Contextual Data: I asked a friend of mine if he could remember any stories from his childhood, and he offered me this story — a Persian folktale — that his mother and his maternal grandmother used to tell him. They would tell it to him in the original Farsi (his family’s first language), but over a cup of coffee, he recounted this translated version of the tale. The following is an exact transcript of his account.
“So this is the story of Bōz Bōze Ghandí — which Bōz Bōze means ‘goat’ and Ghandí means, like, ‘sweet’ so like ‘the sweet goat.’ [Laughs.] And Bōz Bōze Ghandí had three children, baby goats: Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur — those are their names. Um, Shangúl means ‘joyful’ in Farsi, Mangul means — Mangul is like the bell on the collar of an animal — and Hapeyē Angur means ‘a single grape.’ Um, so… And every day Bōz Bōze Ghandí would go out and tell her children, ‘I’m gonna go out and eat the alfalfa so I can make milk for you to drink.’ Um, and she would admonish them, ‘Be careful not to open the door for the wolf, who’ll come and ask you to open the door for him.’ And every day the wolf would come and say, ‘I am Bōz Bōze Ghandí open the door for me.’ And Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur would say, ‘No you’re not. If you’re our mom, show us your paws.’ (‘Cause she has white paws.) And the wolf would put his paws and obviously they were gray and had like long nails and claws. And they would say, ‘You’re not my mom. Go away.’ And they would not open the door for him. So one day the wolf comes back — and wolf is ‘gorg’ in Farsi — the wolf would come back and the one day the wolf dipped his paws in flour and cut all his nails and went back to the home and said, ‘Open the door. I am your mom, Bōz Bōze Ghandí.’ And they said ‘No you’re not. If you are, show us your paws.’ And so he slipped his paws under the door and they saw that they were white and the nails were short and they said, ‘Okay,’ and they opened the door. And he leaped in and ate Shangúl and Mangul, but Hapeyē Angur hid. And as much as he looked, the wolf couldn’t find him, and then the wolf left. And then Bōz Bōze Ghandí comes home and says, ‘Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur, where are you?’ And no one answers, and after a while [Pause: Coffee dropped off at the table by waitress]. After a while Hapeyē Angur comes out and he’s very sad. He’s crying or something. And Bōz Bōze Ghandí says, ‘What happened?’ And he says, ‘We opened the door for the wolf and he ate Shangúl and Mangul.’ And his mom is like ‘Okay. I’m gonna go find this wolf.’ So Bōz Bōze Ghandí goes and finds the wolf and says, ‘Did you eat Shangúl and Mangul?’ And he says and laughs, ‘Yes. I ate them. They’re in my stomach.’ And she says, ‘Then I will fight you.’ And he says, ‘You can’t fight me. How are you gonna fight me?’ And she…And she says, ‘With my horns. You will see. Tomorrow I will fight you.’ And so she goes to the local knife sharpener… Or blacksmith and trades him some alfalfa to sharpen her horns. At the same time, the wolf goes to the same blacksmith — not at the same time, but later — the wolf goes to the same blacksmith and asks him to sharpen his teeth. But I think by threatening him instead. And the blacksmith doesn’t like the wolf, so instead he pulls out all his teeth and replaces them with cotton balls… And the wolf can’t tell for some reason. [Laughs.] So the next day, Bōz Bōze Ghandí shows up to face the wolf and they fight and she stabs him in the stomach and he bites her, but it has no effect ‘cause his teeth are gone and he… She ruptures his stomach and he dies and Shangúl and Mangul pop out. [Laughs.] And then they go home and the moral of the story is don’t open the door for strangers. [Laughs.]”
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My informant explained that when this story is told in Farsi, it has a rhyming pattern, and so, it’s something that children would enjoy hearing. There were no specific times or reasons that his mother and grandmother would tell him this story — they weren’t too concerned with the moralistic aspect of the story. It was more just something “to pass the time,” and he would enjoy hearing it often because of its rhymes. You can get a sense of the story’s fun rhyming quality just through the names of the three children — Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur.
