Author Archives: mcrispi

Hair in a Bird’s Nest

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Informant: So my – so my grandmother, on my moms side… was a…. Old German lady. She had German – half German, but anyway. She was staunch Catholic but, my mom would tell me this story that, you know, she would never – she yelled at her once because she was cleaning out her brush and she was gonna throw it out like the window of the car. She told – cleaning out – gonna throw her hair out the window, that is, not the brush. And she said you know, you never – never throw your hair away, you gotta burn it, like if you clean out your brush or anything like that, because if you throw it away and a bird gets it, puts it in their nest, build their nest with it you’ll have headaches for the rest of you life.

Interviewer: Do you know why?

Informant: Nope. Just something to do with the birds and bad luck, I guess.

Interviewer: And did your mom enforce this on you, or like, tell it as a joke?

Informant: No, no! My mom told me the same story, so…

Interviewer: Wait so you did have to follow it.

Informant: No, she just-

Interviewer: Oh. So for your grandma it was a belief but for your mom it was just a saying.

Informant: Yeah, yep.

Background: My informant was raised by a very religious but not too strict Catholic family. They were not very wealthy growing up, and he has heard a great deal of sayings like these growing up in a rural area on a farm.

Context: This piece of folklore was collected when I asked the informant to tell me about the stories and sayings they remembered from their mother. The informant is my father, and he is a very outspoken person so the setting was relaxed.

Thoughts: I enjoy collecting pieces of folklore that reveal contradictory aspects of a person. That a staunchly religious person would believe and enforce a superstition – a bit of magic – in this way is funny to me. The concept of this is directly tied to contagious magic, and it even evokes classic cliches of voodoo. It is a good example of the nature of belief being flexible and form fitting.

“Never Let the Blood of Your Unborn Children Cry to God for Vengeance.”

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Can you tell me some of the old stories or wives tales your mother told you?

Informant: The most gross one is about her – her mother, my grandmother, your great great grandmother told my mother about this rich lady that she took care of in Germany – she had a big ole mansion she took care of her, and I guess the lady – uhh, my grandma took care of her when she was dying. And, uhh, she kept telling her – I think her name was Marie – to go over to the closet! Because she kept hearing children crying. And uhh, so, my grandmother told my mother… to never let the blood of your unborn children to cry to god for vengeance. And she always told me. And I thought “what in the heck does THAT mean?!

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: I kn- I never – I mea- (laughs). What does that mean?! And then when I – I got older, and they talked about abortion, It finally, I finally put two and two together. The lady must’ve had a lot of abortions – because you know, they were wealthy, and they didn’t want kids to mess up their lifestyle, so she probably had an abortion, and then she – as she laid on her death bed, those little spirits haunted her – or she just had a guilty conscience, and she imagined that. So that’s a kind of weird icky thing.

Interviewer: Do you think that story is true? Or-

Informant: No, It’s true! It’s true. Because it was told to me by my mother, who never lied.

Interviewer: But either way it’s a story warning against abortions.

Informant: Yes.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. Her mother was a devout and strict Catholic, and she has always been very religious herself, though she has never been overly strict with her children or grandchildren.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: This story is not surprising coming from an “original” teller who was devoutly religious, especially nearly a century ago. The two ways in which the informant’s mother’s religion impact this story are funnily connected, though. I mean to say, I personally find it doubtful that this story was truthfully told by my great-great-grandmother, or that it happened to her. To me, it seems almost obvious that this was simply a tale to frighten young girls out of abortions because the teller was deeply religious, and that anybody could have made it up or spread it around. That is why I believe it to be folklore in the first place. But, my grandmother is nonetheless convinced that the story was true and happened to her grandmother also because of her mother’s religious nature – and feeling sure that she was not lying.

