USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘American’
Legends

Legend: The Shadow

I discovered this legend when researching unique legends online. The following is the quoted legend from online.

“The Shadow”

“I didn’t know that’s what it was called until much later. I was living in a house in Laguna Beach that had been there since the 1920s. In it’s history, it had been a speakeasy, a brothel and a house for smuggling illegal immigrants.

One day, my new wife and I were having an argument. I can’t even recall what it was about. She walked down the block to get a cup of coffee and cool off, and I was alone in the house. The way the place was built was incredibly haphazard. There was a bedroom and living room on one side, then a bathroom with two entrances. On the other side of the bathroom was a hallway that had windows in one side and two bedrooms on the other. From my bedroom, I could look across the hall into the bathroom, then through the bathroom and down the other hall. I was standing at my dresser, and I just noticed movement out the corner of my eye, and looked down there. There was… and honest to god, this gives me goose bumps just typing it, 17 years later, a black figure. It was maybe three feet tall, and it was only vaguely humanoid. It looked like black scribbles, like someone had scribbled a human shape, but the scribbles moved, like electricity arcing, that’s the best way to describe it.

There was no sound that I could remember. I distinctly remember when I saw it I wasn’t afraid, just like, WTF? Then it noticed me looking at it. I can’t say it turned around, it just, focused on me I guess. THEN I was scared. I didn’t move, didn’t scream, nothing, I was just frozen, because it just fucking came at me, it RUSHED down the hall towards me. I have no idea what it intended, but as soon as it entered the bathroom, the door closest to me just SLAMMED shut on it. I screamed. I yelled for my wife. She wasn’t home. I went the fuck outside, into the daylight, and didn’t go back in until she got home about 10 minutes later.

I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe I saw something supernatural, but I know I saw something. I don’t know what it was.”

Analysis:

I found this legend especially interesting because I am from Laguna Beach and found personal interest in the ghost story taking place in my hometown. There is a similar styled home in my neighbor that is also rumored to be haunted. It is one of the oldest homes in Laguna Beach and has its own lighthouse and saltwater swimming pool that is embedded in the actual rocks. I visited this home once and immediately felt it had an eerie atmosphere. To this day, whenever I pass the home I still continually feel that strange, supernatural element to it. I therefore found this legend extremely relatable and am curious of its origins. It would be interesting to know if perhaps the teller of the legend lived in the same home I saw or a different one.

Website Citation: For other similar ghost legends, visit the following URL where this legend was originally published:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/Mandatory/ghost-stories_b_8296528.html

Proverbs

Cincinnati Proverb

The following was recorded from a conversation I had with a friend marked HL. I am marked CS. She shared with me a proverb she was told growing up from her Grandmother.

 

HL: “If you get on the bus to Cincinnati, don’t be surprised when you get to Cincinnati.”

CS: “And how would you translate this proverb?”

HL: “Basically, if you have sex outside of marriage and you’re not on the pill, don’t be surprised when you have a kid.”

CS: “Was this proverb said often in your house?”

HL: “So like my grandma used to say that to my mom when she was a teenager, and now that I’m getting older she says it to me. And of course my mom always says it to make fun of her.”

CS: “Do you think she really believes in that proverb?”

HL: “Yeah. 100%.”

CS: “Do you think you’ll tell your kids that saying?”

HL: “No. Only to give them more information about their great grandma. I’ve also never been to Cincinnati and don’t plan on it.”

 

Background:

HL is currently a freshman at the University of Southern California. She grew up in Mission Viejo, California in a family with a strong Catholic background.

Context:

An in person conversation at a local coffee shop.

 

Analysis:

What I found so fascinating about this proverb was merely that I completely misinterpreted it until HL further explained its meaning. Initially, I would have translated the proverb to simply being if you make a choice, or have a wish, don’t be surprised when that decision has consequences or the wish comes true. However, I was clearly way off from its actual meaning, or at least the meaning has for her family. I also found this proverb to be unique in the sense that I haven’t heard of a saying quite like that before that seems to have such a true-to-life and almost blunt, candid undertone.

general
Legends
Musical

The Ballad of John Henry

BACKGROUND:

The Ballad of John Henry was an Afro-American folk song dating back to the late 1800s. The song tells of a man who worked as a steel driver when the railroads were being built across Western America. John was so good at his job, that he was put up against a steam powered hammer in a race to see who would complete the job faster. In the end, John Henry is victorious. But the celebrations are short lived as he dies of exhaustion directly after claiming victory. It has been determined that John Henry was an actual man who worked on the railroads and died with a hammer in his hand. Whether this race actually took place is up for debate.

