Folklore Lecture Two: Folklore and Oral Tradition

Three Aspects of Words in the Oral Tradition

First, oral tradition, as “spoken,” always has a particular human speaker.  An individual human person, in a singular human voice, is the one who passes on every folklore tradition.  Persons hailing from oral traditions (as the Native American traditions described by Allen) are quite aware of this special and important characteristic of oral traditions.  A Chehalis elder was stating the priorities of her own oral tradition when she said to me, “Everything important told around here was told person to person.  Anything else is just false.”

Second, spoken words themselves are considered infinitely more important–and more binding–in oral than in written traditions.  We say, “Get it in writing,” if we want someone’s words to have a binding quality.  In oral tradition, spoken words already have this same quality.  It was from this perspective that (when I was teaching in the Middle East) some of my Palestinian students argued against our notion of “freedom of speech.”  That idea was as absurd to them as it would have been to us for everyone to make their own legislation.  Words were simply too laden with import, meaning, and social consequences to be “let loose” in this way.  Rules governing auto traffic, for instance, were more easily dispensed with (a rather harrowing situation for a Westerner!) than were rules governing spoken language.  And to violate such rules of speech, even unwittingly (to neglect to bargain in the marketplace, for instance) was to place oneself outside the realm of considerate human treatment–to open oneself to all manner of cheating and deception.  In oral traditions, the central power of words in passing on traditional knowledge commonly leads to the exceedingly careful use of words in other contexts as well.  In many traditional stories, this is underscored by the idea that a single word means the difference between life and death.  See if you can pick out this importance of words in the stories in the lessons that follow, in which the words story characters speak and the way they are spoken radically influence the course of events, not only in human life but in the natural world.

Third, those who live within oral tradition commonly see their world as a world of speakers, each with their own distinct and important voices, whose integrity must be honored.  As members of many Native American peoples with whom I have worked said, again and again, “No one speaks for anyone else.”  The world of oral tradition is nothing if not an animated world, a world constructed of voices: voices of individual persons, of animals, of the natural landscape, and of other mysterious creatures, part-human, part-“monster,” that nonetheless show us important parts of ourselves.  Ancestral tradition itself speaks to us here as a collection of voices.  The Laguna Pueblo storyteller Leslie Marmon Silko tells us that no tradition is a complete one without all the particular voices of its members.  For each of those voices makes up an essential part of the story that is the history of the life experience of a people that folklore depicts.

Nor was this world of voices limited to the world of human speakers.  One Native man stated that he could not sign a treaty proposed by the U. S. government, since, although he could sign away his own rights to the land, there was no one at the treaty proceedings to speak for the other dwellers on the land–the animals and the plants.

The purpose of the adolescent vision quest undertaken by many Native peoples throughout North America was to hear the “voice” of a particular non-human spirit in the world around them–and through this voice obtain the song that would give them personal power in their future lives.

Classically, the world of speakers in oral tradition is also a world in which “everything is alive.”  Further, this is what gives mythology its important function in empowering human action.  It is only within a “living” world, a moving and changing one (a world that can “speak back” to us) that one can seriously effect a course of events.  In a world of objects, events cannot be effected–for they are pre-determined; already, in that sense, “finished.”  Among the Pitt River peoples of northern California, there is no word for “object,” nor any category that distinguishes human life from animal life or any other:  All things are considered equally alive and related, as co-equal “speakers.”  A frustrated anthropologist trying to elicit a vocabulary of “objects” in the Pitt River language was finally told that the only Pitt River concept of “object” was “dead person”–which they never thought of using until they met whites–who appeared to be “dead people” themselves, since they were taken with seeing so much in the world around them as “dead!”

“I am alive,” says Momaday, “and therefore I stand in relation.”  Language implies relationship:  a speaker and a listener.  Words are of no use to one alone in the world.

