Author Archives: lucyalle@usc.edu

“Love the Life You Live”

My friend Razi went to a Quaker summer camp in Virginia called Shiloh Quaker Camp for several years as a kid. She learned a number of folk songs with Quaker themes as a camper there. The following is a recording of Razi singing one of these songs, along with the lyrics. She doesn’t remember what the song is called, so I’m referring to it by the first line.

Love the life you live with all your
Heart and all your soul and all your
Mind and love all human-
Kind as you would (clap) love yourself!

Love the life you
Live with all your
Heart and all your
Soul and mind to (clap) let your love flow!

We’ve got all our lives to live
We’ve got all our hearts to give
We’ve got love inside our souls
And it will make us whole!

This song celebrates Quaker values that non-Quakers can appreciate as well. It is optimistic and cheerful, and makes no specific reference to God or religion, so it can be embraced as a secular folk song. Quakerism is a particularly open religion in terms of its acceptance of other religions, so songs that come out of the tradition can often be sung with the same conviction by people who have to particular affiliation with the religion. Razi is Jewish and agnostic, but she agrees with many of the values taught at Quaker camp, so songs like this one have stuck with her.

“Vine and Fig Tree”

My friend Razi went to a Quaker summer camp in Virginia called Shiloh Quaker Camp for several years as a kid. She learned a number of folk songs with Quaker themes as a camper there. The following is a recording of Razi singing a song called “Vine and Fig Tree,” which she learned at camp and often sings, along with the lyrics:

And everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree
Shall live in peace and unafraid
And everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree
Shall live in peace and unafraid

And into ploughshares turn their swords
Nations shall learn war no more
And into ploughshares turn their swords
Nations shall learn war no more

With love to thy neighbor
And love to the spirit of all light
With love to thy neighbor
And love to the spirit of all light

This song embraces pacifism from a Quaker perspective, but its message can be appreciated by any pacifist. Quakerism is a particularly open religion in terms of its acceptance of other religions, so songs that come out of the tradition can often be sung with the same conviction by people who have to particular affiliation with the religion. Razi is Jewish and agnostic, but she agrees with many of the values taught at Quaker camp, so songs like this one have stuck with her.

“Click Clack”

The following is a scary story told to me by my friend Claire, who learned it at a summer camp where they have been a counselor for a few years.

“I’ll start at the beginning, which is World War One. In Virginia, there was this family and they had, y’know, wife, husband, son, daughter. And they were a family of farmers–they were like, subsistence farmers; they were not incredibly wealthy at all. And so, when World War One happened, the husband and the son both went to the war…And so, y’know, the war was a big toll on them. And the father and the son both came back alive, but um…the father came back a little off. And a big part of that was the fact that he’d had an accident, and he had had to have both of his legs amputated above the knee. So he um, was in low spirits, and he became incredibly antisocial. He would just stay up in his room, he eventually kind of stopped coming down for meals…

So then many years later, um, World War Two happened and then the son had to leave again, and the family had to give away all of their metal. But um, before that happened, in between the wars, the husband had taken two tin cans, and he had taken the wrapping off of them–the labels off of them–and he had stuck the cans to the stumps of his legs. And so um…then fast forward again, so the son is gone now and the family has had to give their steel to the war, um, to the army, so they can melt it down to make weapons and whatnot. So they had to give away their, um, their light fixtures and the rest of their cans and their, um, scissors and their nail clippers and y’know, some silverware, stuff like that.

