USC Digital Folklore Archives / Humor
Humor
Musical

The Lick

Context:

The informant – AB – is a 20-year-old white male and is a sophomore at the USC Thornton School studying Jazz Guitar. The following conversation took place after a music class we had just finished, in which I asked him about any folklore/traditions/inside jokes in jazz culture. Knowing that I am a jazz major and am likely familiar with any traditions he may mention, I record AB explaining these traditions as if he were explaining to an outsider.

Piece:

AB: I mean, probably the biggest meme in jazz is the lick, which is this, well, lick that people play as a joke.

(AB sings “the lick,” which goes, in terms of musical scale degrees, 1 2 b3 4 2 b7 1).

When jamming, people will sneak in the lick as a joke, and everyone else playing with them will, I don’t know, probably roll their eyes at them. It’s definitely a stale meme by now.

Me: Why is this lick such a joke among jazz musicians?

AB: If you listen to old jazz recordings, you’ll notice the lick being played everywhere. It’s just a super common phrase that soloists will play. And then, a few years ago, someone made a video on YouTube called “the lick,” and it was like a montage of a ton of different famous musicians using the lick, and it’s just been like a huge meme since then.

Here is a link to the video referenced: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krDxhnaKD7Q

 

Analysis:

The lick seems like a way for jazz musicians to prove that they’re in the know with jazz culture to the musicians that they’re playing with, or simply a way for musicians to make each other laugh during a jam session. Quoting other songs (like other jazz standards, timeless songs like “pop goes the weasel,” or simply pop songs) at a jam session has always been a part of jazz culture and is a way for jazz musicians to crack subtle jokes at each other while playing. But, the lick is special, since it’s so steeped in jazz culture and is so exclusive to jazz musicians: quoting a pop song, for instance, might make a non-musician audience member laugh, but quoting the lick goes over non-musician’s heads. Inside jokes like this help to maintain a level of unity and exclusivity within different social groups. The lick, in the jazz world, – a social group that is particularly elitist and exclusionary – is a way of separating the outsiders from the insiders, filtering the young musicians who “don’t take the music seriously” from the insiders who are familiar with the phrase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

French Dinner Expression

Context:

The informant – MZ – is a middle-aged woman originally from France, now living in South Florida. Growing up, her mother was French-Moroccan, and her father was Moroccan-Algerian. She is one of my mother’s close friends. The following is from a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about any French-Moroccan traditions she remembers growing up. Here, she tells me about a French saying/joke her grandmother used to say to her after MZ would ask her what’s for dinner.

 

Original text:

“Des briques soufflées à la sauce cailloux.”

 

Word for word translation:

Blown bricks with pebble sauce

 

MZ: Back in the old day, the way they would make roof tile is it would be baked in a big oven. So she used to say that she would make oven roof tile with a stone marinade for dinner. I used to hear that all the time, because there would be really nothing for dinner.

 

Analysis:

Though “Blown bricks with pebbles sauce” doesn’t sound entirely elegant, it seems like, in French, there is wordplay between the bricks, which are baked in ovens, and the food, which would be baked in the oven. The quote seems to be fairly similar to saying, “slim pickin’s,” in English, simply meaning that there is nothing to eat.

 

Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

Pretty Is as Pretty Does

Context:

The informant – AS – is my mother, and is a 55-year-old woman, born and raised in New Britain Connecticut, currently living in South Florida. I asked her if she had any folklore to share, and she told me about a proverb that her blind mother used to say to her.

 

Piece:

 

AS: One of the things my mother always used to say to me: “Pretty is as pretty does.” Pretty is as pretty does. And basically what it means is, you can be as good looking as you want, but if you don’t act right, then you’re not pretty. So it’s about looking as good on the inside as you look on the outside. But, she used to say it in a mean way. Like if I did anything that she didn’t like or something, then she would pull that out.

 

Analysis:

This seems to be classic variation on “as beautiful on the inside as on the outside,” but reworked into a more scolding fashion. It is also somewhat amusing, since the informant’s mother was blind, the proverb/saying might have some more significance, since it involves physical appearance versus behavior.

