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The Best Turnips on the Creek

Folklore in America

selected and edited by Tristram P. Coffin, by Hennig Cohen

To many of its enthusiasts, folklore is a matter of survivals, an assortment of “living fossils” out of which a quaint world of magic, primitive emotions, and pastoral simplicity can be reconstructed. This sentimental nostalgia is fairly innocuous when it merely stimulates a pleasing escapism or even when it encourages cultural infantilism. Unfortunately, however, the Arcadian America of the nostalgic folklorist betrays more disquieting symptoms. A Negro, for example, rarely appears as a cowboy on TV, though, as Philip Durham and E. L. Jones have shown, a quarter of the cow-punchers on the great trail drives of 1866-89 were Negroes. Even in somewhat more serious folk reconstructions, like those of Stephen Vincent Benét, the atmosphere imperceptibly becomes suffused with cozy feelings of racial and national superiority.

But this nationalistic abuse of folklore is neither peculiarly American nor particularly new. Two centuries ago, Herder advanced the idea that each ethnic strain has a distinct set of characteristics given it for its mission of advancing humanity. High culture, being cosmopolitan, is woefully contaminated, according to Herder, and therefore a poor guide to a nation’s psychic identity; whereas the expressive arts and pastimes of the folk, since they are endemic, spontaneous, and uncultivated, reflect the essence of the race in a relatively pure form. Significantly, the word “folklore” itself has a built-in racial bias: the Englishman who invented the term in 1846 was proud of having created a “good Saxon compound” instead of a compound of the Greek -ology or -ography.

DIFFICULTIES ARISE, however, for anybody who tries to distill the psychic essence of America from its folklore. For though much genuine folklore has been collected in the United States, it can be plausibly argued that, strictly speaking, we have no national folklore because literacy became widespread before a homogeneous folk culture could develop. Moreover, the waves of migration and immigration further inhibited its development. Variant forms of most folk-tales, folk ballads, proverbs, riddles, etc. in America also can be found throughout the world, and the folk symbols and beliefs collected here are so obviously universal that one is almost convinced that they are indeed the products or intimations of the collective unconscious. The swastika, which we associate with Nazi flags, appears, in clubbed form, on Pennsylvania Dutch barns and Mycenaean sword pommels and, in angular form, on Navajo belts and Polynesian food bowls. The horseshoe as a symbol of good luck which seems to be distinctively American can be traced back to the Eastern custom of nailing the genital organ of a cow or mare over barn doors to ward off the evil eye: small-town Americans bless sneezers with “Gesundheit!” and their children sing counting rimes, derived from French rimailles. Indeed, American versions of a ballad or tale may exhibit distinctive differences induced by cultural conditioning—there is, to cite one instance, a peculiarly Horatio-Alger design to the career of the American Jack and the Beanstalk, but an impressive case can scarcely be built on such differences.

Those critics, from the confessed Herderian Constance Rourke to Daniel Hoffman, who have shown how the distinctiveness of American culture evolved during the early nineteenth century, have based their studies not so much on folklore as on popular lore, i.e., on comic almanacs, songsters, and chapbooks printed in the large Eastern cities; the tall tales and legends of roaring backwoods heroes concocted by subliterary hacks; character types, like the Yankee trickster, handed down from the theater; and the songs and turns of blackface minstrelsy instead of the authentic plantation product. But under American conditions, as I shall argue presently, it is probably useless to insist on a rigid separation of popular lore from folklore.

THE NATURE of this collection from the Journal of American Folklore further demonstrates that there is no American folklore. Perhaps three-fourths of the material in the book was collected from Finnish, Amish, Jewish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Negro, Mexican, Greek, Lithuanian, Syrian, Amerindian, and other ethnic groups, and many of the songs, tales, proverbs, and riddles were recorded in their original languages. The other pieces are mainly Anglo-American, which for the nationalist means most nearly American, though the “nearly” is a bitter qualification. Even when a song or game or tale seems as much home-grown as a folk creation can be, we are nonetheless prevented from calling it American because almost invariably it is peculiar to a region or to an isolated occupation (steeplejacks, lumberjacks, cowpunchers, miners, etc.) and is not known to the whole American folk, or even to a sizable portion of it. For as this collection makes clear, American folklore is made up of discrete folklores which influence one another hardly at all, and which do not merge into a common folklore even when the members of each folk element merge into the larger American culture. Contrary to the view of the nationalistic folklorists, the homogenizing cultural force that instills in Americans a sense of national identity is not traditional folklore, but the images and vernacular of the popular media.

