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales, stories, tall tales, and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called folkloristics. In usage, there is a continuum between folklore and mythology.
American folklore encompasses the folk traditions that have evolved on the North American continent since Europeans arrived in the 16th century. While it contains much in the way of Native American tradition, it should not be confused with the tribal beliefs of any community of native people.
Native American cultures are rich in myths and legends that explain natural phenomena and the relationship between humans and the spirit world. According to Barre Toelken, feathers, beadwork, dance steps and music, the events in a story, the shape of a dwelling, or items of traditional food can be viewed as icons of cultural meaning.
Native American cultures are numerous and diverse. Though some neighboring cultures hold similar beliefs, others can be quite different from one another. The most common myths are the creation myths, that tell a story to explain how the earth was formed, and where humans and other beings came from. Others may include explanations about the sun, moon, constellations, specific animals, seasons, and weather. This is one of the ways that many tribes have kept, and continue to keep, their cultures alive; these stories are not told simply for entertainment, but as a way of preserving and transmitting the nation, tribe or band's particular beliefs, history, customs, spirituality and traditional way of life. "[S]tories not only entertain but also embody Native behavioral and ethical values."
There are many different kinds of stories. Some are called "hero stories"; these are stories of people who lived at one time, and who were immortalized and remembered through these tales. There are "trickster stories", about the different trickster figures of the tribes, spirits who may be either helpful or dangerous, depending on the situation. There are also tales that are simply warnings; they warn against doing something that may harm in some way. Many of these tales have morals or some form of belief that is being taught. This is how the things were remembered.
The founding of the United States is often surrounded by legends and tall tales. Many stories have developed since the founding long ago to become a part of America's folklore and cultural awareness, and non-Native American folklore especially includes any narrative which has contributed to the shaping of American culture and belief systems. These narratives may be true and may be false or may be a little true and a little false; the veracity of the stories is not a determining factor.
Christopher Columbus, as a hero and symbol, is an important figure in the pantheon of American myth. His status, not unlike most American icons, is representative not of his own accomplishments, but the self-perception of the society which chose him as a hero. Having effected a separation from England and its cultural icons, America was left without history—or heroes on which to base a shared sense of their social selves. Washington Irving was instrumental in popularizing Columbus. His version of Columbus' life, published in 1829, was more a romance than a biography. The book was very popular, and contributed to an image of the discoverer as a solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness frontier. As a consequence of his vision and audacity, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. In the years following the Revolution the poetic device "Columbia" was used as a symbol of both Columbus and America. King's College of New York changed its name in 1792 to Columbia, and the new capitol in Washington was subtitled District of Columbia.
In May 1607, the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed sailed through Chesapeake Bay and thirty miles up the James River settlers built Jamestown, Virginia, England's first permanent colony. Too late in the season to plant crops, many were not accustomed to manual labor. Within a few months, some settlers died of famine and disease. Only thirty-eight made it through their first year in the New World. Captain John Smith, a pirate turned gentleman turned the settlers into foragers and successful traders with the Native Americans, who taught the English how to plant corn and other crops. Smith led expeditions to explore the regions surrounding Jamestown, and it was during one of these that the chief of the Powhatan Native Americans captured Smith. According to an account Smith published in 1624, he was going to be put to death until the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, saved him. From this the legend of Pocahontas sprang forth, becoming part of American folklore, children's books, and movies.
Plymouth Rock is the traditional site of disembarkation of William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, and an important symbol in American history. There are no contemporary references to the Pilgrims' landing on a rock at Plymouth. The first written reference to the Pilgrims landing on a rock is found 121 years after they landed. The Rock, or one traditionally identified as it, has long been memorialized on the shore of Plymouth Harbor in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The holiday of Thanksgiving is said to have begun with the Pilgrims in 1621. They had come to America to escape religious persecution, but then nearly starved to death. Some friendly Native Americans (including Squanto) helped the Pilgrims survive through the first winter. The perseverance of the Pilgrims is celebrated during the annual Thanksgiving festival.
