USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘American’
Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

The Ursuline Casket Girls Of New Orleans

Storyteller:

“Okay, so there’s this convent and off the top of my head I don’t remember it but if you google like “New Orleans Convent Vampires” you’ll find like a version of it. So that’s when New Orleans was being like built into a new city and there were all these traders and fur trappers or whatever. So women, so they has women brought over from Europe who were essentially going to be mail order brides for these men. So there are crude jokes of it being like early human trafficking and the women were like exposed to the sun on the trip over on the boat so they got like severely sun burned so the men like freaked out when the women got off the boat and rejected them. So they took the women in at the local convent and they like turned the top floor into the places for them to stay. But somehow because it’s New Orleans and this is what happens, people started saying that the women up there can’t be exposed to sunlight, they must be vampires…and it turned into this whole legend about the vampires of the convent. So like if you go on the voodoo tour in New Orleans, you will go to this convent and be told the story.

Me: That is so interesting, wow.

Storyteller: It is crazy! I mean the stuff in New Orleans…like who thought that was true and you know…it’s New Orleans so who knows if it’s true…you never know there.

Background: The storyteller is from New Orleans so she had a couple stories to pick from but decided to share this one. She told me that although she couldn’t remember the exact name of the story (I later looked up the real name and titled this post with it), she knew that because of the weird history of New Orleans, an ancient event turned into a creepy legend.

Context: I asked her if I could interview her for this project. I knew that she was from the south and after collecting a couple stories from people who grew up in the south, I was fascinated with them and wanted to hear more. She gave me a few stories…one is this legend. I drove back home to meet her for some coffee before diving into the interview (along with another storyteller who is interviewed in a different post).

Thoughts: I have come to realize that there are many legends and ghost stories that come from the south. The reason for this is probably because of the south’s horrible history especially with slavery and the general mistreatment of black people and women. I think that whether or not this legend is true and the women actually were vampires (even though it seems unlikely), it is interesting to me how easily skewed a simple story can become in New Orleans. It seems like the city has a rich culture and likes to accumulate as many interesting stories as it can. It makes it unique.

Folk Beliefs

No Mirror Facing You When You Sleep

Context: The collector interviewed the informant (as XZ) for superstitions. The informant is a USC student from Los Angeles. Her parents are from China. The conversation was in the collector’s dorm room When the informant saw a mirror on the collector’s bookshelf, she came up with the following folk belief.

 

 

Main Piece:

Never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep.

 

XZ: My parents told me never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep. Because when you are sleeping, your soul, this is so funny, I don’t really believe it, is above your body and moves around. So if you have a mirror facing you when you are sleeping, your soul will look into the mirror and get confused. So it will, like, not go back to your body.

XZ: My parents just told me the story. They think it’s funny. But some people really believe in this. They never put mirrors where mirrors reflect their bed.

 

The informant doesn’t think it is an Asian folk belief but rather an American one. She said that she didn’t believe the saying, but when asked about whether she would put a mirror against her bed, she answered no.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

Reflection of the real world in the mirror is a common topic of folk belief. There seem to be an underlying fear of the other self in the reflection, which threatens the exclusivity of self in the real world.

This folk belief also involves the topic of body and soul separation, and the process of sleeping. In this folklore, the connection between the soul and the body is unstable. The soul can get lost easily.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Witch in Georgia

Context: The collector is interviewing the informant for tales. The informant (as GL) is a Chinese USC student who went to high school in Georgia. His classmates told him this story in a history class, the content of which was related with witch hunts.

 

GL: The story happened when there was witch hunting.

Collector: In the US?

