Author Archives: sutter

Rattlesnake: A Conga Line Game

Background: The informant is a woman in her late fifties who grew up in downstate New York in Queens and on Long Island before moving to upstate New York for college. In her mid 20s, she moved out to Southern California and she had lived there ever since. She comes from a large family of Catholic Irish-Americans. She attended public grade schools.

Main Text:

“There was one that I loved! And it was…think of a conga line but it wasn’t really a conga line. It would be kids in this long line and they would do these intricate back-and-forth kinds of movements, yknow we would all move together. And it was [singing] “R-A-T-T-L-E-S-N-A-K-E spells rattlesnake” and we just did that over and over again while we did this little…I loved that game! I don’t know why, but it was just…but we did all these intricate, back-and-forth pattersn and it was all these kids in a line.”

Context: The informant specified that this game was performed on the playground during recess and at lunch, mostly during the earlier half of elemenatary school. It was not organized by teachers, and it involved large groups of children—around a class size or more, so twenty kids and up.

Thoughts: I’d never heard of this game before, but I’m familiar enough with a conga line to get the gist of what the informant was playing. It was probably a combination of the movement and accompanying song that made the game so compelling to TR as a young child. I do think it’s funny how they referred to it as a nearly hypnotic-experience, and I’m impressed that such a large group of young children organized themselves well enough to execute this game on a daily basis, not to mention their ability to transcend friend groups.

Irish-American Hygiene Advice

Background: The informant is a woman in her late fifties who grew up in downstate New York in Queens and on Long Island before moving to upstate New York for college. In her mid 20s, she moved out to Southern California and she had lived there ever since. She comes from a large family of Catholic Irish-Americans.

Main Text:

“If you don’t clean out your ears or bellybutton, you’ll grow potatoes there.”

Context: Typically, this warning is told to children as a way to incentivize them into proper hygiene. As the informant explained it, there was an association between the dirt that gathered when someone didn’t clean their body and the dirt that potatoes grow in. The saying came directly from her grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland to New York as a young adult. However, the saying seemed to backfire for the informant—she admits that she never wanted to clean her ears or bellybutton after being told this hyperbole, just so she could see if potatoes actually grew.

Thoughts: The informant happens to be my mother, so I also grew up with this saying. Similar to her, I found the lie to be more interesting than scary, and as a young child I also avoided cleaning my bellybutton just to see what would happen. It’s interesting how these types of rumors can actually backfire on gullible children, instead encouraging them to do the opposite of what they’re told. I wonder if my great-grandmother knew that when she used the phrase, and only repeated it to her children and her children’s children because she found it amusing. This phrase also reminds me of another popular schoolyard rumor, where supposedly if you swallow a watermelon seed it will grow inside of you. The Irish Potato warning seems to be somewhat less widespread in the United States. None of my friends can recall a similar warning, and the only other place I’ve encountered it being used it in Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes, a memoir about Irish-American immigrants.

Further Citations:

McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Scribner, 1996.

Viola Joke

Main Text:

“Why does a viola make for better firewood than a violin? Because it burns longer.”

Background: The informant who told me the joke is a man in his early 20s. He grew up in childhood in Southern California and now attends school at the New England Conservatory of music. He is currently earning a bachelor’s degree in viola performance.

Context: The informant says these jokes mostly come up in orchestral contexts and are typically told by people who play other instruments in a well-meaning but mocking manner. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, as shown between me and the informant, who told viola jokes back and forth for a while despite both playing it as an instrument. He recalls a particular conductor who, when waiting or stalling for time, would prompt the entire orchestra for good jokes (the majority of which, of course, were directed at the viola section). When asked why violas are such a popular target for humor, the informant speculated that it’s just an awkward instrument, and that violist have a history of being worse than violinists. My informant finds viola jokes funny, yet somewhat annoying because they’re such an overused format amongst musicians. He cannot recall where he learned this particular joke from the first time around, but it’s typically woodwinds, brass, and percussionists who tell it to him, not strings.

Thoughts: I would agree with the informant’s assertion that violists are more awkward—though not universally true, the types of personalities that gravitate towards playing viola tend to be more laid back and less competitive in comparison to violinists. In addition, the viola covers a lower range, and in classical music, is often given background parts where the cello or violins will get the melody. As a result, the standard musical repertoire tends to be less challenging.

This particular joke is identifying the differences between the violin and the viola. While they look relatively similar, a standard violin has the strings E, A, D, G, and a viola has the strings A, D, G, C. In addition to having a lower string, the viola is slightly larger than the violin, which is why it has a warmer sound and deeper register. The joke is explaining that both instruments are worthless (and should be used as firewood) but because the viola is physically larger, at least it’ll take longer to burn.

