USC Digital Folklore Archives / May, 2014
Childhood
Customs
Folk speech
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“Little Piggy” – Russian Folk Song

Little Piggy

Transcript to Audio file (condensed and edited):

Informant: Okay, this one…in my broken Russian, she [my mom] wakes me up, takes my hand in her hand and with her finger circles my palm and sings [song], and then she’s taking my fingers…one by one [chant], and then when she gets to my thumb [chant] and then tickles me. It’s basically a “this little piggy” equivalent so she’s taking each of my fingers and when she gets to the last one, she’s not giving it to me.

Collector: Can you do the entire thing through? Here…[offering my hand] do it to me.

(Informant does so.)

 

When I asked him when he first learned the chant, the informant said that his mother had probably been doing that since he was baby. When asked whether he knew where she had learned it, he replied that he did not. “I would guess probably from her mother…It never really mattered to me,” he said. “I mean of course now I’m curious and I’ll probably ask her later today, but it had never crossed my mind to ask her. For me it was just a way she showed that she loved me.”

In this instance, the folklore functions as a link for the informant to his childhood, his mother, and his heritage. In the beginning of the recording, the informant prefaces by saying, “In my broken Russian…” Nevertheless, despite any uncertainty he may have regarding his language skills, he doesn’t stumble with any of the examples of folk speech he shares, having grown up with all of it. As soon as he was able, he began performing the chant for his little sister who is now in the ninth grade since she was a baby. “When I do it nowadays though,” he chuckled, “she gets annoyed.”

The value of this example of folk speech is in how easily it’s become transmitted from mother to child and then from child to sibling. Though it’s no surprise, it’s funny that a fourteen year old girl would be annoyed with her twenty year old brother for continuing to perform it with her, since the chant is so intertwined with childhood – pre-adolescence. But also, perhaps being that the chant is interlaced with a Russian heritage given that it’s in Russian, it’d be interesting to inquire into whether the annoyance of the transmission is also tied to a reluctance to associate with the heritage through its traditions.

What’s also worth noting in this example is that the informant himself made the connection between the two cultures he’s affiliated with; in fact, he gave me the title “Little Piggy” for the song, when in fact there is no literal mention of a pig in the Russian version. Of course, as one who knows very little about the Russian language and culture, I appreciated the connection from one piece of folklore into another, as well as witnessing how someone of two heritages can reconcile what necessarily seem like they must be separate through common lore. Why not? Considering that both the Russian song and the Western “little piggy” chant both involve the child’s hands and specifically the fingers.

Childhood
Folk speech
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“Morning Accordion Song” – Russian folk song

Morning Accordion Song

(The attachment contains the song in Russian, a general translation, an explanation of the accompanying motions, and some additional commentary.)

Transcript of audio file (condensed and edited):

Informant: This one is…my mom always woke me up with it. [the song] She touches both my cheeks and says, “Wall. Wall.” Then she touches my forehead and says, “Ceiling.” And then she makes an electronic doorbell and touches my nose, “Zing.” Then she asks, “Is the owner home?” Then I say, “Yes,” grudgingly. Then she says, “Is the accordion ready?” Then I say, “(sighs) yes.” Then she says, “Can I play it?” Then I say, “Yes.” Then she plays the accordion with my ears (makes motion of tugging at each of the ear lobes). And that’s just like a waking up ritual.

When I asked him when he first learned the ritual, the informant said that his mother had probably doing that since he was baby. When asked whether he knew where she had learned it, he replied that he did not. “I would guess probably from her mother…It never really mattered to me,” he said. “I mean of course now I’m curious and I’ll probably ask her later today, but it had never crossed my mind to ask her. For me it was just a way she showed that she loved me.” And it seems that the ritual even today, when the informant is 20-years-old continues to function as a demonstration of affection. While his mother no longer wakes him up with the chant, she “does it whenever I’m down, and it pretty much works every time.”

In this instance, the folklore functions as a link for the informant to his childhood, his mother, and his heritage. In the sharing of other folk songs and jokes, the informant would preface them by saying, “In my broken Russian…” Nevertheless, despite any uncertainty he may have regarding his language skills, he didn’t stumble with any of the examples of folk speech he shared, having grown up with all of it.

With regards to the piece itself, it’s interesting to me that the face is the facade of a house, in which the occupant must undoubtedly be the mind, more specifically, a conscious one. The informant mentioned nothing about this distinction between the mind and body, but I can imagine that even a little chant could engrain the delineation between the two for any child’s thinking. More research would be required to account for the significance of the accordion in Russian culture.

general

The “Hair and Chair Company”

A Los Angeles based theatre company, A Noise Within, back in the ’90s (and perhaps even today) referred to themselves as a “hair and chair company.” The company was constantly in repertory, so they didn’t expend a lot of effort in the production value. Often they put up plays with nothing more than nondescript furniture populating the stage, and instead of period-specific costumes, actors performed in contemporary attire with “crazy hair” suggestive of the period they were playing in. In short, the “hair and chair” nature of the company was referring to their emphasis on the story rather than spectacle of their productions.

