Author Archives: marcusem@usc.edu

Building of the Pyramids Through Canals

BACKGROUND:

Not much is known about how the Great Pyramids of Giza were built. Often viewed as something that simply shouldn’t have been possible, many struggle to figure out how exactly materials were transported. One legend tells a story of the Egyptians architects instructing the laborers to build canals that would transport materials to the site via boats and rafts. Though probably not the most practical of solutions, the free cost of slave labor made things as impractical as canal building, completely possible.

MY THOUGHTS:

When first hearing this legend, I was skeptical. While the Egyptians are famous for their ingenuity, I couldn’t help but feel like building canals simply to transport materials. It wasn’t until my source explained that the slave labor at the time meant that there was virtually no risks in doing things that required that much more effort.

Korean Proverb: Sparrow Following a Crane

A sparrow tried to follow a crane and split its crotch

BACKGROUND:

The direct translation of the proverb tells of a Korean Crow-Tilt (closely related to a sparrow) who tries to be as elegant as a crane. In doing so, the crow-tilt ends up making a fool of itself. Crow-tilts are often known for having short, stubby legs unlike the crane. So if the crow-tilt were to walk the same strides as a crane, it would split the crotch of its pants and completely embarrass itself. The moral of the proverb is to not try to put so much effort into the way that you look and to be satisfied with who you are, otherwise you’re going to fall flat.

MY THOUGHTS:

I feel like this is a clever proverb with a beneficial lesson. Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback when I first heard the English translation. My source was very kind and patient with me in explaining what the actual meaning behind it is. After a little explanation I was able to value it for what it is.

“Don’t drink milk with fish”

BACKGROUND:

A family from Bucks County, Pennsylvania passed down the tradition and ominous warning, “Don’t drink milk with fish”. This proverb was passed down for so many generations that the actual reason not to drink milk while eating fish. The family comes from a long line of traditional Mennonites branching off into the Pennsylvania dutch community. Being so dedicated to the traditions of their community and family, every descendant of this family has refused to drink milk with fish, despite not knowing the actual reason behind it.

INTERVIEW:

The interview with my source, A, is as follows:

A: My grandmother always told me, “Don’t drink milk with fish”. Because of that, I simply haven’t done it for as long as I can remember.

Me: Is there a reason she told you not to drink milk while eating fish?

A: I don’t know actually, the saying has been in my family for so many years that its reason was simply lost. Why don’t we drink milk with fish? Who knows. I’ve asked a many people if they know of its origin but nobody knows. Regardless, we still don’t do it.

MY THOUGHTS:

I find it extremely interesting that something such as not drinking milk while eating fish is so religiously followed. This family is so dedicated to this tradition of unknown origin, that it doesn’t even consider what the actual reason for this practice is. I think this blind faith is a testament to how certain peoples are affected by the way in which family and tradition is upheld.

Ghost Hauntings in India

BACKGROUND:

An individual in Los Gatos, California recounts her familial folk belief in ghosts while living in India. According to her, when a family member passes, the whole extended family sleeps in one room for about a week after the passing due to the fear of the ghost of the departed returning to haunt individual family members. She tells a family legend of her grandfather’s experience with ghosts. According to him, when his mother passed the family all slept in the same room as per their beliefs. While sleeping, with a gust of wind, the door opened and the ghost of his mother appeared before her widowed husband. When the father saw her, other family members awoke, screamed, and the ghost fled from the house.

INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, A, went as follows:

ME: Could you tell me about what the beliefs are towards ghosts in India?

A: So when someone passes away they’re always afraid that the ghost is going to return. So they would all sleep in the same room for the first, you know, week after the death.

ME: Was there ever an instance in which a ghost returned?

A: When my grandfather was 8 years old… his mother died. So they’re all sleeping in the same room and they said one of the doors opened, there was a gust of wind, and she came in. She came in to see my grandfather. And my grandfather saw her, and she… like other family members woke up and saw her, they screamed, and she ran away.

ME: Did she ever come back?

A: I don’t know, I just know she visited them that one time.

MY THOUGHTS:

I find it interesting that this belief and fear of returning spirits is fended off not via a religious figure, but through the bond and support of family. While the recounted legend is quite compelling, I’m more interested in the bonding experience this belief provides for the family. The passing of a loved one is an extremely traumatic experience. The idea that the only way to prevent a spirit from returning is through the family banding together is a good way to help cope with the depression of losing a family member.