Viola Joke

Main Text:

“What’s the difference between the first and last stand of the viola section? About half a bar.”

Background: The informant who told me the joke is a man in his early 20s. He grew up in childhood in Southern California and now attends school at the New England Conservatory of music. He is currently earning a bachelor’s degree in viola performance.

Context: The informant says these jokes mostly come up in orchestral contexts and are typically told by people who play other instruments in a well-meaning but mocking manner. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, as shown between me and the informant, who told viola jokes back and forth for a while despite both playing it as an instrument. He recalls a particular conductor who, when waiting or stalling for time, would prompt the entire orchestra for good jokes (the majority of which, of course, were directed at the viola section). When asked why violas are such a popular target for humor, the informant speculated that it’s just an awkward instrument, and that violist have a history of being worse than violinists. My informant finds viola jokes funny, yet somewhat annoying because they’re such an overused format amongst musicians. He cannot recall where he learned this particular joke from the first time around, but it’s been retold on many occasions across several different orchestras he’s played in.

Thoughts: I would agree with the informant’s assertion that violists are more awkward—though not universally true, the types of personalities that gravitate towards playing viola tend to be more laid back and less competitive in comparison to violinists. In addition, the viola covers a lower range, and in classical music, is often given background parts where the cello or violins will get the melody. As a result, the standard musical repertoire tends to be less challenging.

The actual nature of the joke is rooted in music terminology—the first stand, seating-wise, is considered to be the leaders of the section, and they are located in the first row, directly in front of the conductor. In comparison, the back row will be further away and behind, usually directly in front of the winds and brass. A bar, or a measure, marks phrases in a piece, and each one has the same number of notes as the time signature. Essentially, this joke is saying that the back stand does not play in time with the front one, and this is evidence that violists are bad musicians.

Stinging Nettle Plant Remedy

Background: The informant is a man in his late 50s. he grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before moving to upstate New York for college. In his mid 20s, he moved to Southern California and has lived there ever since.

Context: Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 70s, the informant recalls that the suburbs were relatively remote with forests on either side, where children would often play unsupervised. Because the neighborhood was relatively new, most of the adults living there had not grown up in the neighborhood and were not familiar with the local flora and fauna.

Main Text:

“Along the creek, you could just walk along and there would be, yknow, bushes and things like that. So one of them was stinging nettles, but we called it “Burn Hazel” when I was a kid. So when you brushed against it, it felt like you got poison ivy—you’d get bumps, all of a sudden it was incredibly itchy, but the older kids taught the younger kids…there was another plant called the “Elephant Ear” plant, and I have no idea what this plant was in reality, but it had big leaves. If you took that plant and rubbed it on it, it would cure it. And the parents never knew this, it was passed on from kid to kid, generation to generation.

Thoughts: Perhaps the most interesting part of this remedy is that the informant can identify the irritant plant “Burn Hazel” by its more commonly known name of Stinging Nettle but has had no luck finding out what “Elephant’s Ear” actually is. The other fascinating element about this herbal remedy is that only children seemed to know about it, since most of their parents did not grow up in the neighborhood where this herbal remedy was located. I wonder if children in the neighborhood nowadays know these tips and tricks—the informant says that much of the forest has been destroyed to build more homes, and his family who remained in town and are raising their children there don’t let them go around unsupervised.

Llama Song

Background: The performer is my college roommate and friend. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to Thousand Oaks, California for high school. She is currently in her twenties and attends school at the University of Southern California.

Main Text:

“Happy llama

Sad llama

Totally rad llama

Super llama

Drama llama

Don’t forget Barack-a-llama”

Context: The llama song was traditionally performed around age eight and stopped around age eleven. The performer cannot recall any particular reasons for starting it up, it was just the sort of thing chanted on the playground when bored. The llama hand motion (ring and middle finger touching thumb and pinky and index pointing up to form a llama head) was essential to performance.

Thoughts: I am familiar with the llama song, despite growing up in a different state than the performer. Her version has slightly different, more appropriate lyrics, despite the rhythm and the hand motions being the same. The part that surprised me the most was the final line “don’t forget Barack-a-llama,” because it specifically dates the song around the year 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected as President of the United States. Contextually, I think that this reference is an interesting measure of what children pay attention to—most elementary school-aged children would not be aware of politics before the 2008 election, but the event was memorable enough that proper nouns stripped of all political or historical meaning would work their way into children’s playground folk culture. The preoccupation with llamas is something else I’ve always wondered about, because I recall other childhood songs and jokes about them. I think it’s a combination of the unique spelling (the double “ll” is not common for English speakers), the inner rhyme of the word “llama,” and the fact that llamas were a rarer animal than, say, dogs or horses. For young children just getting familiar with the English language, the word “llama” is both easy to rhyme and funny to describe, as demonstrated with this song.