THE SONG:

The lyrics to The Ballad of John Henry are as follows:

When John Henry was a little tiny baby
Sitting on his mama’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”
John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast.
He’d hammer with a nine-pound hammer all day
And never get tired and want to rest, Lord, Lord,
And never get tired and want to rest.
John Henry went up on the mountain
And he looked one eye straight up its side.
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried, “Lord, Lord,”
He laid down his hammer and he cried.
John Henry said to his captain,
“Captain, you go to town,
Bring me back a TWELVE-pound hammer, please,
And I’ll beat that steam drill down, Lord, Lord,
I’ll beat that steam drill down.”
The captain said to John Henry,
“I believe this mountain’s sinking in.”
But John Henry said, “Captain, just you stand aside–
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind, Lord, Lord,
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind.”
John Henry said to his shaker,
“Shaker, boy, you better start to pray,
‘Cause if my TWELVE-pound hammer miss that little piece of steel,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day, Lord, Lord,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day.”
John Henry said to his captain,
“A man is nothing but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”
The man that invented the steam drill,
He figured he was mighty high and fine,
But John Henry sunk the steel down fourteen feet
While the steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord,
The steam drill only made nine.
John Henry hammered on the right-hand side.
Steam drill kept driving on the left.
John Henry beat that steam drill down.
But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord,
He hammered his poor heart to death.
Well, they carried John Henry down the tunnel
And they laid his body in the sand.
Now every woman riding on a C and O train
Says, “There lies my steel-driving man, Lord, Lord,
There lies my steel-driving man.”

MY THOUGHTS:

The song is a very interesting piece in that it was one of the first cultural occurrences to feature the concept of “Man vs. Machine”. This song was written at the height of the industrial revolution where big business reigned king. In America at the time, African American’s had only just claimed their freedom from slavery. While the song does have a very strict tone of Man vs. Machine, the song can also be viewed as an allegory for the African American community’s place in America at the time; They were able to do their work better their monopolistic overlords and yet, no matter how hard they worked, they would still never gain the respect they deserve. This specific version of the legend, however, has a more optimistic ending, giving hope to those who sought for the glory they deserved.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Homeopathic
Legends
Magic
Narrative

One Way to Scratch an Itch

My maternal grandpa was from the poorest part of Birmingham, Alabama. His birth father died in a dynamite factory explosion when he was two years old, and his mother remarried a few years after that. Even with a new man, their family was poorer than poor. Some winters, they’d resort to eating shoe leather out of desperate hunger. He had one pair of overalls, and later became an expert marksman out of necessity (he could hit a squirrel between the eyes from 30 yards out). He climbed out of poverty via the GI Bill which he used to get an education here at USC, and then a job as a salesman of medicinal gasses to airline companies and hospitals. He didn’t much like talking about when he was poor – it was not his proudest moment. The one thing he did enjoy talking about from back then was family. Even when you have no money, you have family. As his sister June put it, “it never felt like we were poor. We had so much love in the household.”

 

My mom imbued this same sense of family on me through different stories she’d heard as a small girl from her dad, my grandpa. I’d heard this story before, but it had slipped to the back of my mind. Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask her and my dad if they have any stories about the inexplicable that I could use for my folklore project. My mom starts:

 

When your great uncle – great, great uncle – had… his leg amputated, it was itching itching itching, the stump was itching.  So his family said, ‘go dig up the stump and see if there’s anything wrong with it.  And he did and it was covered with ants.  And so he properly buried it and the itching stopped.  And that was a common belief of the time, in Alabama among Christians a couple generations ago.”