George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799), the country's first president, is often said to be the father of his country. Apocryphal stories about Washington's childhood include a claim that he skipped a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River at Ferry Farm. Another tale claims that as a young child, Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree. His angry father confronted the young Washington, who proclaimed "I can not tell a lie" and admitted to the transgression, thus illuminating his honesty. Parson Mason Locke Weems mentions the first citation of this legend in his 1806 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. This anecdote cannot be independently verified. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is also known to have spread the story while lecturing, personalizing it by adding "I have a higher and greater standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie but I won't."
Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799) was an attorney, planter and politician who became known as an orator during the movement for independence in Virginia in the 1770s. Patrick Henry is best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, in Saint John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. With the House undecided on whether to mobilize for military action against the encroaching British military force, Henry argued in favor of mobilization. Forty-two years later, Henry's first biographer, William Wirt, working from oral histories, tried to reconstruct what Henry said. According to Wirt, Henry ended his speech with words that have since become immortalized: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" The crowd, by Wirt's account, jumped up and shouted "To Arms! To Arms!". For 160 years Wirt's account was taken at face value. In the 1970s, historians began to question the authenticity of Wirt's reconstruction.
Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836) is widely credited with making the first American flag. There is, however, no credible historical evidence that the story is true. Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General George Washington entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial celebrations. In the 2008 book The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon, Smithsonian experts point out that accounts of the event appealed to Americans eager for stories about the revolution and its heroes and heroines. Betsy Ross was promoted as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol of women's contributions to American history.
The tall tale is a fundamental element of American folk literature. The tall tale's origins are seen in the bragging contests that often occurred when men of the American frontier gathered. A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual. Some such stories are exaggerations of actual events; others are completely fictional tales set in a familiar setting, such as the American Old West, or the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. They are usually humorous or good-natured. The line between myth and tall tale is distinguished primarily by age; many myths exaggerate the exploits of their heroes, but in tall tales the exaggeration looms large, to the extent of becoming the whole of the story.
Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, or simply "Santa", is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins. The modern figure of Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch figure, Sinterklaas, which may, in turn, have its origins in the hagiographical tales concerning the Christian Saint Nicholas. "A Visit from St. Nicholas", also known as "The Night Before Christmas" is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The poem, which has been called "arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American", is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, as well as the tradition that he brings toys to children. The poem has influenced ideas about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus from the United States to the rest of the English-speaking world and beyond. Is There a Santa Claus? was the title of an editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus", has become a part of popular Christmas folklore in the United States and Canada.
The Headless Horseman is a fictional character from the short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by American author Washington Irving. The story, from Irving's collection of short stories entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, has worked itself into known American folklore/legend through literature and film.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a children's novel written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow. Originally published by the George M. Hill Company in Chicago on May 17, 1900, it has since been reprinted numerous times, most often under the name The Wizard of Oz, which is the name of both the 1902 stage play and the well-known adaptation 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland. The story chronicles the adventures of a young girl named Dorothy Gale in the Land of Oz, after being swept away from her Kansas farm home in a tornado. Thanks in part to the 1939 MGM movie, it is one of the best-known stories in American popular culture.
Native Americans were the earliest inhabitants of the land that is today known as the United States and played its first music. Beginning in the 17th century, immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Germany and France began arriving in large numbers, bringing with them new styles and instruments. African slaves brought musical traditions, and each subsequent wave of immigrants contributes to a melting pot. Folk music includes both traditional music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th century folk revival. The term originated in the 19th century but is often applied to music that is older than that.
Earliest American scholars were with The American Folklore Society (AFS), which emerged in the late 1800s. Their studies expanded to include Native American music, but still treated folk music as a historical item preserved in isolated societies. In North America, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Library of Congress worked through the offices of traditional music collectors Robert Winslow Gordon, Alan Lomax and others to capture as much North American field material as possible. Lomax was the first prominent scholar to study distinctly American folk music such as that of cowboys and southern blacks. His first major published work was in 1911, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, and was arguably the most prominent US folk music scholar of his time, notably during the beginnings of the folk music revival in the 1930s and early 1940s.
