Folklore and Folklife

By: Francis Edward Abernethy

Type: General Entry

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: September 11, 2020

Folklore is, in one workable and rememberable definition, the traditional knowledge of a culture. More inclusively, it is the traditional customs and beliefs, speech patterns, stories, and songs that a culture passes along informally from one group or generation to another. It must be old enough to have separated itself from its origins and must be plastic enough to be moulded by each generation to suit its needs and attitudes. The term folklife falls within the definition of folklore but is mainly concerned with arts and crafts, customs and traditions. The folklore of Texas is Texas folklore only because it passed through the state during the course of its eternal ramblings. Texas folklore is the heir of many cultures. Paleo-Americans and then Indians were the first to come within the state's boundaries with their cultures. The Indians' culture shock when they met the Spanish in the sixteenth century could not have been greater had the conquistadors been from another planet. In the following centuries of settlement people continued to come, with new ways of talking and believing and doing things, with their own folklore. Spanish and Mexican folklore set the patterns south of the Nueces and along the Rio Grande. Anglos crossed the Sabine and the Red rivers, bringing their ways of life from the British Isles through the Tidewater to the South and to East Texas and beyond. African Americans, brought to work the big plantations on the Brazos and Trinity bottoms, carried songs and stories and beliefs that still bore traces of Africa in them. Germans came directly from the Old World and carried their lore up the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers to the Hill Country. The Cajuns brought theirs from France to Nova Scotia, then to Louisiana and on into the Coastal Plain of Southeast Texas. The Dutch went to Nederland, the Danes to Danevang, the Poles to Panna Maria, the Czechs to Praha, the Norwegians to Norse-and they all took their own ways of life, their folklore, that had bound them together in durable communities.

This imported folklore that became Texas folklore is distinguished by five characteristics. First, folklore is passed along by word of mouth, by demonstration, or by a combination of the two. The creation myths of the Alabama-Coushatta Indians, the legends of Gregorio Cortez Lira, and the lyrics to "Weevily Wheat" were transmitted orally. The craft of quilting in the Texas Star pattern was passed along by demonstration. Learning to dance the Cotton-Eyed Joe requires both. Second, folklore is traditional. It is passed from one particular people, place, or time to another in a fixed form that maintains cultural continuity. Some East Texas deer hunters still hunt with dogs and blow horn signals that can be traced back to the Middle Ages; they blood a hunter on his first kill and cut off his shirttail (a castration substitute) when he misses an easy shot. Cowboys follow many dress and work customs of the vaquero, who was working cattle 300 years before the post-Civil War Texas cowboy was born. Third, folklore is variable and is continually being changed by those who use it. That classical "Texas" cowboy song, "Streets of Laredo," changed many times before it got to that Rio Grande town. The song had its beginning in the latter part of the eighteenth century as a broadside ballad. It was originally about an English soldier who was dying of syphilis at St. James Infirmary in London. The title of the broadside was "The Unfortunate Rake." It changed setting, characters, and cause of death in its long journey to Texas. Jack Thorp in his 1908 edition of Songs of the Cowboys set the song in Galveston. John A. Lomax published it in 1910 as "The Cowboy's Lament" and set it in Laredo. "The Unfortunate Rake," following another path to Texas, evolved into the classical blues song, "St. James Infirmary." Fourth, folklore is anonymous because it is passed along by those who are continually remaking it to suit their moods and needs, and authorship is lost in transmission. No one knows who invented the first dog-run houses or who first set down the words to "Shoot the Buffalo" or "Sally Goodin." And fifth, folklore is formularized, or set in traditional patterns. The pattern of threes is widespread; we read about the Three Bears, Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the Christian and Hindu Trinities. Seven is a traditional formulaic number, as illustrated by the Seven Sisters, the days of the week, and Snow White's dwarfs. Stories are still sung to the medieval ballad stanza of "Barbara Allen" and told with a "once-upon-a-time" beginning and the youngest-is-best Cinderella theme.