GL: Yeah probably. So there were too many hares and they ate up all the crops. So hunters wanted to hunt them down. There was one particular hare that was gigantic, very huge. And so they go consult the witch. They cannot catch the hare so they go to the witch for help. The witch is like, “Okay you guys should just go to this place to find it (the giant hare) and don’t let the giant black dog lose and just let it chase after the hare.” The hunters don’t know what that means. They keep that in mind and they find the giant hare. During the process (of pursuing the hare), a giant black dog jumps out of nowhere and takes a bite on the giant hare’s hind leg. The hare ran off. The giant black dog also ran off. The hunters went back to the witch and was like, “We found the hare, but sorry that we couldn’t keep track with the black dog coming out of nowhere.” But what they figured out was, you know, on the hip of the witch, there was a bite mark like where the dog bit the hare. I don’t remember what happened to the witch later. Sorry.

Collector: Do you think this story happens in Georgia?

GL: Yeah I guess so. You know, there was a time in the 17th or 18th century where there were witch trials and people were suspicious about witches causing misfortunes, you know.

Collector: Do you think people view the story as a legend or just a fairy tale?

GL: Apparently witches are not real. They were just unfortunate women accused as witches. I guess it has some sort of authenticity with it. Well it also can be completely made up by people.

 

Collector’s thoughts:

As the informant has mentioned, the legend is probably developed in the time of witch hunt. People of that period of time blamed natural factors that had negative impact on their daily production on witches and transferred their anger to innocent women. I think the tale is interesting, and it makes people remember the dark time of witch hunt.

Folk Beliefs

Right/Left Eye Twitches

Text: “It is believed somewhere I don’t know where that if your left eye twitches that means something good will happen and if your right eye twitches something bad will happen. I never really believed this or looked into it until there have been multiple cases where you could say it is hindsight bias, but to me it is the way this superstition works. After my right eye twitched the first two cases: I played my best volleyball game, I got an A on a test. Some left eye twitches included falling and getting hurt, arguments with my family, and just small things in general that are either positive or negative.”

 

Context: The subject is a Chinese-American female from Palo Alto, California. She is one of my peers at USC and I asked her casually if she had any superstitions. She then proceeded to tell me this one that she believes because she thinks it has successfully predicted whether good or bad things were going to happen to her.

 

Interpretation: I thought this was an interesting superstition that I had never heard before. I don’t necessarily believe it’s true, especially considering what the informant mentioned about “hindsight bias”. Because she had already heard about the superstition, she was actively taking note of good things that happened to her after her right eye twitched. Because she was so eagerly looking for something good to happen, she could have easily missed or ignored any bad things that happened to her that day. The same goes for after her left eye twitched; she was so intent on identifying bad things that happened to her that day that she could have easily ignored the good things. Although getting into an argument could have seemed bad on the day when her left eye was twitching, it could have seemed mundane on the day when her right eye was twitching.

Legends
Narrative

The Legend of George the Hunter

Text: “The Cape Cod Canal is very wide and the currents are dangerously swift. It divides the town of Bourne, MA into the mainland and Cape Cod. On the Cape Cod side is what was known then as the Edwards Air Force Base. It contained all the latest and most secret Air Force jets and other equipment and was very heavily guarded. The base was very big, comprising 20,000 acres. Trespassing of any kind was was not allowed. But there were lots of deer there. One legendary hunter by the name of George sneaked in there and shot a deer with his bow and arrow. Unfortunately, the deer ran away and George could not catch up with it. The next day the deer was found by the local officials. In those days, by law, you had to have your name on each arrow. Finding his arrow in the deer, they confronted George to arrest him for trespassing but his response was ‘I shot that deer legally on the other side of the Cape Cod Canal. He ran away and I saw him swim across the canal with my arrow stuck in him.’ With great embarrassment they had to let George go.”

 

Context: The subject is a 62-year-old white male from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I casually asked him if he knew of any legends related to the area and this is one that he told me.