Playground Taunts

Background: The performer is my college roommate and friend. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to Thousand Oaks, California for high school. She is currently in her twenties and attends school at the University of Southern California.

Main Text:

“Brick Wall

Waterfall

Boy you think you got it all

You don’t

I do

So poof with the attitude

Loser, whatever

Flyaway forever

Where’d you go?

Loserville

Population? You!”

Context: The performer explained that traditionally this taunt was chanted in elementary school, usually from the age ranges of eight to eleven. She explained that most of the time, they chanted it on the back of the bus on the way home from school, usually with friends. She mentioned a social heirachy on the bus, which stemmed from the fact that children were all different ages but lived in the same area, so the third graders, who didn’t like the fourth graders and so on, would chant it back and forth in a playfully “mean” manner. Sometimes it was targeted at a specific person and other people would join in.

Thoughts: Growing up in a different state from the performer, I had not heard this chant before, nor did I ever take a bus to elementary school. Still, I think the chant is amusing, especially looking at how it eases tensions for young children in a way that isn’t violent or truly hurtful. Instead they trade somewhat playful stock insults, which other children are encouraged to join in on. I wonder if there was a standard rebuttal phrase the performer and her friends would use if others sang this at them. The comment about the age-related hierarchy is also interesting, presumably because this sort of chant would only be learned by listening to old kids singing it. In addition to the lyrics, the performer had simple hand motions to accompany the lyrics (“where’d you go”/shrug, “population, you”/pointing at other person).

Secret Santa/Secret Sister Gift Exchange

Background: The informant is my college roommate and friend. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to Thousand Oaks, California for high school. She is currently in her twenties and attends school at the University of Southern California. She was on a women’s basketball team all four years of high school.

Main Piece:

“So Secret Santa is basically where you have a group of people come together and anonymously everyone gets assigned a person and they either buy them multiple gifts or just one and then you do like a gift exchange at a certain ate and then you try to figure out who your secret Santa is, or you just find out when you get your present.”

Context: Beyond the brief description my informant gave me, she clarified a few additional logistical details. Secret Santa, or Secret Sister as they called it, was done every year on the high school women’s basketball team. The team captains organized it for about fifteen participants, and people filled out a premade form of things they liked (favorite color, favorite movie, favorite candy, etc) to make shopping easier. There was a fifteen to twenty-dollar spending limit. The informant isn’t entirely sure on the timeline, but she thinks that people dropped off gifts in the locker room shortly before the first home game of the season and opened them when they were done playing (in January usually) She also remarked that people liked to guess who their gift-giver was, but there wasn’t any sort of process or reward for guessing correctly.

Thoughts: It’s interesting that my informant referred to this exchange as both “Secret Santa” and “Secret Sister”—besides the process of gift-giving, nothing else ties this ritual to the Christian celebration of Christmas or Santa. Instead, it’s built entirely around a sports team folk group, and occurs in January to correspond with the first home game of the season, rather than the holiday in December. I’ve seen longer versions of this “Secret Sister” play out in both high school sports teams (always women, and always multiple gifts spread out over an entire competitive season) and in university sororities. I wonder if men’s sports teams and other club organizations also do something similar and if so, what term it would fall under, since “Secret Sisters” is gender-exclusive and “Secret Santa” implies a Christian/holiday-centered context.

COVID-19 Car Parades

Background: AR is my college roommate and friend. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to Thousand Oaks, California for high school. She is currently in her twenties and attends school at the University of Southern California.


Context:
AR and I conducted this interview over Zoom, since this was amidst California’s Stay-At-Home orders for COVID -19. Both of our birthdays are coming up within the next few months, so we began speculating how we could celebrate without gathering a large group of people under one roof. AR brought up the idea of car parades, which I then asked her to elaborate on.

Main Piece:

(In the following interview the informant is identified as AR and the interviewer is identified as JS.)

AR: So for my friend’s birthday, her mom organized a little drive-by parade kind of “moment.” Um, and so her brother texted me and asked me if I would come at a certain time and I was like “Heck yeah I will!” Um, so, we surprised her on her birthday and people drove by in their cars and then me and her girlfriend, we got out of the car, and like, stood in her yard and like, had a conversation—social distancing! [Laughs] Um, yeah but that was kind of it because I had class after, so I had to leave early, but yeah it was like a little surprise moment. Yeah.

JS: Did you know about these parades before?

AR: No.

