I am happy to be here this afternoon for a number of reasons: First, I am happy to be back home in Louisiana after having been gone for so long. Second, I am happy to appear before you as a member of the faculty of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I have long known that Lafayette was the only city in Louisiana that I was interested in returning to. At the university I am pleased to count not only two of the nation’s best folklorists as my colleagues, but I have been amazed with the generosity and elan of my many other colleagues. As you are too sadly aware, education always remains one of the lowest priorities in Louisiana, but the people I have come to call friends and coworkers have a remarkable spirit that keeps them not only giving our students a superb education but developing groundbreaking research in the humanities and the sciences.
The Study of People
I appear before you this afternoon, then, as a happy man and as a folklorist. As a folklorist, I find myself existing in that space between the humanities and the sciences. In contrast with science, folklore is the study of human beings as human beings and not as monkeys. I do not prod, poke, or otherwise disembowel or disenfranchise the individuals with whom I work. Neither I nor they are anonymous. If I want to know how urban Appalachians live in Cincinnati, then I walk into one of their neighborhoods and I walk up to a door and I knock on it. I introduce myself, and before long I find myself drawn into a human relationship which will change me forever. Always for the better.
Folklore is the science of making friends with people you normally wouldn�t make friends with.
In contrast with the humanities, folklore is the study of people not because we are alienated and alone but because we are drawn together in human community in order not simply to survive but to thrive. Why do I emphasize thrift over survival? Because despite the all too often made assertion that excellence is achieved by the few, be they CEOs of multinational corporations or famous artists like Leonard Bernstein or John Singer Sargent or William Faulkner, excellence is achieved by many and quite often. Such a notion of a limited pool of talent for humankind is an invention of the last few hundred years�as a folklorist I take the long view�and is intended to turn us away from each other and towards those ready to supply us, for a price. (Television is perhaps the fullest realization of this idea.)
Against Leonard Bernstein, I give you Bee Deshotels singing the Mamou version of the Mardi Gras song. [Track 2.]
Against John Singer Sargent, I give you Rahime Bal?i, who weaves these rugs from yarns she has dyed with her husband Ahmet, who also acts as her agent, in Ahmetler, Turkey.
Against William Faulkner, I give you Ray Hicks, telling the story of Jack and the Fire Dragon to family and friends.
But, you worry, why should we be impressed by mere repetition, someone hearing a song and then singing it, someone seeing a rug and then reproducing it, someone hearing a tale and then telling it? As anyone who has played the telephone game knows, no two stories are alike: because we are human, because our memories are not perfect, because our hearing is not perfect, but most importantly, because we like to put a little bit of ourselves in everything we do, we make subtle, sometimes unconscious but most often conscious, changes in the things we hear or see and repeat. Whether it be the way our mothers made gumbo or our fathers told a joke, we take a little bit of them and mix it with a little bit of us whenever we make something ourselves. More importantly, in the process of making something else we make ourselves, for what are we besides creatures set here to converse with each other, cook for each other, and sing for each other? How else are we known besides the things we do and say? That is who we are, that is how we want to be known and remembered, and that is what folklorists study.
It comes as no surprise then that Ray Hicks would put his own stamp on the story of Jack and the Fire Dragon, with the fire dragon �chugging on an old pipe� much in the same way that Hicks often did as he told stories, mixing the world of the story with the world of its telling and bringing not only us closer to the story but also to each other. It should also come as no surprise that the story Ray Hicks tells is startlingly close to a story to be found in the collection of stories the Grimm�s produced almost two hundred years ago. Was Ray Hicks aware of this when he told his story? Perhaps not, but sometimes tellers of stories and makers of objects are aware of the history behind the things they do and make. The history itself is less important, and less revealing in the end, than the fact that we still do and make these things.
Now I used the word history just now, and I should pause to differentiate between the study of folklore and the study of history. History is the study of what changes. What empires rise and fall; what great men who come along and change the course of events; what paintings or novels precede later paintings and novels. In contrast, folklore is the study of what does not change, what repeats over time and space. It is the story of what remains so important to us that we prefer to keep it as it is. We are so trained to anticipate and value change that we forget how reliant we are on what stays the same. If we had to invent the language we speak everyday, or if we changed it completely everyday, how would we communicate? And yet, when it comes to the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we inhabit, we demand a certain amount of change. A certain amount. An amount sufficient to indicate our awareness and appreciation of the importance of change, but not so vast that we must remake ourselves and our society upon waking each morning. This is what folklorists look for, that mass of the iceberg beneath the superficial changes that reveals to us what is truly important to us as human beings.
That is one reason why I am so excited to be home in Louisiana: we live in a state which is only interested in what modernity can offer us which is truly useful and worthwhile – which, so far, is much more limited than Madison Avenue and the commercials for “dot com” companies would have us believe. It is perhaps because of this relative disinterest that we remain so poor economically. Despite our poverty, or perhaps because of it, millions of people from across the nation and around the world every year flock to take in Mardi Gras, New Orleans, the Liberty Theater, our food, our music, our ways. We have something they don’t have: we have each other.
This is, of course, obvious to even the untrained eye observing any of the country Mardi Gras’s here in Lafayette: neighbors band together in order to entertain each other and to assemble a meal to which all will be invited, bringing fellowship and gaiety and a full stomach during a time of year when the countryside is a bit brown, a bit bleak, and a bit boring.
When Bee Deshotels sings the Mardi Gras song as a member of the Mamou run, he is singing a song which has remained relatively unchanged for four hundred years. When Claude Durio wields his whip during one of the Iota Mardi Gras runs, he wields an artifact that is over one thousand years old – the whip was an important part of the Roman lupercalia, where men beat women in order to make them fertile. When Creole Mardi Gras runners chase down children and make them say their prayers, they are stressing not only the importance of God in our lives but the importance of us facing the difficulties of this world not only with an eye heavenward but also with an eye to each other. Yes, God exists, but he dwells in each of us and if we truly believe that, then we must also believe that each of us is capable of grace and beauty and truth. Each and every one of us. That is why I am a folklorist, and that is why I am thankful to be here today.