 The Power of Words

In line with the above qualities of oral traditions, we can summarize the ways in which words and the persons who speak them have “power” in the context of oral tradition.  Words have the power to express the personal voice (the personality and spirit) of their speaker, human or otherwise.  They have the power to impress on reality a cognitive pattern:  one that can be transferred between human generations, and with which human persons can learn to interact and to influence the world around them.

The “power” of words is indicated, in turn, by the professional standing of storytellers within oral traditions. Robert Graves tells us how, in ancient Wales, the poet sat at the right hand of the local leader and advised him, since, as storyteller, he or she was also considered a seer.  In conclusion, let me once more cite Scott Momaday (from his Way to Rainy Mountain):  “A word has power….By means of words can we deal with the world on equal terms.”

 Song and Story

Music has often been used to amplify and underscore the meaning of folklore. Songs and stories are virtually inseparable in folkloristic traditions.  Not only do songs themselves often tell stories (as in the Irish, British, American, or Mexican-American ballads which all of us have heard), but song is an often indispensable device used for implementing orated stories, as well.

In the story of the “Bird Who Talked Three Times” from Spain, animals who sing are magical, almost human, in their conception.  And a melody plays an essential part in holding together particular parts of this story.  In another story I tell, from the Native American Southwest, an elf is able to overcome a giant with the power of his song, whose words and melody are both part of that power.

In Astrov’s The Magic Creativeness of the Word, which outlines Native American folklore, we see the important use of song among Native American peoples, whether it be for expressing their personal (spiritual) power, for expressing and handling their emotions, for making them secure in strange territories, for comforting children, for healing the sick, or “just for fun.”  It was a song with which these peoples faced the challenges of their lives–and their deaths.  (Among some of them, each individual person had a personal “death song” which would allow him or her to meet his or her death with a sense of personal power and meaning.)

Among a number of cultures in Africa, the rhythm of children’s group songs is used to teach children the skills for and the importance of working together.  Among some peoples, children are taught to walk in a circle of adults who encourage the children to move back and forth between various persons in the circle while clapping and singing to a particular rhythm.  Later, the walking of these peoples to gather foods (perhaps forty miles a day) takes on a fluid and dance-like, almost effortless, rhythm.  And hunting for large game animals, which can only be done in groups, is done with subtle attunement of the group of hunters to one another’s body movements, an attunement they have consciously learned from dancing and singing together.

Among the Zuni, as illustrated by Dennis Tedlock’s carefully annotated translation of Zuni myth, Finding the Center, the traditional forms of Zuni stories are very songlike:  The voice rises and falls and has characteristically different intonations at different parts of the stories.  Paula Gunn Allen points out the characteristic use of repetition in southwestern Native American religious ceremonials.  This same repetition that registers as a mental “rhythm of ideas” in ceremonial myth may also be accomplished or accompanied by the rhythm of song.

In Native American stories throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Transformer-Creator who makes the world transforms those he meets into what they will be in the future by eliciting their songs.  The personal songs with which they meet this Transformer (symbolic of time itself) literally determine their future and that of their descendents.  The man who sings he is shaping a weapon to kill the Transformer, for instance, is made to wear that weapon (a stick) on his tail and become the animal who is himself hunted (deer) even as he has sung of hunting down the Transformer.

Among the Chehalis, it was a song that allowed one to use the power one gained on a vision quest.  And if one were especially apathetic and uninterested in life among the Puget Sound peoples (a “disease” seen in this culture as a kind of “soul loss”–we ourselves might see it, in parallel fashion, as a loss of spirit), a cure might be effected by having a shaman sing the afflicted person’s personal song to him or her.  In the excerpts from Songlines which are assigned reading for this lesson, we can see the ways in which songs express both geographical knowledge and social etiquette among the Australian aborigine.  In the “songlines” of these people are their religious meaning as a people, their intimate sense of their land and its plants and animals, the interrelationships between various families among the many tribes of this great desert area of Australia, and the personal power of individuals, each of whom has a different “spiritual” ancestor in these songlines.

As we can see by all of these examples, the importance of folksong in human traditions can hardly be overestimated.

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