Folklore is not restricted to studies of antiquities and rural life, but includes modern lore. As much folklore is promulgated by modern journalism, on college campuses, and in businesses as was by West Texas cowboys. Folklore is timeless and is as much a part of the present as it is of the past. All of the academic disciplines were at one time a part of the lore of the folk, passed along orally, traditionally, anonymously, and continually changing to fit a culture's contemporary occasions and attitudes. In mathematics the manipulation of numbers was once a priestly exercise. All of the fine arts-music, painting, sculpture-were preceded by folk arts. Drama began as imitative magic. History and literature began as stories told and handed down. Meteorology began with Zeuses and Thors and Jehovahs who controlled the below from the above. The knowledge of wheels, screws, and inclined planes became physics; and the study of the four basic elements-earth, air, fire, and water-led the way to the valence tables in chemistry. Geology was simpler when the world was flat, twice as long as it was wide, and created in 4004 B.C. Medicine began with folk cures. And anthropology, archeology, and all the social studies are studies of folklore because they deal with customs, traditions, religions, tools, and tales that the folk use together to bind themselves together in surviving communities and cultures.

Folklore is generally classified under four basic groupings: oral literature, material culture, folk custom, and performing folk arts. Oral literature includes the traditional prose narrative forms: myth, legend, and folktale. Folk songs and ballads are also in oral literature, as are riddles and proverbs. In children's folklore counting-out rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, and other game chants are in oral folk literature. Texas folk speech falls under this heading and includes three major American dialects-Southern Mountain, Deep South, and Southwestern-as well as folk naming and regional vocabularies. This does not take into account the speech and vocabularies of Blacks, Hispanics, and two dozen (at least) other ethnic groups. Material culture includes Texas arts and crafts: the pots the Caddos made, Spanish ironwork, Mexican horsehair bridles and lariats, and furniture styles brought from the Old World and modified in the New. Texas material culture includes children's toys, yard art and distinctive mail boxes, clothes made out of the materials at hand, and foods cooked from what was in the pantry or the garden. Material culture includes all the log, rock, and adobe houses that Texans built, the rugs they crocheted, and the bowls that they carved. Folk social customs include group activities that are performed usually to bind a group together. Celebrating Texas Independence Day and all the other specially observed days of the year keeps us surviving as one people. Modern berry picking, fox hunting, and trot lining apply the social cement to the participating group as did old-time barn raising, log rolling, or corn husking. The games that children play-One-eyed Cat, Wolf Over the River, marbles, tops, and knife games-are traditional. The formalities of religions-marriages, christenings, rites of passage from one religious or age state to another, funerals-are the traditions that tie groups and generations together. Dogwood, Black-Eyed Pea, Rose festivals; the Texas Folklife Festival; Schützenfeste, Juneteenth, and Cinco de Mayo: these are a few of the folk social customs that hold groups together. Folk performing arts include those activities that people do for their own and others' entertainment. Folk songs, the words of which are part of oral literature, becomes performed folk art when they are sung for the satisfaction of an audience or for personal pleasure. Square dances, Josey parties, and all the forms of round dancing are kinds of performed art. Folk drama is performed for an audience; religious folk drama is performed for the church and God and an audience. Often the categories overlap. Folk drama-the Matachines, for example-is a performed art using oral literature, with material-cultural masks and costumes, and acted out as a periodic social custom. Most folklore, when in use, becomes a natural part of life, rather than a classified part of folklore. Classification is for purposes of study.

The study of folklore in Texas was begun when travelers such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Nat Taylor commented incidentally on their observations of Texas life. Reminiscences of early Texas by Noah Smithwick and John C. Duval are invaluable carriers of accounts of Texas folklore. Serious academic preservation and publication of Texas folklore began with the founding of the Texas Folklore Society in 1909. The Center for Intercultural Studies in Folklore and Ethnomusicology at the University of Texas, founded in 1967, now offers degrees in folklore. And the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, founded in 1968, provides a museum of Texas folklore and culture and an annual Texas Folklife Festival, which is a celebration of the folklore of the many ethnic groups that settled Texas. The folklore of this land is rich with the variety of its people. All colors, shades, and kinds have mingled with the flow and have made their languages, customs, and cultures into the state we call Texas. See also other articles beginning with FOLK, articles on ethnic and Indian groups, and ARCHITECTURE, CURANDERISMO, DIALECTS, FIESTAS PATRIAS, LITERATURE, MEXICAN-AMERICAN FOLK ARTS AND CRAFTS, and TEX-MEX FOODS.

Francis Edward Abernethy and Dan Beaty, eds., The Folklore of Texan Cultures (Austin: Encino, 1974). Francis E. Abernethy, "The Universality of Folklore," in Introduction to Folklore (Nacogdoches: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 1983). James T. Bratcher, Analytical Index to Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Volumes 1–36 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1973). Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2d ed. (1978). Richard M. Dorson, ed., Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Francis Edward Abernethy, “Folklore and Folklife,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 05, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
September 11, 2020