Childhood
Game
Humor
Magic

Childrens Magic Trick: The Disappearing Bracelet Knot

Background: The performance is a magic trick, a form of slight of hand that uses a hair scrunchie or similarly elastic bracelet, the informant (RW) learned it on the playground from one of her friends.
RW: It’s so cool!
MW: What do you like about it?
RW: When you do it right everyone gets really excited!
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Context: Informant(RW) is a 12 year old student who’s interests include spending time with family, and riding bicycles. RW shared this particular magic trick with multiple members of her family during their annual Passover Seder, in this case RW, her sister, and I were getting paper from the garage so that RW’s father could teach us to make paper airplanes when she asked to show me a magic trick.

Performance:
RW: Ok, ok, so first you twist the rope like an 8 on your wrist
RW: You do that and you see this part? [RW points to the loop formed by her bracelet]
RW: The under part [she gestures to the under side of the bracelet], and you pull that part into the little circle but not too tight.
RW: If you flick it really fast the knot disappears!

Steps to reproduce:
1)Twist a section of the bracelet into a loop
2)Take the underside of the bracelet a pinky length away from the loop and pull it through to make a knot, loosely
3) Flick the end of the bracelet that sticks out of the knot and it disappears
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Analysis:
The trick is a way to “get one over” on one’s peers and even adults. Thus the child demonstrates “magic” that they know to be a reflection of their own knowledge. The informant’s pride is the key marker here, this piece of folklore is a performance passed from person to person for the benefit of the people around them. Likewise this is a display of trickery, the goal is to fool, and thus in harmless deception traverse the social taboo of lying. This gives the performer the space to engage in a behavior that is generally seen as wrong in a way that will actually net them praise.

Childhood
Folk speech
general
Humor
Narrative

Alouette: French Nursery Rhyme

Context CW, with a mug of hot tea sits, on my couch after an afternoon of doing homework and recounts stories from their childhood CW was raised French and attended a French immersion school. The atmosphere is calm, the air is calm and the room is mostly quiet in between stories.
———————————————————————————————————————Background: CW learned Alouette in preschool, from their teachers. It’s meaning is rooted in a nostalgic warmth for their youth, also they think the song is “pretty cute I guess, but it’s kinda fucked up”. CW doesn’t necessarily like it so much as believes it is very deeply ingrained in their person.

Performance:

CW: Alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais la tête/ je te plumerais la tête/ et la tête et la tête/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais le bec/ je te plumerais le bec/ et le bec et la tête/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais le cou/ je te plumerais le cou/ et le cou et le bec/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais les ailes/ je te plumerais les ailes/ et les ailes et le cou/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais le dos/ je te plumerais le dos/ et le dos et les ailes/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais
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Translation

Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your head/ let me pluck your head/ and your head and your head/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your beak/ let me pluck your beak/ and your beak and your head/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your neck/ let me pluck your neck/ and your neck and your beak/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your wings/ let me pluck your wings/ and your wings and your neck/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your back/ let me pluck your back/ and your back and your wing/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/

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Analysis: The song is something of a memory game, that used to teach children in France new words like neck, back, beak, and head. Much like the hokey pokey, this song serves the dual purpose of keeping children occupied and teaching them the language to express the parts of their own body. The song appears in lists across the internet like “5 Magical Songs For Teaching French To Preschoolers” indicating that as globalization has spread the ability to teach and learn language so too has this element of folklore spread into countries where French isn’t the dominant language to serve as a teaching tool. The way the song burrows its way into the mind of the performer too allows for its performance to gain meaning as a cultural object, the knowing of Alouette, a marker of exposure to French culture and a way to connect with other people

Customs
Humor
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Stamp Out the Name

One tradition of the Jewish holiday Purim is to take measures to stamp out the name of Haman, the man who tried and failed to kill all Persian Jews in the Purim story. This manifests in other little traditions but one of the most literal involves people writing Haman’s name (in English or Hebrew) on the sole of their shoes so then they walk about stamping out the name throughout their day. Sometimes this is even paired with secondary events to maximize stamping such as a footrace.

While never personally observed by this folklorist (my synagogue doesn’t do this) this tradition stands out as a humorously obvious interpretation of the idea to stamp out the man’s name and ergo very believable. It’s an ancient, international holiday; someone has to have done this. The humor is assuredly intentional and adds to the joyous vibe of the rest of the holiday.