 

I love this story because it plays on so many different levels. On the one hand, it’s a story of a very strange folk belief that has found its way into mainstream medicine.  Phantom pains are a common phenomenon in the paraplegic world. To stop it, many doctors put a mirror up to the intact limb, making it look like their missing limb is still there. Almost immediately, the pains stop, and even when the mirror is removed, the pains are not felt. On the other hand, this story works through the familial lens, as it provides a rather sincere snapshot into life in rural Alabama so many years ago.  In a strange way, it makes perfect sense to dig up the withered limb and clean it off to stop the itching. It’s not like there was any other information out there, they just did what they thought would work and it worked.

 

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Protection with Holy Water

This is a tradition in which the user drops a little bit of blessed water from a Church around the entrances of their homes in order to keep bad spirits away. This tradition comes from Veracruz, Mexico. The water is supposed to basically cast a protective spell over your home, especially during times of hardship.

-

Ruby is a young Mexican-American woman who truly connects to her Catholic roots and leads her way of life through that method. She is also a single mom who works at a Non-Profit feeding the homeless of Los Angeles

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Broncollin Remedy

Broncolin is a all natural herbs and honey folk remedy that is used to treat colds and congestion in its folk method, but it’s actually a diet supplement. You apply the honey under your tongue and after that you give a small massage around the Adam’s apple area and you are supposed to wake up healed.

-

Juan is a Mexican-American from Mexico city. He works demolition, but is super into his religion of being a Jehovah Witness. He has been passing down his traditions to his kids, just how they were passed down to him by his dad and grandpa

Folk Beliefs
general
Humor

9/11: The TRUTH

Context: I was chatting with my roommate about his time in marching band in high school, and the following is one of the encounters he had during one of his festival trips.

Background: My roommate is a psychology minor, and one of the aspects of the subject he’s always been interested in is the part of the human brain that induces paranoia. Because of this, he’s been invested in conspiracy theories for a long time.

Dialogue: (Note: C denotes myself, B denotes my roommate)

C: So what about the van?

B: Oh, 9/11!

C: 9/11, tell me about 9/11!

B: OK! First of all, inside job. Second of all, I was in Victoria, British Columbia on a band trip, and, um, we were getting ready to march in this parade, and we saw this van driving around the– the– I guess the Parliament building? Um, and it said on the side of it, “9/11 was an inside job.” It was like a 9/11 truther van. And I thought, “Why… do you care? You’re in Canada… 9/11 did not happen in Canada.” I just thought that was interesting. I had a lot of questions, first of all… “What?” Second of all, um, like like like are these Americans doing this? Uh, if so, why are they in Canada, why are they in Victoria, British Columbia? Um… you know you’re not even near New York at this point!

Analysis: I actually debated with myself over what to categorize this piece as. The central bit of folklore revolves around a conspiracy theory regarding what “really” happened on 9/11, which is a tragic day in American history. However, the countless people who insist that 9/11 was an “inside job” (AKA a disaster orchestrated by the US government itself) have put such ridiculous and unreal theories out there, that it’s nearly impossible not to laugh at something like a “9/11 truther van” driving around. Because of this, and because of the fact that this theory is a belief shared in online communities without consideration for reality, I decided to categorize it as both Humor and as a Folk Belief.

Annotation: My roommate’s encounter is not nearly the first instance where the “9/11 was an inside job” belief popped up. In fact, in the same conversation, my roommate mentioned the documentary Loose Change as a good place to go deeper into the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Unitarian Universalist Church

Context: Gathered from one of my roommates once he found out about my collection project.

Background: My roommate has never had a set religious background, and was always in something of a melting pot of faiths when he went to churches like the one described here.

Dialogue: So, I don’t know exactly how Unitarianism, like, started, but… At some point it was just this sort of culmination of, like, various Christian sects, like Episcopalian or Protestant or whatever was around Massachusetts going on. Just a bunch of them sort of, like, coalesced into one group that’s like… “You know what, Trinity or Unity, doesn’t matter! We all have spirit!”

Analysis: The intereseting thing about this piece of folklore to me is how much is blended together in a church like this. It’s not only a mixing of various religious sects, either: at one point, my roommate sang a song he was taught as a kid, about the “Seven Guiding Principles of Kindness.” He remembers only these lines:

One, each person is important
Two, be kind in all you do

The song, interestingly enough, is set to the tune of “Do-Re-Mi” fromthe mucial The Sound of Music. So we have a mashup of popular culture, religion, and folk belief, all in this single church.