The Highland Fling

BACKGROUND:

A man in Sacramento, California recounts the traditional dance known as the Highland Fling and a legend passed down by his Scottish ancestors. The practice of the Highland Fling originated in the early 19th century grew in popularity throughout the next hundred years. According to my source, when his ancestors immigrated to America, his great great grandma was so excited to see Elis Island, she broke into this traditional dance and captivated onlookers both on and off the boat.

THE DANCE:

Below is an example of the dance being performed:

Source: “Scottish Highland Dancing: Highland Fling.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 July 2006, www.youtube.com/watch?v=emCIxAJCe2g.

THE INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, R, went as follows:

ME: Could you tell me about an instance where you’ve witnessed the Highland Fling?

R: I can’t tell you a time when I saw it live but I can tell you about a story of it happening.

ME: Yeah that works too.

R: Well my great great grandmother, her two brothers, and their parents all sailed from Scotland to New York at Elis Island. I’ve been told that my great great grandma was so excited she began to do the Highland Fling. Now she was only 5 at this time. I guess the people around thought this was very cute. Soon enough she’d drawn a crowd.

 

MY THOUGHTS:

The legend that’s been passed down compliments this traditional Scottish dance. I set out to get more information on the origins of the dance itself but was pleasantly surprised to find out that it actually had some heavy significance in my source’s family.

Heddens vs. Heddings

BACKGROUND:

A woman in Sacramento, California recalls an old family legend about the origins of their last name. According to her, her great grandpa and his brother had a huge fight over their inheritance after their parents died. The farm was left to be split amongst the two of them. The conflict didn’t arise from property or money, but rather from who got to keep the mule. The dispute over the mule was so heated that my source’s great grandfather left his brother forever and changed his last name from Hedding to Hedden.

INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, A, went as follows:

ME: So you mentioned that you have an interesting legend about how your name came into–like came to be.

A: Yes, when I was a little girl, my father used to tell me the funniest story about his grandpa and his brother. Apparently when their parents passed away, they were left their property, they lived on a farm. The money and land were divided but when it came to who gets the mule, my great grandfather and his brother could not agree. At the time their last name was Hedding. Well my great grandfather eventually gave in and let his brother, my great uncle, have the mule. Now I never actually met this great uncle because my great uncle because my great grandfather was so angry that he left the place, changed his last name to Hedden, and started a new family.

ME: Did they ever talk to each other again?

A: Never again.

MY THOUGHTS:

I really wish my source had some living relatives who I could ask more about this legend. I think the whole concept of a dispute restructuring an entire family (especially over something as simple as a mule) is incredibly interesting. My source did, however, show me some genealogical records that show that the last name did, in fact, change from Hedding to Hedden at that point in the family tree. Whether this was the reason for the change is up for debate.

Uncle Ezra Sings “I’ve Been Working on The Railroad”

BACKGROUND:

A woman from Sacramento, California recounts her grandfather’s interesting take on a traditional folk song that their family used to sing. Her grandfather was a part time inventor. For the World’s Fair, he created an animatronic who would play the guitar with a dog who would wag his tail to the beat. An animatronic is a robot like sculpture that automatically moves in a pre-programmed manor. In this case the animatronic was a man named Uncle Ezra who would play the American folk song, “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”. My source recounts her experience with the machine saying she’d never seen the traditional song ever performed in such a unique way.

INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, B, went as follows:

ME: Could you explain your experience with the machine and how it conveyed that song?

B: Well when I was a little girl, 6 years old, we used to drive up to Decatur, Illinois to visit [my grandfather]. When we got there he took us down into his basement where, before our very eyes, we say an animatronic man and dog. The man–he was called Uncle Ezra–played a banjo and the dogs tail would flip back and forth with the music. That animatronic man was in the World’s Fair in 1932. He was quite a wonder, way before Disney and Disneyland and all the other innovations in animatronic machines with music. And yeah, he would play that song “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”. It was quite something, I tell you that. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I knew the song but this was something else.

THE SONG:

The traditional lyrics to “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”:

I’ve been working on the railroad
All the livelong day
I’ve been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away

Can’t you hear the whistle blowing
Rise up so early in the morn
Can’t you hear the captain shouting
Dinah, blow your horn

Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone’s in the kitchen I know
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Strumming on the old banjo, and singing

Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Strumming on the old banjo

Winchester Mystery House

BACKGROUND:

A woman from Saratoga, California tells the legend of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.

INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, L, went as follows:

ME: So tell me about your experience with the Winchester House and like what you know.

L: I grew up in San Jose and everywhere as a child were huge billboards for the Winchester Mystery House and it always had this scary image of a skull and this very creepy looking house and it always played up on the mystery and the scariness of it and everyone would talk about it. But as a child I’d never been. And all you would hear was all of the legends and the stories that surrounded it right around the house were several movie theaters. So we were all very familiar with the outside of the house and everyone would talk about oh the Winchester Mystery House and how Sarah Winchester had inherited this vast fortune from her husband on his death that from the Winchester rifle company and that after his death she was devastated. They had lost their only child in infancy and then her husband died. I think typhoid fever. I’m not sure if that’s right but that was the lore as I was told it and that she went to a spiritualist was really big back in those days and they ate hundreds and he told her that all of her sadness and tragedy and misfortune was because all of the money that she and her husband had was blood money because of all the people that had died because of the Winchester rifle and that she needed to move out west and she needed to start building a house to house all of the spirits of the people that were killed by the Winchester rifle and that as long as she would build she would stay alive. She would evade the ghosts and all the tragedies that were befalling her family. But the building could never stop. They had lost their only child in infancy and then her husband died. I think typhoid fever. I’m not sure if that’s right but that was the lore as I was told it and that she went to a spiritualist was really big back in those days and they ate hundreds and he told her that all of her sadness and tragedy and misfortune was because all of the money that she and her husband had was blood money because of all the people that had died because of the Winchester rifle and that she needed to move out west and she needed to start building a house to house all of the spirits of the people that were killed by the Winchester rifle and that as long as she would build she would stay alive. She would evade the ghosts and all the tragedies that were befalling her family. But the building could never stop. And so she left the East Coast and she moved to California and she bought the little farm house and started rebuilding it and built this enormous mansion in its place and that her whole goal was to never ever stop building because she was afraid of the spirits of all the dead. And so she would have workers building 24/7. It never stopped. Night Day there was always someone building on the house and she built stairways that went nowhere and doors that you would open the door and there would be a brick wall behind it and fireplaces that didn’t even go all the way up through to the ceiling. It just went part way and cupboards that were only like an inch deep just strange bizarre stuff. And she was super obsessed with you know the spiritual side of all these ghosts that were chasing her she felt and she had a Seance room built into the house so that she could speak to the dead and she intentionally built this house to be like a labyrinth where you know these doors that open to nothing were to confuse all the spirits that might be coming after her. So the house was built both the house them and yet to keep them from being able to get to her. And so as a kid you know it just was so scary and you would hear all these stories about that you know at night sometimes you would see lights moving through the house like candles flickering through the house because it was the workers still the ghosts of the workers still working on the House. And if you would you know stop and listen which we could do because the movie theaters parking lots right up to the hedges of the house we would stop and listen because they would say you could hear the hammers of the workers still working into the middle of the night you know and she was obsessed with the number 13. You know she had windowpanes that were specifically the number 13 panes in the window and 13 steps in a stairway in the 13th bathroom has 13 windows and she just was. So everything was really cold and creepy and so as a kid it was just so mysterious and scary and the first time I finally got to visit the house I was about 12 and we had friends that came into town from Southern California and they wanted to see them in Winchester Mystery House so my parents said we could all go and it was both fascinating and terrifying. Even though it was just a house because of all the stories that we heard you’re walking through it and it’s beautiful. No expense was spared when she was building this house it’s amazing the craftsmanship that went into all of these things that are kind of pointless because they go nowhere and do nothing but it’s stunningly beautiful. But at the same time there was always all of this scary creepiness about it because of all the stories that we’d heard as children and all the legends that surround just how crazy she was or how afraid she was and her fear and the ghosts and all the weird things that she did.

ME: Wow that’s actually insane.

 

MY THOUGHTS:

I think it’s incredible how knowledgeable this source was. She really was able to give me a thorough explanation of all the crazy stories and legends behind the house. I like how she gave both an account of the stories she got from word of mouth before she visited the house, as well as an account of what she learned after visiting.

