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New York State Folklife Reader

New York State Folklife Reader: Diverse Voices

Elizabeth Tucker
Ellen McHale
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    New York State Folklife Reader
    Book Description:

    New York and its folklore scholars hold an important place in the history of the discipline. In New York dialogue between folklore researchers in the academy and those working in the public arena has been highly productive. In this volume, the works of New York's academic and public folklorists are presented together.

    Unlike some folklore anthologies, New York State Folklife Reader does not follow an organizational plan based on regions or genres. Because the New York Folklore Society has always tried to "give folklore back to the people," the editors decided to divide the edited volume into sections about life processes that all New York state residents share. The book begins with five essays on various aspects of folk cultural memory: personal, family, community, and historical processes of remembrance expressed through narrative, ritual, and other forms of folklore. Following these essays, subsequent sections explore aspects of life in New York through the lens of Play, Work, Resistance, and Food.

    Both the New York Folklore Society and its journal were, as society cofounder Louis Jones explained, "intended to reach not just the professional folklorists but those of the general public who were interested in the oral traditions of the State." Written in an accessible and readable style, this volume offers a glimpse into New York State's rich cultural diversity.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-967-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    Under the blazing summer sun in July 2005, a small group of young DiDinga men performed a traditional dance as part of the social event called gyrikot in their homeland, Sudan, in northeastern Africa.¹ Most of the young men wore white T-shirts, blue jeans, and sneakers. Making percussive music with wooden spoons and aluminum pie pans, they shared their excitement with their audience. Soon men, women, and children were clapping in time to the music. These young singers had survived an arduous trip from Sudan, where civil war had devastated their villages and killed members of their families. Prevented from...


      (pp. 3-15)

      Through layers of historical and folk memory, we perceive New York’s folk-cultural dynamics. Historical memory seems straightforward and detailed, but it does not tell the whole story of this part of North America. We can gain a fuller understanding of New York’s past and present by studying various forms of folklore. The memory of folk communities and regions comes to us through origin tales, legends, songs, dances, rituals, customs, beliefs, games, quilt making, wall building, cooking, maple syrup production, and other kinds of lore. This essay examines dynamics of folk culture from the sixteenth century to the present, drawing upon...

    • ORAL CULTURE AND HISTORY TODAY Joanne Shenandoah and Jack W. Gladstone
      (pp. 16-28)

      Between earth and sky lies the understanding of what is sacred.

      There are several things that need to be said by way of beginnings for this paper. Joanne Shenandoah and I spoke in August 2005. Acknowledging that I am not Haudenosaunee, she reminded me that one fundamental concept in Haudenosaunee tradition is the “Good Mind—a willingness to come together, to try to understand each other, to leave what’s troubling us, personally or otherwise, behind the door” for an unclouded discussion. To establish this agreement, I want to define how the sacred will be viewed in this paper. In The...

    • CITIES WITHIN THE CITY Ben Botkin’s New York
      (pp. 29-38)

      Although born in Boston, Benjamin A. Botkin was sometimes more comfortable with his New York identity than with his New England roots. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he confronted and overcame his childhood struggles against anti-Semitism and Brahmin attitudes, and he remained proud of this experience throughout his life (Hirsch 1996). Yet New York City represented his cosmopolitan ideal, and it would become both a rich inspiration for his scholarship and his home. Botkin first came to New York in 1920 to earn a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia University, and he returned to the city in 1923...

      (pp. 39-49)

      I was privileged to meet anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff on two occasions prior to her untimely death at the age of fifty in 1985. The first was when my wife, Amanda, and I invited both Myerhoff and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to a consultants’ meeting at our Washington, D.C., apartment for a project called the Grand Generation. I can vividly recall Myerhoff’s remarkable beauty and her humor—and I fondly recollect these two brilliant women bragging to one another about the bargains they had gotten on various items of clothing they were wearing at the time.

      I met Barbara Myerhoff again at a...

    • COMFORT IN CLOTH The Syracuse University Remembrance Quilt
      (pp. 50-57)

      On the evening of December 21, 1988, Pan American Flight 103 flew into the winter solstice skies over London’s Heathrow Airport as it began the final leg of a journey that originated in Frankfurt and was to conclude at New York’s JFK Airport. The plane carried 259 people; in addition, its cargo hold carried a suitcase that contained a radio cassette player filled with Semtex explosives. The bomb exploded at 7:03 p.m., breaking the plane into pieces. Passengers, their personal effects, and flaming debris rained onto Lockerbie, a small village in southern Scotland. All on board were killed, as well...

    • HERE WAS NEW YORK Memorial Images of the Twin Towers
      (pp. 58-64)

      To mark the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001, Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) Folk Arts mounted an exhibition, “Here Was New York: Memorial Images of the Twin Towers,” in eleven Brooklyn galleries from September 7 to 30, 2006. Consisting of 350 photographic images by 175 photographers, the exhibit was an homage and a counterpoint to “Here Is New York,” a photo exhibit (titled as a play on E. B. White’s famous essay in praise of the city and organized by Alice Rose George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan, and Charles Traub) that opened immediately after the attacks in 2001. Held in...