I think the story’s rhyming structure (in it’s original Farsi) certainly would help make it more enjoyable to hear, memorable, and therefore easier to pass on. But there could also be a bit of significance in the fact that my informant heard this story from his mother and his maternal grandmother, as the heart of this story is about a mother fighting to protect her three children. My informant mentioned that in spite of the slightly violent nature of the ending, when he heard the sound of this rhyme coming from the soothing voice of his mother or his grandmother, he found it to be rather innocent and placating. Therefore, while the rhyming aspect is certainly one reason that a child would want to hear this story, there also seems to be something about the reassuring mother figure that also gives it some value.
Contextual Data: I asked my friend if she knew of any Chinese folk beliefs that she had heard when she was younger. She mentioned this one, and the following is a transcript of her response.
“My grandma told me that if I had a flat nose, I wouldn’t be pretty and I wouldn’t be able to find a husband, so she pinched my nose like this [pinches the bridge of her nose] every single day, and now my nose is tall and I’m pretty.”
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In talking to a couple of other Chinese friends, they all mentioned similar experiences — or at least, that they had all heard about that type of valorization of a “tall,” Roman nose at some point before. This does draw out the value that people place on physical appearance and indicate that beauty is something that people desire, which is one reason why they continue to perform this practice. My informant also mentioned that her grandmother would never do this to her brother and that it was something specifically reserved for girls. This idea that my informant was told she wouldn’t “find a husband” if she had a flat nose could speak to anxieties about being an unmarried woman — the idea that not being able to find a husband is something to worry about. If this practice is believed to help avoid that, it offers another explanation as to why people would continue to perform it.
Contextual Data: After talking to me about the Spring-time witch pilgrimage in Sweden, my friend mentioned also that when she was in Sweden and her family went into the woods, they saw small cabins where moose hunters stayed, which were popularly referred to as troll houses. She then started talking about this gnome/troll-like creatures called Tomten. The following is an exact transcript of our conversation.
Informant: “Um, so one thing that they like to talk about is something called the Tomten, and the Tomten’s basically like—”
Me: “How do you spell that?”
Informant: “T-O-M-T-E-N. Um, and he’s kind of like… I don’t know, like a little gnome or like a mini Santa Clause kind of. And especially around Christmas the Tomten has like a Santa-like role, but he has like a little beard and he has like this red pointy cap and… But he’s also kind of mischievous and if you lived on a—in a in northern Sweden you would have to put out porridge every night for the Tomten and if you didn’t put out porridge, he would like, let foxes into your chicken coops and like let your sheep roam free. I mean it wasn’t like, ‘Put out porridge and the Tomten will like shine your shoes in the morning.’ It was like, ‘Don’t put out porridge and the Tomten’s gonna fuck you up’ [Laughs]. Um… So yeah. Um, but it’s actually kind of interesting because there are all these stories about—I remember reading them when I was little, like a little kid. Like illustrated books about the Tomten and kind of his—well actually how he cares for the farm animals and stuff and then goes and gets his bowl of porridge. So maybe it’s not always as sinister as I described, but—but if you don’t, like… You put out the porridge. You don’t not put out the porridge. Um, and I mean, so there are a lot of kind of traditions like that up north.”
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When I asked my informant what she thought the significance of this was, she said that she thought it had to do with the fact that many Swedes believe that there is a connection between the people and the land. She said that even nowadays people in Sweden see nature as having kind of a “magical quality to it” — thus the rise of these earth-based mythical creatures (i.e. creatures of “lower mythology”). This is why she feels the story has lasted.
Certainly this can be seen in the way that a Tomten (at least in stories) is perceived as caring for the farm and the animals. Leaving out the bowl of porridge could therefore suggest some form of repayment or offering of thanks. The stories in which the Tomten doesn’t necessarily care for the animals but causes chaos if he doesn’t receive his porridge could be seen as an indicator of beliefs about the power of the land and of these earth creatures—that they’re meant to be respected, and that in some way, something is owed to them for being able to live a peaceful life. Both of these ideas harken back to this perceived connection between the people and the land that my informant says is so important in Swedish culture.
