Author Archive
Legends
Narrative

Legend about Music Producer’s Synths

INFORMANT: “A few years ago everyone was saying that Zedd’s synths were actually just samples of an electric razor, which I’m sure they weren’t.”
COLLECTOR: “Who do you mean by ‘everyone’?”
I: “Just, like, people on the internet… Anyways, then, he, Zedd—I think it was on April Fools Day—Zedd posted a video of himself actually recording a razor and making a joke song from it, so I guess the rumor reached him, even.”

This contemporary legend was shared by a high-school friend of mine who produces music. I called him to ask if he could think of any folklore from either that professional field or our time in grade school together. As soon as he said it, I remember him also telling me this contemporary legend in his bedroom/studio, when the rumor was just coming out. It seems like the legend arose inside of the online electronic music community, in which my friend participates. “A few years ago” would have been when the subject of the legend, the major producer Zedd, was becoming incredibly popular, so it seems the popularization of this particular story would have been fueled by the insecure jealousy of young people like my friend, hoping to make it big, who felt that Zedd did not put enough effort into his work to deserve the fame he was achieving. Interestingly, this story also incorporates the folkloric tradition of April Fools Day. Zedd’s acknowledgement of the legend’s existence suggests it must have become quite widespread through the internet, and likely helped perpetuate it further, because he chose to neither confirm nor deny it, preserving the uncertainty necessary for a legend to persist. I believe this piece of folklore also works as a sign of the times in music. Whereas the legends that certain early rock albums contained secret satanic messages obviously reflected the cultural discomfort with the rise of that new genre, this legend quite directly addresses concerns over the ambiguity of electronically produced music, in which you never know if sounds are ‘real’ or synthesized.

Legends
Myths
Narrative

The Legend of The Cousin Who Survived the Holocaust in a Cave

“Okay so the story of—for me anyway, goes back to a time when I had to move out of my studio on sixteenth street and… uh… I was moving a lot of books and two letters fell out of one of the books I was moving. I’d received them a long time before that from my mother, or really not from my mother, my sister had written the letters because my mother didn’t write english, and so my sister would always write these letters for her. The first letter was about her nephew, the only survivor actually of her entire family in Poland; the rest of them had been murdered. And he had managed to survive by escaping into the forest before the Germans were able to get him. And, uh, miraculously he, in the next year, he managed to work his away across all of europe to northern Italy. And he’d met a young woman on the way who already had a child, whose husband had been murdered. But this woman and her child and he found a cave in northern Italy where they lived for over two years. They had a child in the cave, and I saw this child, actually, because, when they were going to Toronto—my mother had sort of uh brought them to Canada from Europe, to live in Toronto—and they were passing through New York on their way, and I met them one night at an uncle’s house. And they had this child who had been born in the cave, who looked to be about—still about—two years old, even though he was about five at the time. That first letter was my mother saying—after he got to Toronto, she got to know him—saying how awful it was out of all her relatives this one cousin, this one nephew, was the one who had survived, because he was lazy, he didn’t want to work, he… nothing made him happy, complaining all the time. My mother found him an apartment to live in and all of that, and a job—not a very good one—working in a factory pressing men’s clothes. And he hated that. That’s not what he came to Canada for. That’s what my mother was telling me in the first letter, what sort of man he was.
“The second letter was something that my sister had written about five years later and in it, my sister talks about the same nephew coming from Vancouver, with his wife and his two children and they were going to stay wit my mother, and she seemed to be overjoyed that he was going to stay for more than a week. What turned out was that—my sister explained this to me over the phone years before—whenever he came to Toronto he would visit and he would bring my mother a present, sometimes a jewel, and my mother really liked this. So I thought these two letters were kind of interesting. The story behind it was that, after being in Toronto for a short time, he and his wife and children just picked themselves up without a word, and they just went off and didn’t say anything, They disappeared. And about a month later, my mother got a letter from him saying that they’d decided to go out to Vancouver to try their luck out West. And what he did when he got out to Vancouver—he had heard somehow through the survivor grapevine I guess—that this very wealthy Jew in Vancouver was getting set to auction some land that he owned on the outskirts of the city. And he was a builder and he was very wealthy, okay. So my cousin went to this auction in Vancouver and, not having any money, he bid and won the bid on this land. He had no money, you know, he had no money. Of course, he was confronted by this wealthy man, and the first the he did was of course, to start telling him his life story—how he had escaped the Germans, and lived in a cave, and had a child in the cave—and at the end of the story, this man agreed to let him have the land, and he would help in in any way he could. So by the time this second letter reached me, this nephew of my mother’s had become a rather prosperous builder in Vancouver. He owned a couple of apartment houses and was sending both of his boys through college—one of them became a doctor and one of them became a lawyer. So there’s a great story about the Survivors. They had the guts and the chutzpah to do something, you know? He was a remarkable person to have been able to do something like that… End of story.”

