Folklorist in a can?

Posted on October 3, 2012 by


I was surfing the Web the other day and ran across a couple university pages in which Folklore is the focus of masters degrees. I have to say, it felt a bit strange to see such a thing. Even as one who holds two masters degrees, I feel as if the art of the folklorist/storyteller is something that universities really can’t grant a person. Sure, they might be able to show students the ins and outs of the art… the different genres, etc… and they may challenge students to create their own forms of art, but I see it as a skill not learned in the classroom.

Perhaps my perception of this is limited to the way in which I came to know and appreciate folklore, as something delivered in rural settings. From my youth, I recall a variety of stories being told, but never from a person who had been granted a degree in folklore. It had been learned… passed along to them by others from previous generations. Some had mastered the art of the storyteller quite well, and could put a listener… especially children… on the edge of their seats. I know of one person in particular… a grand uncle… who was a fantastic spinner.

Stories are stories… some tell them better than others. The storytellers have certain pitches in their voices, expressions, gestures, etc., etc., but… not all have a certain magic that make the stories.

I’ve never heard a degreed “folklorist” and a non-degreed, rural folklorist tell the same story and leave it to the listeners to describe the differences, but I suspect one thing in particular makes the value of the listeners’ experience much more valuable. It’s in something that follows the stories… a simple question. When a listener, especially a youth, asks… “where did you hear that story?”, and the storyteller says… “from my uncle”… “from my mother/father”, “from my grandmother/grandfather”, “from my great grandmother/grandfather”, and so on… therein is the magic. If one would respond… “from a book” or “from a class”, I think it would be akin to a balloon being popped with a sharp pin. Even if the magic had made an appearance in the telling the story, the magic would suddenly… be gone.