USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘british’
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Legends
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Tales /märchen

Guy Fawkes Day

Context:

The informant is a 29-year-old Caucasian female who will be called JH. She is of Irish and English descent and knows of this folklore from her family, more specifically her father. This folklore piece is told in her words:

 

Main Piece:

“My dad (who is half British and half American) used to tell us about Guy Fawkes Day. The 5th of November was a day where a poor man tried to erase the class system via blowing up the house of Parliament. He was caught, hanged, and burned for his crimes. Every year, British people not only burn effigies of straw men in celebration of saving parliament, but you’re supposed to also burn bad habits. Basically, we were told this was getting rid of the bad, or the “treasons” in your life.”

Background:

JH was told about the folklore on Guy Fawkes Day by her father as she didn’t know the story behind the celebration. She celebrates it with her family since her father’s side is British, although she isn’t religious. She appreciates celebrating the day because it is something she can do with her family.

Notes:

Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated in commemoration of the failure of the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605. This involved a group of Roman Catholic conspirators led by a man named Robert Catesby. They were upset by King James I refusing to grant religious tolerance to Catholics. The goal was to reestablish Catholic rule in England by killing the king and members of parliament. It is sometimes referred to as Bonfire Night and many people celebrate by making bonfires or setting of fireworks. I had not heard about this holiday prior to being told it by JH. It’s a very interesting thing to celebrate and how it is celebrated is interesting as well. I feel like these now; the day has become more of a cause to get together with family and friends to drink and eat together. Much like Saint Patrick’s Day, where it is celebrated by many people who have no real connection to the day.

Folk speech
Musical

Dinner Train Song

Context

It took some effort to get my informant, who immigrated from England at 13, to remember some examples of English folklore. I prompted him by asking for bedtime stories or lullabies from his childhood.

Main Piece

So, when I was little, my English grandmother would sing me and my brother Tate this song before bedtime, or whenever we pestered her to do it. Um… I don’t know where she learned it. Basically you, you say the names of various… culinary treats, and you gradually speed up in a rhythmic way as you say each item, um, like a locomotive carrying on — gathering steam.

Coffee, coffee

Cheese and biscuits, cheese and biscuits

Fruit and custard, fruit and custard

Fish ‘n’ chips, fish ‘n’ chips

(And then, imitating steam whistle, going up in pitch)

Sooooooouuuuuuuup!

Notes

With some digging, I was able to find an account of this song on a British teaching website, and some performances on YouTube. My informant did not know where or when his grandmother had learned the song, but commenters on the above website remembered singing it at Bible camp in the 1960s and hearing it on a 78 rpm record in the 1940s. I also found a slightly different version of this chant on a website for the Australian Joey Scouts group. It is difficult to determine the precise origin of this piece, but it is clear that although I had never encountered it, it has been around since the early 20th century and has made its way around the world.

Folk speech

British Slang: “Berk”

For presentations in one of my classes, we had panels grouped by subject. Our instructor titled the panels, and tried his best to make them clever. One title is “Becoming Berk-men in The Squid in the Whale,” which is playing upon the fact that the characters’ last name in The Squid and the Whale is Berkman. The informant is NB, and the following exchange happened on a classwide basis. It was afterward that I asked the informant’s permission to put this in the folklore database.

NB: So now, we have “Becoming Berk-men in The Squid in the Whale” [He emphasized the word “Berk”]

Everyone in the class exchanged confused glances and made confused noises, such as “huh?”

NB: What? You don’t get it? I thought it was quite clever. Do you guys not know what a berk is?

Various people responded no, asked him to explain

NB: Ohh, it must be a British thing! Really? You don’t use “berk”? Huh, wow. You know, it’s someone annoying or rude or… Like you might say, “That guy’s such a twat–”

Student: Like “jerk”? (Other classmates agreed)

NB: Oh, yeah sure, whatever.

At a later date, the following exchange occurred.

PH: Oh, for my folklore project I need to know where you’re originally from!

NB: I’m from southwest Exeter, but the things I’ve said haven’t necessarily been specific to that area
It was interesting that the informant was not aware it was a solely British slang word, and that when trying to explain it, he once again used a distinctly British slang word, as opposed to an American one. It is also interesting to me that students’ attempt to relate it to an American word chose a word that rhymed, as if there might be a connection. Based off of the informant’s synonym of twat, the word jerk isn’t an accurate synonym, but I think he just wanted to move on with the class. The informant does not know the origins of this slang word, but it is documented on various websites.

Legends

King Arthur

Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in England and currently lives in Los Angeles. She lives in my hall, and I interviewed her.