I asked my informant for any stories he knew. Most were rather contemporary and even the ones from his childhood seemed much more personal than folk. However, a couple of factors, I believe, help this one qualify as a legend. First, there are the number of steps of removal. Although my informant uses two letters to frame his story, it is unclear whether the bulk of the narrative was actually communicated through those. More likely, it seems to have come through a chain of communication, from the cousin, through his mother, and sister, to him. The uncertainty of its facts qualify it as a legend. Did this cousin actually escape the Holocaust, immigrate to Canada with two sons, and become wealthy in Vancouver? Almost certainly. Did he really live in a cave during his escape? Likely. Was it for two whole years? Maybe. Was he actually given a fortune in property for free just by telling his story? It’s possible. And did he really have a child in the cave? That becomes a little more ambiguous. My informant even casts doubt on that claim through his description of the child looking three years younger that it should have been, had it actually been born in the cave. More important than the facts, however, is that this makes a good story to tell, that supports a pride among the Jewish-American community. My informant’s casting this tale as ‘miraculous’ even pushes towards the category of myth. And the number of times I have heard it repeated—normally in snippets—would support the argument that it has become a formative part of his family’s identity.

Musical

When I First Came to This Land in Yiddish

English Translation:

When I first came to this land, not much money in my hand,
So I got myself a shack, and I did what I could.
And I called my shack Break My Back,
But the land was sweet and good, and I did what I could.

2nd verse: cow/called my cow, No Wilk Now
3rd verse: duck/called my duck, Out of Luck
4th verse: wife/called my wife, Run for Your Life
5th verse: son/called my son, My Work’s Done

Going through my family attic, I came across a box of tapes hand-labelled “Yiddish Yodel 1992-95.” From asking around, I learned that a group of relatives and family friends kept up a tradition of singing together every year, to practice their traditional language and reconnect over their immigrant ancestry; most were second-generation. Among many songs only slightly familiar to me in tune, one stood out as completely recognizable. It was a song I myself had sung countless times in English during my childhood. Although I could not manage to get a Yiddish transcription of the original, a confirmation of song’s premise and my remembered version from my informant was enough to satisfy me. The formulaic nature of this song makes it incredibly easy to remember, and allows participants to sing if for almost as long as they wish, as long as they can keep coming up with rhymes. The verses above are merely one set of options among great multiplicity and variation.

Another version of the song in English can be found in the Smithsonian’s Folkways project, recorded by Pete Seeger: https://folkways.si.edu/pete-seeger/american-favorite-ballads-vol-3/folk-popular/music/album/smithsonian

Musical

Hava Nagila

Phonetic Hebrew Transcription:

Hava nagila, hava nagila,
Hava nagila, venismecha.

Hava nagila, hava nagila,
Hava nagila, venismecha.

Hava neranenah, hava venismecḥa,
Uru achim belev sameach.

Hava neranenah, hava venismecḥa,
Uru achim belev sameach.

English Translation:

Let us rejoice, let us rejoice,
Let us rejoice, and be happy.

Let us rejoice, let us rejoice,
Let us rejoice, and be happy.

Let us sing, let us be happy,
Awake my brothers with a happy heart.

Let us sing, let us be happy,
Awake my brothers with a happy heart.

Going through my family attic, I came across a box of tapes hand-labelled “Yiddish Yodel 1992-95.” From asking around, I learned that a group of relatives and family friends kept up a tradition of singing together every year, to practice their traditional language and reconnect over their immigrant ancestry; most were second-generation. This song is a well-known Hebrew folk song. Although, I knew that I had heard it before, to figure that out, I had to take the tape to one of only two surviving participants in the ‘Yiddish Yodels’, who provided me with my transcription and translation. Wikipedia calls Hava Nagila “perhaps the first modern Israeli folk song in the Hebrew language that has become a staple of band performers at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations,” which would explain why I knew the tune. However, the lyrics you find there, and many other places online, are far more complicated than the ones my informant knew. It seems that when the song was passed down orally, as opposed to in writing on recorded, it became greatly simplified so that passive bearers of the tradition could participate more easily.

One online version found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hava_Nagila

Musical

Tum Balalaika

Yiddish Transcription:

Shteyt a bocher uner tracht,
Tracht und tracht di gantze nacht,
Vemen tsu nemen, un nit farshemen,
Vemen tsu nemen, un nit farshemen.

Chorus
Tum bala, tum bala, tum balalaika,
Tum bala, tum bala, tum balalaika,
Tum balalaika, Shpil balalaika,
Tum balalaika, freylich zol zayn.