This story, a picture book aimed at children and perhaps one of the ones my informant was referencing, depicts the Tomten as a friendly creature that is very much a part of the land and the farming culture.
Contextual Data: A couple of weeks prior, a friend and I were driving from her apartment to Hollywood, and on the way, she pointed out this one house that she and her friends refer to as the “murder house.” We laughed about it and I later asked her to tell me a bit more about the house. The following is an exact transcript of our conversation.
Informant: “Um… I dunno. We have a few stories about what happens north of 23rd Street, because people don’t really live up there. Um, and so we kind of started to create stories to make fun of stuff that happened while we were live there. Um, that’s bad [laughs]. It’s like my favorite place to live. But anyway, um. Okay, so the first thing that happened was, um, we started telling the story about the murder house. And… basically, one day, my friend who lives on 22nd Street was walking me back home to where I live off 23rd Street, and there’s this house and it’s kind of like a one story house and it’s green, and um… There’s always this guy that like hangs out outside the murder house [Laughs]. And he’s like really creepy and, um, he’ll like talk to you when you walk by and sometimes he like punches the air [Mimes punching the air] like…Nobody’s there, but, yeah. Anyway…Um and then one day we were walking back—she was walking me home and it was kind of late. It was probably like after midnight and we heard two men—I think they were…I don’t know, we heard arguing in the room. And all of a sudden we heard this like giant thud. And it sounded like someone—like, a body hitting the wall. And so, um, my friend, being the great friend that she was, was like, ‘Well, goodbye!’ And then she just, like, ran away, and so [Laughs]… And so I was left home to walk back to my house by myself. Um… And we’d heard like apparently—she, I mean she lived closer to the house than I did, but she’d like heard stuff going on there…for a while. And so as she was walking back she said that they were actually passing—she was passing by the door, and…There was the hard, like the solid door inside, and there was a screen door, and then the guy had the inside door open and he was standing behind the screen door and he was watching her as she walked all the back. And so I didn’t really, like—I didn’t really notice all of this, I just noticed her freaking out, and then she told me about it later…And she was basically—she was certain that someone had…died, which was kind of morbid. I don’t know, I didn’t here a lot of it. But then after that we kept—she would—kept referring to it as the murder house, and every time we would—she would walk over to my house, she would be like, I don’t really want to walk by the murder house. And then another girl who lives in my house had, I think, some other weird experiences, and so she started referring to it as the murder house as well. And now, basically, my entire house and that other house know that house as the…murder house.”
Me: “And so everybody in your house now knows that house as the murder house?”
Informant: “Yeah…And we kind of—It’s weird because the guy’s still around. And we actually don’t know what was, you know, actually what happened. Maybe, just kind of, in my friend’s paranoia she made up the whole thing, ‘cause I didn’t really hear…as much as she says that she did. And she seems to think it was more, like, definitive than it was. But she kind of coined the term and then it just kind of…stuck as a landmark of 23rd Street.”
Informant: “People kind of have been having weird experiences by the house, and my friend did, like on multiple occasions ‘cause she had to walk by that house all the time—it’s kind of far away from my house, but, um…So, other people kind of adopted the term, because they had experienced weird things too. And we don’t know, like—maybe the guy is, you know, maybe the guy is just kind of…I dunno, doing his thing, you know… I mean, I’m hoping—hopefully nothing terrible actually happened at all, but—but it was definitely kind of a weird, like, middle of the night experience. Um, and a lot of weird stuff has happened near that house. So… Yeah.”
Me: “Why do you think you guys have so much fun saying it? Or like sharing it—spreading it around?”