For this popular lore which is supplanting folklore the editors have little sympathy. But is not folklore doomed to become pallid unless it broadens its scope to take in all unofficial culture, whether folk or popular? The imaginative use of a mixture of popular lore and folklore in such studies as those of Constance Rourke, Walter Blair, and Richard Chase, suggests that folklorists may be suffocating within their own categories. The folk who produced this collection are a vanishing people. The ethnic minorities lose their identity and become part of the larger culture; rural America shrinks and loses its distinctness; special occupations become rarer and less isolated; regional peculiarities evaporate, thanks to radio, television, travel, and popular journalism. Just as cultural anthropology is now turning from the study of primitive societies to analyses of literate ones, so the younger folklorists are beginning to move in new directions. Collections are being made of the customs, rituals, and cult practices of teenagers; occupational jokes are being motif-indexed; the graffiti on the walls of toilet stalls and the mutilations of posters have been soberly recorded; linguistic folklorists are collecting slang and jargon, sociological folklorists the mores of narcotic addicts, occultists, the gay world, prisons, oilfields, administrative offices. Science fiction will presently be shown to have contrived a “mythology for our times.” The editors are aware that folklore is in a state of crisis, but they remain unperturbed. They hold to a classical definition of folklore (the verbal art of the folk transmitted by oral tradition) and a folksy description of the folk (“those who can’t, don’t, or won’t read”). Because of their fastidious orthodoxy, this collection in time may come to seem a monument to the way folklore was before things began to change.

SINCE SO MUCH of the best folklore in America comes from ethnic groups, the hopeless struggle of these communities to keep their old-world customs alive (“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”) has a special poignancy in Babylonian America. The peripheral comments on “A Slovak Harvest Festival in New Jersey,” collected by Mrs. Pirkova-Jakobson in 1956, illustrate one such case. Rented trucks instead of farm wagons carried the urban celebrants, impersonating farmers and peasants, slowly through the town (“as if it were a village”) to the community clubhouse (“as if it were a farm”), where an older couple played the part of hospitable landowners. The procession passed through a Negro, then a Ukrainian and Polish section of Heightstown, whose inhabitants were expected to pelt the Slovaks with rotten tomatoes. The boys drove in the trucks’ cabs with the side curtains down: “The people in the town know us and we don’t want them to see us here.” Another embarrassed youth asked, “How could my mother go on the truck, and so madly dressed?” Even a woman who had signed a pledge “to cultivate the old customs” balked at participating actively: “I will not go on the truck. I don’t feel like it. It is not sincere. I don’t feel like one of them. It is an imitation, do you know what I mean?” But the same woman’s immigrant husband confessed (in a passage omitted from the published excerpt) “I felt more at home than ever when singing on the truck,” even though one of the songs was “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Fortunately, the mystical imperative behind some folkways is powerful enough to override the most rigid community mores. In the Missouri Ozarks the farmers of English and Scotch-Irish stock are for the most part emotionally devout fundamentalists and often unbelievably proper and prudish. Yet the same folk who cannot bring themselves to refer in mixed company to a cock except as a rooster or to a bull except as a “gentleman-cow,” and who have a battery of euphemisms for pregnancy, preserve planting rituals analogous to English rural customs of sending maidens to dance in apple orchards in the spring in order to get the sap flowing in the trees, and of encouraging young couples to fornicate in newly planted fields, thus helping the seeds to germinate. Lady Godiva, E. S. Hartland discovered, was the descendant of the nude woman indispensable to ancient fertility rites.

Fertility magic of a similar sort is obviously at work in the “Nudity and Planting Customs” which the editors extract from the Ozark reports of Vance Randolph. In the ritual for sowing flax, the farmer and his wife appear in the field at sunup, both naked, the woman walking ahead, the man sowing. “They chanted or sang a rhyme with the line ‘Up to my ass, an’ higher too!’ Every few steps the man threw some of the seeds against the woman’s buttocks. Up and down the field they went, singing and scattering seed, until the planting was done. ‘Then…they just laid down on the ground and had a good time.’ ” So also with a group of nude turnip growers, four mature girls and a boy, observed by an old woman at sunrise one July 25. “The boy throwed all the seed, and the gals kept a-hollering ‘Pecker deep! Pecker deep!’ And when they got done, the whole bunch would roll in the dust like some kind of wild animals. There ain’t no sense to it, but them folks always raised the best turnips on the creek.” A folklorist could easily have enlightened the perplexed Ozark girl who wondered why her neighbors, otherwise seemly and churchgoing people, insisted on “wallering” in the dirt of their freshly plowed garden patch when they had perfectly good beds inside their cabin.

In the presence of certain items in this collection, readers of Folklore in America may sometimes find themselves as perplexed as the Ozark girl. For though the editors have dutifully recorded the sources and something about the informants responsible for the material, they have been stingy with annotations. This is a pity, for both editors have the learning readily at hand, and the clever if brief Introduction shows that they know what they are about. Folklore often has been dismissed as a collection of trivial fragments. Explanatory notes are sometimes necessary to make a proverb, tale, riddle, or song more than superficially understandable, and interpretative comments are almost always necessary to show the significance of the material. A few suggestive remarks could have made a vapid item like “To dream of blood means nothing” into something interesting. This collection succeeds well in representing the variety of folklore in America, but it runs the risk of seeming superficial. Having limited themselves to the material available in a single journal, the editors have cut themselves off from the opportunity to make points by artfully juxtaposing contrasting or complementary material. It is good, for a change, to have an anthology of folklore which is not painfully self-conscious about methodology and not burdened by excessive references, but as a result of their zeal to be unobtrusive, the editors have helped us less than they might have done.

Letters

Aunt Jake & the Professors May 23, 1968

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