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Campus News

June 21, 2022

From banjos to bologna

Thomas highlights Appalachian folk traditions in JCLS event

When Dr. Kara Rogers Thomas attended her first Grantsville Days, the Appalachian folklore expert was anticipating observing folklore from years past.

She ended up watching a lawn mower-pulling contest.

"My first thought was, ‘This isn’t folklore,’ " said Thomas, who is a professor of sociology and the director of Folklore and Folklife Programming at Frostburg State University. "And then I realized, ‘Of course it’s folklore.’

"Generations earlier we had ox pulls, then horse pulls, then tractor pulls, and now lawn mower pulls," explained Thomas, whose Wednesday night presentation on Appalachian folklore was the latest installment of Garrett College’s Joan Crawford Lecture Series. "You can recognize the stable elements as well as the great change in technology that’s been used to sustain folk tradition."

The Grantsville Days example, Thomas noted, illustrated two of the key components of folklore’s strengths.

"You have stability with artistic forms that are recognizable over many generations, but you also have dynamism as the artistic forms are constantly changing and adapting," explained Thomas. "If folklore is going to continue to be relevant and have value it has to change by definition."

Thomas also observed that the ways in which folklore is kept alive is evolving.

"There is a lot of sharing of traditions today on YouTube, for example," she said. "It’s very interesting to see how the transmission of folklore is changing."

Thomas said that while the Appalachian region stretches from New York to Mississippi, there are significant commonalities within the region.

"There are similarities to what you might find in western Maryland and what you might find in northern Georgia," said Thomas, "in everything from music to food to pottery to woodworking to embroidery."

While Thomas touched on traditional Appalachian folklore topics such as clogging, quilting and Appalachian music, she also covered some less traditional Appalachian folk traditions – such as Engle’s "Frostburg" Bologna.

"We do it the old-fashioned way – we put meat in it," said Bernie Garlitz, owner of B & B Country Meats, in a video Dr. Thomas played for those in attendance. "It’s an all-beef, 3-pound stick, which some people refer to as summer sausage. We cut the beef, season it, mix it, grind it, stuff it, smoke it, and cook it."

The B and B website says the original recipe was "crafted by a melting pot of Western European settlers later to be perfected by the Engle Family of Echartt Mines, Maryland." Garlitz’s son, Ryan, says producing a quality product keeps "Frostburg bologna" alive.

"Freshness is important," said Ryan. "If you come in today, you’ll know it was ground this morning."

Another delicious Appalachian tradition – the Princess Restaurant’s Easter candy – was also explored by Thomas via a shared video.

"This is the only job I’ve ever had," said George Pappas, who is in the process of transitioning his business to daughter Lauren. "I came in with the family in 1969."

Lauren said the restaurant’s Easter candy component – which requires 10 production weeks annually – created some interesting Easter-related questions when she was a child.

"I wondered why my friends got toys and I got chocolate," recalled Lauren. "I was told it was because my Dad worked for the Easter Bunny."

Thomas also highlighted the Maryland State Arts Council’s role in supporting folk traditions, including a Maryland Traditions program that awards Folklife Apprenticeships and Maryland Heritage Awards in the categories of people, places and traditions.

"There is an incredible folk life network with centers to support folklore and folk artists across the state, including at FSU," said Thomas.

Thomas – who holds a combined Ph.D. in Folklore and American Studies from Indiana University-Bloomington – said there is an increasing emphasis on exploring the impact of non-white cultures on folk traditions in the Appalachian region.

"Today you can’t just think of those white European traditions [previously emphasized in Appalachian folklore]," said Thomas, who is a former president of the Middle Atlantic Folklife Association.

"We find these cultures have melded together . . . influences from the African American culture, native American cultures," said Thomas. "For example, the banjo – which is so closely identified with white Appalachia - was brought to the United States by African slaves using African instruments to play music."

Thomas said another positive advance is the expansion of folk life topics. She indicated a diverse group of people involved in less traditional activities – "rock climbers, kayakers and white water enthusiasts, cross country skiers, sustainable farmers, race car drivers" – are now being explored through a folk life lens.

"Once we start widening our perspective we find folklore is all around us all the time," said Thomas. "All of these cultures help give us a sense of identify and ground us in our communities through the traditions that we share."