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

John Henry

 

“John Henry.  Back in the railroad days, railroads were king, and that’s how you would get around the country, and um, and ya know, so railroad workers were really celebrated and there’s this one huuuge guy who could, um, drive a railroad tie, ya know how you have to put the pins in the railroad tie?  His name was John Henry, and um, he was huge, and soo strong, and he could drive railroad ties faster than anybody– he was legendary for doing that.  And um, so, but with time, machinery caught up and technology and everything, and a steam driver was made and everybody was like, “Ohh nobody can beat John Henry.  So I don’t care what kinda machine you make, he is just amazing.”  And he was like, “I’m not gonna let any machine beat me.”  And so he, um, they had a contest, they brought the steam tie driver out, and they went right alongside each other, steam driver and John Henry, and um, it was crazzy, never seen anyone work as hard as John Henry.  And he, uh, just kept drivin’ em in with his huuge sledge hammer, just one after the other, he could do it in one hit, ya know just drive the whole tie down in one hit.  And he, uh, he beat the steam– he beat the contest, he beat the steam driver.  And I guess he was a real guy, but I guess it’s a legend that he beat the, uh, the machine, the steam driver.  But he worked so hard, sweated so much, put so much out of uh– just gave his whole self to beatin’ the steam driver that he, he had a heart attack.  Just too much for his heart.  And he died.  But everyone was so impressed cause he did beat him, he did beat the steam driver.  I think they made a statue, I always heard the story, I’m sure there’s books and things out there.”

 

 

Conclusion:

 

This was told to me by my dad’s buddy, Evan Rennie.  I had actually heard this story when I was young, but it was nice to get a refresher.  This tale follows the track of a typical legend.  The main figure possesses a mythic power (strength in this case) and is determined to succeed.  I thought John Henry’s death at the end of the tale presented an interesting twist.  If anything, his death helps grow the legend even more.  He went out doing what he loved to do: driving railroad ties.

 

general
Narrative

MOBY DICK

The two interviewee’s will be denoted through the initials ER and FK.

 

ER: “Mr. Keaton, remember when were up at Shawtown, and we’d go in the boat, and we’d go over to the other lake and we’d go under that bridge, and you would always say: “Mooobbby Dick”

 

FK: “Yea, well, Moby Dick, cause when you kids were all small, especially the girls, and we used to go over, ya know, from our lake, down the river, and go under the bridge.  And we called it Moby Dick’s bridge…  And I told the kids “When you go over there, you can look around that bridge” and I says, “Moby Dick lives there.”  They says, “Whose Moby Dick” I says, “You know, Moby Dick, the one in the story.”  “Ohhhh”  So they’d come back from that little lake, I says, “Did you see Moby Dick?”  And they says, “No we looked all over Mr. Keaton, we couldn’t find him.”  They were all looking for Moby Dick”

 

ER: “Yea it was pretty funny, I remember thinking “How could a massive whale live under this little bridge?”  But you told us he did and we believed you.  Everytime we, uh, went under that bridge, we’d make our voices real low, low as we could, and say “Mooobyyy Dick”.  And now everytime I go under a bridge in a boat I still say it.  And I’m 56 haha.

 

Conclusion:  This is a funny little story that has remained firmly in the mind of Evan (ER), a buddy of my Dad’s.  Frank (FK), a friend of my grandfather, was always playing little tricks on the kids and telling them stories like this.  I thought it was hilarious that Evan, who boats frequently in the waters off of Cape Cod, still makes his voice real low and says “Moooobyy Dick” every time he boats under a bridge.  Pretty funny habit/superstition to have as a 56 year old guy.

