Author Archives: aswanger

Superstition- Singing Before Breakfast

Context: My Grandfather -represented as G in the text- grew up in New Jersey in the 1940s. While I was in high school he lived with me and my family and introduced me to some traditions he grew up with. Some mornings on my way to make breakfast I would pass by him sitting in his chair singing a song. If I were to join in on the singing, he would immediately warn me that I shouldn’t sing before I eat breakfast. This was something he learned from his mother, the “lord, and master of the house,” as he described her. He adopted this superstition and says that neither he nor his brothers will sing before they eat. Below is a conversation I had over the phone.

Text:

Me: “Can you tell me about your superstition about singing before breakfast?”

G: “Oh! Gosh! You never want to do that! You never, never, never want to sing before you eat breakfast! You will have bad luck for the rest of the year!”

Me: “The entire year?”

G: “Oh yes the whole g***amn year”

Me: “Sounds like a big deal.”

G: “It is a huge deal”

Interpretation: The first time he told me about this superstition I thought perhaps it came from starting the day (breakfast) before doing anything. Perhaps one shouldn’t celebrate the joy of the day before it has begun. The more I thought about this, however, I came to a more cynical yet realistic conclusion. As a mother of three boys, my great grandmother probably valued peace and quiet in the morning. So if the boys were singing and screaming before they even had breakfast, it would be a reasonable solution to warn them of a year’s worth of bad luck if they continued. 

Haunted Train Tracks, San Antonio

Context: My informant (M) grew up in a small town in Texas about an hour outside of San Antonio. This was a local legend she heard growing up about haunted train tracks. She told me every kid in her town knew about the tracks, and it was a common outing for high schoolers to go see the tracks. She told me that if you visit the tracks now, there are police cars and signs telling people not to stop on the tracks because it creates too much traffic. San Antonio plays into the legend and features the train tracks in museums and historical tours.

Main Text:

M: There’s a place in San Antonio where a bus filled with children got stalled out on a railroad track. They weren’t able to move the bus so the train came and it killed all the kids inside. So the legend is that the kids now haunt the train tracks. So if you drive on the train tracks at around midnight-and you can put like baby powder on your bumper or something- but if you stop on the tracks and put your car into neutral, supposedly the kids will push your car just enough for it to get off the tracks. Then, if you get out and look at your bumper, you’ll see little handprints on it from where the ghost kids pushed your car. I guess they do this so you don’t have to experience the tragedy that they did.

Me: Did you ever do it?

M: No I wasn’t allowed to drive to San Antonio at midnight (laughs). But in high school, a lot of kids would do it and then come back to school and say ‘oh you know we did it and it totally worked I saw the handprints and everything.’ And there were all of these “first-hand accounts” that made it really believable at 15, 16 years old.

My thoughts: It seems like a common story around the United States to have a haunted site where kids died and now they push your car. I did some research and I found a similar story from Los Angeles about the ghosts of Gravity Hill, I linked it below. I also included a link to the San Antonio ghost tours website that tells this story with more historical information. 

Los Angeles Gravity Hill: https://www.ranker.com/list/gravity-hill-haunting/erin-mccann

San Antonio’s Ghost Tours Site: https://ghostcitytours.com/san-antonio/haunted-places/haunted-railroad-tracks/

We Are A Circle- A Pagan Chant

Background: My informant (M) shared with me her experience with a song we learned growing up. We attended a daycare, which was run by our grandmother, from infancy to 5 years old, and would frequently stay there during summer breaks. She shared with me her perspective on a ritual we performed daily. Neither of us had ever thought too much about this ritual until we got older, but talking about it now we could tell there was probably more to this chant than we realized as kids. Our grandmother always talked about the importance of being kind to the Earth and thanking it whenever we took something from it, like food. As kids, this was just part of growing up, and the chant was part of our daily routine, we agreed that we never thought about the words or meaning until we got older.

M’s Perspective on The Ritual: 

M: “I guess it was a way for all of the daycare kids to come together and bond and be calm. We would sit in a circle with a candle in the middle and we would sing childhood songs and tell nursery rhymes. At the end of the “circle time,” as our grandmother called it, we would have a closing ceremony of sorts where we would stand up and join hands and we would sing this one song. She played it on a CD, but we all knew all the words and we would look at each other and sing. There were a couple of verses to the song that I don’t remember very well, but during the chorus, we would all sing loud and join hands and walk in a circle. Then it would be another verse and we would stop walking. The verses all had to do with the elements, you know fire and wind and stuff. And with each new chorus, we would walk faster and faster until it got a little crazy and we were screaming this song (laughs). I don’t think she does it anymore because it started getting a little aggressive. But anyway the closing line had something to do with coming “FACE TO FACE” and we would all get really close to each other- you know face to face- and we would throw our hands up and someone would blow out the candle and that was it (laughs and pauses).

