Tag Archives: American folklore

American Halloween Parties: A Festival

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my mother/informant (ET). 

ET: I went to Catholic school growing up, and we always had All Saints Day off, which is the day after Halloween, so we’d always have big sleepovers on Halloween. You know, since no one was going to school the next day. I’ve always loved Halloween because of that, and of course my birthday is then… and it’s just a sweet holiday. Oh, and the costumes… that’s one of the best parts… But that’s how I really got started throwing Halloween parties. Then of course, I grew up and had kids- holidays are always better with kids… I loved that our house was the hub for all the neighborhood kids and their parents when everyone was done Trick-Or-Treating. I love cooking lots of food, so everyone has something real to eat that’s not candy (laughs). Even now that you guys are older… I think I’ll always throw Halloween parties. I’ve got them down to a science, you know. Like what decorations are the best… and oh! You have to carve the pumpkins the day before so they don’t go bad, but you’re not too busy the day of. 

Background:

My informant is my mother who mainly grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. Her birthday is Halloween, and she used to always tell me she “had special witch powers” because of it. To her, Halloween is the most important holiday. Every year, she begins elaborately decorating our house weeks in advance for her annual costume party that takes place Halloween Night. She doesn’t even mail invitations anymore because everyone in our community knows it’s happening. 

Context: 

I am currently in quarantine at my informant/mother’s house, and this piece was collected while we were eating dinner at the kitchen table.

Thoughts: 

I believe Halloween parties are such big celebrations in America because the holiday is simple, fun, and nostalgic. Having grown up in a home where my parents practiced different religions, I always loved that Halloween was secular, so both my parents would get really excited about it. It’s not religious, it’s American. There’s no moral to Halloween in common practice (unlike All Hallow’s Eve- the pagan holiday that Halloween was based on, which celebrates the rising of the dead). On Halloween, people are just supposed to get dressed up, have fun, and eat lots of candy (or drink lots of booze, depending on your age). The point of any party, but especially a Halloween party, is that it’s unifying. All are invited to have a shared experience. Furthermore, the fact that it is a costume party highlights this idea by letting people be anyone they want to be. You can dress in a way that’s unacceptable any other day of the year, potentially channeling your childhood dreams or wonder that you haven’t expressed in years. 

Meaning Behind The Proverb “Hope For The Best, Prepare For The Worst”

Main Piece: 

Original Proverb: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” 

Meaning as told by my informant: 

“It’s honestly pretty self explanatory. It’s good to be an optimist… you should always root for what you want and have faith. However, you can’t be naive about it. You should always have some kind of plan B or safety net if things don’t go as planned. The idea of this line is that you have to balance those two things. Offence and defense. Feet on the ground, head in the clouds… dream big, but be okay if things don’t work out.” 

Background:

My informant is my father, who is a retired doctor. Although he was a surgeon, his work mainly consisted of him doing expert witness work in legal cases. He first heard this proverb while preparing for a case, and he still primarily associates the saying with attorneys. However, he believes it applies to all contexts of life. While he’s a big fan of proverbs and jokes in general, this one is likely his favorite. As his child, I can vouch that he says this all the time. 

Context: 

While I’m not in quarantine with my informant/father, I do call him every day, and this piece was collected during a routine call. 

Thoughts: 

To me, this proverb will always be my father’s best advice. Having been involved in the performing arts since a young age, I have countless distinct memories of my father reciting this proverb to me as he picked me up from auditions. He said it before I opened every college admission letter. No matter what I was doing, I could always count on him telling me to “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” I don’t think of it as being optimistic or skeptical, it’s just real. One of the things I love about this proverb is that it can apply to not just any situation, but any culture. I briefly Googled this proverb after my interview, and found that there really is no origin to it. There are countless articles with countless nationalities. I think this saying speaks to the human experience in general: we’re all just trying to live life the best we can. We want to see the beauty in the world, but not be hurt by life’s struggles. It’s theater’s drama and comedy, or Chinese mythology’s Yin and Yang. We are all trying to find a balance. 

Friendship Bracelets as Folk Art

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my informant (AT). 

AT: When I think friendship bracelets, I think of taking strands of embroidery floss, and you knot or braid them in these different patterns, and then when they’re like fully woven, you give them to your friends. The whole idea is you and your friends either make matching ones and swap them, or you can make different ones for each other. Part of the fun in that is picking the colors or patterns you think they’d like. 

LT: But either way you have to make them, and they have to be for the other person, right? 

