Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture

By Harvey, Paul | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture


Harvey, Paul, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. By Charles Joyner. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. xiii, 361. $19.95, paper.)

Reading this book is rather like camping out on the front porch for an evening with a well-traveled author and raconteur who is telling you of his life's work. Joyner informs and delights with stories of people he has met and how they have influenced him, with reflections on the history of folklore and the folklore of history, with asides on the dangers of "development" on the folk cultures of rural southern communities, with "forays" into the work of other major historians, and with reports of his serious research into the lives of white and (especially) black ordinary southerners.

Shared Traditions is a greatest hits sampler of Joyner's written work, essays showing the fruits of his labors in the vineyards of both history and anthropology. The book reads easily, the author's learning is serious but wears lightly, and virtually all scholars in southern studies will benefit from getting in their favorite reading chair and having a silent conversation with Joyner. Time and again, for example, I found myself asking questions (silently) to Joyner, jotting them down on my notepad, only to discover Joyner addressing those very questions in an essay a few pages further along. Thus, reading this book was akin to having a delightful conversation with the author.

In "The Sounds of Southern Culture," his brief survey of southern music, Joyner presses home his central point: " . . . whether stubbornly denied or acknowledged with pride, every black southerner has a European heritage as well as an African one, and every white southerner has an African heritage as well as a European one. That shared heritage, I submit, constitutes the cardinal test of southern identity and the central theme of southern culture" (p. 207). Joyner's point, of course, stands in contradistinction to Ulrich B. Phillips's famous dictum that the "central theme" of southern history was "a common resolve, indomitably maintainedthat [the South] shall be and remain a white man's country." Joyner acknowledges that Phillips was "onto a good thing with this 'central theme' business," so much so that "one might say that the central theme of southern historians has been the search for a central theme" (p. 193). Joyner joins in the search, with the "shared traditions" theme.

To "penetrate the southern paradox," Joyner writes, "one must penetrate its context-the folk culture of the South" (p. 144). Joyner penetrates the paradox in a variety of ways. He explores the lives of slaves in the South Carolina lowcountry, as well as the Sophoclean tragedy of John Brown, in two of his most challenging and densely argued essays. He looks at attempts to define southern (and American) history among historians such as David Potter, C. Vann Woodward, David Hackett Fischer, and Eugene Genovese. He makes forays into white southern folk culture, writing about Henry Glassie and Irish Folk culture in the American South, about the long legacy of Jewish southerners in Georgetown, South Carolina, and about his favorite dulcimer makers and musicians in the highlands. He explores the transformation of folk music into "freedom songs" in the civil rights movement, and the legacy of the music and culture of Sea Islanders.

Throughout the work, he stresses the distinction between "folklore" (commonly seen as a static handing down of traditional stories) and "folklife," the total cultural ways that are handed down, adapted, and changed over time. …

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