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Groundhog Day 2001

In folklore we trust:
Careers of tradition

iconThere are many forms and forums in folklore -- it's not just Daniel Boone and Paul Bunyan, you know. Click here for our interactive look at how many areas of specialization are open to career folklorists.

In this story:

Culling corporate culture

A traditional trek

And the groundhog?

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(CNN) -- So get this. It was snowing Friday at 7:20 a.m. ET at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. And yet somehow the groundhog they call Phil there was able to see his shadow. How many times have you seen your shadow during a snow shower? Do you think our TV lights might have had something to do with the fact that we're now in for six more weeks of winter?

It doesn't take a professional folklorist to tell you we may have been rooked on this.

But how about that tale of George Washington and the cherry tree? -- the one in which the first president of our country proclaims, "I cannot tell a lie." Well, it's a lie.

In grade school, some may have heard that story told as fact, but it's folklore. A Washington biographer made it up, says folklorist Jack Santino.

graphic So how about a career in folklore. Could you get into it.

Sorry, but the shadow those folks throw is too academic-looking for me. I'll pass.
Might be tempted to sniff around it. As long as it wasn't all musty museums and things.
Yeah, I'm there. Uncovering and preserving cultural memories would be cool.
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"That 'I cannot tell a lie' has almost become a proverb," says Santino, a professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. "It's something that turns the patriarch of our country into a mythical figure."

Debunking myths and tales like that famous one is just a smidgen of what some career folklorists do.

And on days like Groundhog Day, folklorists tend to get a lot of attention. People want to know how the groundhog became the great prognosticator -- and whether some groundhogs are more reliable than others and how often the critters are right.

But a career in folklore can be much richer and farther-reaching than simply making assessments of tall (and/or furry) tales. And what many are finding is that there are jobs for folklorists outside museums and academia.


Culling corporate culture

Joseph P. Goodwin, a folklorist by training, is an associate director of a college career center. He says more people are finding, as he has found, that they can earn a living using their folklore skills without doing traditional folklore work.

For example: The sociology of a corporate merger.

"There's a fellow who got his doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, and he went to work for a business consulting firm," Goodwin says. And he's not working on organizing the company's art collection or cataloging tall tales about stalwart business leaders, either. His skills created a unique niche for him.

Old World musical instruments and the sounds they make are part of musical lore, preserved by folklorists as part of cultural memory
: Old World musical instruments and the sounds they make are part of musical lore, preserved by folklorists as part of cultural memory  

"Everyone else in the company had a business background," Goodwin explained. "But he had the knowledge about cultures. And if two companies are merging, he would meet with the staffs of the companies and assess the different corporate cultures. That folklorist then developed a plan that would allow the merger of the cultures, raise issues and point out where the landmines were before the problems would even start."

And here's another example, one in the tech sector.

This folklorist works for a company that manufactures computer equipment for people with disabilities. "She interviews people about their needs and how they use equipment. She then writes that information for manuals in a way they can understand without all the technical gobbledygook."

In his position as a career adviser, Goodwin uses the ethnography skills he learned as a folklorist to help students determine whether they'll fit into the environments of the companies to which they're applying for jobs.


A traditional trek

Folklorist Peggy Bulger is a prime example of a person who has found by accident what she considers to be the perfect career. Not lots of planning, but plenty of providence. This is a woman who once didn't know her field existed, but is now at the top of it.

Bulger had a keen interest in traditional music. She liked fiddle and banjo music and found the evolution of American music fascinating. She got an undergraduate degree in fine arts and went almost nowhere.

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger  

"I was a receptionist. That's the kind of job I could get as a fine arts major," she says. "And it wasn't long before I realized I wanted to go to graduate school."

In looking at a university brochure about museum studies, her eyes fell to a section that said graduate degrees in folklore were available -- and she'd found a career.

When she graduated in 1976, folklorists were in demand amid the country's bicentennial celebrations. Libraries, museums and government agencies wanted help in interpreting and preserving the country's history.

"Normally people left the program and went to teaching in a university," says Bulger. "But I was hired by the state to go around and document folk artists. It was an incredible opportunity."

Her work took her into the communities of Native Americans and Cubans and led her to do what she enjoyed.

Bulger continued her career working for arts federations and state agencies. Now, she directs the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and she's president of the American Folklore Society.


And the groundhog?

Folklorists study traditional aspects of culture, things that get passed along for generations informally through observation or oral history. They build careers around the examinations of beliefs, music, stories and material culture -- crafts, log houses, pottery, quilts.

If anyone knows the skinny on the rodent of the day, it's a folklorist. Bowling Green's Jack Santino has the scoop. Agrarian cultures in Europe, he says, tied the waking of hibernating animals to the onset of spring.

War veterans often are sought out by folklorists who tape and archive stories of battles as oral history
War veterans often are sought out by folklorists who tape and archive stories of battles as oral history  

"In some parts of Europe, they'd look for bears," Santino says. In Ireland, there was anticipation of the appearance of an animal like a hedgehog and the observance of February 1 as the feast day of the Irish St. Bridget's Day.

Some lore recounts the Gaelic saying, Laa'l Breeshey bane, dy chooilly yeeig lane, or "Bridget's Feast-day white, every ditch full." That meant that if February 1 was snowy, there'd be a mild, wet spring ahead.

Another phrase had it this way: Choud as hig y shell ny-gah-ghreinney stiagh Laa'l Breeshey, hig y sniaghty roish Laa Boayldyn. That meant, "As long as the sunbeam comes in on Bridget's Feast-day, the snow comes before May Day."

A large number of Germans settled in Philadelphia and brought the vigil for the groundhog's shadow with them. They were toting along a traditional winter festival called Candlemas.

It's not unusual to think of folklore as being confined to stories -- legend, myth, scripture. But the forms and forums of what constitutes folklore are much broader than that. Have a look at how many areas of specialization are open to career folklorists.

This year, some 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania -- maybe the United States' best-known of several celebrity groundhogs -- had had his usual round of heavy PR behind him. There were talk-show appearances (not a single decent quote out of Phil) and a trip to New York. What's said to be the 115th viewing of the creature Friday included an art show, shuttle buses from parking areas, a live Webcast and a coffee shop that opened at 3 a.m., can you imagine? -- maybe not the most civilized part of the tradition.

As usual, the concept is that if Phil sees his shadow and goes back into his burrow, we have six more weeks of winter in store. If he sees no shadow and sticks around for awhile, spring is just around the corner.

Well, you know how it came out.

During a snow shower.

Maybe what this really tells us is to get back to NOAA and our fine CNN meteorologists. What does that rodent know? It's just folklore.


Punxsutawney Phil forecasts 6 more weeks of winter
February 2, 2001
Out of academia: A guide to career changes
January 22, 2001
Food folklore: Change your luck with a meal
December 27, 2000
Origins of ice cream cone are lost in folklore
September 22, 2000
'The Colossal Book of Urban Legends'
September 1999

American Folklore Society
Bowling Green State University: Department of Popular Culture
Library of Congress American Folklife Center
Punxsutawney Groundhog Club

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