Folklore or Fakelore

by Mark Blackwell

My youngest daughter Hannah came out to the cabin a while back with a request. She’s goin’ to the university and was takin’ a folklore class and her professor assigned the class to go out and document collections of handmade items related in some way to folklore. She hoped we would have handmade items related in some way to Brown County folklore. As we were sittin’ around our handmade Brown County poplar board table and eatin’ supper together out of handmade ceramic bowls and drinkin’ coffee out of hand-made pottery mugs we got to talking about the whole idea of folklore.

The American Heritage Dictionary says that folklore is “traditional beliefs, practices, legends and tales of the common, uneducated people transmitted orally.” Not seeing right off what a collection of handmade items had to do with beliefs, legends, or tales, I decided that maybe a “collection of handmade items” might fall into the “practices” category, if you stretched it enough. And I’m smart enough to not want to get into a brain-wrestlin’ contest with a university professor if I can avoid it. But the whole discussion of what is folklore set me off to thinkin’.

Perhaps folklore is like one of them falling trees in a forest—you know, if there’s no-one around to hear it does it still make a noise? If there’s no folklore professor around to identify it does folklore really exist? Or maybe folklore is something that has to mature and ripen before it becomes real evident; like one of my Granpap’s stories.

He was the kind of feller who would casually relate some story of an occurrence as his contribution to a conversation, like any polite person might do. Then some weeks later the story might come up again in another conversation. The second time around I would notice that there was a little more elaboration and perhaps a touch of embellishment. Months or even years could go by and eventually that story would show up again but this time with a new paint-job, fender skirts, and deluxe white-wall tires. So, Gramps could start out givin’ ya the straight news and if the story had potential it could grow into a high gloss short story and given enough time and the right fertilizer that same mundane piece of pass-the-time information would become folklore.

As we were settin’ around the dining table that was made from native poplar by a talented wood worker friend of mine, eating off of dishes made by a variety of potters that we know and discussin’ folklore when my gaze fell on an old hand-carved wooden paddle hangin’ off the side of the kitchen cabinet. My great-grandma used that paddle to stir apple butter when she made it in an old iron kettle in the backyard. Well it just hit me—that was the answer—the things that folks used to make for practical use but now-a-days have no function other than decoration equals folklore.

If you’re sleeping under a hand-stitched quilt, it’s just a quilt. If you hang it on the wall, or artfully drape it on the back of your davenport, it could be folklore. The same goes for hand-thrown pottery. If you’re eatin’ off it, it’s just a dish, but put it on a shelf on display, and you transform it into folklore. So, my Grandpa’s hand-carved dogwood maul could become folklore if I don’t use it and put it up on the mantel.

But what about a hand-stitched quilt that you buy from Sears or somewhere and artfully display? Is that folklore?

I’ve seen catalogs and magazines dealing with country-fying your décor. You can get saw blades with scenic vistas painted on ’em, hand-stitched quilts, ceramic geese with mufflers around their necks, butter churns, and brooms that can’t sweep. You name it and somebody’s got a replica for sale. But what that adds up to is “fakelore.”

A professor over at Bloomington, Richard Dorson, first coined the term. He founded the folklore department at the University over 50 years ago and was pretty tight with his definitions.

I like having a word for things that are rustical but not really rustic. But even if you were to go out to an antique store and buy a made-in-America-a-long-time-ago, hand-stitched quilt, and artfully display it, you still wouldn’t have folklore. What you would have is a nice antique. It wouldn’t be fake, but there’s still a missing element.

And here’s where we get back to the part about “legends and tales of the common uneducated people, transmitted orally.”

It’s a story that goes along with the handmade item that connects it to folklore. If it’s a thing that’s a handmade replica tryin’ to pass itself off as real, it’s gonna fall on the side of “fakelore.” If it’s old, has no current useful purpose, and is just sittin’ around the house, it may be an antique, or it could be just one of your relatives. But if it fits most of the preceding conditions and you got a good story (or fairly believable lie) to go along with it you just might be the proud possessor of some bona fide folklore.