K is a freshman majoring in psychology who attended the same camp almost every summer before college. The campers were told this story in the basement where the events occurred at nighttime to explain why one wall is newer than the rest.
“The camp used to be a homestead, around 1812, and the family who lived there was part of the underground railroad. The escaped slaves were hidden in the basement of the house, and one night confederate soldiers showed up to confiscate the slaves and punish the family for helping. As soon as the father opened the door, he was shot in the face, and the soldiers continued to kill everyone else in the family. When they reached the basement, they decided not to kill the escaped slaves – a mother and child – but rather make them suffer. They barricaded the two in the basement behind a new wall. It’s said that at nighttime you can still hear the child scratching the wall.”
K’s story encompasses many ghost story motifs, such as the wrongful deaths of those involved and the liminal space of the basement. It is also a lesson to young campers, both not to go out at night and not to go in the basement, and helps them to feel more connected to camp through the knowledge of it’s history.
A legend heard by the informant in Guatemala, El Viejito is an old man that abducts children.
EO: “In Latin America, um, they tell stories to scare children into behaving. So there’s this old man, they call him “El Viejito”, and he just always stealing kids. So if you’re misbehaving, he’s going to come and get you…steal you forever.
EO: El Viejito, “The Old Man”. My mother told me about it many times to keep me polite and well-behaved.
The informant also told of other legends that were used as precautionary tales in order to use fear to keep children behaving. Others include La Llorona and La Sihuanaba.
Although “El Viejito” is a legend of Latin America, it literally translates to “little old man”, so there is bound to be confusion between the folklore and basic application of language. For example, “El Viejito” is a nickname Latinos use for Senator Bernie Sanders.
The informant was asked about some sayings, proverbs, and customs in her family.
Informant: “A lot of families, to get us to finish all the rice on our bowl, they [parents] say that if you don’t finish the rice on your bowl, your spouse is going to have a lot of pimples and blemishes on their face, so every time, they always remind us of that story, like ‘you know how so and so has a lot of pimples? Their spouse must not finish their bowl, so you don’t want to do that. Mom and dad… they’ve been telling us this since we’re young so it’s expected that our bowls are clean. Otherwise the stories will be reminded every time there’s something in the bowl… what I’ve heard from my German friend, when you’re growing up, it’s either your spouse is going to have a lot of pimples, or there’s a lot of starving kids in Africa. But then I met a lot of international students while I was in college, and he actually says that his parents tell him because there’s a lot of starving kids in China. So there’s a lot of different countries there involved. ”
Collector: “Are Asians specifically more afraid of pimples than other people are?”
Informant: “I think that in Chinese culture we definitely do care about our appearance so having your spouse having pimples I guess it’s not really… it can be frowned upon in the community and since Asian cultures are very community centered, you want to look good so you don’t want… it’s always community centered so you need to care for your spouse’s pimples. You know, its not just about your pimples, it’s you know, you’re responsible for somebody else in the community”
A lot of people in the US probably recall being told by their parents when they were young to finish the food on their plate because there are starving kids in Africa who would be extremely appreciative of whatever food was on that plate. Thus, it’s quite interesting to observe an alternative version of essentially the same saying parents use to get their kids to finish their plate of food. There are likely many more variations of this well-known guilt strategy around the world.
My informant is the mother of a USC student. She is an immigrant from Cameroon and came to America with her husband and son before giving birth to their daughter.
“In my culture it is believed that a woman who has no children is considered wicked, a man, and worthless. If she is married and childless, she will be divorced and asked to return her dowry to her husband. From what we know today, infertility could be from the man. Yet, yet all the blame goes to the woman, but back then, it was only the woman. The belief is that the wickedness comes in because gods would not bless a bad person and children, children are the most cherished gift to a women. So she would be shown without a child and no man is supposed to love a woman who could produce no heir. Next to a woman without children is one who has only one child—especially if it is a girl child—or has all girls. Women are blamed for not being able to produce an heir since most believe that only the boys should inherit the family s fortune. The irony here, is that, these same people who prefer boys stand to benefit when a girl gets married through the bride price and dowry.”
