The Importance of Folklore

An interview was conducted with Dr. Amy Clark of The University of Virginia’s College at Wise in order to elaborate on the significance of folklore to this area.   Dr. Clark is both the Chair and a professor of Communication Studies.  She is also the founding Co-Director of the Center for Appalachian Studies, and is the Director of the Appalachia Writing Project.

Image from The University of Virginia’s College at Wise

Introductions: Upon meeting with Dr. Clark about our project, Ashley and I were brimming with excitement. We decided on choosing her as our interviewee due to her wonderful background and knowledge of the content of our project, folklore.

To begin our interview, we wanted to ask Dr. Clark her ideas on the impacts of the content of this collection which is not always what we have focused on in this class. However, by learning about the content and medium of literature like folklore, we learn more about James Taylor Adams himself, why he chose to take on this task in life, and what it meant to him.

Question 1: What do you think is/was the social significance of folklore in this area?

“I think folklore serves several purposes. Number one, it was entertaining. Prior to radio and television, story telling and folklore were two ways people could pass the time. I think another aspect of folklore is teaching moral lessons, in particular, especially if little ears were listening. What happens to people when they stray from what and how they are suppose to be behaving. I think it was a form of resistance. Some of the tales that you’ll see in WPA collections are stories about how, for example in the Civil War, one side bested the other. A Yankee came on to our property, and here’s how we handled it. Preservation. Passing down information to younger generations that you want them to know and want them to know where it came from.”

Here, Dr. Clark stresses the three main social impacts of folklore. This is highly important because it gives us insight into the reasoning and passion that James Taylor Adams had for collecting these stories and folk songs. This collection is the information that he wanted to pass down to us and to make sure that these stories were preserved.

Question 2: What was the life of a journalist like in southwest Virginia during the time of James Taylor Adams?

“Journalism used to be dominated by men. So, you didn’t have women, and that would dictate the kinds of things that were written and how they were written. It was probably a slow moving process because you didn’t have the internet or you didn’t have phones. So, you’re talking about moving from place to place particularly in southwest Virginia, particularly in a rural area. You’re talking about traveling by horse, by buggy, or by train if you’re going from a place like Abingdon to a place like Norton.  I imagine just like today you would have people you could count on for information; you would have your contact. But, I would say life was pretty hard for a journalist back then, I mean it wasn’t a high paying position, and again, you were jockeying for space like everybody else in newspapers. And, it was probably difficult to get people to talk to you because people would probably be mistrustful.”

Dr. Clark makes an important point that the life of James Taylor Adams as a journalist was probably not an easy one here in southwest Virginia and in the surrounding areas. This may have had some influence on the need to be apart of the many other positions that Adams served as in the community.

Question 3: What value, in your opinion, does folklore hold for this area?

“One of the ways that it has value now for us is that it’s a way for us to find out what people were thinking and talking about back then. It’s a window into values. It’s a window into where people stood on political issues and social issues. Even though some of that can be, I guess, couched in story and in song, when you analyze it, it still gives us a glimpse into the past. For me as an applied linguist, it’s a good way to study language. One of the ways that we study vernacular dialect is that we look at the oldest written records of vernacular. What’s great about the WPA is that people recorded and transcribed exactly the way people told their stories, and so vernacular expressions are in there. So, that holds value too.”

This, as Dr. Clark tells us, is one of the tricky ways about how folklore is preserved. This is where the history of the literature and the meaning of the content can lose its connections to a culture if it is not preserved in the ways in which it was told. This creates an interesting challenge for scribes and students studying folklore in particular because it immerses them into a different time and vocabulary.

Question 4: How do you think folklore has grown since the time of James Taylor Adams?

“I think in some ways people are telling the same kinds of stories, they’re just telling them in different ways. Language changes over time. The language we use to tel stories has changed certainly in Central Appalachia. As Central Appalachia became more industrialized, the stories have evolved to match things like industry and the social issues of the time and the political issues of the time. Thinking in my own family about the kinds of stories, some of the age old things still apply. James Taylor Adams helped collect ghost tales, for example. I grew up on ghost tales. I grew up listening to my great grandparents tell ghost tales. So, there’s still that entertainment factor, and there’s still that moral lesson in some of it. You know, like what will happen if you don’t behave when you’re little. But again, there may be more ghost tales about the mines, for example, or railroading, or something like that. So, I think the major changes have been in the language we use to tell the stories and what the stories are about.”

This presents another type of project that could be performed in the future. Since James Taylor Adams collected so many folktales over a large span of time, it is quite possible that the changes in history could be mapped and viewed in the literature of the folklore itself. I believe this is another important point because it reflects, again, why we value folklore so much because it reminds of how things were. It reminds us of how our grandparents got by, and how our parents were raised. It connects us to the history before the time of us.

We would like to give a huge thanks to Dr. Amy Clark for participating in our interview for this project, and we look forward to meeting again.