Folklore Isn’t Dead: Q&A with Elizabeth Tucker on Historical and Contemporary Legends

Having spent so much time researching, thinking and writing (well, considerably less time writing) about folklore in the historical sense, I find myself overlooking the fact that folklore is alive and well today. Settings and motifs may change, along with narrative conventions and methods of transmission, but we’ve never stopped creating and telling these tales.

I don’t know much about the current folk culture, and am by no means an authority on folklore as a whole. So I turned to Elizabeth Tucker, PhD., who studies, writes, and teaches about folklore and legends at Binghamton University. She is also the former president of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, which, as the name suggests, is a group of scholars who study contemporary legends.


Q: How did your interest in the topic of folklore begin?

A:  I became interested in folklore as a Master’s degree student at Buffalo State College. While studying English literature, I happened to hear Professor Lydia Fish give a lecture on traditional English and Scottish popular ballads. She played her guitar and sang several ballads beautifully. Right away, I knew I had found a field that was more enchanting than study of printed literature.

Q: Folklore to most people is a historical topic. But it is also studied as a contemporary phenomenon. What are some commonalities and differences between traditional and contemporary folklore–in terms of motifs, methods of transmission, and so on?

A: Folklore has many contemporary manifestations that are rooted in historical tradition. For example, in the 1960s and early 1970s people told contemporary legends about spiders being found in “beehive” hairdos young women wore. These legends warned young women to take better care of their hair and avoid embarrassing infestation. Similarly, certain medieval sermons warned young women to watch out for the Devil in the form of a spider, who could keep from paying attention to what the minister was saying in church. The traditional motif G303.6.1.4, Devil appears when woman looks at herself in mirror after sunset, comes from legends that warn women against vanity. A contemporary legend without that warning tells of Bloody Mary appearing in a mirror and suggesting that young people who want to see her can do so by repeating her name five times.

Q: Why is the study of folklore important?

A: Folklore deserves to be studied because it epitomizes the hopes, fears, and dreams of people as they move through different age stages. Through folk tradition, we become part of various groups, make exciting discoveries, and console ourselves for serious losses.

Q: What is your favorite traditional/historical legend, and why?

A: I have many favorite historical legends; one of the ones I like best is about King Arthur, who is said to lie sleeping beneath the hollow hills of England. When England needs him most, he will arise from his slumber and do whatever his beloved country needs. This is a very old legend that makes people feel more secure about the future, even though it may seem rather unrealistic.

Q: What is your favorite contemporary legend, and why?

A: I especially enjoy ghost legends. Recently two of my students have told me about seeing dark, shadowy figures in our campus’s Nature Preserve. They are not sure where these figures come from and what they mean, and neither is anyone else. Their stories are especially interesting because of this intriguing uncertainty.

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