JS: Okay.

AR: But I feel like now that I know about them, like, I’m not that surprised by them, because I know that for a lot of medical workers people do like drive-bys with posters and stuff, so it’s pretty common…form of communicating in quarantine.

JS: How many people participated? Or like cars or whatever?

AR: Um, there were five cars and then two of them had like family friends in them, and then the other three were like me, her girlfriend, and then like another friend.

JS: Did you guys like dress up at all or make posters?

AR: Um, the family friends did—they made posters. Uh, I mean I guess I wore something nice?…Yeah. [laughs]

JS: Did you guys loop around the block multiple times? How’d you guys meet up beforehand?

AR: We didn’t meet up beforehand. So we all just, like, went to their house and parked on the block. And I texted her brother and was like, “I’m here” and he said “Okay, we’re on the patio”—they have a patio above their garage, and so I came out and stood in their driveway with her girlfriend and just chatted and then some other cars came by and just stopped in the street and said hi and then left.

Thoughts: I’ve also had the opportunity to witness COVID-19 car parades, though the ones I saw were far more disruptive than the ones AR describes. For her, it seemed like the “car parade” was mostly an excuse to come over and talk from six feet away. They did not honk repeatedly or circle around the block multiple times or blast music from their cars, as many of these car parades often do. Still, it’s a pretty clever way to socialize with people while “social-distancing” and provides an excuse for people to get out of the house. I’d guess that it’s a far more common occurrence in suburbs, where most participants have access to a car and don’t have to worry about blocking traffic.

King’s Cup: Drinking Game

Background: DL is a childhood friend of mine who grew up in Long Beach, California before moving up north to attend college in Washington. He a transgender man in his early twenties and lives in an eight-person household with roommates that all identify as LGBTQ+.

Context: King’s Cup is one of DL’s favorite drinking games. This particular instance of King’s Cup was celebrated on DL’s birthday with about ten schoolmates/friends/roommates of DL, shortly before the COVID-19 Stay-at-Home orders were put in place. A little while afterwards, he celebrated someone else’s birthday over Zoom due to the COVID-19 stay at home orders. DL expressed sadness over not being able to play King’s Cup at the Zoom Party.

Main text:

(In the following interview the informant is identified as DL and the interviewer is identified as JS.)

DL: It’s like…you put a big cup in the middle of the table and, um, spread a deck of cards around it and you take turns picking a card from the ring of cards around the cup and each number on the card signifies something that you have to do.

JS: Okay

DL: Um…most of them involve drinking or [laughs] something of that context.

JS: Does it change each time or is there a specific ruleset that you used?

DL: There’s like a pretty specific ruleset that people generally use. Although we altered it because it’s pretty gender-specific sometimes

[At this point, DL tried to remember some of the rules but couldn’t recall them off the top of his head. He promised to follow up later with a few examples.]

JS: So, you pull the cards out, you go around the table, and they each have a different related thing on them.

DL: Yeah, um, it’s just like a deck of standard cards. And some of them it’s like you have to pour some of your drink into the big cup in the middle and then at the end, like, the loser has to drink the “King’s Cup.”

JS: [laughs] God, that’s so gross!

DL: [laughs] Yeah, we didn’t actually get that far we all kinda shared it and it was disgusting. Whatever you’re drinking, so that’s, like, the disgusting part. I had like some fancy sambuca from my mom so there was some of that in there, and some beer, and some cider, and some…wine I think. [laughs]

Examples of rules include:

Number two cards are titled “you”: Choose someone to drink

Number three cards are called “me”: The person who drew the card must drink.

The biggest modification A and his friends made to the rules set was for cards five and six—instead of sticking to the gender-exclusive rules of “guys and chicks” where either men or women drink, they changed it to “fags and dykes,” and it was up to the players to choose whether they would drink on the card that was pulled.

Thoughts: King’s Cup is a pretty standard drinking game, like much Beer Pong. Drinking games are a unique way to transform relatively standard American college practices (drinking to excess) into “events,” typically by way of making them game-ified or competitive. As DL explains at the end of the interview, the pretense of rules usually begins to fade as a drinking game goes on—there’s no need to keep on playing once the objective of the game (getting drunk) has been completed. What’s particularly interesting is how DL has customized the game to have certain “house rules”—particularly those for five and six. Some of the people DL lives with are nonbinary, making the guys and chicks rule obsolete. Instead, by customizing it with queer terminology, DL and his friends were easily able to tailor the game to their particular environment. I think it’s also important to note that the words “fag” and “dyke,” though often considered insulting and homophobic slurs, are fairly natural in this context for this group of friends—instead, they function as an insider/in-group joke.