 

Interpretation: This is a legend that is specifically associated with the region of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. More specifically, it has circulated around Bourne, Massachusetts because that is the town in which the Cape Cod Canal is located. It is also the town in which the Monument Beach Sportsman’s Club is located, which the man who told this story is a part of. Within the town of Bourne, which is also the town where I personally am from, I believe this legend has mainly been passed around among the men and women in the club because they are a group of people in the town who enjoy and practice hunting and other activities of this nature. I believe the purpose of this story is to inform listeners about the history of hunting in the town of Bourne as well as the “legendary” hunters that existed in the past. It could be used as a form of motivation to the people in the club to live up to George’s hunting prowess. In other words, this is regional folklore as well as folklore that pertains to a specific group of people, hunters.

 

Legends
Narrative

Cutting the Ham

Text: “This story was passed down as if it were the true in my family. But I have heard it told by others as well. My mom was preparing a ham for Easter and she cut the end off the ham before putting it in the pan. When I asked her why she cut the end off the ham she said, ‘because Grandma always cut the end off the ham.’ So we decided to call Grandma and ask her why she cut the end off the ham. When she answered the call she replied, ‘I always cut the end off the ham because Great Grandma always cut the end off the ham.’ So we went to go visit Great Grandma in the nursing home and we asked her about it and she said, ‘oh well I always cut the end off the ham because my pan was too short.’ The moral of the story is two generations of women were doing something because of the way they had always seen it done but in reality there was no need for them to do it.”

 

Context: This story was told to me by a 45-year-old white woman from Denver, Colorado when I asked her if she knew of any folklore that was passed down within her family.

 

Interpretation: I assume that this story was told in the informant’s family for two main purposes. The first is for entertainment, since it is simply a funny story that I imagine most people who hear it would find humorous. The second is to give advice to its listeners because it has a moral to it, as the informant stated at the end of her text. One could reword the moral she stated as don’t do something just because someone else does. This story reminds me of a longer version of a common saying that is said to children that goes something like, “If (name) jumped off a bridge, would you?”.

 

Proverbs

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

The following is AJ’s interpretation of the proverb, “The Early Bird Gets the Worm.”

 

“The Early Bird Gets the Worm”:

The bird that is up first will get to the worm before another bird gets to it, and eats it, instead. Meaning, the earlier that one gets up, starts a project, etc., the better chance they have at having success compared to one who starts their day later. In other words, it pays to be proactive; don’t be lazy.

 

AJ doesn’t remember when she began to say this, she recalls her father saying it a lot to her when she was a kid. AJ went on to say it to her kids all the time to get them up and ready for the upcoming day, and now her kids say it as well. It’s a proverb that has been passed through the family and AJ says she will probably never stop saying it.

 

My Interpretation:

I feel like this is a very common proverb that I’ve heard said, and that I’ve said, in several different ways. I’ve heard “The early bird catches the worm,” “you don’t want to be a late bird, do you?”, “go get that worm!”, and more. There are several variations to this proverb, many of which I have never heard, but I think they all mean the same thing.

I think this proverb is also reflective of core American values, though I’m not sure when people began saying it. American values of being hard-working, ethical, energetic, and starting the day off bright and early, are all very apparent in this proverb. When AJ said the proverb, when I say it, and when others say it, it is said in a very matter-of-fact tone, like it’s a logical explanation. I believe that almost every American child grows up hearing this proverb at least once, most likely from their parents when they were trying to get them out of bed and ready for their day when they were younger.

Customs
Folk speech
Game
Gestures
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Chinese Restaurant Clapping Game

“So we had a clapping game that my friends and I used to do that involved this one song that I always thought was a little bit weird:

“I went to a Chinese restaurant, to buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread.

They asked me what my name was, and this is what I said, said, said:

‘My name is….choo choo Charlie, I can do karate, punch ‘em in the stomach,

Oops, I’m sorry! Please don’t tell my mommy!

Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Freeze!'”

Context: The informant, ER, is an Asian-American student. She really enjoyed playing games with her friends when she was growing up in California; some of these included clapping games like this, along with making lip-sync dance videos. ER is a very popular girl, and wanted to fit in with the other girls, which includes participating in this game. ER explains that she uncomfortable with singing along with this song. Being an Asian-American, she felt that this song was quite racist and drew from various stereotypes in order create a catchy song to sing along to.