An Irish Wake

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Informant: Grandpa, he always used to tell the story about the Irish – I’ve told you this one before – about the Irish wakes – cause the Irish always had the big parties. And, uhh, that was back in the days, when, you know… they were having a party for one of the guys that had just expired. And he was in the kitchen laid out on the kitchen table! And everybody was, you know, laughing and going on because… they celebrate death, in a different way. And so. (laughing) and then all of a sudden the guy sat up! Because they didn’t have embalming back there, and back then and stuff, you know. You just – they just, they laid you out and you wait a couple days-they – you know, they didn’t keep you around for very long cause you start smellin’. So, you know, people with diabetic comas and stuff like that they didn’t know about that back then, so, uhh, he just sat up! (laughs) And he wasn’t dead anymore! He asked for a beer! He said, “everyone’s drinking a beer, I want one too.” I think I would’ve been scared out of my mind!

Interviewer: Right!

Informant: Eh, if your grandpa- when he told it it was always funnier.

Interviewer: No, that was funny!

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. This is a joke/story that I’ve heard many times since growing up, in slight variations.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: I think that the main joke in this story is that the Irish drink a lot, which is a simple and common theme for Irish stories and jokes and stereotypes. There is also a layer in which the man waking up is funny in itself, though I’ve realized it has to do with who is telling the story. I’ve heard it told more straightforward and snappily, getting to the line at the end where the man says he wants a beer as if it’s more of a punchline. In this telling, however, my grandmother focused around the absurdity of someone you thought was dead sitting up and thinking everything was fine.

Onions to Cure Fevers

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Do you know any old remedies for- did your mother impart any useful cures onto you?

Informant: Their cure back then for things were like, if you had a high fever… I would get onions, and she’d [informant’s mother] put onions on my wrists and the bottom of my feet and wrap a white cloth around them. T – because the onion would draw out the fever.

Interviewer: That was the belief?

Informant: Uh-huh.

Interviewer: But it – it worked? Would you try that again today?

Informant: No because it never ended up working.

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: I had to go to the doctor anyway and get a penicillin shot. But no I had to lay there for a week with onions until they found out the fever wouldn’t break so she would call the doctor and I’d go get a penicillin shot and then I’d feel better.

Interviewer: So how long would you go between changing the onions?

Informant: (laughs) Oh you get em changed every day. You get new onions.

Interviewer: Why do you think that was a thing?

Informant: Because they just had a belief that the onion, you know – you know how onions are stingent? And stuff like that? That that would pull – I don’t know why it had to be on your wrists and the bottoms of your feet. I was just a kid, don’t ask me! I just did what I was told! (laughs)

Interviewer: (laughs) True, true.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. She grew up quite poor, as a family of farm workers with many siblings.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: Though it apparently was not an effective folk belief, this folk remedy for fevers is quite interesting. It was repeatedly ineffective but the informant’s mother continued to try it, possibly to avoid the costs of medicine even if it meant wasting onions. Given that they were poor, I find that to be a very likely reason, along with the possibility that the informant’s mother was just stubborn – or that her ability to believe in things was strong as is reflected in her devout religiousness. The informant said onions are “stingent” which is not a word but which I believe means to have a strong odor. It is possible that the informant said stringent meaning strict, but that wouldn’t make much sense.

The Piasa Bird

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Would you tell me your version of the legend of the Piasa Bird?

Informant: My version… back in the olden days, tribes of Indians lived on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. Which was not even the Mississippi river then, but, umm, uhh, and their nemesis was a – a uhh dragon, who lived in the caves on the bluff below them someplace. And the dragon would, umm, periodically umm, come and take a-an Indian, uhh, for it’s-for it’s its meal. Uh. The uhh… Indians would shoot arrows at it but uhh the-the-the it had kind of a… bunch of scale plates on the outside that umm, would deflect the arrows, and uhh, they couldn’t kill it! Finally the chief said, “this is enough of this.”

