The State Folklorist’s Notebook: What Is Folklore?

The State Folklorist’s Notebook is a regular column written by state folklorist Emily Hilliard for Goldenseal Magazine. This article appears in the Summer 2016 issue.

Whenever someone asks me what I do for work, the conversation often goes something like this: I say, “I’m a folklorist,” and the questioner replies with something to the effect of “That’s so cool!” Then there’s a beat while he or she stops to ponder and works up the courage to ask sheepishly, “Now… what is that exactly?”

It’s an understandable question. That’s in part because as a discipline, folklore has historical had somewhat nebulous borders that intersect with anthropology, history, (ethno) musicology, American studies, and literature. A folklorist also needs to be a jack of all trades, possessing documentary and media skills as well as knowledge of traditional music, dance, material culture, foodways, architecture, occupational culture, lore and more, all from diverse cultural traditions. On top of that, the word “folklore” can be misleading, bringing to mind ghost stories or childhood tall tales; people often assume I’m some kind of storyteller.

It’s true that “folklore” can include local legends and lore, but the field is much broader than that. I often say that folklore is “the art of everyday life”– daily creative expressions housed in a favorite recipe, adornment of a family’s house or yard, or one’s personal interpretation of a gospel song or fiddle tune.  If the listener’s eyes haven’t yet glazed over, I explain that most folklorists today, whether working in an academic setting or a public context like me, are concerned with the documentation, support, and sustainability of cultural heritage and community-based living traditions.

In West Virginia, this includes the Fasnacht community celebration in the Swiss community of Helvetia, the small town square dances that happen across the state, the Lebanese food prepared at the Mahrajan Festival in Wheeling, the occupational lore of coal miners and loggers, the African American gospel tradition in the southern counties, pepperoni rolls with their Italian miner heritage, the state’s unique fiddling tradition, and much more.

West Virginia is known for its vibrant living traditions and traditional arts, and folklore work in this state is particularly important because it grants an opportunity to honor and support those creative contributions of everyday West Virginians. I share the sentiment of Utah State folklorist Lynne McNeill who said, “In folklore, everyone can achieve greatness. In folklore, the everyday lived experiences are legitimized and valued.”

In this first year of the West Virginia Folklife Program, we’re conducting a state-wide folklife fieldwork survey, documenting traditional artists, tradition bearers, and community traditions through oral history, photography, and video. I’ll be sharing some of this fieldwork here in a regular Goldenseal column, and in publications and future programming that may include exhibits, concerts, a master-apprentice program, heritage trails and more. Because this work is ultimately about community and place-based cultural expressions deemed important by West Virginians, we welcome your input on what traditions and practitioners we should include in this initial survey. If you’d like to let me know about traditional artists, heritage crafters, traditional musicians or dancers, tradition bearers who carry knowledge of a community’s story, or cultural celebrations in your community– from any cultural background, please get in touch at or (304)346-8500.