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Folklorists

Folklorists study and document traditional ways of doing things. This can include ways of making crafts, playing music and dancing, working, telling stories, telling jokes, or celebrating the important stages of life.

david lamb demonstration

Furniture master David Lamb
demonstrating woodworking at the
2000 Celebrate New Hampshire festival.

Folklorists go out into communities, neighborhoods, and people's homes to do their work. This is sometimes called fieldwork. Documentation of traditional ways is done using a variety of techniques …

  • Making notes and then writing up observations.
  • Making audio recordings of music performances or interviews with tradition bearers.
  • Taking still photographs or making videotapes.

Fieldwork in New Hampshire Image Gallery

All of these materials become important to understanding and protecting our history and local cultures. Much of the documentation carried out by folklorists is housed in special places where it can be cared for and preserved. Publicly owned libraries and archives-like State Archives or university libraries-are often the best places to ensure that people can have access to documentation for years to come.

quilt exhibits

Quilts from the
Soo Noo Pii Quilters Guild
on display at the
Library Arts Center in Newport, NH.

Some folklorists teach at colleges and universities and some work for organizations helping to produce events that present the work of traditional artists to the public-such as festivals, exhibits, workshops, concerts, and conferences. The public presentation of folklife and traditional arts is intended to honor traditional and folk artists, help them perpetuate their skills, and encourage a deeper public understanding of and appreciation for our tradition bearers.

Folklorists often work in partnership with "community scholars." These are people in a community who have knowledge of some aspect of folklife & traditional arts. Community scholars are essential to the study and presentation of locally based programs and activities.

A Little History …

The formal study of folklore began in the late 18th century in Europe with scholars and writers working to document the old tales of Great Britain, Germany, and other European countries. For many years, folklore was a term for folktales.

As the discipline gained wider academic and public recognition, scholars began to consider a broader definition of folklore. In addition to stories, they included dance, music, crafts, medicine, humor, religious celebrations, architecture, foodways, and so on. As folklorists began to include this wider spectrum of activities in their work, terms such as folk arts, folklife and folkways came into use. These terms take into account the beliefs and values and physical forms associated with many types of cultural activities.

Musicians from the Quebecois group Matapat

Musicians from the Quebecois group
Matapat working with local
New Hampshire musicians
including Shorty Boulet on bones.

The Academic Study of Folklore

Today in the United States, folklore is an academic field of study. Several universities have well respected Folklore Departments offering Bachelors of Arts, Masters degree, and Ph.D. (doctorate) degree programs.

Fields of study related to folklore include literature, art history, anthropology, ethnic studies, and ethnomusicology. Some colleges and universities include folklore studies in their American Studies or Literature departments.

Many people with academic training in folklore and related fields go on to teach at a university or college.

Public Sector Folklore

Some people who are trained in folklore or a related field of study go on to work in an area called public sector folklore. A public sector folklorist researches traditions and helps to preserve them – usually by organizing public events. Some work for a branch of city or state government and some work for private organizations such as historical societies, museums, or arts organizations. Still others work as independent contractors.

Public sector folklorists develop a variety of public programs including: exhibits, festivals, publications, recordings, workshops, conferences, etc. Some public sector folklore programs administer grants that can help non-profit organizations produce events focused on traditional arts. A special type of grant for individuals interested in teaching or learning a traditional art form is often called Traditional Arts Apprenticeships.

hector canales and friends

Recording session with
Hector Canales (right),
Jose Girona (center) and
Edgardo Delgado (left)
playing Puerto Rican music for
"Songs of the Seasons" CD release.

The Traditional Arts Program of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts (NHSCA) is a statewide public sector folklore program. The NHSCA is a part of State government and one of the divisions of the Department of Cultural Resources.

The Traditional Arts Program honors, preserves, and promotes traditional arts in New Hampshire and has several components:

  • Fieldwork & research
  • Grants (Traditional Arts Project Grants & Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grants)
  • Technical assistance to individuals and organizations
  • Special educational projects and partnership initiatives
  • The Traditional Arts & Folklife Listing is an online directory of tradition bearers available for community presentations.

Photo credit: Lynn Martin Graton


New Hampshire State Council on the Arts
19 Pillsbury Street - 1st Floor, Concord, NH 03301