Informant: “I don’t know. Part of me sort of feels like it’s irresponsible because if we actually did think that someone had been murdered there then we should try and so something about it. And I don’t—I don’t anybody, like, fully believes that anything bad happened there, because otherwise, it would be really serious and we wouldn’t laugh about it. But I think that just because, um… You know, like, DPS doesn’t really patrol up there and while I—while I feel, like, really safe in the neighborhood, there is sometimes some kind of weird stuff that goes on, like, you know people get arrested. Like yesterday I was walking to the bus and on the corner of my street there were two guys in handcuffs, and it’s just kind of like, that’s just the way it is. And I don’t really feel, like, you know, unsafe about it—like just that kind of stuff happens. Um, and so…People, I don’t—I think that if we thought it were true, it’d be really serious, but it’s almost like a way for us to make fun of, like, the unpredictability of, like, the community. [Laughs.] I mean, like, you guys—you know what I mean by…I don’t know. Sort of like the random kind of weird stuff that happens up there, but we can kind of give a name to it, but calling this one house the murder house and kind of… I think by, like, giving stuff—I don’t know, sort of like… In some way it also makes the neighborhood feel like our home as well, because we sort of have started assigning names to certain things and certain places, like, you know, we know that Thursday nights, like the helicopter ratio is so much higher than it is normal nights [Laughs]. And we don’t really know why, but we’re all kind of used to it at that point. Um, and—I don’t know. I just feel like it’s sort of part of making that place your home—you start personalizing things…Yeah.”
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My informant did a fairly thorough job of explaining the significance of this joke/urban legend. In part though, it does also seem to speak to the relationship between the USC students and the surrounding neighborhood. In particular, and as my friend hinted at, the fact that the university is located in South Central Los Angeles in an environment where the sound of police sirens is part of the norm. There is therefore an understandable interest and also a kind of a fascination that exists regarding crimes that take place in the area, which is partly why people spread these stories around and share these kinds of jokes. In some ways then, a joke like the “murder house” works to reinforce this perception of the place, while simultaneously acting as a way of “making this place your home,” as my informant discussed. Adding on to this, when people from outside the area come to visit her, she does share this little joke with them, as she points out the “landmarks” of her neighborhood.
Contextual Data: I had a bit of a cough over Spring Break and so I ended up working my way through a packet of cough drops. One day my mother saw me crumpling one and tossing it aside and she mentioned that when she I was little, she had taught me how to make a doll out of those wrappers. I didn’t remember it, so she explained it to me again. Her step-by-step explanation is paraphrased and illustrated with images below.
1. Fold the paper back and forth into thin strips (“like an accordion,” she explained.)
2. Flatten the resulting thin strip.
3. Tie a knot in the strip, not quite halfway through it, but offset (about two-thirds of the way down). The resulting shape should be a sort of triangle.
4. Fan out the smaller top section to create a head and the larger bottom section to create the doll’s skirt.
5. Twist the edges of the smaller portion to create two little ponytails.
After she finished making the doll, I asked my informant where she first learned about it and why she did it. The following is an exact transcript of her response.
“Uh…In school, when we used to get candy. Uh, we… Like how you guys get muffins when there’s somebody’s birthday—the person brings muffins for the whole class, we used to get hard candies wrapped in that foil. So after we’re done eating with the candy, we would play around with it and that’s what we would end up making… It was just something passed around, I guess. From friends.”
My informant attended school in India. When I asked if the boys did anything like that with the wrappers, she mentioned that she attended an all-girls school. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any particular symbolism to the little craft — they never really grew attached to these dolls; they would throw them away after they were done with them and nobody ever collected them or anything like that (possibly because they were so common and easy to make, and therefore not anything rare or exciting). In general, this therefore just seems like a fun little way that friends played with one another, and it just kind of conjured up everyday memories from my informent’s childhood school days.
Contextual Data: We had gone out to celebrate my friend’s birthday the day before, and just out of curiosity, I asked her if there were any specific ways that her family celebrated her birthday. She mentioned that she was Canadian and there were some specific quirky things that her family did that were part of larger Canadian traditions. I asked her to explain one, and the following is an exact transcript of her response.