Analysis: This song follows other types of children’s songs that are common and widespread. It has catchy, simple rhythm with equally catchy lyrics. In this case, it involves repetition of certain lyrics that are necessary for clapping games. Towards the end of song, the lyrics become a bit nonsensical, and do not really provide any real connection with the original theme of the song. Even the first line of the song make no real sense since no one would normally go to a Chinese restaurant to purchase a loaf of bread. However, rational lyrics are not the main purpose of children songs, but rather about parodying other songs, or making fun of strict components of society.

However, probably the more telling part of this song is the slight racial insensitiveness of the lyrics. In this case, the lyrics are playing on stereotypes of Chinese people, and also equating them with other Asians, including Japanese people and Indian people. For many children, it is common for them to not be able to differentiate between different groups of East Asians, or can tend to be more racially insensitive. Due to this, it means that when these children come up with these rhymes and games, they will be less inhibited by potentially insensitive lyrics when trying to find rhyming words and catchy lyrics.

For ER, calling out her friends because of a racist song had too many consequences. From the social side, ER did not want to say that she did not want to participate in the game, which would create a rift between herself and her friends due to a mere song. Children’s social structures and relationships tend to be very fragile and complex, and due to this, telling your friends that you do not want to participate in a favorite game would be seen as an insult. Due to this fear, many kids will not tell their friends about something that bothers them personally in order to maintain their friendships and keep their social standing.

Game
general
Kinesthetic

Chicken Games – Proving Personal Vigor in American Childhood

Item:

M: Most of the games I had, like, heard about and observed were all the, like, chicken games where it’s like, “ah yeah, take an eraser over your knuckles. Whoever wimps out first loses.”

R: Well of course they- did you play quarters**?

M: Yeah, or um, slaps.  This is where people would like, hold the other person’s hand, slap each other as hard as they can

E: Until someone gave up.

M: Until someone gave out.

E: It’s so stupid I hated it.

A: A version I played was when you did the middle finger thing to their forearm until they gave out.  And you’d end up with these giant red spots.

 

Context:

**Quarters was understood by all as a game where each player places his fist knuckles down on the table and shoots quarters at the other until someone gave out.

I collected this piece about chicken games while hanging out with friends from the University of Southern California and we all began to talk about the games from our childhoods.  One of the participants in the conversation, denoted as ‘M’ , brought up chicken games from his elementary and middle school days, prompting others to contribute the variations they knew of and demonstrating on themselves when necessary.  Each interlocutor is denoted by a different letter.  The interlocutors were students of the University of Southern California, but of different class standings and two had already graduated.  The first informant, ‘M’, is a sophomore who went to elementary school on a military base in Japan but middle and high school in Texas; ‘R’ is a Ph.D. student who grew up in Maryland and Michigan; ‘E’ graduated in 2018 and grew up in Lompoc, CA; and ‘A’ graduated in 2018 and grew up in San Diego, CA.  They all brought up these games as something they had either observed or participated in during either middle or elementary school years, saying they viewed it as something either funny (a common opinion amongst the males) or stupid (as said by the only other female in the conversation aside from myself) at the time, but particularly viewing it as stupid nowadays.  There was also a general consensus that most kids would abandon these games by late middle school (8th grade) at the latest.

 

Analysis:

The wide range in age of the interlocutors is very indicative of how long these chicken games perpetuated, particularly with how the oldest interlocuter is ten years older than the youngest interlocuter.  Since you would pick these games up from other kids, it would make sense that as the older kids pass them down to the younger kids, they would continue through the years, particularly through neighborhood interactions where groups were not necessarily divided by age.  Another interesting point was the wide variety of locations in which each of the interlocuters grew up and/or attended elementary and middle school.  There were locations all over the United States, and even abroad in an American community overseas; I also knew of these games while growing up in Virginia.  As such, these chicken games are likely a part of greater American school-age children’s culture, especially amongst younger children because there was a general consensus that these games were abandoned once late middle school years came around.