  5. PLAY

    • “I SAW MRS. SARAY, SITTING ON A BOMBALERRY” Ralph Ellison Collects Children’s Folklore in Harlem
      (pp. 67-85)

      Along Harlem streets, in housing projects and on playgrounds, Ralph Ellison employed his formidable gifts for observing and rendering speech play as a collector of children’s folklore. His collecting for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in 1939 represented one dimension of a lifelong engagement with African American folklore. This engagement extended from traditions acquired in his youth in Oklahoma City through works of fiction employing multiple folkloric genres and essays discussing the centrality of folklore for the African American experience and its indispensable role in cultural resilience. Collecting at a time of heavy African American migration from the South, Ellison...

      (pp. 86-93)

      Analyses have shown that developed forms of play typically include representations of attack, escape, accident, uncleanness, and alienation. Those five contexted perils and their associated emotions—anger, fear, shock, disgust, and sadness, respectively—appear even in the stories of very young children. After studying the stories of six two- and three-year-olds in New York City, we hypothesize that children revel in these stories because of the pervasiveness of distress and peril in their culture and families. In so doing, they create situations of pleasurable mild stress, which they can master through play. Children’s early stories are thus an early effort...

    • EMERGING TRADITIONS Dance Performances of the Sudanese DiDinga in Syracuse
      (pp. 94-105)

      Young male Sudanese refugees in Syracuse constantly improvise during their performances of danced songs. An initial study of their recontextualized traditions seeks to elucidate how group members draw on traditions in new situations, how the emerging traditions change in form, and, when form remains the same, what these traditions now mean for the young men who perform for an American audience unfamiliar with the richness of DiDinga culture.

      My relationship with the DiDinga refugees from Sudan began while I was teaching a symposium course, “Beauty in Cross-Cultural Contexts,” at Syracuse University. Prior to this project, my goal had been to...

    • FLYIN’ HIGH Kite Flying from the Silk Road to Roosevelt Avenue
      (pp. 106-114)

      I first went to see the Pakistani kite fliers in the summer of 2000 when many New York City folklorists were conducting fieldwork for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2001 Festival of American Folklife. It was fascinating to watch the kite teams “battle” and to speak with the fliers. I went back to watch the fliers once more in 2001, but have not seen them again, since they relocated to a new field after September 11, 2001. The post-9/11 world has brought momentous changes to the Pakistani community. Fearing security detentions, thousands of the city’s 120,000 Pakistani residents have left Brooklyn’s Little...

      (pp. 115-130)

      First played in New York City in the 1930s (Pilate 2005: 109–110), the bowling game petanque has become visible in the public spaces of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, next to Frisbee, badminton, volleyball, and tai chi. Today, this urban game is practiced by players of French origin (binational and expatriate), French-speaking immigrants of African origin, and, increasingly, English-speaking players. This article uses ethnographic data I collected in 2009 and 2011 to describe petanque play in New York City, including different playing areas, the history of local petanque clubs, important annual competitions and events, ordinary practice, and the personal journeys...

  6. WORK

    • MEDIATING BETWEEN TWO WORLDS The Sonideros of Mexican Youth Dances
      (pp. 133-144)

      The New York metropolitan area’s young Mexican immigrants are a community living in transition, continually shifting between their memory of Mexico and the reality of life here in the United States. Their weekend social events, called bailes, feature light shows, sound manipulations, and loud cumbia dance music played by deejays known as sonideros. The theme of being transported to another place runs through the evening, and in fact, in reading the poetic dedications and salutations composed by the young dancers, the sonidero takes them from Queens to Oaxaca, from Puebla to Paterson. Through the sonidero they maintain connections to Mexico...

    • IN THE MIDST OF A MONASTERY Filming the Making of a Buddhist Sand Mandala
      (pp. 145-153)

      In June 2005, I was selected by the New York Folklore Society to serve as a summer graduate intern at the Dutchess County Arts Council in Poughkeepsie. My first project was to assist folklorist Eileen Condon and a crew of fieldworkers in filming and photographing the Buddhist cultural festivities celebrated at the Kagyu Thubten Choling (KTC) monastery in Wappingers Falls, New York. I had been in the United States for one year at the time. As a Hindu from India, I am not altogether a stranger to Buddhism. As Eileen described the monastery’s stupa on the bank of the Hudson...

    • SET IN STONE The Art of Stonework and Wall Building in Westchester County
      (pp. 154-158)
      TOM van BUREN

      Stonework must surely rank as one of the oldest of folk arts, if only for the longevity of the material used—hence its presence in the historical record. While an immense but finite supply of wood drew Europeans to the shores of North America, once they had exhausted local forest stands through clearing, burning, ship building, and construction, stone became the material of choice. The ensuing works in stone have been the longest lasting remnants of vernacular architecture. In few places is this story more apparent than in the southeastern corner of New York State, where the Dutch first settled...