“Okay, so I’m Canadian. All my relatives are Canadian. I was born in Canada. Um, and there’s lots of, like, kooky Canadian traditions that after I moved to the States I realized, like, ‘This isn’t something normal people do.’ Like everyone doesn’t do that here, like, American people don’t know what I’m talking about—whatever. So, um, one of the things I had, like, growing up was, um, on my birthday—or all the birthdays in our family, basically—my mom would make, um, a Layer Cake. So it might be, like, a chocolate cake or whatever. Um, in the cake she would put money. And so she would take coins—wash them, obviously [Laughs]—That’s so… You would usually take, like, um—in Canada the money’s sort of like, you have Loonies and Toonies, so dollar coins and two dollar coins, so there would be like a few of those—it’d be like a really big treat. And then there’d be lots of like quarters and nickels and dimes and stuff. And she’d take these and wash them off and wrap them in wax paper [Presses hands together, miming sandwiching coins between two pieces of paper]. And then when the cake was done, she would take the two layers and insert the coins straight through the cake. Um, and then, put the icing over it and cover all the holes, so you didn’t know, like, where the money was. And, um…Also, there would be another little object—we usually used a button. And so that would be in the cake—with the money. And that would be in one piece of the cake, so only one person would get it. And usually, I think, in the tradition—like I know so many. I think like, this isn’t just my family. It’s Canadian—or probably not all of Canada, but like a big tradition where my relatives talked about this when they were little, too. Like my grandparents and stuff. So I think traditionally, like if you get the button or whatever else was in there, um, you’re an old maid. Or like, ‘Bad luck for seven years’ or something. But obviously for us as kids, my mom changed it to like, ‘It’s a birthday! If you get the button you’re lucky!’ And it’s like good luck if you’re the one who didn’t get the money and got the button, and um, yeah. It’s kind of just like a fun way that, um… It was like really easy. It’s not a lot of work to, like, put money in the cake, but it was like really hot—everyone loved it. I remember as a kid, um, after I moved to the States, when, like, I was hanging out with American kids, they were just like, ‘What? Like, I’ve never had money in a cake before. I want my mom to do this.’ And it was kind of… It was cool. It was really cool.”
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When I asked my friend why people might do this, she said that it just kind of seemed like a fun way for people to celebrate a person—it contributes to that air of festivity as everyone walks away from the celebration with a sort of “party favor.”
Part of the reason for performing this tradition, though, also seems to be the element of superstition and the idea of a birthday as a transition into a new year, particularly with the good luck/bad luck surrounding the “other object”; people will either be fortunate or cursed in the upcoming year. In particular, in her family, in which the button is seen as a sign of good luck, this tradition also seems to be a way of encouraging people to look forward to the unknown—they might not know what they’re going to get, but more often than not, it is something fortunate and worthwhile.
She says it is a fun surprise that her family still performs with her younger brother, but part of the reason it has seemed so weird to her American friends is because they point out that it is kind of a choking hazard. She can’t imagine it taking off in America because it is such a litigious society, and the tradition could be seen as one that endangers children, though she thinks that misses the point of it being about the fun, “everybody gets to participate in the celebration” aspect of it.
Contextual Data: I was talking with my brother on Skype, and he mentioned that he had heard this rather ridiculous joke from one of his coworkers, as the second year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination came up. The following is an exact transcript of our conversation.
Informant: “So you know how you can go to a bar and order all these different drinks? Like a Manhattan or a White Russian or whatever — you know, all these different mixed drinks? Well, there’s this new drink out there called the Bin Laden. And… And, well have you heard what’s in it?”
Informant: “Two shots and a splash of water.”
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My informant said that there’s a whole collection of these types of drink-based jokes arising out of serious news events — this was just one of many that he had heard (e.g. Another was “the Sandy” as a “watered down Manhattan.”) He mentioned that these jokes spoke to a very specific sense of humor and that not all people found them funny. He shared them mostly because he found them funny and he saw them as clever little plays on language.
