We are going to close out our unit on culture by looking at folk culture, which encourages diversity and popular culture, which encourages uniformity. Today, the emphasis will be on defining and identifying elements of folk culture in the United States.

Human geographers distinguish between material and nonmaterial culture. Material culture makes up what is called the “built environment”, a landscape created by human beings as opposed to a landscape shaped by purely natural factors. Pictured is part of London’s built environment – a building known as The Armadillo.

Note that Multilinearism contains the assumption of environmental determinism – that climate controls culture. Diffusionism places more emphasis on human contact, especially through trade to explain cultural similarities. Thus, it has connections to the possibilist paradigm.

We can group the original American cultural hearths first by geography and then by the ethnicity of the original colonists. The Southern hearths are particularly complicated in that along the coast, the original colonists were English but also slave owners with slaves from (mainly) West Africa. These slaves brought their own cultural traits, mostly nonmaterial but also some very important material culture, like the tools and cuttings needed to grow rice. In the Southern Appalachian mountains, the original settlers were Scotch-Irish who rarely owned slaves, nor who had much wealth or property. In the West, both Spanish and Native influences blended together. Pictured is the distinct adobe architecture of New Mexico, a blend of Spanish and Pueblo Indian building techniques.

Diffusion can occur via simple relocation (you simply emigrate and transplant your old culture to your new location). This happened as America was first being colonized and is why we connect our original American cultural hearths with the ethnic groups that founded them. Once in place, expansion diffusion carried the cultural traits from the hearths into the interior of the continent as the population grew from a few thousand in the early 1600’s to several million by the late 1700’s. Sometimes, as in the case of Texas, expansion diffusion brought people from the Appalachian and Tidewater cultural hearths into contact with people in the Western (Spanish) cultural hearths. Once the dominance of one group (in the case of Texas, the Scotch-Irish) had been established, the original Texans felt pressure to abandon their old culture and assimilate into the newly dominant one. In the image, we show Selena, one of the biggest stars of Tejano music. A “Texican” aka a “Tejano” is someone descended from the original Mexican inhabitants of Texas. They have kept their own folk culture intact despite pressure to assimilate.

Syncretism refers to two or more different cultural traditions meeting and instead of maintaining diverse differences or instead of one dominant culture assimilating the other, the various cultures can blend to form a new hybrid culture. This is known as syncretism. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City represents Catholic devotion for Mary combined with native traditions. The image also had layers of meaning for the indigenous people of Mexico who associated her image with their polytheistic deities, which further contributed to her popularity. Her blue-green mantle was the color reserved for the divine couple Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl; her belt is interpreted as a sign of pregnancy; and a cross-shaped image, symbolizing the cosmos and called nahui-ollin, is inscribed beneath the image's sash.She was called "mother of maguey,” the source of the sacred beverage pulque. Pulque was also known as "the milk of the Virgin."The rays of light surrounding her are seen to also represent maguey spines.

Folk culture is associated with traditional ways and customs, with traditional dress and foods, with traditional institutions. It is almost always connected with an ethnic group and associated with a particular location. In America, the original colonial cultural hearths became centers of their respective folk cultures. Japan is an excellent example of the folk culture phenomenon. While Japan is fully modern and is up-to-date on every pop culture trend, there is still a strong, vibrant traditional folk culture in Japan, represented in the picture by the traditional dress of the two geishas.

Housing styles can be used to trace the diffusion of the various original American folk cultures. Prior to the 1900’s, most houses were built without plans according to traditions handed down from family to family. In the case of the “shotgun house”, the linear design keeps down expenses and allows for easy airflow, which is critical in the South before the arrival of air conditioning. Shotgun houses were the preferred house of both poor whites and poor blacks in the American South.

The transplantation of the Georgian style house from 18th Century England to 18th Century New England is a good example of relocation diffusion. That Georgian style houses can be found today in Austin, TX or Los Angeles, CA is a good example of expansion diffusion. What signal does this style of house send about its inhabitants?

The Pueblo natives were the first to build with adobe. This technique was adopted (assimilated) by the Spanish settlers and this style diffused throughout the orginal areas of Spanish settlement, including California, Texas and New Mexico.

It can be difficult to distinguish between ethnic and folk cuisine. Just remember – folk cuisine is tied to the original environment of the hearth and then spreads via expansion diffusion. Ethnic foods were transported here, usually from a distant homeland. They are transplanted into new territory. For example, grits made from corn are a mainstay of Southern folk cuisine. Corn is used for grits because wheat did not grow well in any of the Southern cultural hearths. Do you see the connection between grits and the Southern climate? Now think about bratwurst. It was brought here from Germany. It has no environmental connection to any of the Amrican cultural hearths. It is an ethnic food.

Again, recall that folk foods must have an environmental connection to the original folk culture hearth. In the image, crawfish are plentiful in Louisiana, hence their appearance in Louisiana folk cuisine (often called “Cajun”). And again, because Louisiana is a Southern state, note the ubiquitous appearance of corn.

There are three important hearths for folk music in America. The Appalachians also know as the Southern backwoods give us bluegrass music, focused on banjo and fiddle with a high-pitched vocalist dealing with sadness, sorrow and often, religion. Western folk songs usually tell a story – a simple morality tale with easily-identified heroes and villains. Western music tells stories that appealed to lumberjacks, cowboys, miners and other Western working-class men. Finally, blacks in the South had the blues – stories about heartbreak or disaster set to rhythmic guitar playing, often with bass and drum accompaniment.

Once again, we can use the connection to the environment of the original hearth to distinguish between folk and ethnic beverages. Whisky was an ethnic Scottish drink transported to America with the original colonists (as was beer). Corn liquor (“moonshine”) is connected to the corn-friendly environment of the American South and is thus, a folk drink. Moonshine is easily portable and doesn’t spoil. Its manufacture evaded tax laws and was thus illegal. So stills to make moonshine were hidden in the mountains of eastern TN and western NC where they coiuld not be found by the tax authorities.


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Folk and Popular Culture Day 1: Resources

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