The informant, herself a Los Angeles based theatre artist and professor, had learned the phrase during her first commissioned job with the company. The phrase, she said wasn’t written in any manual, but was  simply learned. She figured it out “just by hanging around.” “The thing about these phrases though, I think,” she said, “is that they exist because of a phenomenon they’re speaking to. I don’t think the company would have come up with their little motto if other theatre companies all prioritized story over production value. No, I think they came up with the label to separate themselves from the companies that emphasize the spectacle.” What the informant is speaking to, of course, is what some may refer to as the shadow meaning of mottos and proverbs.

Following the informant’s own analysis further is that this type of lore not only distinguishes one groups identity from another but also establishes a pride in that identity. If we were to follow that identity is established in binaries, this case would certainly be an illustration of this type of identification: those who emphasize story vs those who emphasize production value.

As for the informant, it would seem that she must constantly acquire lore such as this one being that as a freelance director/choreographer/actor, she is frequently thrown into a new collection of people with their own established codified vernacular. In other words, she is constantly in a liminal space having to transition from one community into the next. Granted each of these communities are all composed of similar freelance theatrical artists, but each theater most likely develops their lore unique to how they distinguish themselves as being unique. More research into what lore might exist to depict the freelance nature of the work may prove fruitful.

Customs
Gestures
Kinesthetic

Three Pats: “I’m not gay.”

The custom:

…is performed when two males give each other a hug. If they wish to convey/confirm that they’re not homosexual, they pat the other three times to indicate, “I’m not gay.”

The informant, from Houston, Texas, learned the custom in the 8th grade in a public middle school. He also included that he thought he learned it from one of his peers who played sports (the informant did not play sports.) When asked about why the custom may have started, he replied, “I’m sure that it started because of a transition into physical male interaction becoming less taboo. Meanwhile, homosexuality is still taboo.”

The informant: “My sister’s husband and I do it for fun now every time we hug.”

I think he hit the nail on the head with his speculation. And by acknowledging that there should be a taboo nature of homosexuality seems to suggest that Houston continues a trend of homophobia.

As for the gesture itself, by virtue of its existence, it would seem that there is an underlying continuing homophobia. Along the same lines, there also exists the need to affirm that one isn’t gay each time he hugs another male. On this point, it’s interesting that the informant has suggested an awareness of a shift in the norms of physical contact between males, hugs in themselves having once been a taboo gesture. But while all this may have once been the case and still may be the case around Houston, the informant’s final comment regarding his brother-in-law, who by the norms of marital union is clearly heterosexual, seems to suggest that the use of these gestures have gone out of fashion. For the informant to enact pats with a brother-in-law would be at the very least redundant, and yet there’s something “fun” about it.

Customs
Folk speech
Humor

“Coming from the Kid.”

The informant attended a public high school in New York and first heard the phrase when he was a freshman (age 14).

Informant: I think some guy in the grade above us came up with it. And if he didn’t come up with it he definitely popularized it.

Collector: When would you use the phrase?

Informant: People could use it pretty meanly: If there was a nerdy kid or something. Or it could be used as a response to a “your mom” joke.

Collector: Could you give me another example?

Informant: Yeah. Let’s just say you and I are eating some sandwiches. You finish your sandwich and you go for a second and I say, “You’re having another one? You fatass.” But let’s say I had not only finished my first sandwich, I had already grabbed a second. You could say, “Coming from the kid.” [...] Eventually people started shortening the phrase to just CFTK.

Collector: Did people text it to each other, too?

Informant: Oh, yeah. And people at the school still use it. My sister was a freshman when I was a senior in high school, and she still does it.

 

This example of folk speech illustrates that the need of a group to moderate the individual’s ability to retort to any potential verbal attacks, specifically pertaining to those that demonstrate a hypocrisy from an offender. Something of note is that the offender is diminished to a “kid.” This indicates that at least among the informant’s group of peers, a value is placed on maturity, that in high school, one is expected to grow up and leave behind childish behavior such as hypocrisy.