Meydl, meydl, ich vil bay dir fregn,
Vos ken vaksn, vaksn on regn?
Vos ken brenen un nit oyfheren?
Vos ken beynkn, veynen on treren?

Chorus

Narisher bocher, vos darfst du fregn,
A shteyn ken vaksn, vaksn on regn?
A Jibe ken brenen un nit oyfh eren,
A hartz ken beynken, veynen on treren.

Chorus

English Translation:

A young man is deep in thought,
And he wonders whom he ought,
To take as wife for all of his life,
To take as wife for all of his life.

Chorus
Play ‘bala,’ play ‘bala,’ play ‘balalaika,’
Play ‘bala,’ play ‘bala,’ play ‘balalaika,’
Play ‘balalaika,’ play ‘balalaika,’
Play ‘balalaika.’ Let there be joy.

Tell me, maiden, I’d like to know,
What it is needs no rain to grow?
What’s not consumed although it’s burning?
What weeps no tears although it’s yearning?

Chorus

You foolish boy, didn’t you know,
A stone does not need rain to grow?
A love’s not consumed although it’s burning,
A heart weeps no tears although it’s yearning.

Chorus

Going through my family attic, I came across a box of tapes hand-labelled “Yiddish Yodel 1992-95.” From asking around, I learned that a group of relatives and family friends kept up a tradition of singing together every year, to practice their traditional language and reconnect over their immigrant ancestry; most were second-generation. This song is a well-known Yiddish folk lullaby, but to figure that out, I had to take the tape to one of only two surviving participants in the ‘Yiddish Yodels’, who provided me with my transcription and translation. These days you can just search “Tum Balalaika” online, and see hundreds of results helping carry the tradition, but hearing it on the tape and it resung live by my informant made the traditional nature of the song feel much more real to me.

Folk speech
Proverbs

“Life isn’t fair.”

“Mom, like, really doesn’t like the idea of proverbs, so I wouldn’t tell her this is one. It definitely comes from her being an English Professor and having to read lots of student stories where the just write the same really cliché stuff and like try to sound deep or poetic by repeating things they’ve read, which I agree would but super frustrating. But, anyways, she doesn’t like proverbs, but there’s this one phrase she’s always saying. And it’s “life isn’t fair.” Which, I mean, I don’t know if it’s really a proverb, but it’s something a lot of people say in response to stuff. It gets really annoying, like, you know, sometimes you just want to complain about something, but she uses it to shut you up. I mean, like, maybe life isn’t fair, but maybe it should be.”

I asked one of my informants if she had any proverbs she used frequently, and she told me that she never uses proverbs. She hates how they become a crutch for people who are too lazy to try to actually articulate what they want to say precisely. While I accepted her argument, I found it a little suspicious that someone could go entirely without using any proverbs. So, I decided to get a different perspective from her daughter, who revealed she was perhaps as not a purely original as she thought. This just goes to show how essential folk-speech is to language. After all, almost all of our formative language-learning comes from hearing grown-ups talk while we are babies, not from any sort of formalized guide—although many books to exists to help children learn, and when we are older, we grow our skills and vocabulary by reading complex works. Even if we actively try to avoid simply repeating sayings, it is impossible to avoid picking up phrases.

Foodways
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Latkes

COLLECTOR: “Do you know how to make latkes?”
INFORMANT: “I mean, it’s like really easy.”
C: “So, how do you do it?”
I: “You just take a bunch of potatoes and an onion—or three or four if you’re my dad—and put them through the spinny grater thing in a Cuisinart. And then you can wring it out with a towel, and mix it with flour, and salt, and an egg, and I think sometimes baking powder. And then make… patties… and you fry them. In like a bit of oil—not too much.”
C: “How long do you cook them for?”
I: “Just, like don’t burn them. I mean, I like mine kinda crispy. And raw potato is disgusting. Don’t try it.”
C: “And do you just eat them plain?”
I: “Yes… I do. Remember to put them on a paper towel to soak up the oil, first. And most people like applesauce or sour cream or other weird stuff on them, but why?… I’m a potato purist.”

I decided it would be interesting to see if I could collect religious folklore from someone not particularly religious, so this recipe comes from teenaged girl, who is ethnically Jewish, but neither practicing nor bat mitzvahed. I simply asked her to explain different components of how she celebrates Chanukah. The cooking of latkes has become so ingrained in her as part of the Chanukah tradition that, from her nonchalant description, it seems an almost thoughtless process, now. The folkloric quality of this traditional recipe is clear, though the lack of any measurements, heats, times, or anything quantifiable in the instructions; a major part of being able to cook them properly is intuition gained from seeing and helping others cook them over and over again.