The American folk music revival was a phenomenon in the United States that began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Oscar Brand had enjoyed a limited general popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The revival brought forward musical styles that had, in earlier times, contributed to the development of country & western, jazz, and rock and roll music.
Slavery was introduced to the British colonies in the early 17th century, and enslaved people largely replaced indentured servants as an economic labor force during the 17th century. The ancestors of today's African-American population were brought to the United States as slaves, working primarily in the plantations of the South. They were from hundreds of tribes across West Africa, and brought with them certain traits of West African music including call and response vocals and complex rhythmic music, as well as syncopated beats and shifting accents. The African musical focus on rhythmic singing and dancing was brought to the New World, where it became part of a distinct folk culture that helped Africans "retain continuity with their past through music". The first slaves in the United States sang work songs, and field hollers.
Protestant hymns written mostly by New England preachers became a feature of camp meetings held among devout Christians across the South. When blacks began singing adapted versions of these hymns, they were called Negro spirituals. It was from these roots, of spiritual songs, work songs and field hollers, that blues, jazz and gospel developed. Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith.
The Thirteen Colonies of the original United States were all former English possessions, and Anglo culture became a major foundation for American folk and popular music. Many American folk songs are identical to British songs in arrangements, but with new lyrics, often as parodies of the original material. Anglo-American traditional music also includes a variety of broadside ballads, humorous stories and tall tales, and disaster songs regarding mining, shipwrecks and murder.
Work songs sung by sailors between the 18th and 20th centuries are known as sea shanties. The shanty was a distinct type of work song, developed especially in American-style merchant vessels that had come to prominence in decades prior to the American Civil War. These songs were typically performed while adjusting the rigging, raising anchor, and other tasks where men would need to pull in rhythm. These songs usually have a very punctuated rhythm precisely for this reason, along with a call-and-answer format. Well before the 19th century, sea songs were common on rowing vessels. Such songs were also very rhythmic in order to keep the rowers together.
They were notably influenced by songs of African Americans, such as those sung whilst manually loading vessels with cotton in ports of the southern United States. The work contexts in which African-Americans sang songs comparable to shanties included: boat-rowing on rivers of the south-eastern U.S. and Caribbean; the work of stokers or "firemen", who cast wood into the furnaces of steamboats plying great American rivers;and stevedoring on the U.S. eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean—including "cotton-screwing": the loading of ships with cotton in ports of the American South. During the first half of the 19th century, some of the songs African Americans sang also began to appear in use for shipboard tasks, i.e. as shanties.
Shanty repertoire borrowed from the contemporary popular music enjoyed by sailors, including minstrel music, popular marches, and land-based folk songs, which were adapted to suit musical forms matching the various labor tasks required to operate a sailing ship. Such tasks, which usually required a coordinated group effort in either a pulling or pushing action, included weighing anchor and setting sail.
|Works inspired by Simple Gifts|
|Works inspired by Shakers|
The Shakers is a religious sect founded in 18th-century England upon the teachings of Ann Lee. Shakers today are most known for their cultural contributions (especially style of music and furniture). The Shakers composed thousands of songs, and also created many dances; both were an important part of the Shaker worship services. In Shaker society, a spiritual "gift" could also be a musical revelation, and they considered it important to record musical inspirations as they occurred. "Simple Gifts" was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett and originated in the Alfred Shaker community in Maine in 1848. Aaron Copland's iconic 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring, uses the now famous Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" as the basis of its finale.
Folk dances of British origin include the square dance, descended from the quadrille, combined with the American innovation of a caller instructing the dancers. The religious communal society known as the Shakers emigrated from England during the 18th century and developed their own folk dance style.
Other locations and landmarks that have become part of American folklore include: Independence Hall, Monument Valley, Ellis Island, Hoover Dam, Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War Memorial, and the Grand Canyon.
Historical events that form a part of American folklore include: 9/11, Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's Ride, the Battle of the Alamo, the Salem witch trials, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, California Gold Rush, Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Attack on Pearl Harbor.