Humor

Russian Joke

Text: So my grandfather told me this joke that there were two old Russian guys driving through the forest. And, the guy in the passenger seat told the driver, “Hey, you need to pull over.” And the driver’s like, “Well, we can’t pull over, we’re not, we’re not where we’re supposed to be yet.” The passenger goes, “Look,” he goes, “I need you to pull over.” The driver goes, “But we’re in the middle of nowhere.” The passenger goes, “Look, I have to go to the bathroom. You have to pull over.” So, the driver pulls over, the guy gets out of the car, and he heads into the woods. A few minutes later, the passenger comes back to the car, and his pants are soaking wet. The driver looks at him and says, “What’s a matter? You didn’t make it in time?” He answers, “Nah, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.”

Context: AT is a child of Russian and Italian immigrants that grew up in Queens, New York. He would spend the summers in Maine surrounded by dense forest and vast natural landscapes, with is Russian grandparents who insisted that he learn Russian so that they could converse in their native language with their grandson. He has been a fluent speaker ever since then because of their teachings. His grandfather used to tell him this jokes as they were driving through the forests during the harsh main winters. I was told this joke over coffee one afternoon.

 Interpretation: Jokes area very popular form of folklore that can take on different forms in different societies.  The use of punch-lines in the telling of jokes can be largely recognized as an American behavior, for a lot of cultures don’t do punch-lines, rather they just tell funny stories. I expect that this is the case here, for when AT told me the joke for the first time, I didn’t really laugh because I thought the punchline was weak. I expected that perhaps the punch line was funnier in Russian, but now I expect that there is no punchline, only a funny story.

This joke still employs the cognitive switch technique that all jokes share. It sets up something in the beginning only to turn it on its head by the end. The entire story builds the idea that the passenger needs to use the bathroom, and that he will wet himself if the driver does not pull over and let him go into the woods to do his business. However, when the passenger finally gets his chance, he makes a mess anyways, cognitively switching the joke on its head.

 

Humor

Funghi; Fun Guy

Text: Question: What do you call a mushroom that likes to party?

Answer: A fun guy.

Context: SV is a freshman at the University of Southern California studying neuroscience. Befitting her scientific major, she remembers hearing this joke is biology class. This is one of her go-to jokes because, as she says, “I’m a sucker for puns, and that’s probably why I remember it.”

Interpretation:  Jokes are a very popular form of folklore, and can take on different forms in different societies. The use of punch-lines is a distinctly American behavior, and is employed in the joke above through the use of a pun. A pun is a joke exploiting different possible meanings of a word, or a joke that uses the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings. There is still a cognitive switch going on, but puns resemble riddles in the way that they propose a solution to a seemingly impossible question and end up creating a magical transformation of meaning through the use of language.

In the example above, the participant is asked to link two seemingly unrelated things in order to derive an answer to the joke. However, the pun reveals that the answer was hiding in a play on words the entire time.

Customs
Gestures
Holidays
Humor
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Dayenu on Passover

Context: My informant is a 63 year-old man of Persian descent. The piece is a ritual practiced by Persian Jews at traditional Passover seders, which is a generations-old gathering where specific foods are eaten to remind oneself of the hardships faced by Jews in Egypt. Each food symbolizes an aspect of the suffrage, and is consumed after reading stories and prayers from the Haggadah – the text recited at the seder.

 

Background: The morning after I had a Passover seder with my family, I decided to ask my informant about a tradition almost exclusively practiced by Persian Jews. He explained that they had practiced this tradition while still living in Iran, before they moved to Los Angeles after the fall of the Shah. It remains a staple of Passover seders at any Persian Jewish home.

 

Main Piece: “When it’s time in the seder for the green onions, we do Dayenu. This food symbolizes how we remember that the Jews were beaten and whipped as slaves in Egypt. Persian Sephardic Jews have a fun twist on this to make the seder more fun and enjoyable while also remembering these hardships. After reading the piece from the book and saying the prayer over the green onion, everyone starts singing the Dayenu song and runs around hitting each other with the onions. It’s fun and chaos, and it makes such a long traditional seder a little more lively and bearable. I’m not sure how this ritual originated, but only Sephardic Jews do it usually. It mimics what the slaves went through in Egypt but it also brings a fun and enjoyment to the holiday.”

 

Analysis: It’s interesting to see the distinction between practices of different sectors of Jews. While Orthodox and Ashkenazi Jews take a more traditional aspect to the Passover Seder, Sephardic Jews practice this ritual to celebrate the remembrance while also bringing excitement to the tradition. There is debate about where the custom originates, but it’s typically practiced by Sephardic Jews from Iran and Afghanistan.

