I feel that there is an imbalance in the lives of young people today caused by increasing dependence on television, computers and other electronic entertainments. Young people no longer have reverence for and appreciation of tradition in their lives; the traditions of their families and the society that formed the world in which they live. It is to combat this imbalance that I devised this folklore collecting project, which, over several months, gets the students out into their community, often starting with the older members of their own families and radiating out as they collect folklore.
I will tell you what I have done in the past in the States for young audiences, because I believe that many of the seminars I have given in schools throughout Northern New England would be applicable in schools in Britain. My experiences in the rural schools of Maine, New Hampshire (my home state) and Vermont were invaluable - I loved every minute of it and I learned so much myself. I welcome each opportunity I have to put this experience into practice in the UK.
The students choose a folklore topic, from a wide range of possibilities, to investigate and they follow the leads they find, like in a treasure hunt or modern adventure game. Their prize is a rich awareness of who they are and where they come from as well as the rewarding experience of working as a member of a small group organising themselves to find and collect what they can about their chosen topic. The topics can include crafts, stories, songs, dance, proverbs, rhymes, myths, agriculture, traditional recipies, folk cures.
For this project I discourage research through books and libraries, the emphasis must be on oral collecting using tape recorders, notebooks etc to collect material in interviews with informants. This type of research is often overlooked and the techniques are not often taught in schools. Students who are reluctant to collect material are encouraged to help in the process with photography, video recording, audio recording etc.
The project has three main phases, the first is an introductory one where the project is explained and the students start their collecting. The second is the main collecting phase in parallel with work inside the school where academic aspects can be taught as part of their normal classes. The last phase is the presentation and enjoyment of what has been collected, culminating usually in early July with two evenings when the public are invited to come in and see the results.
I will come into the school and talk to the staff. I will explain the project and what I am trying to achieve and, most importantly, how they become involved both inside their own classes and in a support role to the students. The staff will be asked to include relevant aspects of their curriculum in parallel with the folklore project. For example CDT classes could make models or reproductions, English could look at ballads in relation to literature or even write ballads, History could look at local history and relate it to songs about cotton, canals, mining etc. Work inside and outside the classroom should complement each other. We will discuss how the project will be carried on and funded. Following this meeting the school must get whatever approval, funding and commitment that is needed.
When this has been done I will come into the school and, with key staff members, explain the project to the students. A short time after that, when the students have had a chance to think about it, I will return to hand out and explain a list of possible topics which I will have compiled with the staff. The students will have about a week to think about these topics and decide which they will want to investigate. I will then return and help to get groups of students with the same interests together. Students who do not have an interest in investigating a particular topic can join groups to help with such things as tape recording, video recording, photography etc.
The final part of this first phase is getting together with the groups and providing whatever information, help or advice that either the staff or I can to get them started on their collection project. We will encourage them to start as near as possible to their own lives or home and to follow whatever leads they find as far as possible beyond the confine of their family and community. We will discuss collecting techniques including hoe to use the tape recorder without giving offence to the informant. In working as part of a group and not just with their chums students learn the art of cooperation and coordination - collection of material is not all that is important.
The second phase is where the students go out and find their folklore. The staff and I will help where we can with information and advice but it is important that it is the students themselves that plan and coordinate their activity and do the collecting. To help in this phase there are two supporting activities that will be carried out.
First I will come to the school for a one week residency. I will begin with a brief explanation; a survey of folklore; the family, the individual and groups (other cultures) as a valuable part of our heritage. I discuss how folklore - in particular, the music and especially the ballad form - relates to literature, and I provide examples of these ballads. I sing some and others I play from tapes, records and field recordings. These are used to supplement and show great variety of ballads and singing styles from throughout the world - particularly countries like Roumania and Bulgaria, where the oral tradition of singing is vital to so many people's lives; particularly the women labourers'.
I bring in a brief account of Alan Lomax's work on "cantometrics" - the study of how traditional music relates directly to various ethnic cultures and the characteristics of these singing styles reveal so much about each culture.
I provide a comparative study between Great Britain and North America, illustrating through song how these songs travelled from the British Isles to Canada and the States, and the evolutionary processes that took place due to such reasons as geography, the breakdown of social and economic classes, the passage of time etc.
I then break down the various categories of songs as they relate to literature, history and sociology: for example:
I like to present a short topic on "The Images of Women" through songs - a most interesting topic! I also like to bring in a discussion of the supernatural in folklore; a really fascinating area of study, and one in which students take great delight. I will teach the students songs and even bring in a local morris side to explain folk dancing and teach some dances, which they can demonstrate on the final presentation evening.
- occupational songs
- historical songs
- songs of recreational value (ie play parties and tunes for dances)
- children's songs
- religious songs
- cowboy songs of the West
- mining songs
- political and union songs of protest and social significance
The second range of activity is in the classroom where teachers incorporate relevant study into their curriculum to provide the link between the academic side and the collecting.
The final and most rewarding phase is where it all comes together and the groups present their results to the school, the community and the media. At least one month before the final two days of presentation newspapers, radio and TV must all be informed and encouraged to give as much publicity as possible so that not only parents and grandparents will come to see the results but also unconnected members of the community. media coverage should of course be encouraged from as early as possible to help create awareness and support in the community.
For about two weeks beforehand I will help to co-ordinate the presentation. The groups must set up their displays, arrange for one of their informants to come to demonstrate/ perform, compile their descriptions, edit their tapes etc. On the first day the displays will be available for public inspection and the evening will finish with a folk drama written to include some results from various topics and presented by the students themselves. The second day will again have the presentation on display and it will finish with a concert featuring as many students as possible performing traditional songs or dances they have learned and invited performers to give examples of music and dance from the region and from further afield.
EXAMPLES FROM PREVIOUS PROJECTS
There has been one complete project in Britain, in Hereford in the Bishop of Hereford Bluecoat School and I have done the week long residency in Evesham. A second British project is currently underway in Cross Hall High School in Ormskirk, Lancashire. A number of other areas have expressed interest and at least two more projects carried out next year. The type of activities undertaken by the students is illustrated by this list of some of the activities carried out in the Hereford project:
- a display on agriculture and explanation of old implements
- replica of the interior of a cottage designed and built from information obtained in interviews.
- folk drama presented using the above cottage as a set.
- CDT built a small ship learning about ships and singing shanties.
- 14 verse ballad written about the Zebrugge disaster
- folk recipes collected and written up
- stories put on tape and played for the public to hear
- local costume collected/ reproduced
- old remedies written up and materials displayed.
At the end of the project I ran in Hereford I saw that students who had no understanding of their place in society where the family unit was not strong, found that their folklore was important to them and wanted to persue it further keeping it as part of their lives.
Finally the main point that I'd like to make is that I feel it's all-important to involve the students, it is only with their participation that they can begin to see that folklore is a living tradition not an anthropological one. I want them to be aware of the possibilities in the study of folklore in the UK and particularly in the states, where there are at least six major universities that offer advanced master's and doctoral degrees in folklore. I emphasise this because I found through my own experience of teaching in the schools under the "Young Audience" programme that by the end of the project students out of each group were so turned on to this area of study that they actually wanted information on further education possibilities in folklore - a most encouraging sign!