And so um…the husband all this time had been falling sort of into a deeper reverie. And the only big change was that he moved, um, into the living room. And so he would sit in the middle of the living room now instead of in his bedroom, ’cause y’know, he and his wife shared a bedroom and she was kinda getting creeped out by him. And what he would do is he would just sit in the chair and he wouldn’t really look at anything, he wouldn’t say anything, he would just sit there in silence and then whenever somebody came into the room he would just start staring at them without saying anything…And so, y’know, since they had to give away their metal, they had to get rid of their scissors and their nail clippers, and the wife and the daughter, they were, y’know, in sane states of mind, so they found ways to remain hygienic. But the uh, the husband, his hair started to grow very long and it would mat. And he had a thick beard and he had really long hair and it was scraggly and messy and he wouldn’t ever clean himself or–more importantly–he wouldn’t cut his nails or do anything about his nails, so they grew incredibly long. And um, eventually he actually started moving around a little more but um, he would get out of his chair, and he started to train himself to walk around. But at first it was very difficult because again, he only had tin cans on his leg stumps, above his knees. So he would walk around and it would sound like the click clack of his fingernails against the hardwood floor, and then a long drag of his legs behind him…Um, but he still would not speak to the family, he still didn’t say anything, and he still let all of his hair and all of his beard and all of his nails grow out incredibly long and he was slowly day by day starting to look less and less human. And um, then he started to change his behavior even more, and now he could get around pretty well on his just his hands and it was just a really fast click clack click clack click clack throughout the house, and he began to move away from the living room, but in a very strange way because he would only ever move in the shadows…And what he would do was, he would follow someone around, and they would just hear a slight click clack click clack click clack and any time they turned around it would stop. And they would keep walking and then…he would jump out at them! He would just leap from the shadows and surprise them.

But um, he never really did anything until the family got a notice from the government that they were going to build a marine base on their land! So, they had to organize to move. And this was now, World War Two was over and the son is back, and so the whole family is back together, and he’s obviously very disheartened to see, y’know, what his father has turned into. And so when the government marine base was about to, y’know, start and they seized this family’s land, and um…it came down to the night before they [were supposed to] move, and then in the morning there was nobody leaving the house. And um, the construction company and the project manager and everyone, they they came to the house and they came prepared to tell these people like, ‘you have to move out right now,’ prepared to help them move out their furniture. But they entered the house and it was a massacre. And there was blood everywhere and the wife the daughter and the son had all been murdered and they had just been mauled, they had been maimed, they had been cut into pieces. There were like, splashes of blood everywhere, it was incredibly gruesome. And there was no sign of the husband.

So, y’know, after this terror they still had to go along with the project. So they built the marine base, which is now what is the Quantico marine base in uh, very near Prince William Forest Park…um, so for the Marine Base, y’know, they had to train marines obviously. And something that in the park you can do is you go out and there are these orienteering posts. And orienteering, for those at home who don’t know, is using just a map and compass to find your way from a point A to a point B…And so this was really good training for the marines, but what they would do is they would do it at night, um, to make it harder. So they would send these people out and they wouldn’t always come back. And sometimes those who did come back would tell stories of things they saw in the darkness like huge, huge abnormal shapes and really incredibly fast footsteps, and some who came back would come back with long slashes on their face and they would say–if they could even say anything about their experience–they would say simply that they had been out there at night and then out of nowhere something had jumped out at them and tried to kill them. And it had cut long claw marks all over them. And um, it was a miracle that those men survived.

So um, y’know, eventually Prince William Forest Park was built. And there was, y’know, tourism that was established there. And what they do is they have these historical cabins that people can stay in and so, um, one night there was a family that was going to uh, y’know, just stay for a weekend in the park…And so this family, they were staying in the cabin and it was nice. They, y’know, unpacked on a Saturday evening, it was um, the Fall so the sun was beginning to set really early, but it was nice afternoon light, y’know, they were getting their sleeping bags, fixing up a little dinner and um, it fell dark very quickly. And so, as they were wrapping up for dinner sitting around the little fireplace, they started to hear something out on the porch. Um, and it sounded like a little animal maybe, some very light, very quick little scratches. And then they stopped their conversation, they listened, and a few seconds after the scratching was silent again. And they would, y’know, start talking again. And it became slightly more defined of a noise and they could identify it as a sort of click clack click clack click clack as if something was walking back and forth on their porch. And so they stop their conversation again, they listen harder, y’know, trying to figure out what is this animal out there. And the click clack stops. And then they wait a few minutes, and just as they’re about to start their conversation again, the noise begins again before they even start talking. And now it’s faster, it’s more erratic, and um, the wife, y’know, the mother of the family, she turns to her husband and she goes like, ‘honey, you should go see what that is, even if it’s a raccoon we should, y’know, at least scare it away so it doesn’t come in here and eat all our food at night.’ And the husband, of course, he gets up and he goes over and he goes to the door and the noise is getting louder as he’s approaching the door. And um, just as he puts his hand on the doorknob it stops. And he looks out the window, but it’s pitch black, he doesn’t really see anything. So he turns the doorknob and he opens the door…and there was Click Clack!”