general
Legends
Narrative

The Watermelon Boy

“So I used to go up to camp every summer for like two weeks at a camp called Camp Belknap.  It was in New Hampshire, in Wolfeboro, right on Winnipesaukee.  Fun time, it was an all boys camp.  Did all the typical camp things like play sports, shoot bow and arrows, go swimming, boating, sailing– all that stuff.  And then of course we would tell stories at night when we were back in the cabins.  My first year at the camp I was like 11.  I’m already missing home, and mom and dad and all that, and one night my counselor, who was probably like 17 or 18 tells us this crazy scary story about this Watermelon boy.  He had gone to Camp Belknap back in like the 1920s.  They called him watermelon boy cause he had a huge head.  Big dome, shaped like a watermelon.  So my counselor tells me that the kid used to get bullied cause he was a little weird, looked funny, wasn’t that good socially.  Finally one day, the kid had enough.  Took a rifle from the rifle range and shot a bunch of other kids.  Now this is tough to hear for me cause I’d already been to the rifle range a couple times and really had a good time shooting at targets and shit and what not.  So after the kid does this he runs into the woods somewhere near the highway that runs past the camp.  They never found him.  Now the story goes that he lives in a little shack in the woods and comes out to terrorize little kicks in the camp.  Just this guy with a massive head and really long fingers.  The story scared the shit out of me,  couldn’t sleep for like the last two nights I was so scared.  The worst part was, they had all these pictures of all the campers that had ever gone to the camp.  So me and some of my buddies go to check the pictures out and sure enough, in one of the pictures from the 1920s, one of the grainy, black, and white ones, there’s this kid with a massive head scowling in the first row.  We totally thought he was real.  It’s funny I was recently talking with one of my buddies who i went to the camp with and the story came up and he said it’s banned at the camp now cause it scared too many kids haha.  Crazy.”

 

Conclusion:

 

This is a classic, campfire story designed to freak out little kids.  It clearly did it’s job with my friend, Jack.  When he told this to me, I was surprised an 18 year old counselor would tell this grisly, violent story to a bunch of 11 year olds. I guess that was the kind of camp that this one was.  During the recitation, it was interesting to see Jack recall the horror that he once found in this story.  You could really tell it used to rattle him as an 11 year old.

Legends
Narrative

Slenderman

According to my younger brother, he heard about an internet ghost story that was meant to scare people. About 4 years ago while on a YouTube site he saw that a reference was made to a “creepypasta” page about the Slenderman story that was made into a game. Slenderman was a faceless tall skinny figure with tentacle arms. When he first saw the picture of Slenderman, he did not think it was scary, however the game had many jump scares and fast action that did make it frightening or at least surprising to the player. In the “creepypasta” story the pictures of Slenderman always showed children playing unaware while back in the background within the shadows of the woods there would be slender figure appearing to be watching them. The game did not add any additional info about Slenderman but the story in the “creepypasta” site made it seem that the children he was photographed with would disappear without a trace, leaving some to speculate that they were kidnapped maybe even taken into a different dimension. Two “idiots” girls “allegedly” bought into the story of Slenderman believing they had to become proxies of Slenderman in order to protect their families, it ended up with one of their “friend’s” being stabbed 19 times but survived. My brother made air quotes with his fingers when referencing the words “Creepypasta”, “idiots” “allegedly” and “friend’s”. He says he know Slenderman is completely fictional although he kind of understands the fascination with the image because it is usually shrouded in the shadows letting your mind to fill in the blanks. He says that maybe because of the girls attempted murder of their “friend”, parents seemed more disturbed buy Slenderman than actual kids.

Analysis: Slenderman became an internet meme and started to trend on the internet about 5—6 years ago but I paid no attention to it since the demographic was skewed for some reason to younger viewers (preteens). Creepypasta sites in general have no real interest to me because the stories always seemed written by a mentally unstable person. However, the concept of photographic pictures showing mysterious paranormal orbs or other unexplained phenomena has been around since photography was invented and the first double exposure was seen as a ghostly reflection. Slenderman is just a continuation of that tradition that can now use advance technology like Photoshop to get just the right amount of mystery. The over reaction by parents also made Slenderman even more popular because the forbidden, will always be more attractive.

Adulthood
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Forget it, it’s Chinatown

JH is a senior at a all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.

JH sat down to talk with me about a ritual he and his friends began practicing as early as middle school – taking the train to Chinatown in downtown LA after school.

“Some of my friends started going in eighth grade…our middle school was really close to a Metro station, and we could just say we were walking to my friend N’s house and just go there instead. Tickets were only like $1.50 each way and it only takes like, 15 minutes to get there. I only went once though I think…and we just walked around and looked at stuff, they had those little turtles and firecrackers and shit, I don’t even know if anyone bought anything.