AT: Yeah, you’re not supposed to make them for yourself… I mean maybe you can? Everyone I know always made them for other people… and honestly I’m sure you can buy them off Etsy or something, but the whole fun in it is the actual process of making them. 

Background:

AT is a 23-year-old female from Los Angeles. She first learned how to make friendship bracelets at a summer camp when she was six years old. Her favorite thing about making friendship bracelets growing up was exchanging them: “I loved how excited my friends would get when I gave them theirs, and I’d always feel really special when they’d give me mine… it was a way we could physically prove to each other that we liked each other I guess.” 

Context: 

AT is one of my relatives with whom I’m quarantining. This piece was collected in our living room as we were sitting on the couch. 

Thoughts:

American female friendships are often depicted in the media as being “catty” or fake, but I think that friendship bracelets show how pure they can be in real life. Having gone to an all girls high school, some of my strongest, most loyal relationships are the ones I have with my female friends. In the context of friendship bracelets, girls take it upon themselves at such a young age to learn special patterns and spend time making them for their friends. I still cherish having that experience with mine. When we all wore the same friendship bracelets, it felt like we were all wearing the same jersey, and we were on the same team. These bracelets are generally made by little girls who might not be eloquent enough to express their emotions accurately, and friendship bracelets are a beautiful way to nonverbally show your friends how much you care, knowing that they’ll understand and likely reciprocate. 

Yearbooks as Folk Art

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my informant (MS). 

MS: So, a yearbook is traditionally issued at the end of the school year when you’re in elementary school through high school… and they have pictures of everyone in the school taken throughout the year… and you’ll usually write messages in your friends’ books.

LT: But not all messages are equal (laughs). 

MS: Yeah, like in elementary school, everyone just wrote their names because we didn’t know how to write many things, but generally, in high school, it’s bad to just write “HAGS,” which means have a good summer… you want to write something more heartfelt because people often keep yearbooks and will want to be able to reminisce on memories and stuff in the future, so you need good messages. If someone writes “HAGS,” they probably don’t know you that well. 

Background: 

MS is one of my best friends, and she grew up in Los Angeles. She got her first yearbook when she was six years old, at the end of Kindergarten. She often jokes that she’s a “hoarder” because she keeps a lot of things for their sentimental value, including yearbooks. She actually just read through all of her old yearbooks the night before our interview since she “wasn’t doing anything better during quarantine.” Her favorite thing about yearbooks is reading the messages. She likes to think about who she’s still friends with and who she doesn’t stay in touch with. She also likes the messages that remind her of memories she wouldn’t have thought of on her own. 

Context:

MS and I normally see each other most days at USC, and we’ve been continuing to FaceTime often during this quarantine period. This piece was collected during a “Zoom Happy Hour” with our friend group. 

Thoughts:

In American culture, we often stress the importance of being “cool in high school.” Media often promotes the idea that an American teen’s self worth can be measured in how many friends they have. Yearbooks are a physical way we can quanitize that. I remember reading through my mom’s old yearbooks as a child, and I was so impressed by how many people had signed it. When I was in high school, I would actually get stressed and feel pressured to make sure every blank page in my book was covered with signatures. Now, as a college student, I don’t even know where most of my yearbooks are. In MS’s case, it’s nice to reminisce about the memories with dear, old friends. However, she doesn’t particularly care about the messages written by people she wasn’t close to. Yearbooks symbolize the things that felt so important as a teenager that don’t particularly matter later in life. Inherently, yearbooks are a really sweet tradition that should be treated more authentically. 

The First American President Was Actually Black

Main Piece:

Subject: I was talking to this one guy because my grandfather wanted me to talk to him. He was involved in the Orangeburg Massacre that happened in South Carolina state in the 60’s or whatever. And then he brought back into my memory this thing- he mentioned it because he believed it… But he starts out by saying, “I always knew Abraham Lincoln was black.” And then that segwayed into him saying something that I heard as a kid, which is that the first president of America was black and wasn’t George Washington… and that you can find him on the back of a twenty dollar bill. 

Interviewer: And can you?

Subject: I mean the idea is that… it’s fucking black and white on green paper, so people are like, “You see this man right here? That’s a black man.” And it’s like yeah! Because in the 1700’s all the slave owners, and an economy built on slavery… they definitely would have elected and let a black man run the country. 

Interviewer: And could just reiterate who told you this idea?