Analysis: My informant learned these cultural beliefs from relatives and extended family while living in Cameroon. This piece of cultural knowledge gives a very clear picture of the gender lines and distinctions within Cameroonian culture. From even this small amount of verbal exchange the listener gets an immediate and clear understanding that Cameroon is a patriarchal country that places incredible pressure on the women to live up to the standards of men. It is also interesting to note that in many cases after having moved from Cameroon to America these beliefs do not hold as much weight. My informant’s daughter, who is a close friend of mine, acknowledges her cultural beliefs, but does not hold the belief that the importance of women should be placed underneath that of a man. This gives the impression that cultural folklore has a much stronger meaning when the folklore is being spread in an area where the majority of people hold those same beliefs.
“So like if you’re driving in a car for like a long period of time, and you’re like with a friend or something, you’re not gonna do it by yourself, and you’re not the driver, you look out the window and you have to, in order of the alphabet, find a sign on the side of the road that starts with the, um, the first letter is in the alphabet, so like, say I was looking for an ‘A,’ if I found an Applebee’s I’d yell out ‘Applebee’s’ and then, like, the next sign you saw that started with a ‘B,’ like um, Ben and Jerry’s, or something, somebody would yell it out. So it wasn’t necessarily like a competitive game, it was just like the whole car was trying to get the alphabet, or the signs in order of the alphabet before they arrived at their destination. It was just a way to stay busy . . . It’s more challenging if it’s a shorter distance, obviously. But instead of sleeping in the car, that’s what we would do.”
The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies communication and minors in dance and is a part of a prominent sorority on campus. She grew up in a relatively small town in southern California and was the captain of a prominent sports organization. She has danced for her entire life and, when she was growing up, would often drive for long stretches of time with her family to dance competitions. This interview took place late one night in my apartment’s living room when I began asking her about different games she knew. When I asked the informant where she learned this game, she said, “I think from like traveling to dance competitions a lot and, um, I mean I know we didn’t just make it up, but I think it kind of derived from the license plate game, where it’s like you look at a license place and you try to find the alphabet in each license plate almost. But we made it signs, probably a little easier.” She said it was her mother who would take her to dance competitions and would sometimes participate in the game.
When I asked her what she thought this meant, she said, “It was a good way to bond with my other teammates and my brothers and avoid fighting because it’s not competitive.”
This game was interesting because it was one that the informant assumed everyone knew about. It was so entrenched in her childhood experience that she could not imagine anyone else growing up and not playing it. While this game most likely did not originate with the informant’s family, it is probably prevalent in families and groups of people that spend a lot of time on the road. I agree with the informant that the primary purpose behind this game is to distract children (or anyone bored on a drive) and keep them from fighting with one another. It also helps them familiarize themselves with their surroundings, take an interest in the world for a specific purpose, and practice their reading skills. It is also interesting that this game is not competitive in the usual sense, i.e. the participants are not playing against each other. This helps teach the participants to complete a task quickly and work together.
“So the Buns Up Game is a game that I played in middle school and they’re still playing it at my school. And so the object of the game is to never get your buns hit with the tennis ball, and so the game is played against a wall and someone throws the tennis ball at the wall and the other person has to catch it with one hand. And it can bounce once or not at all. If you miss it with one hand, then the person who threw it can then grab the ball and you have to run to the wall and touch the wall with your hands before the person grabs the ball and chucks it at your butt. And that’s why it’s called Buns Up.”
The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up that she has observed taking place among her students now. She learned this game, “in . . . Lubbock, Texas. I learned to play it outside because we had a lot of cement and a blank wall. Mostly the boys played it, but some of the girls that were more courageous would play it also. At my school right now there’s a blacktop and it’s mostly the first graders that are playing it, instead of like the middle schoolers that used to play it.”
