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A century of preserving folklore

Society celebrates 100 years of keeping alive the state’s folk culture this week
Wednesday, November 1, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:43 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

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Becky and Dolf Schroeder keep folklore alive. “If we don’t do it, no one will,” Dolf Schroeder said of preserving music.

(Photos by ASHLEY FUTRELL/Missourian)

Dolf Schroeder grew up with folk songs in Germany, singing with his aunts after school when he didn’t have anything to do. More than 80 years later, he can still sing many of the songs.

If he can’t recall one, Schroeder can always listen to it on one of about 500 cassette tapes of folk songs collected by the Missouri Folklore Society that are stored in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection in the west side of MU’s Ellis Library.

Schroeder, 90, a retired MU German-language professor, is considered the godfather of the Folklore Society. Organized in 1906 to help preserve vanishing folk culture in Missouri, the society became inactive in 1920. Schroeder and his wife, Becky, were the driving force behind reactivating the society in 1977.

“We didn’t want people to forget about the tradition,” Dolf Schroe­der said. “It’s a broad field: music, story, legend, proverb, food, sayings, architecture.”

The Schroeders will be among more than 150 people expected to attend the society’s centennial gathering, which begins today in MU’s Memorial Union. “Routes to Roots: Cele­brat­ing 100 Years of the Missouri Folklore Society,” will run through Saturday and includes a jam session, a film festival and presentations about Missouri traditions. The events are free and open to the public.

Schroeder’s contributions to the society are based on his long-standing interests in German customs and traditions in Missouri. He spends his days tracking down German immigrants who lived along the ­Missouri what they remembered about German traditions and history, and whether they could sing a folk song.

Schroeder was particularly interested in whether German immigrants remembered folk songs and how those songs had changed after immigrants settled in Missouri. “Folk songs are oral tradition that are lived from generation to generation,” he said. “These songs were created long before the singers were born.”

Once the songs were recorded, Schroeder would transcribe the lyrics and research their history. He tracked down fiddle music, ballads and other folk songs with intention of passing the knowledge along. “They are in our heads, nowhere else but right here, so we record them,” he said. “If we don’t do that, nobody will.”

Becky Schroeder, 85, a former reference librarian, was attracted by the history of folk songs and those who collected them. She is the volunteer editor of a Missouri Heritage series published by the University of Missouri Press. Her research interests are focused on Western history, folklore and music.

“We are proud of inspiring many people,” she said of the society. “We don’t get paid. We do this on our own time because we love it. We have a mix of nonacademic and academic people and we get along very well.”

The Folklore Society, however, is not all about the distant past.

“We’re into very modern contemporary culture,” said Elaine Lawless, president of the Folklore Society, who teaches folklore at MU. “It’s a real dangerous misconception that folklore is old and dead. It’s ongoing. We look at race and culture, class and how that influences people’s traditions.”

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Dolf Schroeder holds the pages of a reprinted edition of Francis James Child’s “Popular Ballads Vol. 1,” a collection of English and Scottish ballads. Child’s works are referred to by folklorists around the world.

The society’s meeting will showcase examples of long-enduring cultural heritage and relatively new traditions, Lawless said.

MU graduate student Peter Ramey, for example, is scheduled to participate on a panel Thursday about oral traditions to discuss how rap is embedded in the Afro-American community and the contemporary issues that rap music presents. He spent time with three black high school students in Columbia with a video camera and made a documentary of their rap performance.

“I wanted to see how they see the world and how they position themselves in an aggressive form,” Ramey said. “The picture of oral tradition is not static. Words, form, style change as ethnic groups migrate.”


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