Subject: This is folklore I have heard from various black people. It came back to my memory because I was talking to someone my Grandfather knows. But yeah… it’s just this belief that there is actually a long lost black president who was the first president before George Washington. And the only reason why we don’t know is because they erased it from our history books. You know the really simple phrase. “It’s not in the history books. They rewrote history.” That shit. Which does happen but not in this case. None of the logic follows through. What specifically gripped me about the second time around when I was talking to this guy… He basically was the catalyst for the South Carolina State Massacre. It started as a bowling alley that was segregated. He was the guy that broke the color line there. He was like, “Fuck this shit I want to go bowling.” So we’re talking… and I didn’t know this before talking to him. We talked at length about the massacre and why he wanted to talk about it. But for him to later say in the conversation, “I’ve learned more on the internet in the past five years than I have in the past sixty years.” This guy has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry! This is a smart man. He’s seen racism because that involved people dying. He understands how that looks in real time and how it operates in South Carolina. And yet… he somehow through the internet… he somehow believes that Abraham Lincoln was black. Even though we have pictures of him. And also believes there was a first black president. Which is antithetical to how racism works in America for that to ever be a possibility. In this person’s mind, how does that work? How do you separate those two and how do they overlap. Because I’m sure that’s a massive part of your life! 

Interviewer: I feel like I’ve heard that theory before… that the first president of America was actually black.

Subject: I’m not quite sure how popular it is. I think it could be pretty popular. But no one talks about it because it’s not believable! I heard it from various black men. They say, “Yeah the first president was black. Look at the back of your twenty dollar bill. They erased it from the history books. They don’t want you to know it.” It’s like, how do square that? It’s weird.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old African American male in his sophomore year at Columbia University studying creative writing. The subject and I were best friends in high school, and we are both currently quarantined in our homes in Charleston. I asked the subject if he would like to meet up for a six-feet-apart walk one evening, and asked him if he had heard any folklore he could share with me, and he told me this fascinating folk belief regarding American history.

Interpretation: I have heard this folk legend before, and the theorized first black president of America was supposedly a man named John Hanson. Though the subject said he could be found on the back of $20 bill, many sources make the claim it is on the back of the $2 bill. On the back of the $2 bill, there is the image of the Second Continental Congress, and supposedly there is a man seated in the back who was believed to be Hanson, the first black president. As the subject alludes, it is a controversial belief. On one hand, I could see it is a legend that in away seeks to reclaim black history where so much of it has been erased and destroyed. On the other hand, the subject noted his frustration with it, in that it might subsequently, unintentionally undermine or downplay the racist foundation of which America was built. I see this legend as being very nuanced. The subject saying that the person who told him this folklore was a very educated, intelligent man makes me think that there is a romantic and poetic element to the legend more than a logical or factual one.

Lizzie Borden – Nursery Rhyme

Main Piece:

Subject: I grew up in the town next to Lizzie Borden… where Lizzie Borden was. Lizzie Borden was from Fall River and I was from Tiverton, the town over. And I can remember I took pottery classes right near Lizzie Borden’s house. We all knew the story of Lizzie Borden. That she took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. She didn’t really like her mother apparently. But when she saw how sad it made her dad, she gave her father forty-one. 

*Singing* Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one. 

It was a nursery rhyme! As kids you know… because it happened so close to where we all lived and grew up… that was sort of scary. Somebody would smack their parent with an axe forty times… and then do it again forty-one times! Lizzie Borden!

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard through his family.

Interpretation: I first discovered the Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme when I watched the biographical film Lizzie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny. It was a sort of feminist approach to the Lizzie Borden story. Lizzie falls in love with a woman and her parents are depicted as emotionally abusive and controlling. Though I’m not certain of the historical accuracy of the film, because it was my introduction to Lizzie Borden, whenever I heard the nursery rhyme, I always felt a bit defensive over her. The nursery rhyme obviously does not leave much room for nuance. Lizzie is a horrifying figure in it. Hearing my father’s account of how afraid he was of Lizzie, and how villainous she was to him as a child made me think about what other nursery rhymes have a more complicated background than how they are interpreted.