In this case, I found the speculated origin interesting. It appears that the student, who was a year above the informant at the time, has achieved a very minor legend status for his hand in the pervasion of the phrase. When asked to elaborate on the student, the informant suggested that everyone knew who he was because of his supply of marijuana, which made him the “cool guy.” So anything he said, people immediately adopted into their own vernacular. Whether this student’s status came from the invention/popularization of the folk speech or from his involvement illicit materials, it’s interesting to note that a speech phenomenon should be linked to a person and his social standing among peers.

Customs
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Initiation into A Cappella

The informant is a member of an on-campus a cappella group called Reverse Osmosis. In the fall semester, new members are initiated in the Christmas season before the Christmas concert. Without the new member knowing, a “mother” and “father” are selected to parent the chosen member. At a rehearsal preceding the concert, the parents reveal whom they’ve selected as their child through a fabricated story; the new member, however, is unaware that the ritual is taking place or that there is even a tradition of “parenthood” in the group. In the informant’s experience, one girl, who was then dating another member of the group began by saying, “[So-and-so] and I are breaking up because I got drunk and had sex with [a different member of the group.] I got pregnant. But the good news is I finally gave birth to the baby and his name is [the informant].” She and the other selected parent then proceeded by revealing a gift basket that they put together, filled with bibs, bottles, diapers, and alcohol, which they then proceeded to consume.

Analysis:

Many groups in college seem to include a conceit of family, most likely because a nuclear family is the most intimate unit of community in our culture. Therefore in order to follow the tradition of creating a home away from home, this group, along with the many others, has woven the custom into their identity. What’s interesting about this particular ritual is that it takes place as a kind of initiation but only after the new member has spent nearly an entire semester in the group. The informant explained that the timing of the event isn’t related to the potential to kick out new members so much as it is to solidify and strengthen the friendships forged naturally between the old members with the new over the course of the semester. What’s also interesting about the informant’s particular experience was that the fabricated story was marked by one member’s infidelity to another and resulted in a separate union brought together by the informant. Though the infidelity (which, to clarify, was falsified) may be unique to that particular story, in another example, the informant explained, “I might say, ‘Me and Jen were hanging out. And we got really drunk and had sex…'” In both examples, the stories illustrate accidental impregnations resulting from drunken escapades. Of course, these are only two examples of a plethora of initiations (the group was founded in 2001).

In short, the main purpose of this tradition is to help transition new members out of the liminal space of their membership. In order to do so, the group has appealed to a kind of parody of the societally based convention of marriage. More digging is recommended to understand if the main intent of the story is to completely deceive the new member until the reveal or to simply entertain.

Childhood
Customs
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“Tuck-ins” at UCSD

The “ceremony”:

When a member of a fraternity or a sorority wants to pick up a “little sibling” of the opposite gender, the little is called a “tuck in.” In order to legitimize the act, the *families of both the member and the prospective “tuck-in” come together on a designated night to properly “tuck him/her in.” The older members select a story-book (the informant used Green, Eggs, and Ham as her example) and a word that is both unique and recurring in the text (i.e. “green” or “ham”). The older sibling would then begin reading the selected story, and every time the selected word within the story comes  up, the prospective tuck-in must take a shot of a predesignated hard alcohol. As the night goes on and the tuck-in gets more and more inebriated, he or she must also play games in demonstrating his or her lack of sobriety. For example, she might be asked to give a nick name to every other member present at the event, and then remember all the nicknames; for each mistake, he or she must take another shot. The objective of the ritual, of course, is to legitimize the union of the siblings through severe drunkenness.

*Each new member of a sorority of a fraternity is assigned to a “heritage” of preceding members. While there are no “parents” there are brothers and sisters, which carry down the line as grand-big-sisters/brothers (shortened to “grandbigs”).

Analysis:

The informant, herself, being a member of Theta at UCSD had gotten tucked in when she was a sophomore, when she was 20 years old.

Collector: Why do you think you guys do it?

Informant: Well…I think it’s just welcome new members into another community, I mean it’s college so yeah…the drinking.

Collector: Why are they called tuck-ins?

Informant: I have no idea. Maybe it has to do with tucking the members in to the group, but I don’t know why anyone would pick the words “tucking in” to describe something that could just as easily be called…like integrating or something. (chuckles)

While the notion of families in the Greek community is not unique to UCSD, what I do find interesting is precisely what the informant was touching on in her last comment. It does seem curious that such a specific phrase would be used, and frankly the first image that comes to mind, particularly because of the play on the family dynamic, relates to the phallus. Perhaps “to tuck in” first surfaced as an innuendo to describe the consummation of a new union. Regardless similar traditions exist in Greek communities at other schools. Here at USC, for example, the process of taking a little sibling of the opposite gender also exists, though they’re simply referred to as “little bros/sisters (according to gender, of course).”