Folk Beliefs
general
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

No Dancing in Texas/China

Context: I collected this from a high school friend when we were on a camping trip together over Spring Break.

Background: My friend was originally born in Texas, where his father is from, before moving to California as a child. His mother is an immigrant from China.

Dialogue: Yeah, um, again, I wrote a paper for dance history class that was in freshman year, about my personal experience with dance, and the professor gave me 100%, pulled me out of the class, and said, “Hey, I really enjoyed that paper, it was really cool, and I really appreciated the way that you opened up in the paper about your experiences,” because I wrote about how I have absolutely NO personal cultural experience with dance, like, in my life… Um… And that was due to the fact that my father was from the Deep South, and there, uh, at least for men, dance was seen as… something that was highly effeminate, and, like, if you danced it would somehow make you gay, um, and being from the Deep South he didn’t want me to be gay… So, I just NEVER danced as a child! And, then, on my mother’s side of the family, I had no cultural experience with dance because… uh, she was from China, but she was born under the Mao regime, and, um, during that time, a LOT of forms of art were actually pushed, um, out of the cultural sphere… And so there wasn’t really any dance except for this one dance that they did was like, “Hail the Might Mao” or whatever. Um… And, most forms of art were pushed out, so I had no culture of dance from that side either.

Analysis: I debated whether or not to check this under the Folk Dance category, but went against it because there isn’t actually a dance to be learned or performed. It’s interesting to compare these two different types of censorship, and see how much they’re based on the same kind of ideals. While the Maoist restriction of dance and art forms in general is more a complete totalitarian regime, the Deep South’s stereotyping and discrimination against gay people is more focused and specific. Yet they’re both based on the idea of controlling what people do through the use of villainization (against art and homosexuality, respectively).

general
Legends
Narrative

The Legend of Pecos Bill

The legend of Pecos Bill.  He was from– I think he was from… Kansas or Missouri or something?  Somewhere in the midwest, middle of the country  and he was famous for riding broncos.  He could ride any bronco you gave him.  He would just never fall off, incredible… So he was like, “Bring me your wildest creature and I can ride it.”  He could ride lions and tigers… and any bucking bronco, camels, anything crazy… he could ride anything.  He was just a huge cowboy, bronco rider.  And then somebody, then um, that area, Kansas and Arkansas and all that area– maybe that’s why I know this story– is, you know, famous for tornados, and cyclones, same thing.  And sure enough a cyclone came along, and it was gettin’ ready to wreck a town, and the townspeople said, “Hey Pecos Bill, can you ride that cyclone outta town?  Can you tame it and ride it out of town?”  And he said, “Well, I’ll give it a try, I’ve ridden everything else.”  And, um, so he hops on the cyclone, on the tornado, and it crashed him around and spun him around everywhere and everywhere… and he kept on it for miles and miles and days, ya know, a whole day of ridin’ it.  Um, and it was just nuts for him,  going all around in circles.  But he stayed on it, and, ya know, he had the tail and he’d whip the tail, ya know, how a cyclone is kinda triangular, like a cone.  And he’d whip the tail of it, tryna tame it and everything and he rode it all the way to…. Arizona.  Up in the sky, ride it all the way to Arizona, and it, um, finally just fell out in water.  All came down in water, and they say it rained really hard and, uh, it rained so hard it formed the Grand Canyon.  Rained so hard it drove it all the way down.  And then he fell off so hard that, um, he made… what is it?  Death Valley I think?  Or something like that.  I can’t remember, but that’s supposedly how those things were formed. Death Valley.  Which is the lowest part, you know, the lowest sea level, lowest part of the country I think.

 

Conclusion:

 

This story was told to me by my Aunt Susan.  It’s a classic folktale employing a legendary, mythic figure with supernatural abilities.  I like how the story ended with the explanation of how the Grand Canyon and Death Valley were formed.  It’s cool when stories seem to be relatively narrow and focused and then, at the end, open up to cover some part of general, well known history..

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