Game
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Traditional Chanukah Game of Dreidel – Onion Modification

INFORMANT: “So, dreidel is like the game you play at Chanukah, where you spin the dreidel—it’s like a four-sided top—and bet gelt [chocolate coins] and the different sides do different things. Do I need to, like, explain all of those?”
COLLECTOR: “No, you can skip to the story. People can look that up.”
I: “Okay, sure. So it was, um, six? No, like, a lot of years ago. We were having a Chanukah party with a bunch of not-Jewish friends, and had lit the menorah and were playing dreidel, and my brother’s best friend sucked at it. I mean, it’s a lot of luck, but he lost like all his gelt in like two rounds, but he wanted to keep playing with the rest of us, so we had an onion in the middle of the counter, leftover from making latkes, and he asked if he could bet that to get back in. And we were all like, “sure, whatever,” because we felt bad for him having to sit there. And anyways, he bet this onion to get back in and ended up winning the game. So, as a victory—like to celebrate—he decided to eat the onion, to… honor it or whatever. He’s really weird. And, he takes a huge bite out of this onion, like an apple, and just can’t stop crying for twenty minutes. But now, because of this, every Chanukah when we play dreidel, whoever wins has to take a bite of an onion before they can eat their gelt, to like even it out.”

I decided it would be interesting to see if I could collect religious folklore from someone not particularly religious, so this tradition/ritual comes from teenaged girl, who is ethnically Jewish, but neither practicing nor bat mitzvahed. I simply asked her to explain different components of how she celebrates Chanukah. This specific ritual practice puts a personal, non-institutional twist on something essential to the celebration of the holiday, the game of dreidel, which although is not mandated by the religion, is quite widespread amongst Jews. The onion is way of inserting personal significance, into a traditional ritual which would otherwise hold little meaning for my informant. It is also a way to remember a story—which happened so long ago in her childhood that the details are surely blurred—that has become almost a family legend.

Game
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tradition of Patterning Chanukah Candles

“So, every night of Chanukah, you put one candle in the menorah for the number of the current night, starting on the right, as well as the shamash, which you light the rest with, from left to right. Everyone does that… But in my family we always tried to do something cool with the candles themselves. My parents always bought those really cheap Chanukah candles from, like, the grocery store or somewhere that come in different colors like blue, white, yellow—I think it’s actually all the colors plus white—so my brother and I would always try to arrange the candles in some sort of pattern every night, So it was aesthetically pleasing, you know? Sometimes the whole menorah would be, like, one color, except the shamash. Or it would alternate colors, purple-orange-purple-orange, (actually, I think there were never green candles, um,…) but, yeah, we took a lot of art classes as kids, and were also both kind of OCD, so I guess that came out… We tried for complimentary colors and things… The challenge was always to plan ahead so that every night could have a perfect design. And we’d make sure that the last night could always be only blue and white—the Jewish colors. I dunno, it was just a kind of way to make it more interesting, the tradition, that is.”

I decided it would be interesting to see if I could collect religious folklore from someone not particularly religious, so this tradition/ritual comes from teenaged girl, who is ethnically Jewish, but neither practicing nor bat mitzvahed. I simply asked her to explain different components of how she celebrates Chanukah. This specific ritual practice puts a personal, non-institutional twist on something essential to the celebration of the holiday, the lighting of the menorah, which is mandated by the religion. It is way of inserting personal significance—in this case, a love of patterns, creativity, and mathematics—into a traditional ritual which would otherwise hold little meaning for my informant.

Folk speech

“Pogchamp”

“Well, it comes from games—I mean, my friends and I all play Overwatch [a competitive online team shooter] and at the end of every game it awards one player with Play of the Game. And everybody likes getting that, but they also all know it’s a computer deciding, so it doesn’t really understand the nuances of strategy and stuff, so the Play of the Game it says was never really the most important thing someone did in the match. So, um, “Pogchamp” is just Play of the Game [POG] and champion mashed together. But it’s kind of in that gray area of half satirical, like you can call someone a pogchamp when they do something cool or impressive, or like hook up with a girl or something, but it also really can mean that that person is taking their accomplishment too seriously or being obnoxious about themself, so it takes on a double meaning quickly, but also it’s only ever used in a friendly way, like if I actually wanted to call someone out for bragging I’d just say it.”

This piece of folk-speech was shared by a high-school friend of mine whom I called him to ask if he could think of any folklore from or our time in together. The gaming slang term “pogchamp” came up. As his explanation of the term suggests, like a lot of folk-speech, its precise definition proves difficult to nail down, seeing as using it relies heavily on the participants in the conversation and the conversation’s context. “Pogchamp” is much more universal than a lot of specific slang words, because of it near-universal adoption by the English-speaking online gaming community. The popular video game streaming website Twitch even has a “pogchamp” emoji users can type in chats. However, we see that the term has a special meaning for my informant’s specific group of friends, as well, demonstrating its multiplicity and variation.

[geolocation]