“I went more with friends in high school though, like freshman and sophomore year a bit. We could still take the Metro after school and just told our parents we were staying after school to do homework in the library or had a club meeting or something. My friends would also buy cigarettes at these little smoke shops there, and there was like, always one that kept getting shut down or they kept changing the name…it would pretty much be a different woman every time, like ‘Kim’s’ or ‘Annie’s’ or something. And they wouldn’t ask for your ID or anything, my friends would just like buy whatever their friends bought, like red Marlboros or American Spirits and stuff. They had pieces too [for smoking weed] and bongs, so sometimes my friends would get the cheap glass pipes, they were like $10 each or something. I know some people would go through the markets where they had clothes and knock-off jade stuff, and there was this one little stall hidden behind clothes that sold a whole bunch of weapons. We mostly just went and looked but some people bought things, like ninja stars or big knives…people said these guys supplied the Chinese mafia, or something. One time someone said they saw a warhead…like the kind of thing you put on top of a missile. For awhile one of my friends had like a plywood board in his garage, and we’d take turns throwing the ninja stars at it.”

I asked JH why he thought Chinatown was so popular for younger high school kids, and what it said about their youth culture:

“I don’t know…I don’t know when they built the Metro, but I guess it was probably pretty new. And in like 8th grade, beginning of high school, no one can drive, but you kind of want to start going out and exploring…beyond Pasadena, outside of just your neighborhood and school and stuff. And then the Metro only really has a few stops that aren’t in totally random places, like yeah you could get on different lines and go to Hollywood and stuff but we only had a couple hours after school and going too far was probably too…intimidating or scary when we were only like, 14. And then obviously older kids were doing it and that’s where they were getting dumb things like cigarettes that they had at parties, and I guess we just wanted to see what they were getting into, and it just seemed really cool going to a kind of sketchy place and knowing we were breaking all these rules. Probably just like, typical teenage rebellion, sneaking behind your parents’ backs before we could drive and really start getting into trouble. Plus, in Pasadena I think we all know we’re super sheltered in this really well-off community, and everyone’s had pretty comfortable and safe lives…which I guess adds to the danger part.”

My analysis:

I think this type of ritual is typical among teenagers, especially younger ones, who are just starting to become independent and want to push the boundaries their parents have set so far. The ages of 13-16, 17 really define the liminal period in American culture, when kids start to feel more self-sufficient but aren’t ready to take on all the responsibilities of adulthood; parents struggle with the transition too, knowing they should start preparing older children to take care of themselves, without wanting to kick them out of the nest so fast. Kids toeing the line, and learning to take advantage of their parents is nothing new, and here we see them trying to navigate the larger (and more adult) world using public transportation, coming into contact with drugs and drug paraphernalia, and doing so with an air of secrecy and defiance.

Additionally, it starts to separate “cool” or “mature” kids from those who are happy to obey authority, and some feel pressured to challenge their parents instead of their peers. Sneaking out and experimenting with illicit activities (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) is a large part of the American high school experience, and this ritual demonstrates one foray into that world.

Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Pasadena New Year’s and New Year’s Eve

JH is a senior at an all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.

JH talked to me about some of the traditions and rituals that surround New Year’s and New Year’s Eve in his hometown:

“New Years is probably the biggest event in Pasadena…first of all there’s the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game…for the Rose Parade you always know it’s coming because in like, late November they start putting up the grandstands down Orange Grove [a major boulevard], and I live right above the Rose Bowl so they start setting up for events around then too in the neighborhood. They put up these giant white tents down there where they start building some of the floats, and you can go down and help decorate them with flowers – I’ve never gone, but I know some people or their families go every year. The floats are really cool.

There’s also the Rose Court and they’re a big part of the Rose Parade. My sister tried out a few years ago. I think in like September, or really early in the school year, all the girls who are seniors can try out, and they go to this really big mansion called the Tournament House and have a bunch of rounds of interviews. Obviously like, not all the girls are really interested in being on the Court, but it’s just a tradition they all do together. Everyone who participates I know also gets two tickets to this ‘Royal Ball,’ which is basically just a huge dance they have. That’s why a lot of girls do it I guess, just to get the tickets. But I don’t know, maybe it’s also just fun for them to participate. And then they eventually pick like six or seven girls, and one of them is the Queen, and they spend the rest of the year doing charity work and being like, the representatives of Pasadena, and then on New Years they have their own float and they kind of “preside” over the Rose Bowl game later that day.