When I asked her why thinks people play this game, she said, “Well, because it’s a skill to be able to catch, eye-hand coordination with one hand, the ball that’s about the size of a baseball or a tennis ball. Plus it’s fun to throw the ball at people if they, and it, well it makes people feel bad if they, I mean it makes people feel good if they have more skill than the other player. Plus it’s reflexes and yeah, you get to actually take mean action on people, I guess.” When I asked her what she thinks this game means, it became clear that the informant did not think much of this game. She said, “I think it means that it’s an easy game to play with a ball and a wall. Like, you don’t have . . . I mean, it takes very little equipment and only two people and, with a city, if you don’t have a field or grass it’s a game you can play in the street.”
I tend to agree with the informant that the main reason this game is played is that it requires little explanation and little equipment to play. It is easy to start and stop, can be played in many different locations, and is challenging enough to be entertaining. I there’s a little more to the meaning behind the game though, based solely on its name. Because this game is generally played by middle school kids, it seems like there is something to the fact that part of the game is throwing a ball at another person’s butt. At this age, this action might seem particularly taboo. It is also interesting, then, that Buns Up is somewhat gendered, with only a few girls taking part, and that my mother was one of these girls. This game provides an outlet for children to be silly and active, while subtly crossing established social boundaries.
My (hold note) mommy said if I’d be good she’d send me to the store,
she said she’d bake a chocolate cake if I would sweep the floor,
she said if I would make the bed and help her mind the phone,
she would send me out to get a chocolate ice cream cone.
And so I did
the things she said,
I even helped her make the bed.
Then I went out,
just me alone,
to get a chocolate ice cream cone.
Now (hold note) on my way a-comin’ home I stumbled on a stone,
and need I tell you that I dropped
my chocolate ice cream cone.
A little doggie came along and took a great big lick (slurping sound),
and then I hit that mean ole doggie with a little stick.
And he bit me
where I sat down
and he chased me all over town.
And now I’m lost,
can’t find my home,
it’s all because of a chocolate, chocolate, chocolate ice cream cone.
The informant was my father, a 49-year-old engineer who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but who grew up in the area surrounding Austin, Texas. The song is one that his mother used to sing to him and his siblings when they were little. The song was primarily sung right before bed, as well as occasionally on long road trips. The informant says his mother would sing it to the children almost every night, sometimes “perfunctorily,” sometimes smiling and adding “extra ‘chocolate, chocolate, chocolate’s’ on the end.” The informant sees it as a mix of a “bizarre lost kid fairy tale” and a “moral lesson for young kids growing up,” the lesson being, “don’t go out on your own or, you know, you might get lost and never find your way home again.”
This song was collected while I was home for Spring Break and performed in my living room. It was interesting to me because my father also used to sing it to me and my sister when we were children because, “when you’re a parent, you’re looking for, you know, the things to pass down and it was one of my favorite songs as a child.” The tune of the song makes it seem fun and harmless, but there is a dark undertone about the lyrics that I recognized, even when I was growing up. Looking at it now, I think it is less of a moral lesson, and more of a lesson to children about the random, horrible things that can happen to you when you are not expecting them. None of the events that take place are really the narrator’s fault (other than being chased by a dog after he hits it with a stick), and yet the narrator still ends up lost and alone. It is a dark reflection on everyday life hiding within a song for children, as is often the case with old songs and stories created for children.
I think I’ll eat a tadpole,
maybe even a bug.
I’ve got some worms down in the garden
that I recently dug.
You said you didn’t love me,
you told me it was true,
so darling this is really, really,
what I’m gonna do.
I think I’ll eat a tadpole,
then I’ll lay down and die
and you’ll be sorry,
oh so sorry,
that you told me goodbye.
So if you really love me,
just tell me with a hug
before I eat a tadpole or a bug.
I really mean it,
before I eat a tadpole or a bug.
