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Oral tradition:songs, story, storytelling, folk music and stories

Updated on January 10, 2016

Is oral tradition dead?

Folksongs, jokes, and tall stories: does the oral tradition live?

Another hubber wrote about the oral tradition and led me to think. Some scholars had declared the oral tradition to be obsolete with the invention of the printing press.. Thus scholars like Francis James Child collect folk songs and ballads but paid little attention to the music, as they assumed it didn’t matter, they were trying to preserve them sort of like museum pieces.

My observations over the years is that singing and story telling seem to exist the most where small and maybe temporary groups come together. These might be places like college dorms, the military, ski lodges, hunter’s camps and fishing resorts. Folk singer Gene Bluestien collected songs in Northern Minnesota, probably in lumber camps.

Folk singer Oscar Brand, for example, collected songs in such places.

Many of the oral traditions were kept longer in the South. Many more isolated places tended to preserve the songs longer when they were less exposed to commercial media. On the other hand they might rework songs they heard on the radio and rework them in their own styles and pass them on to others.

However, many northern city dwellers had their first exposure to such songs was in the military where they first met southerners. I’ve worked with a number of retired military and one characteristic I noticed is that they seem to tell stories and jokes. Sometimes I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t I did conclude that in the military people are moved on a regular basis so they are constantly having to meet new friends. Combined with the “hurry up and wait” feeling people always have to find ways to entertain themselves and each other. One way is to tell stories and sing songs.

One fellow I worked with named Ray could go on for hours with stories, jokes cute remarks or whatever. He said he had been at Normandy when we invaded it.

 During World War II. He went in as a replacement to take the place of a soldier who was killed or wounded. Apparently back then the procedure was to send troops who had trained together and bonded. In his case they were all strangers. That part is probably true.

He told about being in a foxhole eating his rations. He said a mortar hit near him and sand got into his cheese. That he said made him mad. The cheese, he said, was the only thing the government couldn’t mess up.

At that point I knew there was at least some exaggeration involved.  He’d also tell stories of when he was boy and pulling pranks on neighbors. Especially the ones he didn’t like. I think everyone has heard the story of country kids moving the outhouse at Halloween. At the time< I thought it was original, but I never lived on a farm.

Then he w would tell jokes, one after another, usually geared to whatever ethnic group you belonged to. Since I am of Swedish heritage he would ask why Swedes make good astronauts. The answer was that they took up space is school.

Although we are bombarded with mass media, canned music and all, maybe the storytellers are still out there.

Many folksingers and country singers tended to hang out with military groups, college campuses, church groups and other places where people gathered together and share experiences.

Fishermen are famous for tall stories. I don’t know about music, but everyone has heard about the fish that got away. There are even contests for the best liars. That certainly speaks for an oral tradition.

I suspect that at the end of the day, after a drink or two, hunter’s fisherman. And skiers would all tend to tell stories and sing songs. Oh yes, and swap lies. Folksinger Bob Gibson did an entire album of ski songs.

Rumors, Scuttlebutt, gossip are in some way, I think, part of the oral tradition. Some books I read center around Indians. References are made to the “moccasin telegraph. Which they claim the news spreads faster than by conventional means.

I remember in sociology we talked about how jokes could go from on end of the country to another, apparently without necessarily going through the mass media.

All in all, I’m inclined to think that there is still  an oral tradition but it has changed in many ways.


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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Millionaire Tips

      Stories are often told to pass time when people are together. They are around us but it sometimes takes practice to recognize them.Something in somebody's past experience may just come up in a conversation, such as a war experience.Thanks for visiting.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      7 years ago from USA

      I haven't heard any folksongs, but I do like to hear the family stories. None of these have been written down, and I am enjoying hearing different people's take on the same story, and trying to write down an unbiased version.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I can almost imagine the cow in the cellar. Genealogy has become popular and my sister some year ago put together a family history from talking to relatives and correspondence with relatives in Sweden. I wrote a series of hubs based on a great aunt that caught my imagination more than hers.

      There is a lot of internet help with sites like now.

      Thanks for you interest and comment.