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: So he said, uhh, “what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna get the, the uhh, dragon to a place where i can do a better job of killing it.” And he thought and thought and though for a while, and then he said – he took his daughter, good looking lady young lady and put her out on the edge of the bluffs, and he hid himself where he could uhh, see her and also, see the-the-the dragon coming in… to get her. And as the dragon came in it raised up, and the chief stood up, and shot… the only spot… on the dragon that wasn’t protected, and put the arrow into the dragon. The dragon uhh was… mortally wounded, ummm did not get the daughter, umm, flew back over toward the river, umm crashed into the river, and was never seen again. And so then – the chief was renowned for his skill at archery and uhh saving the rest of the tribe.

Interviewer: Wow.

Informant: To this day… nobody’s ever found that dragon. Haven’t found where it is, and people have looked. Umm. I looked.

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: Up and down the river – the bluffs. We used to go down there and climb on the bluffs and up and down the roads and all over the place. But to this day the dragon has never been found, and people wonder whether it’s really true or not. But I guess you have to figure that out for yourself.

Background: My informant lived most of his younger life in Alton, Illinois, where the Legend of the Piasa Bird originated. The legend is well known, at least in the southern Illinois region, though there is much mystery around the legend and that causes many slight variations in the story. It’s one large source of pride for the city of Alton.

Context: The informant is my Grandpa, and this piece was collected after I asked him if he knew any ‘folklore’ and gave him a day to think about it, on his request. He is certainly getting old, but he’s still rather sharp for his age.

Thoughts: The legend of the Piasa Bird supposedly comes from a traditional Native American story, but the story that most people know is some version of a telling by a professor, John Russell, at the nearby Shurtleff College in Alton. This is a strange example of reverse authorship. Did Russell make up the story? If he did, why? Why would he make up a legend for another group of people? In all the Piasa Bird is an interesting study of folklore.

Beliefs About Robert Wadlow

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Can you tell me what you know about Robert Wadlo? I know he’s a real person but he’s also in some ways a local legend in Alton.

Informant: Umm. Tallest person…umm… that’s ever lived so far. As far as I know. Eiiuhh… eight foot… ten and a half or something like that. You could probably figure -you could probably google it and find out how tall he was. Umm. He uhh, uh. He went to Alton High school. Seen pictures of him with his classmates and they’re about hip height and he’s that much over the top of them. Uhm. Big man. Uhh, not very uhh, coordinated, but it’s because he was so big. He had to have help and stuff to get around. He was in a – a umm, a sideshow for a while as a – as a freak, for being so tall. Which was not a fun time. He uh… had to take – if he was going to go someplace in a car – they had a special  – they took the front seat out, um uh on one side so he could uhh, sit in the back. And uhh, put his feet up into the front – of – of the car. Reach the pedals from there. He umm. He became a master mason. At Franklin Lodge. There’s a chair there that I can sit in and my feet aren’t even close to the ground. And they had his rings – I could put about three of my fingers inside of his ring. It was that big.

Interviewer: Geez.

Informant: He umm. He had braces on his legs, in order he could stand. He was umm – the braces were the cause – what caused his uhh, his death. He got infections in his legs – and umm, the infection killed him. Umm. Buried in the Oakwood Cemetery. I can’t remember how old he was. 26 I think? Not too old. Everyone in Alton knows stories about him. Or some people whose parents knew him- grandparents knew him.

Background: My informant lived most of his younger life in Alton, Illinois. Robert Wadlow’s legacy is one large source of pride for the city of Alton. Though he is a real person, his status in Alton is quite like that of a legend.

Context: The informant is my Grandpa, and this piece was collected after I asked him if he knew any ‘folklore’ and gave him a day to think about it, on his request. He is certainly getting old, but he’s still rather sharp for his age.

Thoughts: Robert Wadlow is certainly real, and much of his life is factually documented. However, the thing that makes me feel he has a folkloric presence is the awe of having the tallest man to ever live born, raised, and honored in your hometown. Especially as a child, and so I’d imagine for other children, he felt quite surreal, and stories of his life – though factual – felt like tall tales (pun intended). That’s why I was interested in speaking to my Grandpa about him, since he is person in my life closest to knowing him, having gone to the same masonic temple and lived nearest to the same time. Bits of the story, like about how many fingers you can fit in his ring, are the parts that can be expounded upon and exaggerated out of pride for his legacy and which turn his life into something of a legend.