And we did this for probably ten years or more. It was a little strange now that I’m thinking about it, like what was that even about? We never really anything else that I can look back on as being out of the ordinary.         

Main Text:

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

You hear us sing, you hear us cry

Now hear us all you, spirits of air and sky

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Inside our hearts there grows a spark

Love and desire, a burning fire

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Within our blood, within our tears

There lies the altar of living waiter

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Take our fear, take our pain

Take the darkness into the Earth again

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

The circle closes between two worlds

To mark this sacred space where we come face to face

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Analysis: I looked up this song to find the lyrics we remember from our grandmother’s. I also wanted to see if I could find an explanation for it. What I found was the song has strong ties to paganism and Wicca, relating to a spiritual bond with the Earth and magic. The song is written by Rick Hamouris in the 80s so I’m not sure when or where our grandmother learned it. It seems like it’s been adopted by Wicca and other pagan religions and some say it is a song for festivals or a full moon chant. The book Casting Circles and Ceremonies by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart explains how circle chants like this one are effective for “casting circles” and “calling quarters.” These terms refer to creating the circle, which is the safe and sacred space and utilizing the Earth’s quarters-the four elements and the four directions. 

You can read more about this here: http://www.egreenway.com/wands8/envoke1.htm

Folk Medicine- Ichthammol Ointment For Horses

Context: My informant grew up in a farming family in Michigan. Her uncle raised horses and had the philosophy of “if it’s good enough for the animals, it’s good enough for me.” Her family was relatively poor, so there was no sense to them in buying something for people when you already had it for the animals. Running around in the woods and on the farm, splinters were common for her and her siblings. She remembers her mother using the drawing salve for the horses on them and it works flawlessly. To this day, she buys the drawing salve meant for horses to use on her own children.

Text: M: “It’s a drawing salve meant for horses, it’s called ichthammol ointment for horses. But it works just as well on people. So if you have a splinter, you just rub some ichthammol ointment on it and it pops right out. They have ichthammol drawing salves for people too, but they don’t work as well because they’re made to look nice and smell good. The ones for horses might smell gross, but they work better than anything else I’ve tried.”

My Thoughts: This makes a lot of sense to me. There are so many products for animals that work just as well for humans, and they’re usually cheaper because you don’t have to pay for packaging, dyes, or fragrances.

School Game- Spundalele

Context: My informant grew up in Texas during the ‘70s. In elementary school during integration, he was one of the few white students transferred from a white school to a black school. He recalls a game the black students taught him called Spundalele. The first time someone “spundaleled him” he was surprised and angry because he didn’t understand it was a game. Once he understood, he and the other white students quickly adopted the game and played it every day. He says it was one of his first interactions at his new school, and it was a game that quickly brought together the white and black students. 

The Game: M: “Basically, if you have something in your hand, and somebody knocked it out of your hand, said ‘SPUNDALELE!’, and then picked it up before you could…it was theirs and you don’t get it back. Well I mean you can take it back under violence, but that’s not really part of the game.”

To Play:

  1. Find someone with something in their hand
  2. Knock the object out of their hand and onto the floor
  3. Shout “spundalele”
  4. Attempt to pick it up before they can
  5. If you succeed, you get to keep the item
  6. If you fail, they get to keep the item

The game works best if everyone knows the rules before playing

My thoughts: The concept of this game is strange to me; why would you play a game where people take each others’ things? But as an elementary school student in the ‘70s, you probably aren’t carrying anything of great value. Integration was a dramatic change to schools in the south, so if this game brought people of different races together, it sounds like a good game to me.

Naughty Nursery Rhyme- Driving Down the Highway

Context: My informant went to elementary school in the ‘70s and sang me this song he said was used to pick on other kids you didn’t like. He told me it was a song that everyone knew, and everyone was afraid to have it sung to them. He remembers it today because of how funny he thought it was as a child.