The summer camp where Claire learned this legend is held partly in Prince William Forest Park, so it is directly connected to the camp’s location, and could serve as a cautionary tale for campers who want to stray into the woods. Claire has told me various different versions of the story, involving different characters’ run ins with “Click Clack.” I also vaguely remember a friend telling me a version of it when I was a kid, but it had no connection to Prince William Forest or Quantico.

“George Fox”

My friend Razi went to a Quaker summer camp in Virginia called Shiloh Quaker Camp for several years as a kid. She learned a number of folk songs with Quaker themes as a camper there. The following is a recording of Razi singing a song about George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, which she learned at camp and often sings, along with the lyrics:

There’s a light that was shining in the heart of man
It’s a light that was shining when the world began
There’s a light that is shining in the Turk and the Jew
There’s a light that is shining friend in me and in you (hey)

Walk in the light wherever you may be
Why don’t you walk in the light wherever you may be?
“In my old leather britches and my shaggy, shaggy locks,
I am walking in the glory of the light,” said Fox.

“There’s a bell and a steeple and a book and a key
That will bind him forever but you can’t,” said he,
“For the book it will perish and the steeple will fall
But the light will be shining at the end of it all” (hey)

Walk in the light wherever you may be
Why don’t you walk in the light wherever you may be?
“In my old leather britches and my shaggy shaggy locks,
I am walking in the glory of the light,” said Fox.

This song specifically celebrates the Quaker belief of the “inner light” or “light of God,” but its morals can be embraced by non-Quakers as well. Quakerism is a particularly open religion in terms of its acceptance of other religions, so songs that come out of the tradition can often be sung with the same conviction by people who have to particular affiliation with the religion. Razi is Jewish and agnostic, but she agrees with many of the values taught at Quaker camp, so songs like this one have stuck with her.

Going to the wagons

A family friend, Ruth, grew up in a small town outside of Boston that had an unusual 4th of July tradition called “going to the wagons.” The following is a conversation between us about the tradition. “R” is Ruth and “L” is myself.

L: So what is the name of the town you’re from?
R: Dedham, Mass. And this would happen in Oakdale Square.
L: Okay.
R: And so the night before the 4th [of July], late at night, um like, we were young kids so we would go to bed first and our parents would wake us up and we would walk down to Oakdale Square, to take us to the wagons. And we would get there and y’know there’d be a crowd of people and like kids–it was kids I guess–who would roll these burning wooden wagons into the square. [It was called] “going to the wagons.”
L: So they were on- like what do you mean they were on fire?
R: They were burning!
L: Like they had, they were just set ablaze? Like the whole wagon?
R: Yeah!…I think what prompted them to stop this custom was, um, the drugstore windows broke from the heat of the flame, and so they stopped doing it. This was in the ‘50s.

The 4th of July is usually celebrated with fireworks, so in a sense this tradition seems an extension of the pyrotechnic theme present in the holiday. It makes sense that peculiar local traditions surrounding independence day would be most common in the Northeastern United States, particularly around Boston and Philadelphia, as that region was the site of much of the early political history of the U.S. as a nation-state.

Irma Hotel ghost story

My friend Jace grew up in Cody, Wyoming, a town named for the folk hero “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He gave me the following description of the purportedly haunted Irma Hotel:

“So apparently this was like, the first hotel ever built in Cody. And it was named after one of Buffalo Bill’s daughters who died when she was a kid; it’s called the Irma Hotel or whatever. And then apparently, I think it was like, some, like some important person within the state came to visit and ended up like, dying or being murdered in his hotel room. Like being- being shot with like a- one of those muskets or whatever. And then uh, so I don’t know, apparently he’s just supposed to like, haunt the whole hotel ’cause he wasn’t a good guy. Uh and then also Buffalo Bill himself uh, is supposed to haunt the hotel. There are reports of waitresses seeing people in dining booths, but then when they go over they’re not there, or seeing people- like the the people that clean the rooms seeing people like, walking around the hallways.”