A lot of my friends don’t really go to the actual parade though…it’s the kind of thing you go to a few times when you’re little and your parents want to take you and it’s exciting – they have free donuts under the grandstands, and hot chocolate – but once you’re like, 10 everyone’s pretty over it. And then when you’re older, the best part about New Years is New Years Eve. The night before, everyone usually gets dressed up, not fancy or anything but girls wear dresses and heels sometimes, and even though it’s freezing outside, like less than 50 degrees at night, everyone goes to parties near the Parade Route. They bring some of the floats onto the street the night before and block it off to cars, to everyone’s just walking up and down Orange Grove looking at floats and hanging out with their friends, there’s some people camped out for the parade on the side, and kids are going back and forth between other people’s parties. It’s really funny because everyone is drinking too. Besides the kids, you see a lot of cops and a lot of people’s parents just really really drunk on the street, and everyone’s just having a good time…if you lived off of Orange Grove you would feel kind of obligated to have a party or open your house up. And then everyone would obviously like count down to midnight together and all that, and then you’d usually crash at someone’s house and wake up the next morning and watch the parade on TV, if you wanted to, or just walk up to the parade route and see it from there. But after awhile no one really got tickets to see the parade. But if you were really lucky, you got tickets to the Rose Bowl game, which was always a big deal. My friends and I really like football, and usually someone’s dad knows someone who can get us tickets, so we try to go whenever we can.”

I asked JH if he thought his experience with this festival was unique, as someone who lived in the community and had people coming from all over to vacation in his hometown:

“Yeah, it was definitely different. Growing up with this happening every year, a lot of it just got kind of annoying, especially living right next to the Rose Bowl and having streets blocked off and so much traffic that entire week before New Years. There’d be a lot of football fans from the Midwest of whatever Big-10 school that was playing, or Stanford people coming down from the Bay for the week, and there’d be just a bunch of people and a bunch of cars all over Pasadena during the end of winter break, a lot of people who didn’t know where they were going. I guess Pasadena isn’t usually a tourist destination until New Years, so it’s weird all of a sudden having a bunch of strangers in your hometown…like Pasadena isn’t small, it doesn’t feel like a small town where everyone knows each other, but you can clearly tell if someone is visiting or someone lives here. And yeah, the Rose Parade gets old after awhile, but I think everyone who lives here would still say it’s one of their favorite holidays.”

My analysis:

Its very different to visit a festival annually and to live in a community where an annual festival takes place – after awhile, the nostalgia and excitement is buffered by some of the logistical nightmares and fatigue that JH describes above. Pasadena New Year’s and New Year’s Eve definitely has similar traditions as other places, like counting down to midnight and getting together with friends and family. The Rose Parade also has elements of other festivals, like floats and a “court” of young women. JH gets to see community involvement a tourist doesn’t, like the selection of Rose Princesses or the decoration of floats that requires residents’ participation and support. This ritual is a great example of welcoming the new year by bringing a community together, while continuing customs that now have come to define Pasadena.

For more information about this festival, see:

“About the Rose Parade.” Tournament of Roses. Tournament of Roses, 18 Feb. 2016. Retrieved from https://www.tournamentofroses.com/rose-parade.
Tales /märchen

The Windmill in Wawasee

Informant is a 19 year old female who was born in Chicago and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is my roommate.

