This evening I was privileged to attend the Folklore Society‘s annual Katharine Briggs Lecture at The Warburg Institute in central London. This is the occasion when the annual Katharine Briggs Folklore Award is presented to the author of the book published in the UK and Ireland in 2017-18 that made the most distinguished contribution to folklore studies. My book Peterborough Folklore, published by Lasse Press in September 2017, was one of 9 books to be shortlisted for the award. The judges commented on the book:
Local folklore studying and collecting remains the backbone of folklore studies, and this nice local collection is a fine example. Intelligently and sensitively edited, the work is far more than a retread of old ground, making good use of older sources, both familiar and less so, and also quite aware of more recent folklore work.
The fascinating lecture, entitled ‘The Unfortunate Rake’s progress: a case-study of the construction of folklore by collectors and scholars’ was delivered by Prof. Richard Jenkins of the University of Sheffield (a last-minute replacement for Prof. Dr Ulrika Wolf-Knuts of Åbo Akademi University in Finland). Prof. Jenkins spoke about the construction of a tendentious genealogy for a supposed family of folk songs entitled ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, when in fact there is very little evidence that such a family of folk songs ever existed. Prof. Jenkins used the case study of this folk song family to discuss broader issues of confirmation bias in folklore studies, and concluded by observing that folklorists always contribute to the reification of the folkloric record by writing about it. The difficult question is whether folklorists, as part of ‘the folk’ themselves, have the right to make their own contributions to folklore by ‘putting a spin on the ball’ in their interpretations. Although folk song is far from my speciality, this was a thought-provoking lecture which touched on deep questions of methodology.
Although Peterborough Folklore did not win this year’s prize, I am very pleased that the book reached the shortlist. The Peterborough region (consisting of the old Soke of Peterborough and the parts of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire subsumed into Peterborough Unitary Authority) has been neglected by folklorists, and the book was an attempt to put that right. The book is also, in part, a tribute to Peterborough’s nineteenth-century folklorist Charles Dack, who was never able to bring his extensive work on the region’s folklore to fruition. I drew heavily on Dack’s surviving papers for the book, which partly completes his work.
I was delighted that Prof. Jenkins, who was one of this year’s judges, was so full of praise for the book (even telling me that it was the sort of book he wished he had written). The evening was an excellent opportunity to meet and connect with luminaries of the folklore world such as Jeremy Harte, Alan Murdie and Prof. Jenkins himself.