This legend is deeply linked not only to the town in which it is meant to have taken place, but particularly to Buffalo Bill Cody himself. The incorporation of Buffalo Bill into folklore like this piece contribute to his status as a legendary figure and folk hero–someone who certainly existed, but whose identity is shrouded in unsubstantiated stories due to his widespread exaltation. This particular legend weaves together supernatural, patriotic (in the form of folk hero celebration), and local themes.

Hunter’s Point sisters

My cousin Joe, a San Francisco native who is currently directing a feature film that is deeply rooted in the city’s history, told me the following story, which takes place in a San Francisco neighborhood called Hunter’s Point:

“So this happened in Hunter’s Point, the very furthest edge of the city. Before it was a black neighborhood it had been like, Italians and some Chinese like fisheries and there were uh, Italian fishermen out there.
And apparently, right across from uh, where we’re gonna film our movie, there were two victorians and uh, two sisters who lived in each of them. And, they would apparently- the story, it was told to me by one guy who said they had these huge shouting matches that they would come out once a month and they would have these- this huge fight in front of the whole neighborhood and he claimed it was because their periods were timed…and they would have this huge fight and they’d go back into their homes and everything would be fine. But one day they had a fight that was so big, one said ‘I’m gonna burn your house down! I hate you!’ And then she lit her sister’s house on fire, and then her house caught fire ‘cause they were right next to each other and their houses burned to the ground. So it was kind of biblical or something.
But that was told to me because there’s like all these mysterious fires in Hunter’s Point that people have kind of tried to understand why they happen, and the guy that told me this–one of them, two guys told me–one who told me was like a former um, fireman and he said that uh, there were all these mysterious fires in Hunter’s Point and he thinks they’re arson. He thinks they’re uh, landlords trying to burn out their tenants. So anyways that’s somehow linked to this weird story of sisters–Italian sisters. But yeah, I like imagining that ‘cause now it’s a- it’s a burned out lot.”

This story can be classified as a legend, because it may or may not be true, and is supposed to have occurred in a real place. It is also a sort of origin story, because it explains the presence of an otherwise mysterious landmark– in this case a burned out lot–that neighborhood residents are familiar with. Hunter’s Point is, as Joe says, at “the very furthest edge” of San Francisco, and as such is one of the last neighborhoods in the city to begin fall victim to gentrification. The tensions over shifting neighborhood dynamics are such that some residents theorize that corrupt landlords are committing arson to keep up real estate prices, and these tensions may contribute to the popularity of legends describing former neighborhood conflicts.

Rolling Calf

Panteha’s mom is from Jamaica, and taught her many legends and folk beliefs from Jamaican folklore. The following is a description Panteha shared with me of one such legend:

“There’s like this legend [in Jamaica] that you’ll be like driving on the road and you’ll hit like, a baby cow and then you like, die the next week…It’s called the rolling calf. It’s like, so hard to explain ’cause the way people talk about it, it’s like it’s a normal thing. But like…If you encounter this animal you’re like, doomed to die. But then a way to get rid of the curse is you’re supposed to like, find a crossroads and stick a knife in it, which doesnt work now cause like, the roads are paved…

I have this distinct memory, I was like five, and we were driving- it was like, pitch black, late as fuck at night and like, literally people in Jamaica plan so they like, don’t have to be driving on these roads after it gets dark, ’cause it’s like, there’s so many folkloric tales and also like, actual crime. But like, we were driving and there’s this place that’s like, right in between Ocho Rios, which is kind of a beach location, and Sav-la-Mar, which is the rural place where my mom grew up. Um and it’s like, right nestled in the middle of nowhere and it’s like this rest stop kind of place, but they have the best Jamaican patty. So we’re like, okay, we’ll stop there, it’ll be great. And it was like, there was like no one there, we were the only people there, and it’s crazy ’cause it’s like, you’re in the middle of the jungle driving on this tiny dirt road, and then all of a sudden it’s like, this neon bright light, so it’s kinda crazy. So we stopped there and my uncle, um, Uncle Paul, was freaking out. He was like, ‘we should not be stopping! We should not be getting out of the fucking car!’ He was like, talking about the rolling calf and he was like, throwing handfuls of coins behind him as we walked and I was like, really amused by it but like, my mom and her sisters were like, really clearly stressed out.”