The informant was my father, a 49-year-old engineer who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but who grew up in the area surrounding Austin, Texas. The song is one that his mother used to sing to him and his siblings when they were little. The informant says his mother had a beautiful singing voice and would either sing hymns or songs like this before the children would go to bed because she was always in charge of this activity. He says it is interesting to him because “it must have come from some popular pop music of some age” and he “almost suspect[s] that it’s a fragment, but it was passed down to us as a whole,” “almost a vignette.” He also heard it from his older sister as she was learning to sing it for her children. He performs it because it reminds him of his mother, but also because “it’s just, it’s the cutest concept of a song . . . you know, it’s a child’s concept of love combined with a child’s concept of mortality. Uh, you know, you left me, I’m gonna basically hold my breath and die if you don’t come back. You know, and eating a tadpole is going to kill you, you know, it’s just all, I just love the construction and the cuteness of it.” He sees it as a way of teaching children that breaking somebody’s heart is a big deal. He also admits that the whole thing is “a little twisted.”
This song was collected while I was home for Spring Break and performed in my living room. It was interesting to me because my father also used to sing it to me and my sister when we were children. It’s a song with a nice tune that seems harmless, but it has lyrics that are actually pretty dark. I remember it as being sad when I was much younger, but looking at it now it strikes me that the subject of the song is suicide, even if the narrator is not going to die from eating a tadpole. I think the song is mainly meant to be cute and entertaining, but I also agree somewhat with the informant’s assessment that the song is about teaching children the effect their actions and words can have on another person.
A version of this song was performed and released (“I Think I’ll Eat a Tadpole”) by Sue Thompson in 1966. Thompson’s version has the above version as its chorus and additional verses. While the chorus is recognizable as the informant’s version, many of the words have been changed and the overall tone of the song is different. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHnlZfJAHT0
Thompson, Sue. "I Think I'll Eat a Tadpole." The Country Side of Sue Thompson. Ridgeway Music, 1966. CD.
“So another game is called Gossip, and you sit in a circle and one person, or I think it has been called Telephone, but it’s also called Gossip, and so one person has a secret to tell the person next to them, so they whisper it into their ear, and then it goes around the circle, the next person has to whisper it and the next and the next and the next, and then when you get to the end, the last person says what they heard from that person and compare it to what the person originally said. And that’s the game.”
The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up that she has observed taking place among her students now. She learned this game, “probably in elementary school . . . in Houston, Texas. We played it in like a second grade class, in a circle.”
The informant thinks “two reasons [the game is] attractive to people is because it’s interesting to see what comes out at the end, if you compare what originally was said with what was it, so you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so weird that you never hear the same thing at the end that it started out to be, so it’s interesting to see what it warps into.’ And I guess the other reason it’s called Gossip it what you originally say isn’t what you hear at the end. So, the message is diluted when other people say it.” The informant implied this is also what she thinks it means.
This game was interesting to me when the informant explained it because I know it is “Telephone.” This game is an easy game to play with a lot of people who do not necessarily know each other, and it is variable in the amount of time it takes to play. The fact that the informant knows it as “Gossip” and learned to play it when she was in elementary school is somewhat revealing about what this game actually means. While it is fun to see how the original message gets changed as people hear and interpret it, it also seems like there is a deeper message behind its simple actions. This game functions as a way to teach children about the way gossip works in our society, and how what you say can be changed into something unrecognizable by the end. The way the information is transmitted may be boiled down and expedited, but it is still a helpful demonstration of a larger social phenomenon.
*Note: Taylor is a member of the student organization USC Troy Camp, a group that mentors/tutors students in the South Central L.A. area and raises funds during the year to send 200 elementary schoolchildren from South L.A. to a week-long summer camp in Idyllwild, CA. This week-long camp is completely run by the counselors, and through the year many legends and traditions have developed that are upheld/told each year at camp, carried on by newer counselors as older ones graduate. Because I am also a member of Troy Camp, she didn’t provide any context for this, so I figured I’d do so to minimize confusion. This particular story is the story of “Mary Brown,” which we tell to the 5th grade students (the oldest) when they spend a night in tents instead of their cabins.