Skiing Mt. Rainier in the 1930’s

BACKGROUND:

A man from Saratoga, California recounts the cultural traditions his father took part in, of skiing Mt. Rainier in the 1930’s as a child. According to his retelling, Mt. Rainier was a prime place for skiing among the youth of Pierce County, Washington. The reason not many people chose to ski that mountain, was due to the layer of volcanic ash that would settle on the snow. As kids would ski down the hills, their skis would wear down at a very fast pace. The solution to this: Buy cheap skis, throw them away when they were done.

INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, S, went as follows:

ME: Were there any specific like games or events that happened up in your part of Washington?

S: There were a few… I think probably the most interesting one would be when my father would tell me about going skiing.

ME: Tell me about that

S: Well this was back in the 1930s. And he and his friends would go skiing on Mt. Rainier except when they went skiing. It was sort of an all day thing. First they would go to the army surplus store and buy the skis and these skis were really cheap. There were nice skis but they were really inexpensive and so they’d get their skis and then they’d hike up Mount Rainier and Mount Rainier as we know now is a volcanic mountain. But back then it was dormant but there was plenty of volcanic pumice and the wind would blow over the snow it would deposit a fine layer of pumice so they’d go up and they’d ski down Mount Rainier and when they get to the bottom their skis or they bought that day were basically sanded on the bottoms because of the pumice on the snow and so they just throw away the skis and the next time they’d go they’d buy another pair at the Army surplus store.

MY THOUGHTS:

I’ve honestly never heard of people skiing on active volcanoes–for obvious reasons. To the children of Pierce County, however, they saw this as an opportunity to have fun with no one around to stop them. Their cultural work around for the volcanic pumice on the surface of the snow is quite interesting. Had it not been for the ease of access to cheap, disposable skis at the time, I doubt this phenomena would have taken place.

The Ballad of John Henry

BACKGROUND:

The Ballad of John Henry was an Afro-American folk song dating back to the late 1800s. The song tells of a man who worked as a steel driver when the railroads were being built across Western America. John was so good at his job, that he was put up against a steam powered hammer in a race to see who would complete the job faster. In the end, John Henry is victorious. But the celebrations are short lived as he dies of exhaustion directly after claiming victory. It has been determined that John Henry was an actual man who worked on the railroads and died with a hammer in his hand. Whether this race actually took place is up for debate.

THE SONG:

The lyrics to The Ballad of John Henry are as follows:

When John Henry was a little tiny baby
Sitting on his mama’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”
John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast.
He’d hammer with a nine-pound hammer all day
And never get tired and want to rest, Lord, Lord,
And never get tired and want to rest.
John Henry went up on the mountain
And he looked one eye straight up its side.
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried, “Lord, Lord,”
He laid down his hammer and he cried.
John Henry said to his captain,
“Captain, you go to town,
Bring me back a TWELVE-pound hammer, please,
And I’ll beat that steam drill down, Lord, Lord,
I’ll beat that steam drill down.”
The captain said to John Henry,
“I believe this mountain’s sinking in.”
But John Henry said, “Captain, just you stand aside–
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind, Lord, Lord,
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind.”
John Henry said to his shaker,
“Shaker, boy, you better start to pray,
‘Cause if my TWELVE-pound hammer miss that little piece of steel,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day, Lord, Lord,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day.”
John Henry said to his captain,
“A man is nothing but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”
The man that invented the steam drill,
He figured he was mighty high and fine,
But John Henry sunk the steel down fourteen feet
While the steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord,
The steam drill only made nine.
John Henry hammered on the right-hand side.
Steam drill kept driving on the left.
John Henry beat that steam drill down.
But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord,
He hammered his poor heart to death.
Well, they carried John Henry down the tunnel
And they laid his body in the sand.
Now every woman riding on a C and O train
Says, “There lies my steel-driving man, Lord, Lord,
There lies my steel-driving man.”

MY THOUGHTS:

The song is a very interesting piece in that it was one of the first cultural occurrences to feature the concept of “Man vs. Machine”. This song was written at the height of the industrial revolution where big business reigned king. In America at the time, African American’s had only just claimed their freedom from slavery. While the song does have a very strict tone of Man vs. Machine, the song can also be viewed as an allegory for the African American community’s place in America at the time; They were able to do their work better their monopolistic overlords and yet, no matter how hard they worked, they would still never gain the respect they deserve. This specific version of the legend, however, has a more optimistic ending, giving hope to those who sought for the glory they deserved.