Informant: We have a lake house in Wawasee, Indiana, and, behind our house, there’s this big like green kind of forest and it drops down into a creek. And there’s a property right next to it, where there’s this big wide patch of green with a windmill in the middle of it, and behind it is this creek, and the place where it drops off into a creek is hard to see, and so the area is not safe around the windmill, and nobody wanted their kids playing there. So this windmill, I could only see inside the windows if I was on my tiptoes. So when I was younger, it was very mysterious to me, and my parents didn’t want me and my cousin playing near the creek because they thought we would fall in. So they told us that there was a witch that lived inside of the windmill. The legend that they told us was that during the day, she wouldn’t live in the windmill, and that was why you couldn’t see her during the day, but at night, she would live in there. And if there were children around at night and she saw them, she would take them and she would eat them. So me and my cousins would go up to the windmill and dare each other to go look in it, and we would take our dogs for a walk and when we would like walk past the windmill, we would have to run by it because we were just so scared. And it wasn’t just our parents that told us, but it was like a thing in the neighborhood, like all of the kids knew that there was this witch that lived in this windmill, and still to this day it’s still there, like the property has never been bought. Nobody knows who owns the property or how the windmill got there, but its been there since before my mom lived there, and like her parents told her about the witch too, and it’s been passed down from her since her childhood. And the older kids would tell me that they would see the witch in the windmill, and when I was older I would tell the little kids. And not until I was older did I realize that the whole point was to protect us from going near this creek at night and falling in.

Collector: Does this story have any special significance to you?

Informant: I think the significance is that even today when I walk past it, I always think of the legend, and when I look at the windmill now, I still get scared. It’s just like stuck with me all of this time.

This story isn’t a well-known national story, it’s just a story that people would tell their children in this small like place in Indiana. In a way, I think that that makes this story even more interesting because it’s cool to see how folklore can be created from mystery and warnings. It’s cool to note how the parents would tell their kids this story to keep them from adventuring into the creek at night, and drowning without anyone to help them. The kids, however, never realized this, and until they were older, it just served as a mysterious story for them. In that way, folklore serves two different purposes: to protect and to entertain.

Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Camp P________ Secret Ritual

Informant is a 19 year old female who was born in Chicago and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is my roommate.

Informant: So ever since I was a kid, I went to this sleep away camp called Camp P________ (name removed by request). Once you reach a certain level at the camp, a lot of people know you, like a sufficient amount of people, and you can get inducted. So the second week, every two week during campfire, everyone who is inducted, which is a huge secret at my camp, like nobody knows about it, they come to campfire, and they say like please stop what you’re doing and follow us in silence. And then they lead you into the woods, and everyone’s dressed as indians. And you recognize them, but you can’t talk to them, they won’t smile and they won’t look at you, you walk, you all sit in this area, there’s like bonfires everywhere, this woman sits in the middle, and it’s like a ritual. The girls and boys are separate, by the way, there’s no boys around. She starts this whole ceremony and she says all of these native american prayers and does these rituals, and it’s all accurate too. And then, everyone has a specific name at camp, so the lady says “Giggling Chipmunk and Mountain Sunrise, come down from the hills and bring us the one that we shall call Spastic Chipmunk.” That’s my name. And they run and they grab you and they drag you from the crowd, and you have no idea if you’re being taken, you’re blinded and you’re stripped naked, they beat you, and then you get this necklace and it’s this hand painted necklace, and every single one is different, and there’s a rock on the end of it, and it’s a symbol that’s specific to you. So like mine is a sunrise, and that’s how we know that someone’s in the tribe. And if anyone asks about the necklace, you’re supposed to just say “My friend made it for me,” just very casual. And you spend the entire night with the tribe, and there’s this party after, and the next day you act like everything is back to normal, and then you, the next year, get to choose people to be part of the tribe. And it all stems from this indian tribe called the Paioka, and the guys do the same thing, except they wear a necklace that’s just an eagle on it, and it’s a representation of the Monotauk Indian tribe, and a lot of our camp counselors have it tattooed on them. It’s a really spiritual thing at our camp, because those tribes used to live there back in the day.

Collector: It sounds like this ritual was very significant to you.

Informant: It definitely was. They always told us that whenever we feel alone or sad, you just touch your necklace and you can feel the voices of the women in our tribe. (Starts crying) Sorry, I’m so emotional. There’s people that wear it year-round. I probably should. It really means a lot to me.