Blind Stallion

Text: So basically there was this cowboy, and when he was a little kid, he would go out onto the range with his father. And there was this wild herd of mustangs that was roaming at the time, and there was this one little foal. It was a black stallion foal, and he was like, “One day I’m going to get that horse, and I’m gonna ride that horse.” So he grows up and spends his adult life wandering the hills trying to find the same horse that he saw as child. He wants to capture it. So he finally finds the herd after like a year of wandering, and he starts following it around because he wants to figure out how to catch the stallion. He spent three days following the horse, and with each day, he figured out that the stallion what is the strongest horse, but it always stayed next to its mother. It stayed with the mother horse that the cowboy saw it with when he was little. So he’s like. “Okay, whatever, kind of weird.” But it keeps going. After the three days, he decides that the only way he’s going to catch this horse is if he shoots the mother horse. So that the stallion won’t follow her anymore. So he shoots the mother, which is obviously sad and awful, and horses start running away. But the black horse starts running in the opposite direction and acting wild and crazy and falls off of the edge of a cliff. And then that was when the cowboy realized that the horse was always blind, and that the only reason he was following the mother around is so he could get around. And when the cowboy shot the mother, the stallion couldn’t get around anymore, so he fell off a cliff.

Context: SH is a born and raised Texan studying psychology at USC. Her time in the south led her to be exposed to many different stories with western flairs while she was growing up. In regards to the tale above, she doesn’t remember who told her the story, but it has never left her mind due to the fact that, “It’s so fucking awful.” SH thinks its significance means, “To leave nature be because you don’t always know what is going on behind the scenes, and if you insert yourself into nature it might not go the way you wanted to because you just don’t know.” I was told this piece of folklore over lunch one afternoon.

Interpretation: Tales are recognized as fictional stories that are used as fun ways to entertain and teach lessons to one another. They can sometimes reflect values and teach important lessons on behavior and ethics, or they can simply be stories for stories sake. They are not supposed to be viewed as true and exist outside of the real world. They also like to use groups of threes in their plot structure, a definite tactic employed in the blind stallion. This tale seems to function completely as a way to teach lessons, for there is a lot to be learned from the horrible acts committed in the above story. I will note that the tale does remain entertaining despite the horrible ending, due solely to its shock value and ridiculous logic in how the main character goes about getting what it wants.

I think that SH was correct in that the blind stallion contains some commentary about nature and how people should leave it alone. I also think it has possible lessons rooted in the shying away from greed, impulsive action, and murder. This tale also contains the idea that SH brought up about things not always operating as they appear, and the ghastly consequences that can unfold when people convince themselves that they understand something that they really don’t.

 

Tomb visiting day in Taiwan

Background information:

My friend introduced me to a practice that he and his relatives often perform surrounding the celebration of his ancestors. He is of Taiwanese descent, as he was born in San Francisco, California and both of his parents were born in Taipei, Taiwan. His family moved to California since before he was born and have assimilated into the American lifestyle but still stay very true to their Taiwanese roots and take great pride in their Taiwanese culture.

 

Main piece:

My friend said that throughout his childhood and growing up, he would always celebrate his ancestors with his relatives. He explained that there is a special day in Taiwan where family members all get together and visit the tombs or graves of their ancestors. When they visit their ancestors, they do everything from pray to bring a large amount of food for both them as well as their ancestors to enjoy. He explained this as not being an event of sadness, but rather a celebration where family members are able to reconnect and bond over their unity in their family and eat traditional Taiwanese foods. He said that his family members come from all over Taiwan and therefore all of his family members travel to the location where their ancestors are buried, when they are celebrating this day, showing the importance that people place on this event and how crucial it is that everyone attends.

When I asked if there was any dish in particular that was popular for this event, he responded that fruit is very common to bring, along with other desserts such as red bean desserts and rice cakes, emphasizing that sweets are often preferred in his experience.

 

Personal thoughts:

Upon hearing this tradition, I felt that this was a fantastic way to celebrate relatives that have passed away because everyone in the family is joining in on this event, unifying the family a great deal. In addition to the unifying and memorable factors of this celebration, I feel that the great amounts of food definitely make this event even more successful, as I have always experienced that having food at events usually makes them vastly more successful and memorable.

