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Aunt Jake & the Professors

In response to:

The Best Turnips on the Creek from the March 28, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I think your readers ought to know that Vance Randolph and his fellow folklorists (Folklore in America, NYR, March 28) have been had. It is a well-known fact, at least to people of Ozark descent, that the old folks in the Ozarks used to entertain themselves by inventing bogus folklore, with which they regaled the professors who came down from St. Louis and Chicago. My Great Aunt Jake, who lived in a log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks all her days—and was never known to refer to a bull as a “gentleman cow”—used to do this. She said it served them right for their prying. The one about the farmer throwing the seed at his wife’s bare buttocks was a favorite of hers, but I never thought I’d see it in print.

Ella Maude Bailey

Huntington, New York

Albert B Friedman replies:

Folklorists, like other field workers, are at the mercy of their informants, but it’s hard to think that Vance Randolph, a continuous Ozark resident and a scrupulous collector in the area for over forty years, was ever easily “had.” Perhaps I’m inclined to doubt his gullibility all the more because he wasn’t a professor—neither in the straight sense (an academician) nor in the folk senses (1. a blacksmith; 2. a man who plays the piano in a whorehouse). As for Great Aunt Jake’s naughty way of getting her kicks, folklorists could wish that she had driven off prying professors with well-directed squirts of tobacco juice instead of taking them in with fantastic fabrications. But was her story totally bogus? Isn’t it peculiar that she concocted a story that duplicates well-attested reports from all over the less-civilized world of nudity rituals conducted to induce rain, human potency, and vegetable fertility? Could she have been reading anthropology texts? Irreverently, I suspect that Great Aunt Jake had seen or heard about the custom, was disgusted by it, and passed it off as a joke by way of repressing unpleasant memories of exculpating the kin or forebears or neighbors who had actually performed the ritual. Jungians of course would have another explanation, seeing Great Aunt Jake’s whole cloth as a rag swirling up from the collective unconscious.

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