I never went to sleep away camp, so I never experienced anything like what she is talking about here. However, it was very emotional for me to see her reacting so strongly to her memory of this ritual. Because this is something that is very foreign to me and hard for me to understand, it was really cool to hear her describe it so visually. I could almost feel as if I was there experiencing it with her. I also think it’s really interesting how this ritual stems from rituals of previous Native American tribes, and that they still honor them today.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Informant is a 19 year old female who was born in Chicago and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is my roommate.

Informant: So there’s this bedtime prayer and it goes like “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.” When I was younger, I had a doll and every time I squeezed her, she would say that. And when I went to bed, my mom would squeeze the doll, and the doll would say it and I would say it, and then it became a ritual that we would have. And in my mind, as a child, I didn’t think that it was scary until it started being incorporated into American horror movies. So when I was 10 or 11, I remember watching a horror movie, and this very scary doll saying the same lyrics. So now, it’s a common prayer that started to be associated in multiple horror movies, and the origins are definitely from the bible, but it’s not a typical religious saying. In my generation, it was common that stuffed animals or dolls would say it. But now they don’t really sell these things anymore, because it’s turned into a creepy symbol in American culture, and it scares people.

Collector: Who gave you this doll originally?

Informant: My mom gave me the doll. I just remember having it. In my mind, it was like a protection spell, like it protected me in my sleep. Like in my mind, it never registered as something that was scary, until I started seeing it in horror movies, because of the way that they made the dolls say it. It was in such a creepy manner. It still exists in some parts of culture. I’m not saying it’s completely a horror movie thing, but in my perception I’m very scared of it now. The earliest version was from 1711 I think, like it dates back that far. It technically is a prayer, but it turned into this ritual between my and my mom when I was a kid. And I know other of my friends who had that said to them, when they were kids, mostly because I was also raised by a Christian family and went to a Catholic school.

Collector: Does this particular piece of folklore have any special significance to you?

Informant: It has meaning to me because it’s a big representation of my youth. That like, when I was younger, it was this comforting thing to me, and it’s shown me like how, as I got older, my perceptive of the world has changed.

For another version of this myth, see “Standard Publishing Editorial Staff. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. N.p.: Standard Pub, 2011. Print.”

Because I have personally never watched a horror movie, I cannot say that I find this particular phrase creepy. However, I can see why it has been used in multiple scary stories, as it is very suggestive of death. I think it’s interesting how people actually manufactured and bought dolls with this saying inside of them, and I think that might have been something that contributed to the rise of this saying in horror movies. When I actually think about the prayer though, it makes sense as a protection spell, and really isn’t scary at all. Basically, it asks God to protect your soul while you sleep, and if anything were to happen to you at night, then to at least bring your soul to heaven. I think it is the particular phrasing and word choice of the prayer that has made it such a creepy horror icon today.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Treat Your Mother with Respect

The informant is a graduating senior at the University of Southern California, studying Creative Writing and Social Sciences with an emphasis in Psychology. She was born in Egypt and originally held Egyptian citizenship, but moved to the United States when she was quite young and is now an American citizen.

This piece is an Egyptian proverb about the importance of respecting your mother. The informant recounts her and a friend’s experience with Yo Mama jokes (jokes that insult another person’s mother: ex. Yo Mama’s so fat she rolled over twice and ended up in Africa) and how that reminded her of an Egyptian proverb.

“In Egypt you also cannot make Yo Mama jokes. You will get beaten up. A friend who went there, who grew up here but he was Egyptian, and he went there one summer and he made Yo Mama jokes cause we were in middle school and that’s what we did; everyone’s an asshole in middle school. And um, I think he got punched in the face by his cousin for making that kind of joke.

No it’s just like, the biggest insult you can say to somebody is to insult their mother. It’s like, especially to guys cause it’s like their pride and joy, like “You always treat your mother with the deepest and fondest respect.” So, that was a big proverb. And culture shock when I came here in middle school and everyone was in the Yo Mama phase and I was like, “That is appalling.” But like, I don’t know. Like Yo Mama So Fat jokes, it was just very strange to me.”

Analysis:

While the proverb itself is fairly standard, demonstrated the cultural value of the mother figure in Egyptian culture, it was fascinating to see the conflict that arose when members from both cultures, such as the informant and her friend, participating in or witnessed jokes that directly opposed what they had learned from that proverb.

[geolocation]