August 8, 2014 3:38 PM   Subscribe

Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason "After all, the story [of Ring Around the Rosie's plague origins] is itself folklore: a tale that was passed on by word of mouth first, then in writing and online media. And because it is also about folklore, folklorists classify it as 'metafolklore': folklore about folklore."
posted by Thomas Tallis is my Homeboy (9 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Related: everyone needs more William Blake in their life.
posted by Fizz at 3:42 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I realize this post is about folklore but my mind immediately thought of William Blake and the variations on his poem "The Tyger". Maybe its not relevant at all, but just where my mind ended up.
posted by Fizz at 3:48 PM on August 8, 2014

Mentioning Tyger without also mentioning Ted Hughes? For shame!
posted by ostranenie at 3:54 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Huh. That's so interesting. I wish I could remember who first told me it was about the Plague, but I've always just thought it was a cast-iron fact and I'm sure I've passed it on too. The stuff you learn here! Thanks, great wee post.

(Also, why did my careers teacher at school never tell me that "folklorist" was a thing? I feel cheated.)
posted by billiebee at 4:13 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

This (and especially this) is making me feel either better or worse about my penchant for totally buying these sorts of origin stories.

I am no longer stoned out of my mind (from prescription drugs) and I seem to be getting slightly better about trying to, oh, fact check such things.
posted by Michele in California at 4:39 PM on August 8, 2014

My heroes the Opies weren't taken in by it! . . . but I was (when I first read about it 25 years ago or so).

Folklife Today looks like a great blog. Thanks for the introduction.
posted by jamjam at 5:28 PM on August 8, 2014

Like jamjam, I've had Iona and Peter Opies's The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, as well as with their The Classic Fairy Tales, for many years and both are treasured books in my library.

I first became interested in the scholarship of folklore as a result of Jan Harold Brunvand's popular works in the eighties. That lead me to the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban which, in turn, opened up for a number of related topics.

People tend to assume that the study of folklore is like some naive combination of the study of history and literature. But, like both those other topics, folklore is only really comprehensible when placed into sociological and related contexts. Which is to say, the thing I find most interesting about folklore isn't the history of particular bits of folklore, but how folklore propagates and evolves, and the functions it serves.

In this sense, though what Winick describes is, literally, metafolklore, really it's just folklore. The stories we tell about folklore is folklore, it behaves as folklore behaves. Being meta doesn't really change its character.

And it's important to understand that from the scholarly perspective, the truth value of folklore isn't essential. It's an important component and is interesting, yes, but being false (or true) isn't what makes folklore, folklore. What makes folklore is, again, how it behaves and what social functions it serves.

I'm interested in science-related folklore, which I guess I'll expand as folklore about scholarly or technical topics. The folklore about glass being a liquid that flows in windowpanes was a particular interest of mine, for example. All so-called urban folklore has a character of being secret or arcane knowledge; the beauty of science and scholarly folklore is that it sort of compounds this, being arcane knowledge about subjects that are themselves arcane (in the larger social context). One way to think about these things is within the context of cultural capital: that glass flows in windows or that Ring Around the Rosie is about the plague are tokens of cultural capital, small demonstrations of acquisition. And, from a cultural capital perspective, debunking these things when they're false, as these two examples are, is another set of tokens that demonstrate an even greater amount of cultural capital.

Anyway, a big part of the appeal of these kinds of folklore is the sense of having peeked behind the curtain, to be in on a secret about something commonplace. The frisson that someone might experience in the irony understood as they walk by children brightly singing and playacting Ring Around the Rosie is, for them, a kind of pleasure. It feels like a kind of wisdom. It feels as if, once you've heard this bit of folklore, that you've somehow seen both the great sweep of history and the beauty and horror of life revealed every time you hear children singing the song.

But of course this particular bit of folklore is false. And even if it were true, bits of knowledge about the world are not keys which unlock its secrets. That's the false promise of arcana.

True knowledge comes from understanding larger patterns and those patterns in context. True or false, the folklore about Ring Around the Rosie is most interesting and valuable as folklore and, furthermore, this is very true about Ring Around the Rosie itself.

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren is sadly remarkable in that it was both the first truly scholarly work about children's culture and there've been scant few scholars who've followed in their footsteps. Which is deeply weird. Because what we have in children's folklore is a conserved cultural product that exists in parallel and largely independent of adult culture. Adults do transmit quite a bit of children's culture to children, yes. But a very large amount is primarily transmitted child-to-child, independent of adults. And there is quite a bit of it -- from games to ryhmes to chants and songs, to dominance rituals and other behaviors, there is a universe for folklorists, anthropologists, and sociologists to explore. Rather than thinking to oneself that the children are singing about the plague when you hear Ring Around the Rosie, you should think to yourself, who taught them that song?, why has its form been so stable?, and, also, why do adults find it so delightful to believe that the children are unknowingly singing about the Black Death?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:32 AM on August 9, 2014 [91 favorites]

The Library of Congress has blogs? And not just Folklife Today, there's more? New time sink! So thanks for posting this, and I guess you'll be seeing less of me on MetaFilter for a while. (This comes on the heels of finding out there are bunch of linguists on tumblr, via languagehat, I think.)
posted by nangar at 8:04 AM on August 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

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