    • 2patricias profile image


      8 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      Pat writes: my grandmother used to tell stories in the most wonderful way. I am so sorry that nobody ever thought to make a tape recording. One of my favourite stories was about Cousin Kenny's cow getting into the cellar. I remember that when she told the story I laughed until I cried, but sadly I cannot remember the details or the words she used.

      Tricia has been trying to trace her family history, and really wishes she had more anecdotal information.

      We both suspect that before modern mass entertainment more families would have had family tales passed from one generation to the next.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I am glad you found it of value. Thanks for commenting.

    • kimh039 profile image

      Kim Harris 

      8 years ago

      I saw a storyteller at a county fair once, who talked about storytelling and told stories to illustrate his points. It was interesting and very entertaining. Some interesting thoughts and insights here. Thanks dahoglund.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I believe you are right and given me something to explore.I can see where this is true in suh things as Urban legends.Thanks for your input.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      9 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      I believe that to some extent oral story telling or the tradition that produced it has moved to the computer. For tall tales people do use the mobile phone. Here a true story can grow from one phone call to who knows how many phone calls down the line to become Paul Bunyan material.

      I liked the folk songs of the '60s. Simon and Garfunkel as a team or as separate entities did borrow from time to time from old English and Scottish ballads made popular again by them and other singers. The Seekers, a great band, were part of the folk movement.

      I think in many ways the oral tradition has changed in terms of delivery but maybe not so much in content.

      Great Hub.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the comment.There are individuals who are still storytellers. The folk revivals such as that in the 1960's did get people gathering to play music and that sometimes leads to telling stories as well.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      9 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I believe that there is a small group of people out there who keep the tradition of oral storytelling alive. We had a storyteller visit our classroom last year. Our students were fascinating. Great hub.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I got interested in Oral tradition because of an interest in folk music. There have been many academic arguments over oral tradition verses media such as song sheets, radio, TV etc. My hub reviewing the Paul Bunyan book talks about the written stories changing the nature of the legend from the tales and stories of the lumber camps.Thanks for the comment.

    • Wayne Tilden profile image

      Wayne Tilden 

      9 years ago from Roseville, California

      After my rather long "diatribe" on the oral tradition as a way to keep history alive BEFORE there was mass writing. For some reason I neglected to deal with the "modern" oral tradition.

      When my father-in-law was a young man in the 1920s he became a hobo. What we'd call a homeless person today, except willing to do REAL work. They gathered in the camps at night and regaled one another "tall tales." They even kept alive the stories about Paul Bunyan and his great blue ox, Babe. He later told the stories to his own children - my wife and sisters-in-law.

      Every joke, song, or even regional dialect becomes part of the Oral Tradition. There are also "tales" from other countries and cultures which have been adopted as part of our own oral tradition.

      Sorry about leaving out the modern expressions.

      Thanks. dahoglund

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting. In mass culture we have come to expect to be entertained, usually by a celebrity.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I believe you are correct in that smaller groups of people probably keep this storytelling tradition alive.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thank you for the kind words. I come to the oral tradition as a bit of an outsider, although my father was an artist and a storyteller. I think in our generation,which is older than your, we had a feeling that sitting around telling stories and singing songs would have been wasting time. One of our early poets had a line:"up and be doing" which an English professor I had said is probably a more apt American slogan than "In god we trust".

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 

      9 years ago from Iowa

      I love your collection of hubs on folk songs and the oral tradition. Your interest in and passion for this topic shines through your writing. I'm sorry I haven't been back to read more. You have a wonderful collection here and I'll be back to read often, and I'm bookmarking these. I share an interest in this topic and in fact have a related hub in the works about storytelling.

      The oral tradition is so important. I had a friend from Northern India once who chided me "You Americans always need to have an activity to gather around--football, board games, a movie--when we (Indians) get together we talk for hours."

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      I believe children still must play the game of telephone which is much like your sociology experiment. Sometimes kids will deliberately change the message along the way. I agree that email untruths are bad.

    • profile image

      Vern Borth 

      9 years ago

      Interesting observations...

      I remember another experiment from sociology where a story started at one end of a row of people usually was entirely different by the time it was whispered to the last person in the row.

      Though oral tradition is kind of neat and folksy and good for jokes and interpersonal banter, I fear that it has morphed into lightning-speed spreading of untruths via email.


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