What is more important, though, is why children would partake in these kinds of games, especially when they sometimes left physical marks on the body as mentioned by ‘A’ in the exchange above.  Particularly in the institutionalized schooling structure of the US, children are all brought up to think in particular ways and learn specific things and as such there can be a large sense of homogeneity among them.  These chicken games can establish another type of identity that is more counterhegemonic, considering these games were often strictly ruled against in schools and looked down upon by parents.  They can also establish a power dynamic amongst children who might otherwise be in an egalitarian environment.  If children can establish themselves as the strongest or the bravest in these games, it gives them something else to identify themselves with, which is why leaving marks may also be apart of why they take part in these games in the first place.  They become victorious signifiers of glory and pride, somewhat like battle scars; this also becomes significant when considering how children become increasingly aware of their bodies and their physical images as they get older.  These games were more popular among boys and with American culture so heavily centered around physical strength in men, these chicken games may be their attempts to embody these ideas from early on.  As for why they typically died out during middle and high school, partaking in certain subcultures becomes increasingly more significant during this time as children becoming adolescents begin to further explore who they want to be; these subculture identities begin to take more precedence moving out of elementary years.  This can correlate with why chicken games die out as students get older and more mature because they would no longer need these trivial markers of identity.

 

Additional Interlocuter Information:

The informant description for ‘M’ is in the section above the item, and the same information for each of the other informants is included below.

‘R’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 29; Occupation: Ph.D. Student; Residence: Los Angeles; Primary Language: English

‘E’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 22; Occupation: Non-Profit Arts Administrator; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Language(s): Italian

‘A’ – Nationality: American-born Taiwanese; Age: 22; Occupation: Digital Marketing/Entrepreneur; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Language(s): Mandarin, Japanese

Customs
Folk speech
Initiations
Proverbs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Band Chain Link Necklace

Informant:

S, a 22-year-old Caucasian female who was born and raised in Colorado. She went to a catholic school and played saxophone in the band. Her family practiced Catholicism regularly. She is now a senior in Computer Science at the University of Southern California.

Background info:

S spent her summers at band camp, where her and the others in band would spend the entire time getting closer to each other as friends. Her director would always make them do group bonding exercises so that the kids would interact with others they wouldn’t normally. S was in band for all four years of high-school.

Context:

Late at night, a lot of weird conversations happen. Because S is on a project with me, we were working together at around 2:00am when we started discussing traditions that stuck with us from our childhood or teenage years. The following is a one of the group bonding exercises her band director had the team do.

Main piece:

“One of the biggest lessons we had to learn in band was that we are only a single link in a chain. If one link breaks, the whole chain breaks… The director would always compare this to a violin concert. If one violinist is off key, the whole piece is off key… We had to learn to think as a single unit, walk as a single unit, and play as a single unit. Our director would give out a single chain link on a piece of string to each member of the band at the beginning of camp We had to wear it all day every day to remind us that we are only as strong as our weakest link. If any of the band members lost their chain link, our director would tell us that we would have bad luck that season… Of the four years, only one time someone lost it, and we did terribly that year.”

Thoughts:

I like this tradition because it does embody the English phrase “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. Having to wear a physical link around them is a cool way to remind people to better themselves for the good of the team. Other traditions also involve wearing a physical reminder of something important. In Christianity, for example, people often wear a cross or crucifix, or even have a statue of Jesus on the cross in their home. Losing an item of importance is also a common way to get bad luck in a lot of superstitions. It was interesting to hear that the one time someone did lose their chain link, the team did poorly. The thought of something going wrong can lead to it actually going wrong if one gets into that mindset. My football coach would always tell us that if we believed the other team was better than us, then we would already be defeated because we allowed ourselves to get into that mindset.

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