This piece of folklore incorporates elements of both the contemporary legend and traditional magical practices, such as using coins to ward off evil spirits. It has likely persisted as a commonly believed legend because of other dangers posed by driving in rural areas late at night, and may serve as a stylized means of discouraging people from going out in unsafe environments.

Three Kings’ Day

My friend Rudy, who is Mexican-American, shared the following description with me of how their family celebrates Three Kings’ Day:

“Three Kings’ Day is a really big one- that one we celebrated specifically. So that was like, January 6th, it’s the day that the three wise men finally reach Bethlehem with the baby Jesus. And um we- you’re actually not allowed to throw out your Christmas tree, in like, Mexican culture, like until Three Kings’ Day. So you have to keep your tree until then because that’s like, the official like, end of the season. And like, you put your shoes out and you leave food for the camels and then they fill your shoes with like sweets or a toy as a thank you for um, feeding the camels and giving them a rest. And like as a congratulations for being a good child. And so that was um, always important, and then you have a rosca de reyes which is um, a bread shaped like a crown so it’s like, circular bread. And um, there is sugar on it and dried fruits and there’s also tiny baby Jesuses inside it…There’s like multiple babies in roscas sometimes cause people like, like to play with fire. And um, well it’s like, when you get the slice and you get a baby Jesus inside your slice then you are obligated to throw a party on February second. And that’s the uh, day that Jesus is presented to the temple. Um, so you have to throw the party that day. But at that point it’s less about Jesus and more about more partying.”

When I heard Rudy’s description of the rosca de reyes, I recognized it as a variant of the “king cake” eaten in New Orleans on Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras king cakes are also circular and have a tiny plastic baby representing the baby Jesus baked into them. The version of the king cake tradition I learned from my aunt, who lives in New Orleans, says that the person who gets the baby in their slice has to buy the cake the following year. The king cake/rosca is a prime example of folkloric foodways that are present, but variable, across cultures.

Polterabend

The following is a conversation between myself and my parents about a German Jewish wedding tradition called a Polterabend. My dad, Arthur, is of German Jewish descent and grew up in a secular household in Cincinnati, while my mother, Margaret, is from a secular Episcopalian background. They are referred to by their first initials in this conversation; “L” is my first initial.

M: This is actually uh, Dad’s but I was gonna say that in Cincinnati they have um–among reform Jews in Cincinnati–they have a custom called the Polterabend. which is a-
A: It’s a German custom.
M: It’s a german custom, but isn’t- I think it was celebrated by the German Jews?
A: Yeah.
M: Um and we had one of them before our wedding and the idea was um, the night before, you have like a- a kind of a wild party of some kind to celebrate. But “polter” is y’know from “poltergeist” so it’s like, y’know, goblins or-
A: And you’re supposed to break something.
L: You always do it before your wedding or…?
M: Yeah, the evening before your wedding um, y’know you uh, you break stuff, you make a lot of noise to sort of celebrate the marrying couple and chase away the bad spirits.
L: And like, did your parents do that, Dad?
A: Yeah.
L: And like, all the reform Jews in Cincinnati?
A: Yeah.
M: And when they had a party for us, the evening before our wedding here [in San Francisco]-
A: They called it a Polterabend.
M: They called it a Polterabend, although it was just a party.

My dad’s family, like most German Jewish families in Cincinnati, were not at all religiously observant; in fact, they had a Christmas tree most years growing up. Still, most reform Jews in Cincinnati, my dad’s family included, participated in cultural practices like the Polterabend in order to connect to their culture. Although neither of my parents are especially religious, traditions like this one connect our family to our cultural-religious background. My parents were married by a Rabbi in a Jewish ceremony, and had a “Polterabend” before their wedding; though my mom is not Jewish, their wedding celebrated Jewish culture’s place in their newly formed family.