Pocahontas

The story of Pocahontas and the reason I know and was told the story is because…. supposedly I am related to her.  Her story is that when the Europeans, English people, came to Jamestown, long, long ago, it was a harsh, harsh climate and environment, and they did not know how to survive and she was the princess of the Powhatan Tribe, she was a young girl though, and her father was chief… of the Powhatan Tribe, and she was very curious about the settlement and, um, was kinda always, you know, peering in and looking around, and finally she got braver and braver, um, came into the village, the people invited her in, but really, these people– the settlers– had no idea how to live in this climate and when winter hit, it was super harsh.  And they didn’t know what the land had to offer, I don’t even think they knew what sweet potatos were, they’d probably never seen corn before– things like that.  But the Indian people knew how to live, uh, they’d been there for millenia, so they– winter was not an issue for them, but it was killing all the Jamestown people.  And so, um, Pocahontas, who’d kinda befriended them, I think she was kinda  a pet, and particularly to John Smith.  So anyway, Pocahontas teaches these people how to live, but her father did not like her running over to the white men’s camp, and she had particularly befriended John Smith, and he didn’t approve of that at all.  So, I guess, John Smith– you know they were exploring and took a group of people out to the wilderness to look around and the Indians captured them cause they didn’t like the white people.  And I’m telling this so badly haha cause now I’m realizing that, like, Chief Powhatan didn’t know that Pocahontas had been sneaking into their village and he didn’t know that she had befriended any of those people.  So, uh, all he knew was that the white people were bad and he was afraid of them and thought they were bad people and so when he captured John Smith and his crew, he was gonna kill him, they were gonna kill them all.  So, supposedly, he was gettin’ ready to cut off John Smith’s head and Pocahontas came up on the scene and rescued them.  Said “Ohh, you can’t!”  She threw her body in front of the hatchet or whatever, the axe, and said, “No, no, no, you can’t do this, you cannot do this!”  And she protected John Smith from her father and from the Indians.  And then… the Indians helped, because of Pocahontas, the Indians helped the white people survive there, for the winter.  And that was the way it was told to me by my parents, and they said we should be so proud cause we were related to her…. and that she did such a huge thing– the beginning of a civilization.”

 

Conclusion:

 

I had obviously heard of Pocahontas before, but I had never heard just a detailed telling of the story like this one I received from my mother’s childhood friend, Mary.  It was very cool to learn that she was a descendant of Pocahontas.  I was a little skeptical of this at first– Mary is white–, but she had proof.  A couple years ago, her son’s biology class went on a field trip to a lab to code for a sequence of DNA that was found in all Asian people.  At the end of the day, her son– who is white– and two other Asian kids were the only people to have the sequence in their DNA.  Surprised, Mary’s son, asked how this could be possible.  He didn’t have any Asian heritage that he knew of.  One of the lab’s scientist asked if had any Native American blood in his family.  The scientist explained that Native Americans originally crossed a land bridge to North America from Asia.  Baffled, Mary’s son told the scientist that his mom had always claimed their family was descendants of the Powhatan tribe.  

 

The Blind Woman and Her Dog

The interviewer’s comments are denoted through initials JK, while the interviewee’s responses are denoted through initials SC.

 

 

SC:  There was this blind woman, this is an old horror story that I betch everybody.. your teacher’s probably heard it.  Ok so, there was this woman, this blind woman, she was blind.  And she lived alone and she had a dog, a german shepard, and the dog protected her and kept her safe, but the police came by and said, “There’s a serial killer out and you need to lock your doors and be very careful tonight.  You’re sure you don’t want us to stay with you?”  And she said, “No, no I have my dog.  He’s big, he would scare off anybody.  She says, “Watch this.  Everytime I call the dog, he comes and licks my hand and I know I’m safe.”  So she calls Fido, the dog’s name, and the dog comes and licks her hand right in front of the police officer.  “I really feel safe with him, I think I’m gonna be fine.”  So she says goodnight and you know, throughout the night she calls Fido and he comes and licks her hand and she goes to sleep… and Fido licks her hand.  And all through the night, she wakes up and Fido licks her hand.  She calls for her dog and Fido licks her hand.  And then, so the next day, the police officer comes by to check on her and he knocks and knocks on the door, no answer, no answer.  What is it?  You know, no answer, and nobody’s seen her or anything.  They go into the house, they break in and the woman is….. completely  dead.  You know she’s all dead, like cut up, slashed.  And the dog is slashed too, like the dog is hanging.. um from a lightbulb thing, like from a string or something is the way I remember it was told to me.  And in blood written on the wall, it said, “People can lick too.”

 

JK: Oh my gosh.

 

SC: Isn’t that awful!?!?  I learned that one when I was young and the reason why it was so scary for us is that we had a blind school nearby.  It hit close to home.  My friend Mitzy Freemyer, we would always have slumber parties at her house and she lived like just a block from the blind school, so it just felt more real to us.

 

 

Conclusion:

 

I heard this story from my Aunt Susan.  I liked how it’s dark and gruesome story, but it ends with a comedic twist– I was expecting something more clever, not something I would laugh at.  Similar to the Ant Face Girl story, this tale really freaked out my Aunt because she could relate to it: she grew up close to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA.  It’s interesting to see how small kids can scare themselves by finding any little connection to a story they’ve heard.