“Ope”

Main Piece:

(The following has been transcribed from a conversation between the interviewer and the informant.)

Interviewer: Describe to me the definition of Ope, if you can

Informant: Its kind of like like, excuse me but not in like a – aggressive way, more like a I’m sorry way.

Interviewer: It’s an apologetic “excuse me?”

Informant: Yeah.

Interviewer: Can you give me a situation in which you might use “ope?”

Informant: Umm, well recently I – at Trader Joe’s today I literally said it cuz i went too close to someone for the six feet distancing [this piece was collected during the Covid-19 outbreak of 2020], and I was like “Ope, sorry,” and turned back the other way – to not be so close to them.

Interviewer: Any other examples?

Informant: Or if I like do something to myself – I like drop my phone or something I say “ope.”

Interviewer: When you say it like that do you say it differently? Does the intonation change with the situation?

Informant: I say it like “ope.” [very clipped]

Interviewer: Every time no matter when you say it?

Informant: “Ope.” Yeah, it’s like one syllable.

Interviewer: Do you know when or where you learned this?

Informant: No but I was only made self-aware of doing it on – from twitter. I think I’ve always done it having grown up in the Midwest but I didn’t like, think about it, it was just something and then I went to California, and it – people didn’t do it… and that’s when I realized.

Interviewer: Do you know anything about where it comes from?

Informant: I always thought it started out just saying “oh,” but then it became like, I don’t know why people added “ope.” I don’t think you’d see it in, like, New York or anything. But it’s like, what is the boundary of the Midwest? It’s like – I don’t think about Nebraska and stuff as in – even South Dakota is Midwest but I don’t think of them as Midwest.

Interviewer: So what are the main states you think you’d see “ope” in?

Informant: Mmmmichigan? Ohio, Indiana, Illinois… Iowa? Maybe? I think it’s mostly, like states that I see as having like a bigger cit- like a bigger city in them. Wisconsin. It might just have to do with the fact that I grew up here [Illinois] so I feel like it doesn’t spread very far.

Background: My informant is Senior in College who grew up in Southern and then Northern Illinois. She comes from a family of middle-class background. She goes to UCLA, and therefore has adopted a mix of midwest and west coast slang.

Context: The informant is my sister, and she gave me this piece in a more research oriented setting, as she was the first person I collected from and I was determining the best way to go about the process still. She’s not very good at talking when asked to, according to herself, so I felt I had to do more prompting than I might with another informant.

Thoughts: “Ope” has become an incredibly well known, and so probably more widespread, piece of Midwestern slang/dialect. What is interesting is the informant’s discussion of where it may come from. I also use the word often and did not realize at all until recently thanks to it’s spread on the internet. I have no idea where it comes from, but I know many people think it can mean many things – one common belief is that it means “anything and everything” for example – and that is what makes it truly folkloric in my opinion.

Ice Blocking

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Tell me about ice blocking, if you don’t mind.