Something else in the process worth noting would be the story-book – again, an example of a play on home life. The prospective older sibling reads the story, analogous to how a parent reads a bed time story as he or she “tucks in” the child. However, this particular ritual only takes place in the event that the older and younger siblings are of opposite genders, so I maintain the hypothesis that the phrase “tuck-in” may very well extend beyond the innocent connotations associations of a parent tucking in a child. After all, this is college. This is NOT, however, to say that any kind of sexual violence takes place; rather it is simply speculation of the phrase etymology.

 

Customs
folk metaphor
Folk speech

“Off the Bricks”

The informant learned the phrase “off the bricks” during her time as an intern at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Summer Seminar. A brick pathway led to the theater at which the performances took place, so the interns were taught to keep any talk regarding the performances “off the brick [path]” and away from the theater to prevent influencing any potential audience members’ perspectives before watching the show.

As far as the informant knew, no official punishments were administered for failing to adhere to the motto. Rather the phrase served more as a reminder to members, both old and new. Something to keep in mind, as with all mottos and proverbs, are the implications that follow from these phrases. Advice crafted to ensure that audience perspectives are not altered indicate that audiences may have been impacted by comments they overheard from employees. Teasing this out a bit further, the measures taken to prevent such occurrences illuminate that audience perspective purity is of a high value in the theatrical community. Rather than allowing those involved in the process of creating a piece dictate, whether intentionally or not, the community aims to preserve the audience’s first encounter with the production as purely their own and unique to each person.

general
Humor

“Bad and Worse News for the President”

The Joke:

Picture this. We’re in front of the White House. It’s morning, and the first snow of winter came last night. President Obama wakes up to a phone call from the CIA. “Mr. President, ” the agent says, “we have bad news and even worse news.”
“What?” the president cries. “Okay. What’s the bad news?”
“Look outside your window, Mr. President.” Outside his window, President Obama finds a message written in urine in the snow. The message says something like, ‘Fuck you, Obama.’ “Mr. President we did a urine check and found that it belongs to Vice President Joe Biden, sir.”
“How can that be?!” the President exclaims. “I thought Joe Biden’s my boy!…How can anything be worse than this?”
“Well, Mr. President. We did a handwriting sample and found that the handwriting belongs to Michelle Obama.”

Analysis:

“See? It’s great because the joke can apply to any administration,” the informant explained.

The informant is a 20-year-old male who learned the joke from one of his peers at a dojo he regularly attends. When i asked him why he remembered that particular one eh replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t told a formal joke in a long time. I remember reading joke books when I was in middle school. But nowadays, it’s like…those kinds of jokes aren’t popular anymore. The current events are the set up and you just deliver the punchline.”

For another reference and variation of the joke, see also:

http://www.jokebuddha.com/Democrat

Customs
Folk speech
Game
Humor
Initiations

“Two bears in a shower…”

The Joke:

Two bears are taking a shower. One of the bears asks the other, “Hey do you have any soap?” The other replies, “No soap…radio.”

Analysis:

“The joke is,” the informant said, “that it’s not really a joke. It doesn’t make any sense. But if you’re in a group of people and you and a few buddies are in on the joke together, one of you says the joke and everyone else just needs to laugh as if it’s the funniest thing ever. No one else is going to get it. They’re going to be really confused and then from there…it just gets funnier. It’s beautiful.”

Collector: Where did you learn it?

Informant: On a retreat I went on last year, during the drive up, two of the guys [who were older members] in my car did it to us. I had heard similar jokes before, so I picked up on it and started laughing, too. But the two other girls that were in the car had no idea and got really pissed. And even after we explained it to them, that it’s not supposed to make any sense, they didn’t find it funny at all.

 

I think this “joke,” or rather meta-joke (in which the joke aren’t the words but rather the situation of performance that becomes the joke) beautifully exemplifies the use of prank in liminal space. This retreat that the informant attended, he later explained, was a new members retreat to get the new members situated in the group. Ironically, while the intention of the retreat is to integrate additional people into community, the older members in fact alienated some of them. The informant, however, having figured out the joke earned a kind of place among the “big boys.” When asked if the joke was enacted intentionally as a bonding/alienating experience, the informant clarified that it probably wasn’t. Rather it may have just been an irresponsible prank in which the potential consequences hadn’t been fully recognized prior to enacting it on that nature of a retreat. Nevertheless, the experience illustrates a tension that lies between old members and the new: those who are in on the joke and those who are not. And if you happen to be new and yet somehow in on the joke, then you have only affirmed that you belonged in the group all along, even prior to having joined.

This type of prank emphasizes the binaries that establish identity: the “us” and “them” distinction, the “us” presumably being the originals.

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