Evidence is crucial when helping to revive or preserve folk traditions because it means the difference between a work of fact and a work of fiction. Folk traditions get misused and misinterpreted a lot because of the “fill in the blanks” method of so-called “preservation”. It’s the idea that if you don’t have evidence for some aspect of a folk culture you can probably just plug in your own personal interpretation or ideas and fill in the blanks. That works if it’s just you who is looking at the tradition. By all means fill in wherever you want. The problem is when you take these ideas into the wider world around you and present them as though they are based in fact and not the fiction you just wrote.
Folklorists come up against this wall time and time again. They will have recorded a great piece of oral history or some folk practice, but there are blanks in the information. Someone from the outside of the culture is naturally going to come across these blanks, especially when it comes to language and all those wonderful unspoken folk norms. Academic researchers and those helping to preserve these folk cultures will present these blanks in an unbiased way (if they’re any good at what they do, there are a lot of “researchers” out there presenting all sorts of claims that aren’t based in any evidence). They’ll say, “Hey, here is something we don’t know, maybe we’ll know something more later on.” and they won’t try to say that because this practice resembles this other older practice they necessarily have to be related. There could be a relation, but until that evidence is presented a responsible researcher should not make this connection.
So what’s the harm in assuming things? Filling in the blanks with information not based in evidence can harm traditional cultures. When terminology and concepts are applied to a culture from the outside it not only silences the speakers from within that culture but can lead to misinformation spreading to those younger generations that might be trying to revive their culture. Academic works, especially the older ones, are often the worst perpetrators of this kind of research. I always tell people that they have to wear their “bull-shit glasses” when reading academic works on Anthropology. The real harm that this type of “fill in the blanks” research does is that when you have someone from within a culture trying to research that culture they often have to sift through layers and layers of personal biases in order to hit on any kind of information based in actual evidence. And what is “actual evidence”? That is evidence provided by first-hand accounts from speakers from within the culture itself. Generally the older the better if you want to look at folkways.
There are very few speakers left on the old Ozark folk culture, and most of them are long dead or currently on their way out. What we have to look at are the collections of folklorists like Mary Celestia Parler, Vance Randolph, Otto Ernest Rayburn, and others like them. Their works are excellent resources for first-hand accounts of Ozark folklore and folkways of the late 19th early 20th century. But even these works have their flaws. If you’ve ever looked at Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore” you’ll see that he brings a lot of personal biases into his research. The book itself used to be called “Ozark Superstitions” after all. It’s hard to escape bringing in biases, I’m not perfect, I’ve done it too.
The important thing to remember is that evidence is key, and let the evidence lead the research. This is especially true if you are claiming to be a representative of a certain culture. Be responsible in your research! Think of the future generations wanting to reclaim some sense of cultural identity. When they look at your work will they see fact or fiction?
We can’t know everything. It’s an impossible idea to try to uphold, especially when you’re dealing with dying cultures. There are always going to be gaps in information. There are always going to be differing accounts between different people; that’s just the way humans work. But when we get lazy and start filling in the gaps with false information, or information that isn’t really based in any evidence, we are doing a great harm to these cultures.
One example I’d like to talk about briefly came from yesterday’s post on the “dumb supper”. The evidence that we have, that came in from first-hand accounts collected by Vance Randolph and Otto Ernest Rayburn, is that the terms “dumb supper” or “dummy supper” have their origin in Ozark and Appalachian cultures. There is no evidence that it has older pagan roots. It’s possible that the “dumb supper” comes from older European traditions, but that evidence isn’t there. What the pagan community has done is fill in the blanks where information is missing. They say that because this tradition has some supernatural elements it must be based on an older pagan tradition that was glossed over by Christian influences. There is no evidence to support this theory. What’s much more likely is that the “dumb supper” is in fact based on older traditions of love divination, and was then appropriated by the pagan and witch community and merged with other, very separate, ceremonies of European origins.
The example above is a perfect illustration of the harm misinformation can do to folk traditions. This tradition, the “dumb supper” was taken out of context at some point in the past and the fiction was then spread and perpetuated to the point where if you were to search the term “dumb supper” it would yield lots of results, very few of which are based in reality.
This is why looking for actual evidence is so important. I can’t stress it enough. That’s why, as some of you have asked in the past, many of my posts are just quotes from collected folk anecdotes and not a lot of my personal opinions. I’m living at a time when those who have this old knowledge are either dead or dying out. I’ve had the great fortune of collecting a lot of my own knowledge from some of these folks, but the information is just not out there like it used to be. That’s why we have to take our evidence from those folklorists who came before us and were able to collect so much great material.
So, to summarize; support your local folklorists, don’t spread information that has no evidence behind it, and don’t fill in the blanks just because you don’t know something. The pursuit of knowledge is often just as important as the knowing.