Folklore and Oral History

Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Oral traditions, including folklore and oral history, are an important as­pect of any culture. At times, how­ever, it is difficult to distinguish be­tween the two. Both oral historians and folklorists, for example, are in­terested in the spoken word, the orally­-transmitted tradition or version, and in identifying the source of the mate­rial. Both are not so much interested in the actual event as they are in how people remember, interpret and per­petuate that event or story.

What they collect, however, differs. Folklorists look for “traditional” materials that appear and reappear in slightly changed forms in various cul­tures – legends, jokes, personal stories called memorates, proverbs, songs, tall tales and superstitions passed on in­formally by word of mouth between members of the community. Oral historians, on the other hand, are in­terested primarily in establishing an historical perspective-a subject’s per­sonal view of the chronology of an event. In oral history, the interview­ing technique relies heavily on a dialec­tic, a give and take between inter­viewer and subject in questioning, designed to elicit hidden feelings and opinions often ignored in survey questionnaires, official pronouncements and folklorist material.

Frequently, however, the line be­tween oral history and oral folklore is blurred: oral history can include pieces of traditional folklore, and often folk­lore contains a useful historical ac­count of past events. Oral folklore, though, has a ritualistic and com­munal quality about it. The tales, jokes and proverbs have been told again and again. The retelling has shaped the material into folk art. The collection and study of this folklore should offer some insights into the people of the region. Oral folklore, especially in a “traditional” or “oral” culture, can give a wider focus on the inner personality of an entire culture.