 

Customs
Game
Humor
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Indian Wedding Custom: Stealing Shoes

Text:

BH: “So one of the wedding rituals that all, or like most, of the Indian weddings have, is the joota churai [shoe stealing] of the groom, so basically the [to-be] sister-in-law that uh, whenever, so Indian wedding require you to remove your shoes whenever you enter into that pandar [ceremonial area] where the groom and the bride [perform the official religious marriage rituals] – they have to remove their shoes because shoes are considered to be something dirty and they’re entering into a pure religious place and that’s why they are asked to remove the shoes. So, as soon as the groom removes his shoes, it a battle, or kind of like a battle, between the groom’s side and the bride’s side because the bride’s sides – the sister-in-laws – are supposed to steal the groom’s shoes and at the end of the wedding [ceremony], the sister-in-law will present the shoes back to the groom in exchange for some money. It is like a ritual which shows the relationship between a sister-in-law and – like a very friendly relationship – between the groom and his sister-in-law, it kind of helps them bond.”

MS: “Have you yourself ever been involved in the stealing?”

BH: “So basically what happened – there’s a varmala ceremony [bride and groom exchange “necklaces” made of flowers, similar to leis, similar to the exchange of rings] that happens in Indian weddings. So the groom was [lifted] by his brothers onto their shoulders so that he could put the varmala on his bride. And during that time, all the sister-in-laws – because he was at a height – they, uh, removed his shoes without him knowing and we ran away and we hid them in a car and the whole time when he had to pose for pictures, he was just barefoot and then he had to go for the ceremony [where he would have had to remove his shoes anyway] so it didn’t really matter. But it was a good ice-breaking session for us, that allowed us to bond. Because then we had to uh – so once the wedding ceremony was over, we came to him with his shoes and we were basically bargaining with him for how much he’d be willing to buy his shoes for. Since there were a lot of saliyans [sister-in-laws], we negotiated to a high amount and in the end, it depends on the groom and his family as to what uh amount they want to give and that is split equally among the sisters…It helped us make – uh, it was an ice-breaking thing for us, because the next time I met him [the groom], I was very comfortable because I had led the negotiation earlier because I was the closest sister-in-law so it was very easy for me to maintain a good rapport with him later as well.”

MS: “Does it matter where you hide the shoes?”

BH: “Not really. You just have to make sure you hide them well because if the groom’s side takes the shoes, then you will not get your money. So we usually hide them in the cars so we aren’t really bothered during the long ceremonies that we have in Indian wedding that the shoes might be stolen back by the groom’s side.”

[Talking more about the negotiation over the shoes]

BH: “It’s a very very hard negotiation, so all of the bride’s family and the groom’s family come in to support both of them, though the bride doesn’t say anything even though she is pressured to say something, she will not say anything because she does not want to take anyone’s side…In the end, we just take – as the sister-in-laws, we just take whatever the groom is willing to give and whatever his capacity is to give and that is equally – but it helps because we make jokes about it in the future. Because a sali’s [sister-in-law’s] relationship with her jija [brother-in-law] is very fun and relaxed – it’s like friend-cum-brother so they should be able to have open conversations and this is one of the ways to establish that.”

 

Context:

The informant is a college student from India. The conversation was in response to my question about any wedding traditions that the informant has been involved in or seen in the past. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. Certain key terms have been Romanized and their translations or explanations are given in brackets. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

This was a very culturally dense discussion that took for granted a basic understanding of how Indian weddings work. Focusing specifically on the one ritual of stealing the groom’s shoes, it seems to be, as the informant says, a means to establish a relationship between the groom and the sister-in-laws. But it is also notable that the entire family joins the discussion about how much the groom is going to pay for his shoes, whose side you support becomes an identifier of whether you belong to the groom’s side or the bride’s side. In the same vein, the bride is not supposed to partake in this discussion because she is now supposed to be a part of both the groom and the bride’s sides. The exchange of money itself is also interesting and may have some historical basis in the fact that traditionally the expenses of the wedding ceremonies were paid for entirely by the bride’s side of the family – this seems to be one of the place where the bride’s side can some monetary and symbolic compensation.

Also interesting is the change that the informant implicitly mentioned from the traditional “battle” like nature of the ritual, where each side is supposed to steal back and forth from each other, to the more modern “we just hide them in the car and forget about them till the end of the ceremony”. Even though the practice has changed, its social significance persists.

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