Historically, folklore (as a field of study) held sound and sustainability in high esteem. Sound because of the emphasis on orality, or oral tradition (the sound of folklore as spoken or sung, for the folk were thought illiterate). Sustainability because folklorists thought folklore was always endangered, dying, or dead. In the late 1960s a revolution in folklore studies began to change much of that way of thinking, but for centuries people interested in folklore elevated sound and worried about sustainability.
The earliest folklorists in Europe weren’t called folklorists. Aristocrats during the late medieval and Renaissance periods conceived an interest in ways of life that were being lost, or had been lost. They traveled searching out ruins, and collected objects from former times that they put in what were called cabinets of curiosity. (These were the forerunners of museums.) Later, they began to focus on peasant life and oral folklore; in the 1600s the poet Sir Philip Sidney mentioned the ballad "Chevy-Chase," and in 1711 Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator about it:
|Jos. Addison, courtesy Wikimedia Commons|
Never mind that Addison’s critique focused on a different ballad of the same title; an interest in what were called “popular antiquities” had been established in the literate classes of Europe by 1700, while well before the US Civil War we have the Brothers Grimm with their collection of Märchen, or folktales, and the invention of the English word “folk-lore,” by William Thoms. To the antiquarians, one of the most interesting aspects of folk-lore was how it spread; and the antiquarians settled on the idea that an illiterate peasantry must have passed along the songs and stories and proverbs and riddles by word of mouth, or “oral transmission,” as it was called—by sounding it, in other words. Its sustainability was guaranteed by sound, but at the same time memory was not always accurate, and so the folk-lore gradually changed as it moved from one person to the next, one generation to the next, one place to the next. Invention, too, played its role in oral tradition. A literate culture, they thought, could not have folklore because its literature was written down; once that occurred, the text or the music could not vary. Oral tradition, therefore, was characteristic and important; but also impermanent, unlike writing. So sounding was both the means by which folklore was sustained, but also its Achilles heel.
In the 1960s folklorists began to pay more attention to written-down folklore. The literate/illiterate dichotomy had grown impossible to sustain with regard to folklore, at least in the US, where (overlooking servants and sharecroppers in their histories) our historians tell us we never had any peasants. US folklorists could (and did) argue that the working-classes had folklore, but many among them were literate. So it goes, and so it went; and the situation is even more complicated now, as it turns out that many of the old ballads like "Chevy Chase" originated in print and were passed along in print as well as orally, among the literate classes as well as (perhaps better than) the peasants, at least after the medieval period. Besides, at around the same time folklorists were devaluing orality, they were finding that being anthropologists of folklore, rather than collectors of it, had more appeal. Indeed, in the US beginning in the 1950s, at Indiana University and the University of Pennsylvania, folklore became a profession, professionalized; with professors of folklore holding PhDs in the subject, beginning to replace professors of English with PhDs in English and a research and teaching interest in folklore. Graduate students in folklore increasingly produced ethnographies of folk communities and one aspect of their folklife—material culture especially—while the older collections of ballads and folksongs, and folktales, often done by amateurs, did not seem as deep, as exciting, as important.
Orality need not disappear in the wake of an ethnographic approach to folklore, though. An emphasis on folklife as it is lived has led me, over the years, to a phenomenological perspective: how orality is experienced as sounding. For although sound dissipates, it is experienced unlike other sources of sensation: sound waves vibrate our eardrums and set our bodies in motion; sound vibrates living beings into co-presence with other beings. In sound, we experience connection and co-presence. This connection need not be positive. Sound can unite and make us feel at one with each other and the world, but it can also divide or control, as when used for torture. Sound can make a being happy but it can also drive one mad. A sound ecology will take both possibilities into account, and recognize the debt it owes to folklore studies.