      (pp. 159-168)

      The backstretch of the thoroughbred racetrack at Saratoga Springs, New York, is an “intentional” community, a voluntary community forged through a common occupation—the care of the racehorse. Here the assistant trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, and others tend to the horses that are a locus for wealthy owners and high-society spectators and bettors. This backside community creates its own identity through naming practices, speech, and the use of language. It is a community that views itself as generous, open, and regular yet is marked by secrecy and control and ruled by chance. Because the workers’ future is never certain, allegiances...

    • STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS! Occupational Folklore of New York City Subway Workers
      (pp. 169-178)

      Studies of occupational lore vary widely, their subjects ranging from factory workers, librarians, college professors, and hospital workers to window washers and lawyers. Some dangerous occupations that have been examined include police officers, air force pilots-in-training, miners, and firefighters. In the transportation category, researchers have looked at New York City taxicab drivers, porters, and flight attendants. In almost all such studies, the emphasis is on logocentrism—the spoken over the written word. “Let the people speak for themselves,” as folklorist Jack Santino (1988) put it.

      Subway tales can be found in Sally Charnow and Steven Zeitlin’s folklore and oral history...


    • TWO SPIRITED PEOPLE Understanding Who We Are as Creation
      (pp. 181-191)

      Deborah: Would you like to start by telling me something about the significance of the name of your organization?

      Curtis: Well, we came up with the two names out of a book I think that many of us had read, called Living the Spirit, and there were two people, two characters or ancestors, who were written about in the book. And part of the original scope of what we were trying to do was not only to raise the visibility of gay and lesbian people in the Native community but also give some focus to the fact that we had...

    • CAMP WOODLAND Progressive Education and Folklore in the Catskill Mountains of New York
      (pp. 192-202)

      A summer camp once sought to help children understand the democratic roots of their country by exposing them to the traditions and tradition bearers of the Catskills. The camp grew out of New Deal programs that provided work for artists. Under the direction of Norman Studer, with the help of Herbert Haufrecht and Norman Cazden, youngsters collected folk songs and stories, learned traditional crafts, and documented the disappearing traditions of the region’s people. The camp’s integrated population and celebration of local tradition bearers seemed subversive to some, however, and with its director under pressure, it closed in 1962. But its...

    • EMPLOYING MUSIC IN THE CAUSE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE Ruth Crawford Seeger and Zilphia Horton
      (pp. 203-214)

      Communicating political principles through music was the strategy of two musicians of the mid-twentieth century. In New York City, early in her career, Ruth Crawford Seeger composed avant-garde classical pieces with a political message. Later, in Washington, D.C., she turned to transcribing folk songs as a means of moving political ideas across American social classes. Zilphia Horton, working in rural Appalachia, used music as direct action on the picket lines of the labor movement and later in the civil rights movement. Through the leadership programs at the Highlander Folk School, Horton taught folk music to many civil rights leaders. Each...

    • BURNING MESSAGES Interpreting African American Fraternity Brands and Their Bearers
      (pp. 215-224)

      Some members of black Greek letter organizations voluntarily scar themselves by branding. Understanding this ritual requires going beyond the brand’s physical form and examining the personal and organizational narrative histories that often accompany it. As participants in an ongoing dialogue about what branding means today, fraternity members informally negotiate with brothers who do not support branding, family members who struggle with what it means to their own group identity, and, most importantly, popular culture, which holds negative associations. The men who undergo branding, however, invert the narratives that explain branding as a mark of ownership and slavery and insist on...

  8. FOOD

      (pp. 227-231)

      In the mountains and woods of northern New York, wild game has been a significant part of the diets of many residents, beginning with the wandering Iroquois tribes before the permanent white settlements of two centuries ago. The bounty of native wildlife has been described in many of the accounts of life here. Early families depended on wild meat for survival. Today, it’s more of a delicacy, and one can only look forward to it occasionally. Certain cooks in logging camps, hunting lodges, and restaurants have become known for their mastery of the peculiar textures and tastes of wild game....

      (pp. 232-241)

      In the days following September 11, 2001, the media seemed fascinated by Americans’ turn to comfort foods and social evenings with friends. Arugula at the trendy bistro was out, and meatloaf at the kitchen table was in. Those horrible days may have marked the only time that rural New Yorkers have found themselves at the forefront of any trend; around here, cooks have always been judged by the creaminess of the scalloped potatoes, and communal meals have been the cornerstone of social structure.

      Where I live in the North Country, and I suspect in other rural areas of the state...

      (pp. 242-245)

      “I am the accumulated memory and waistline of the dead restaurants of New York,” writes the poet Bob Hershon, “and the dishes that will never be set before us again, the snow pea leaves in garlic at the Ocean Palace, the blini and caviar at the Russian Tea Room, the osso buco at the New Port Alba, the kasha varnishkes at the Second Avenue Deli, the veal ragout at C’ent Anni.”¹ I’m with Hershon—for where but in memory can I ever again find the spicy taste of the pla phrik sot at Siam Square, with its unique mix of...

    (pp. 246-247)
    (pp. 248-251)
  11. About the Contributors
    (pp. 252-259)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 260-263)