Simon J. Bronner
Folklore in the United States, also known as “American folklore,” consists of traditional knowledge and cultural practices engaged by inhabitants of North America below Canada and above Mexico, states of Alaska and Hawaii, and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands. Scholarly and public awareness of American folklore primarily in the contiguous United States followed corpuses of myths, folk tales, and epics in Europe during the 18th century. Although European scholars considered much of the American material, especially in ballads and songs, to be derivatives of European traditions brought by settlers, many traditional forms such as tall tales, hero legends, and indigenous native customs in North America appeared distinctive. In Euro-centered folklore theory, the United States purportedly lacked a peasant class and a shared racial and ethnic stock that fostered the production of folklore. Also affecting perceptions of American folklore was the status of the United States as a relatively young nation, compared to the ancient legacies of European, African, and Asian civilizations. Further, geographically the country’s boundaries had moved since its inception to include an assortment of landscapes and peoples.
Primary folkloristic attention in 17th-century colonial North America was the otherness of Native American groups and their various myths, songs, and rituals. A major question was whether these myths, songs, and rituals reflected a unified culture diffused from Asia or a varied indigenous tribal lore. In the 19th century, awareness turned to the persistence and adaptation of expressive songs and stories of European settlers, enslaved Africans, and Southwest Mexicans. Narratives and buildings appeared to show signs of transplantation from the Old World, although as the New Republic emerged in the 19th century, intrepid Americanists presented cultural evidence of ethnic mixing that formed New World hybrids such as folk tales, games, and barns.
Although folklore in the United States was popularly associated with localized rural practices, folklorists in the 20th century pointed out emergent American traditions that suggested urban, regional, and national identities. Notable examples of distinctive expressions in the United States included the cowboy and railroader song, urban legend, and regional food. The rise of industrialism, transportation technology, and digital communication in the United States raised concerns that commercial popular culture had displaced folklore, but folklorists found that residents maintained folklore as a significant expression of various small-group or subcultural identities. Among the contexts that fostered folkloric production are college campuses, summer camps, and slumber parties. In a society like the United States that lacks collective public rites of passage to enter adulthood, folklore in the form of narrative and ritual in these contexts functioned to guide youths to adult responsibilities. The digital culture of the Internet that became widespread in the 21st century also provided frames for folkloric communication through the conduit of the social network. Although often circulating globally, many combined visual-verbal “memes” and “creepypastas” projected national anxieties. In this period, Americans could be heard and viewed using folklore rhetorically to refer to the veracity and significance of cultural knowledge in an uncertain, rapidly changing, individualistic society. Folklore frequently referred to the expressions of this knowledge in story, song, speech, custom, and craft as meaningful for what it conveyed and enacted about tradition in a socially dispersed, mobile, and future-oriented country.