Song Lyrics: 

    Driving down the highway, highway 64

    [Name] ripped a big one, it blew out the door

    Engine couldn’t stand it

    Engine blew apart

    All because of [name]’s supersonic fart

My thoughts: This definitely sounds like a song you would sing to make fun of friends and enemies. I hadn’t heard this song, and no one my age that I’ve talked to knows this song, so it must have gotten less popular as the years went on. I looked it up and found different versions for different regions. Here’s a link to an archive by hosted by Straight Dope where you can find different versions of this song, and other “naughty kid nursery rhymes” https://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-271331.html

Folk Medicine- Mud for Ant Bites

Context: My informant spent most of her childhood playing outside at her grandmother’s house in the early 2000s. She tells me she remembers there being a lot of ant piles at the house, and it wasn’t unusual for her or another kid to stand in one without realizing. Whenever someone got an ant bite, her grandmother would collect dirt and water from the yard and rub the mud on the bites. She says it would always stop the pain, and they wouldn’t itch after you took the mud off.

Remedy: For ant bites, spread wet mud over the affected area. Let the mud dry for about 30 minutes, then wash off. This soothes pain, itching, and swelling

Thoughts: Soil tends to have a lot of nutrients in it like magnesium, potassium, and other minerals that are good for your skin. Even now, clay face masks are becoming very popular for treating skin ailments. I’m sure it has a lot of healing properties for bug bites. It could very well have been a placebo remedy; putting mud on the bites would distract a child who just stood in an ant pile. Either way, the impact of the remedy seems to be strong, as she says her grandmother still uses this treatment for the children she takes care of.

Campfire story-The Ghost With One Black Eye

Background: My informant grew up in a small town in Michigan in the 70s. Growing up, her friends would often sit around bonfires and tell stories. She tells me this is one of her favorite campfire jokes because you think it’s going to be a scary story, but it actually turns out to be a joke, which usually makes it funnier because people are expecting to be scared.  She tells me the joke is told at the campfire as if it’s something that happened to you at a different campfire. We sit in her living room as she tells me the story.

Main text:

“So we were all sitting around the fire, just like this”

She motions to the campfire we were pretending was in between us 

“And suddenly we all heard ‘I am the ghost with one. Black. Eye’”

She uses a deep ghostly voice for the part of the ghost

“Everyone looked around in shock like ‘what?! What was that?!’”

She says this part in a hushed tone

“Then we heard it again ‘I am the ghost with one. Black. Eye’ only this time it was louder”

She continues to speak in a hushed tone except when she does the ghost’s voice

“And then it gets closer, ‘I am the ghost with one. Black. Eye!’  by now everyone is shivering”

She makes a shivering sound

“Closer and closer, louder and louder, we kept hearing it. ‘I am the ghost with one. black . eye! I AM THE GHOST WITH ONE. BLACK. EYE’”

She gets louder

“And all of a sudden it’s right behind us  ‘I AM THE GHOST WITH ONE. BLACK. EYE!’ and I stood up and I shouted ‘IF YOU DON’T SHUT UP YOU’RE GOING TO BE THE GHOST WITH TWO BLACK EYES!’”

She starts laughing 

Analysis: As she was telling me this joke, I could tell it was important to her. She would smile to herself in the middle of sentences as if she was reliving her childhood sitting around campfires. While I did find the joke to be funny, I agree with her that part of the reason the punchline is so impactful is that you get caught up in the fear of there being a ghost that you aren’t expecting it to turn out to be a big joke. Sitting around a fire at night would have made it more impactful than sitting in her living room, but nonetheless the voices she used for the characters and the intensity in telling the story made it a very successful joke.

Superstition -punching bread before it bakes

Context: My informant (M) told me growing up she had to punch the bread her mother made or else it wouldn’t be good bread, or they would have bad luck-she wasn’t sure which, maybe both. Now, as an adult, she never makes bread alone because she needs someone to punch it before it bakes. 

Main Text: M: When you make bread you have to let it rise twice, once right after you mix it and then right before it bakes after you shape it. In between the first and second rise, you knead the bread, and someone else has to punch the bread, or else it won’t be good. But it has to be someone else, not the person who is making the bread. 

Analysis: I had never heard of this superstition before she told me about it. It seems to me like someone has to give your bread their blessing and approval before. However, this could have started as a way for a mother to entertain her child by letting her punch bread, and it turned into a tradition and then a superstition.