INFORMANT: “I’m going to tell it like I’d tell it to the kids, okay? Okay. So… years and years ago, kids just like you were coming to Troy Camp for a great week at camp. They were so excited, and on the first day everyone was running around and making friends. Everyone except one. There was a little girl named Mary Brown, and she stood in the corner and didn’t talk to anyone – she was so shy. She would just stand in the corner and stare at her sparkly red shoes. The kids started to make fun of Mary, asking why she never played with anyone else and making fun of her red shoes. But no matter what they said, Mary would just stand there silently, staring down at her shoes. The bullying got much worse, and no matter what the counselors did, they couldn’t stop it. One day in the dining hall, a girl walked up to Mary Brown and started making fun of her shoes. At first, Mary was quiet and just stared down. But suddenly, she grabbed the fork from her plate and brought it down right on the bully’s hand – stabbed her in the hand with the fork. Silent the whole time, even as the bully screamed and cried. Her counselor took her aside and tried to reason with her, told her they were going to have to call her parents for breaking the rules and hurting another camper. But Mary said nothing… she just stared down at her red shoes. Her counselor tried that night to call Mary’s parents to come pick her up, but she couldn’t get through to anyone. The number was disconnected. So the counselor went back to the cabin, and all the girls were fast asleep in their beds… except one. Mary. Mary Brown was nowhere to be found. The counselors all panicked. They searched, they looked everywhere, and they just couldn’t find her. Finally, in the middle of the night, some counselors went down to the river, and that’s where they found her. There she was, standing on a rock in the middle of the river, dripping wet, holding a fork and staring down at her red shoes. “Mary, Mary! Please come back!” they yelled to her. They begged her to come back, to let them help her. After many… after many minutes of this, she finally looked up. She looked them straight in the eyes, raised the fork, and without saying a word, STABBED HERSELF, again and again and again with the fork until her body fell limp into the river. The water washed her right away, and no search party or the Idyllwild police was ever able to find her body. And now, every seven years, a couple forks go missing from the dining hall, and one camper falls victim to the wrath of Mary Brown, who comes click-clacking into the cabin in her sparkly red shoes, and STABS them with her fork. It’s been said you can hear her approaching because she scrrrrrrrrrratches the outside of the cabin door with her fork, scrraaaaaatches along the door. And… I hate to say it, but this year is the seventh year since the last incident. So watch out, kids, listen carefully for the fork on the door. And tell someone right away if you ever catch a glimpse of a pair of sparkly red shoes walking through the forest.”
This legend is cool because I’m fairly certain it’s completely unique to Troy Camp – at least under the name “Mary Brown.” One day I got curious and googled ‘Mary Brown ghost story,’ and found almost nothing similar to our story. Mary Brown is also interesting because there tends to be one counselor who tells it best, and they’ll tell the story to the campers until they graduate, at which time the job of primary storyteller is passed down to another counselor. This year, the guy who usually tells Mary Brown to the campers is graduating, so nobody knows who’s going to tell the story next year at camp. The story changes a little bit with each person who tells it, so there’s no way of knowing how the story began. No one in Troy Camp knows what year they started telling Mary Brown, but it’s an established tradition now.
“Mary Brown” also exemplifies the difference between a story like “La Llorana” and a regular ghost story – legends like La Llorana tend to have a message, a rule to obey. Contrarily, Mary Brown exists just to scare the kids! Ghost stories don’t usually have messages or morals, they’re for entertainment purposes only. One could argue that Mary Brown teaches campers not to bully other campers, but the bullying seems a little beside the point. I’ve also never known counselors to actually go around with forks on the cabin doors, because that would probably be too scary.