These jokes seem to be a part of the sort of “disaster joke” culture — people telling jokes in response to big events, partially as a way of taking control of the information and making sense of what might have happened. In particular, the Bin Laden joke could also be seen as an outlet of sorts — a way for people in America to further take down this hated figure, who caused so much pain to the nation, by literally turning his death into a joke.
Contextual Data: My informant had read this on the Internet, and he shared it with me over Spring Break one night after we came back from New York City. We had been chatting about his car, and as we got home, he remembered this story that he had recently read on the Audi forum of which he was a part. He said he thought it was a crazy story and I asked him if I could record it for the archive. The following is an exact transcript of his story.
“So Edwards Air Force Base has this like, you know, long history of being like this kinda creepy place that, you know, has like a very sketchy military history. They do a lot of really secret, you know, testing and all this other stuff there that, uh… Very classified things, cutting edge stuff happens in Edwards Air Force Base—‘cause it’s in the middle of the desert, and um… whatever. So, uh, it’s also one of the largest bases, so they have a lot of ground, so there’s like, you know, there’s like random buildings and just things from the sixties and when they’re doing all this random testing like way out in the desert of the base that, you know, it’s just land that they own.
“Um… So, this one guy, you know, he’s in the Air Force and, um… I guess he was like on a patrol duty at the base, so they go to this one like place where pretty much nothing has happened since the sixties. It’s like an abandoned, uh, building — couple of buildings way out there. Um, so they get out of the car and, you know, they’re checking around on foot, and uh, they go to this one building and it’s got no doors or windows—anything, except for just one door in the front of it, right? And it’s made of concrete. Uh, it’s just got a single door. And… the guy, you know, just pulls the door—you know, the door handle to make sure it’s locked. Figured it’s definitely going to be locked, and it was unlocked. It was open. And, uh… The door opens and he looks at his buddy and he’s like ‘…Should we?’ And the other guy’s like, ‘Hell yes.’ [Laughs.] ‘Let’s do—Let’s go.’ So they walk inside and it’s just, um, one giant room in this building, right? There’s just the one door on the outside, one giant room, it’s all concrete, and there’s nothing but a set of stairs just going down in the middle of the room, right? And uh… They pull their flashlights out ‘cause there’s no lights, that, you know—no light switches or anything. And they… And so they pull out, you know, their flashlights and their pistols, you know, the way that they — you see them in movies. [Mimes with his hands in front of him, the “flashlight” on top in his left hand and the “pistol” below it, in his right.] They kind of hold it like this—one over the other. And they start going down this stairwell. Now it’s, you know, it’s daylight outside but it’s dark in this thing and they’re going down these stairs. And he says the stairs go down for…What he thinks is like a hundred feet. Like ten stories. He’s just going down these stairs and they’re just like—it’s just like this narrow stairwell they keep going down. It’s like a tunnel basically. Um, and you know, he’s like at this point things are getting—already feel very weird. It’s already really sketchy.
“Um, and they get to the bottom, and then it’s just this hallway that goes forward and they go forward in the hallway and there’s this door. And he looks at the other guy and uh, then they walk in. And he says all that’s in this room—again it’s like this one large concrete room. They’re now like, you know, he thinks like a hundred feet underground. There’s nothing but cameras on the walls, like near the ceiling. And in the middle of the room is this giant chair. [Mimes really wide with his hands], like metal chair. It’s got like wrist straps and feet straps—like ankle straps or whatever. And underneath the chair is a drain, like a metal drain. And the whole concrete floor, the whole place just kind of slopes gently down in the middle. So you don’t know like… What was there, but there, you know—could’ve been torture, whatever. But, um, he… At this point he’s getting like really weirded out, and there’s this other room on the side, and he looks in there. And um… There’s like these huge stretchers and these huge things that are bigger than they’re—than the ones that are meant for people. It’s literally like—and the chair is bigger than one that’s meant for people. You know, it’s like, very freaky. And then he…He talks to the other guy, and he—The other guys just points up and one of the cameras had just turned and was looking right at them. Um… So they just freaked out. He’s like, ‘We gotta go.’ And they just got way—you know they went all the way back upstairs. And as soon as they got back upstairs, the guy’s cellphone rings. And it’s like the base telling him they need to get back to base right now. And they didn’t explain why or whatever. But they’re just like, ‘You need to get back. We’ve called you like three times. Why was your cellphone off?’ He’s like, ‘It wasn’t off. I just didn’t have service.’ And they’re like, ‘What’d you mean you didn’t have service?’ He’s like, ‘Wha—Never mind.’ [Laughs.] And then that was it. He, like, never found out anything more about it.”
