From the epic poems of Sumer (Gilgamesh)

From China to Israel to the United States, folk literature exists wherever there are humans to tell stories or to sing songs.

Come hear more about these pieces of oral heritage and encounter some examples of the genre that you’re sure to recognize!

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Writing the Unwritten: Folk Literature Defined

Do you remember any of the old melodies that your grandparents used to hum, or maybe you had an uncle who caught a record fish on every trip? These and likely many more of the stories and songs you’ve ever heard are examples of folklore: oral traditions of singing or storytelling. When we write down these songs or stories, the resulting preservation of oral traditions is known as folk literature.So, what’s the big difference, right? Well, let’s consider this question: Who ‘wrote’ it? Some of the earliest Western examples of folklore that we’re still aware of can be found in the epic poems of Sumer (Gilgamesh) and Greece (Iliad ; Odyssey). Although people have tried to attribute these massive works and other folk songs to a single author for millennia, the truth is we simply can’t do that with any amount of certainty. This is because folklore – as a heritage that is traditionally passed on vocally rather than by the written word – is truly a product of a culture, not an individual. Folk ‘literature’ on the other hand can be said to be a writer’s version of songs or stories that were previously circulated only by mouth.

For instance, we might be familiar with the Grimm brothers’ version of the fairy tale Cinderella, but many other forms of this story have existed, as well.

Since antiquity, people have attributed the Greek epics to the blind bard Homer (above), though it is obvious they are a part of a much larger oral tradition.
Bust of Homer

Aside from folk songs and fairy tales, folklore comes in all shapes and sizes.

We can expect then the same sort of variety in folk literature. In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of folktales, narratives often involving humans performing superhuman tasks (i.e. the tornado wrangler, Pecos Bill). Many of these have found their way into collections of such stories or have been transmitted through an author’s reinterpretation of the tradition (i.

e. Mark Twain). All over the globe, proverbs – sayings or stories meant to illustrate ethical issues – have also been carefully collected in volumes for many years. Books devoted to or incorporating things like fables, anecdotes, parables, or even jokes also serve to preserve these folk traditions.With so many examples of folk literature to choose from, it’s difficult to pick just a few to show you! Nevertheless, it will hopefully feel like meeting an old friend when you take a look at these familiar songs and stories.

Examples of Folk Literature

Bingo

Epic poems are by far not the only folk songs out there. For instance, there’s this famous example that children have been singing since the 18th century. This beloved tune about a farmer’s dog named ‘Bingo’ was first copied down in the 1780’s and has seen many different changes over the years as it spread from Britain to America and other English-speaking areas. However, the dog’s ‘name-o’ has always been the same!

Snow White

With enchanted mirrors, poisoned apples, and wicked stepmothers, the story of Snow White is your typical fairy tale, full of magic and fantasy.

Of course, the Brothers Grimm were some of the first to record this German folklore in literary form during the 19th century. But many others since then have adapted this story in their own ways. For instance, the screenplays of the Disney and other screen versions of Snow White vary greatly between one another and the Grimm telling, but nonetheless serve to preserve this cherished story.

The Tale of John Henry

This folktale of the ‘Steel-Drivin’ Man’ has been circulated in the hills of West Virginia from the end of the Civil War. Once a slave, John Henry gained his freedom and began working for the C;O Railroad as a steel-driver. Henry was so renowned for his prowess with a hammer that some businessmen bet that he couldn’t outperform their new steam drill in digging a tunnel. With a hammer in each hand, the steel-driver of course beat the drill, but collapsed dead from the effort. This Appalachian folktale can today be found anywhere – from folk literature anthologies to school textbooks!

A statue of John Henry outside the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, where he reportedly beat the steam drill
The Book of Proverbs

Many of the short ethical sayings and stories from around the world have existed for millennia, and it’s no different with the Hebrew Mishle (‘Proverbs’) recorded in the biblical Old Testament. Like other proverbs, those of the ancient Jewish tradition focus on the perpetuation of wisdom by giving brief, memorable quotes and stories. The topics of these range anywhere from laziness and alcoholic overindulgence to how to be a good neighbor or how to be productive by living like the ant.

Lesson Summary

Folk literature is a genre dedicated to preserving oral traditions. This heritage of vocally transmitted songs and stories is known collectively as folklore. Folklore is a cultural group effort; however, literary versions can be identified with definite authors once they write them down.There are many kinds of folk literature, including folk songs, which have been passed down through ancient epics (i.

e. Gilgamesh ; Odyssey) and even children’s songs (i.e. Bingo).

Other forms appear as fantastic fairy tales (i.e. Cinderella & Snow White) or folktales, such as those surrounding the superhuman achievements of Pecos Bill or John Henry. Others still show up as wise proverbs (i.e. Hebrew Mishle), or can even take on the forms of fables, anecdotes, parables, or jokes.

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