Informant: Okay, ice blockiiiiiiiiiiing, is a thing at – I don’t know uhh… Okay. At UCLA we have like a – not really like the typical college quad, but we have Jan’s Hill which is like – not even a central part of campus but just like – the most grassy open place you can sit, and it’s just, like a hill near Royce which is like, the iconic building of UCLA. That’s where people like sit in-between classes during the day and have picnics and stuff, but at night, a lot of people in like, clubs or just like as a group of friends will go and do something called “ice blocking” which is… people will go to Ralph’s and get like a big block of ice that’s like… a foot long and six inches tall and wide – and then you go to this hill, you start at the top – and you sit on it, and you just slide down the hill on the ice as far as you can. I don’t know who thought of this first or where it started but the first time I did it was like, as a part of my sorority, and then – once you like, have done ice blocking it just seems so obvious to do it and you just ask people if they’ve done it and their like “What? No!” or they’re like “Obviously” and it’s just like shows whether someone has really gotten the like full UCLA experience or not. Cause then if they haven’t done it you can be like, “Oh then we should go sometime!” I’ve only ever done it twice, once with sorority and once with ADPI [Alpha Delta Pi]. But it’s… Oh those are the same things – once with sorority and once with my apartment’s – when we first all moved in together. So it’s just like something silly to do. And… it seems kind of hard to sit on this block of ice but – you have to sit on it so that it’s long-ways down and not wide and then you can use a towel so your butt doesn’t get so wet, but then in the summer it’s better to not because it’s hot and you want to be cooled down anyway. And then you just – have to put your feet up in a little like, ball position and then you just slide as far as you can but you have to stop before you hit the bushes or else… you’d be pretty screwed. And with my roommates one tried to do it standing up like surfing and they did like – literally somersaults down the whole hill. 

Interviewer: …Who was that? (laughing)

Informant: (Laughing) It was [name redacted]!

Interviewer: Oh my god.

Informant: And also [name redacted], I think, maybe.

Interviewer: That’s crazy.

Informant: I don’t know what else to say about it really.

Interviewer: Oh no that’s cool, you can just- is there anything like…

Informant: (sighs) it’s not a competition, really, because you only ever have like – well, i guess – actually I’ve seen-

Interviewer: Is it for like special occasions?

Informant: Yeah. Like for sorority, we did it like, as one of our first bonding activities when we all joined. And then for like, my roommates we did it as the celebration of us all moving in to our new apartment. So a lot of clubs do it as like a bonding activity I feel like.

Interviewer: …Is it allowed?

Informant: It’s not not allowed. No one’s ever been stopped for it. Like people also will have picnics where they drink on that hill and that’s not allowed because it’s a dry campus but they still do that anyway- and often… the two activities will be combined. (laughing)

Interviewer: (laughing)

Background: My informant is Senior in College who grew up in Southern and then Northern Illinois. She comes from a family of middle-class background. She goes to UCLA, and therefore has adopted a mix of midwest and west coast folklore.

Context: The informant is my sister, and she gave me this piece in a more research oriented setting, as she was the first person I collected from and I was determining the best way to go about the process still. She was very loose by this point in our long conversation, and our conversations always include humor.

Thoughts: This is a good example of a piece of folklore (specifically a tradition – maybe even an initiation ritual, though that categorization is a little more of a stretch) that seems absurd from the outside. At least, from my perspective, knowing nothing about the steepness of this hill especially, this activity sounds either rather boring and weird or entirely too dangerous. Apparently though, it is a common activity on any given night at UCLA, and I’m sure if I went there I would be all for it.

Why Do Eskimos Wash Their Clothes in Tide?

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Can you tell me a joke?

Informant: Sure. Here’s one my mother always told me. Do you know why the Eskimos warsh their clothes in Tide?

Interviewer: Why?

Informant: It’s too cold out-tide. (laughs)

Interviewer: (chuckles) Wow. That’s uhh… that’s a good one. Do you think she got that from somewhere or do you think she came up with it?

Informant: N- She always told that joke – no she probably heard it someplace and just repeated it cause she thought it was funny.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. Her mother disliked profanity in all senses, so though this joke does carry the now offensive demonym ‘Eskimo,’ it is not very risque in any sense, or directed at Inuit people for that matter.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: I think the most interesting things to examine about this joke are that A) even though it’s from over half a century ago it still makes apt use of a corporate name for the central pun and B) to a devout and strict Catholic woman back in the day, words that we now understand are offensive were regarded as fit for joking. Though this woman – my great grandmother – may have never sworn I don’t doubt she had no problem with other racist or offensive names for people or groups. This is a common and interesting problem with religion as a measure of “goodness.”