Informant: King Arthur’s a pretty well known story, so I don’t know how much I can say that you probably don’t already know. But it’s a pretty big story in England, like he kinda symbolizes our heritage and stuff like that. And I think we had a real King Arthur too so some people think the story is real, which I think is funny. But basically the story goes like this. Arthur’s father was the king of England, but then like he really liked this other girl that was married to someone else, so he asked Merlin for help. Merlin’s the wizard. And he made himself look like that girl’s husband. And then they had Arthur, but Arthur was raised by a knight and didn’t know that his dad was the king or whatever. So eventually, the king died and like he didn’t have any kids except for Arthur who didn’t know that he was his kid. And then Merlin did this thing where he put the sword in this stone, and he said that the person who could take the sword out of the stone was the king. And then a bunch of people tried but like nobody could do it until Arthur came and did it, and he became the king. There’s a lot that comes after that with like the round table and the knights and all of that, but I don’t really know much about that. Just the sword thing.

Collector: Is there anything in particular that you like about this story?

Informant: It’s like part of my culture, I guess. Even though like everybody knows the story, it’s a very British thing, and we take pride in it. I mean, I don’t care much for that, but I know that a lot of people do. I just think it’s a cool story.

For another version of this story, see “Matthews, John. The Book of Arthur: Lost Tales from the Round Table. Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2002. Print.”

I have already heard of the tale of King Arthur multiple times, but I didn’t know that it meant a lot to English people. I thought that it was just a random story that Disney used and made popular, because that was the first time I had ever heard of it. It’s interesting to see how a story that is so well known around the world can have particular significance to a specific culture. Another thing that I think is interesting is that I didn’t know that the story included the king disguising himself to commit adultery. If my memory serves me right, I don’t remember that having been a part of the Disney movie. This is something that Disney has always done – obscure the more intense, not-PG versions of stories, and it makes me wonder what other things Disney has obscured.

Game
Musical

London Bridge

Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in England and currently lives in Los Angeles. She lives in my hall, and I interviewed her.

Informant: Do you know the London Bridge song?

Collector: Yes.

Informant: Ah, yes. Well, I guess it’s pretty popular over here too. But basically, it’s a song that goes like this:

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

I think the actual song is longer than that, but that’s all that people really use. So what we do, it’s usually a kids game, but what we do is we get two people to stand together and hold their arms together like they’re making a bridge, and then people have to run under it, until the last line. And then the people drop their arms and trap whoever is under it, and like that person loses. It’s like a song, but it’s also a game, which is cool.

Collector: Do you have any idea where it might have come from?

Informant: I actually have no idea the history behind the song. I just know that it’s a really old game, and a lot of kids play it. It’s pretty popular. I don’t think the London Bridge has ever really fallen down. I hope it won’t.

I remember playing this game when I was a kid, and it’s interesting to hear that it’s popular all over the world too. Despite mentioning London in part of the lyrics, I didn’t actually know that this was a traditional English song. I thought that the Americans had made it up during the revolution to show patriotism and strength to beat the British. It’s funny to see that I was completely wrong my entire life, and that the song is nothing more than a mere game that people used to play in England, and passed on to the people in America and all over the world.

Festival
Folk Dance
Holidays

May Day

Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in England and currently lives in Los Angeles. She lives in my hall, and I interviewed her.

Informant: There’s this festival that we have in England called May Day, and it’s the first of May. I don’t really know where it came from. We always have a holiday on the day so I always get a day off school. We do it to welcome spring, in a way. I’ve also heard that it’s to celebrate workers. But it’s not a workers’ day, per say. And I have seen people doing the Maypole dancing.

Collector: Pole dancing?

Informant: It’s not pole dancing as in pole dancing, like kids do it. I learned it at school, it’s taught at schools. At least it was when I was in primary school. Basically, it’s like a big wooden stick and it has like ribbons attached to it and people like dance around it.

Collector: Have you ever experienced that?

Informant: Yeah at like fairs I guess, on May day. There’s always a pole. I don’t really know the purpose of circling a pole to celebrate spring, but people do it. It’s very common. And there’s good food at the fairs too. Oh, and we crown a May Queen. That’s like a girl who does a bunch of things for May Day. Like she’s part of the parades and stuff. I’m not really involved in it, but I’ve heard about it. I also heard this story that in the past they used to kill the May Queen at the end, but like, I don’t know if that’s true or not.

The first thing I thought about this particular piece of folklore was how funny it was that a big tradition in England was called May Pole Dancing, but then my friend explained that it wasn’t really pole dancing, and that it is meant to celebrate spring. I think that’s really interesting, because it reminds me of my Swedish friend’s Midsummer ritual. I think it’s really cool how in both of the festivals there are wooden sticks (a cross in the Swedish culture and a pole in English culture) that little kids dance around to celebrate the arrival of a new season. It make some wonder what the origin of these traditions are, and if they all come from the same place.

Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Guy Fawkes’ Day

Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in England and currently lives in Los Angeles. She lives in my hall, and I interviewed her.

Informant: So in 1605, this dude called Guy Fawkes was arrested trying to blow up the house of parliament in London, and it was likeI’m pretty sure the king and all of the important people were there, and he was trying to kill them, but he got caught and that was on the 5th of November. So every year, on the 5th of November, like schools and families and like clubs and stuff in England make a huge bonfire, and then they make like a doll, like a human sized figure of Guy Fawkes, and then they burn him on the bonfire, and there’s like fireworks and like a barbecue and stuff, every year.

Collector: So you celebrate him or him not blowing up the parliament?

Informant: Well, we burn him every year, so we definitely don’t celebrate him. It’s like a celebration of I guess his failure. It’s a very chill day though, we eat burgers and hot dogs and hang around by the bonfire. Like we don’t have a meal with our family. It’s more like the whole community gets together and there’s like fireworks and stuff. There’s a song too.

Collector: A song? What is it?

Informant: It goes like this

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder Treason and plot

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Would ever be forgot

It’s not that big of a deal though, like we don’t sing it around the campfire or anything. It’s just something that people know.

I thought this was particularly interesting because it’s a holiday that revolves around an attempter murder. Albeit the burning of the figure of this murder, but a murder none the less. I think it’s cool how even until today, people remember it, and I think that this might be because the monarchy in England is still in power. I believe that this is not only a fun way for people to celebrate with their family and friends, but also a way to honor their monarchy. It makes me wonder if the holiday began as a way for the monarchy to keep its citizens in line, so that nobody would try to recreate Guy Fawkes’ murder attempts.

general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Sidehill Gougers

The informant is my mother, who was born and raised in North Vancouver, Canada. She has two older brothers, and both of her parents immigrated from the United Kingdom when they were adults. She worked in accounting until she retired at the age of 50. She is widowed and has two children: myself and my brother, who has Cerebral Palsy.

This is a story her father used to tell her to explain the ridges in the sides of hills in England.

“So, when I was 15, I went to England with dad, and my girlfriend Laurie came with us. And when we were driving along through England, it was all these various hills, and they all had sort of…what looks like rings going around the hills. Um, and I said to dad, “What causes those rings?” And dad goes, “Sidehill gougers.”

And I went, “What?” And he said, “Sidehill gougers. Haven’t you ever heard of Sidehill gougers?” And I said, “No..?” And he said, “Oh, of course you have.” And I said no. “Oh, well I’ll just have to tell you all about Sidehill gougers, then. Okay, so, Sidehill gougers are this unusual animal that are born with one side of their legs shorter than the other side. And as a consequence, they can only go one direction up a hill. And they go around and around the hill and as they climb up the hill, they eat their way up and as they get older and older and older. And then they die right at the top and that’s how the hill starts to grow up.”

Of course, my father’s story was a little more elaborate and went on for a lot longer. And occasionally, most Sidehill gougers have shorter right legs than left legs and are always going around the same direction. Occasionally, though, there’s a Sidehill gouger that may be born with shorter left legs than right legs, and then he’s going the opposite direction from all the rest of them and he ends up bumping into them and causing a big havoc. But a Sidehill gouger’s life is going around, and that’s what makes the rings on the hills is these Sidehill gougers as they make their way up slowly up the mountain as they’re aging, they eat their way up and as they slowly climb their way to the top of the hill, the Sidehill gougers.

I said, “Well what happens when they get to the top?” “Well, that’s where they die, isn’t it?”

And then the generation of Sidehill gougers continues. And the predominant ones are right head leg—right leg short side gougers, and left—and I believed him. I believed this story.”

Do you know if he learned that from someone else or if he made it up?

“I don’t know where he learned it from. I’m probably sure that someone would have told him but he was very good at making up stories as well. And he always did like to…he was a bit theatrical, so of course when he told this story it was very elaborate and very long, and very intricate on the whole lifespan of Sidehill gougers and how they developed.

And of course because of the elaborateness of the story I’ve quite shortened it, um, I believed the whole story and was asking him questions, and he was giving me answers you know, “Oh, are they all born with short right legs?” “No, some of them are born with short left legs and they have to walk the other way, and they cause all kinds of havoc. But they end up dying out in the long run because there aren’t as many of them.” So it was a big long process.”

Analysis:

The Sidehill gouger interests me because as a folkloric creature, it has a fairly small impact on humans in their everyday lives. Unlike fairies or leprechauns or other such creatures, all the Sidehill gouger does is walk around hills in circles. As a result, it seems more as though they are used to explain unusual geographic features, in this particular case, the ridges on British hills. I would be interested in collecting different versions of this piece of folklore to see if they have a larger roles in other contexts.

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