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Explore Folklore

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The Myths of Reality

revival and continuity in folklore

Over the last century much heat – but rather less light – has arisen among British folklorists about the 'revival' of folk customs, dances and songs. Nigel Pennick has observed (1998: 229) that modern day ballroom dancers performing the foxtrot or tango are not regarded as 'revivalists'. Indeed, the differences between 'authentic' Argentinian tango of the early twentieth century and the forms displayed on Come Dancing are substantial, and might reasonably be considered as evidence that this is a 'living tradition' rather than misguided 'revival'.

That modern day morris or molly dancing also differs substantially from what we know about the 'authentic' forms is, however, less rarely seen as evidence of a thriving tradition and more frequently castigated as inappropriate revival. Unravelling this contrast of views perhaps says more about the prejudices introduced during the folk dance revival than it does about the nature of transmission and mutation of folk traditions.

In the studies of folk crafts, as with folk customs and folk music, a contrast is made between 'traditional' and 'revived' activities. The intention is to privilege those styles, processes or customs that are believed to have been practised continuously since an unrecorded origin, and to subtly disparage activities that have been reinstated after a lapse, however brief.

    This distinction appears to originate in two untenable assumptions: firstly that traditional craftspeople have always received their techniques and designs directly from those who taught them, and then reproduced them in an unchanging way; and secondly that their designs have been handed on without reference to outside influences. Examination of the historical realities shows something different. Where they could not be bettered, techniques and designs remained substantially the same over long periods of time. But conservatism for its own sake was never a guiding principle. New ideas considered valuable were always adopted and incorporated into the local milieu. The historical progression of the traditional arts and crafts is testimony to this.
    (Pennick 2002)
Although the perceived distinction between 'traditional' and 'revival' is widespread, in practice there is no clear boundary separating the two. Unless they learnt their skills through an unbroken chain of masters and apprentices, all 'traditional' craftspeople can be considered to be revivalists, although such an extreme view is rarely helpful in practice. In reality the distinction is imaginary and the supposed prestige of the 'traditional' often illusionary. Approached from a different angle, what passes for 'traditional' is not rooted in the real past but rather in the nostalgia that derives from dissatisfaction with modernity.

Rather than debate 'revival' and 'continuity', the American folklorists' precedent of putting this all under the umbrella term of 'transmission' is often all that is needed.

bibliographical references

PENNICK, Nigel, 1998, Crossing the Borderlines: Guising, masking and ritual animal disguises in the European Tradition, Capall Bann.
PENNICK, Nigel, 2002, Masterworks: Arts and crafts of building traditions in northern Europe, Heart of Albion.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003

 

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