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When I asked my informant about the significance of this story, he alluded back to how he began the story: that Edwards Air Force Base has a history of being this “creepy” place, surrounded with all sorts of conspiracy theories. He was a little skeptical of this story — he first read it online on the forum where he actually finds information about his car; some guy had posted it there as a first hand account. But he’d read some of the guy’s other posts, and he seemed like a respectable enough person, who had “his head screwed on right.” Given all the other things that my informant has heard about military bases — especially the remote ones out in the middle of the desert — he wouldn’t be surprised if such a place as the one described actually existed, which is one of the reasons why he found it interesting to share. But he doesn’t believe the larger conspiracies surrounding the base (i.e. that there were actual alien encounters there.) Beyond that, he just thinks that this is a fun, creepy story to tell, and he has shared it with a few other friends.
On it’s own, this story is more of a memorate than a legend, as it’s a personal account that contributes to the larger urban legends and conspiracy theories that surround Edwards AFB. There are many different stories about such bases and military sites having underground tunnels and being the sites of extra terrestrial encounters. Some people would therefore enjoy telling this story because they think it’s true, others because they think it validates the conspiracy theories, and others simply because it’s a great story to tell to spook people out. For my brother, it was a combination of the first and the last reason.
Contextual Data: We had gone out to dinner to celebrate my Uncle’s birthday, and once we returned home, my family was talking and joking as we debated whether or not to put a candle on my Uncle’s cake and actually sing “Happy Birthday.” My brother then piped up and recounted this “Birthday Dirge” that he learned when he was younger. I asked him to sing it, and after, I asked him about when and where he heard it. He replied that he learned it at Boy Scout camp, when he was about fifteen years old — the counselors taught it to him: they would sing it in the morning in the mess hall as the campers were eating breakfast, whenever a camper was celebrating his birthday.
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
There is sorrow in the air,
People dying everywhere,
But Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
The song is sung as a sort of chant, and my family did chuckle a bit after he recited it. My Uncle offered a sarcastic “thanks.”
My brother said that they all loved it at camp. He enjoyed sharing it with others because he found it funny. He did qualify it by saying that he had taught it to some of his friends when he returned home, and not everyone reacted the same way. Some laughed, others found it inappropriate and random. (He mentioned that gender didn’t really play a part when it came to this — some girls found it hilarious and some guys found it idiotic and vice versa). I actually remembered my brother teaching it to me after he first returned from camp, and I shared it with my friends to similar reactions — some laughed, others dismissed it.
He mentioned that the song was never taken seriously or meant to be a sobering song — and to expand upon this, in some ways, this song does seem to be a bit of a practical joke that taps into this idea of a birthday as a liminal phase, as a person transitions from one year into the next. The song subverts the traditional expectation that a person be wished well and bidden good luck as they move into a new year of their life and that’s where the humor seems to come from. More than this, in American culture in particular, birthdays are thought of as a person’s “special day,” but this song seems to mock that idea through both the lyrics and the somber tone in which it is sung.
Beyond that, it’s so short and repetitive that it is really easy to remember: my informant still recollected it nine years after he first learned it. I imagine the context of learning it at Boy Scout camp also helped — it was a fun experience and one that he remembered fondly.