USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘children’s folklore’
Folk Beliefs
Legends

California breaking off

My mom, who grew up in Los Angeles, recalls a folk belief from her childhood that California would break off from the US and float away:

“So when I was growing up there would be these periodic panics or rumors that on a certain day, California was gonna break off and float out into the ocean. And I remember being- it would’ve been the year that um, the Elton John song ‘Crocodile Rock’ was out because I can remember listening to that song with [my cousin] Robert–maybe 1971 or something?–and being terrified, knowing that it probably wasn’t going to happen but just having a fear in the back of my mind that maybe there was some truth to this rumor…”

I asked if she remembered where she had heard the rumor first. She said, “well that’s a good question. It certainly wasn’t in the newspaper, it wasn’t like fake news and it wouldn’t have been- we didn’t have the internet, so how did that spread? And it seemed like it was mostly kids who knew it, i mean it wasn’t- adults weren’t, y’know, propagating this rumor. So where it came from, I have no idea. That’s always fascinating to me.”

This piece of folklore falls somewhere between the genres of folk belief and legend. It concerns something frightening that could happen, as many legends do, but it is not a narrative, and is believed to be occurring in the future, rather than the past. It could thus be classified as a “folk rumor” in the same category as conspiracy theories. This folk rumor likely stemmed from the reality of the San Andreas fault and the resulting frequency of earthquakes in Southern California. It spread, particularly among kids, because it seemed plausible and because it fed off of fears about natural disaster.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Going to the wagons

A family friend, Ruth, grew up in a small town outside of Boston that had an unusual 4th of July tradition called “going to the wagons.” The following is a conversation between us about the tradition. “R” is Ruth and “L” is myself.

L: So what is the name of the town you’re from?
R: Dedham, Mass. And this would happen in Oakdale Square.
L: Okay.
R: And so the night before the 4th [of July], late at night, um like, we were young kids so we would go to bed first and our parents would wake us up and we would walk down to Oakdale Square, to take us to the wagons. And we would get there and y’know there’d be a crowd of people and like kids–it was kids I guess–who would roll these burning wooden wagons into the square. [It was called] “going to the wagons.”
L: So they were on- like what do you mean they were on fire?
R: They were burning!
L: Like they had, they were just set ablaze? Like the whole wagon?
R: Yeah!…I think what prompted them to stop this custom was, um, the drugstore windows broke from the heat of the flame, and so they stopped doing it. This was in the ‘50s.

The 4th of July is usually celebrated with fireworks, so in a sense this tradition seems an extension of the pyrotechnic theme present in the holiday. It makes sense that peculiar local traditions surrounding independence day would be most common in the Northeastern United States, particularly around Boston and Philadelphia, as that region was the site of much of the early political history of the U.S. as a nation-state.

Folk speech
Game

“Two Dead Boys” jump rope rhyme

My mom shared the following rhyme, which she learned from her mother, with me:

“One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other. A deaf policeman heard the noise, came and killed those two dead boys.”

She says of the rhyme, “I learned it from my mom, and she described it as a jump rope rhyme…double dutch jump roping was very popular for many years in elementary schools. And my mom grew up all over the place, so I don’t know exactly where she got this from. She was born in Atlantic City but she was also raised partly in Biloxi, Mississippi and um, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So I don’t know where this came from originally but, yeah, she was born in 1928 so it would’ve been from the ’30s.”

My mom jumped rope as a child, but she didn’t use this rhyme for that purpose because it seemed “kind of ghoulish” to her. She says she had jump rope rhymes of her own, but can’t remember any of them as well as she remembers “Two Dead Boys.” I imagine that this particular rhyme stuck with my mom because it is somewhat macabre, and things that frighten or disturb us as children tend to remain in our memories. It is interesting, although not particularly surprising, to me that a piece of folklore used in children’s play would have such dark imagery. Children’s folklore often involves subject matter usually deemed inappropriate for them, but expressed and performed with coded language or, as in this case, with whimsy and humor.

For other variants on this nonsense rhyme, see the British Columbia Folklore Society’s blog entry: http://folklore.bc.ca/one-fine-day-in-the-middle-of-the-night/

Folk Beliefs
Game

Stepping on Cracks

JN is a freshman at USC studying neuroscience. She grew up in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago. Here is a superstition from her childhood that she still remembers vividly:
“When I was little, some kids on the playground used to say “step on a crack, you break your mother’s back.” This would mean that, like, when you were walking on the sidewalk, by stepping on any of the cracks or divisions between the sidewalk pieces, you could potentially break your mother’s back. I was super worried about this, so I always made sure to tip-toe over the cracks! Now, I don’t really care anymore because I know it’s just a saying, but on occasion I still make sure not to step on any sidewalk cracks!””

Did you learn it from your other friends? What gender were they? At what age did you learn it?

“I definitely learned it from other friends, probably girls! And I learned it in early elementary school.”

How seriously did you take this superstition? I remember I had friends who followed it religiously!

” I took it VERY seriously, but sometimes I would forget so I would definitely step on some cracks here and there!”

 

My thoughts: This is an interesting piece of folklore since so many people who went to elementary school in the U.S. have heard of it, no matter what part of the country their from. I actually grew up with this folk belief as well and I have an experience with it similar to the informant’s- I learned it from fellow girls on the playground at an elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago! One thing that stands out is how morbid the belief is- children’s folklore often engages with taboo subjects such as violence, as discussed in Oring Chapter 5.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Snow Day Magic Tricks

Informant is a 20 year old college student at the University of Chicago. She is a creative writer, activist, and political science major. She grew up in Highland Park, Illinois with her two parents and two younger brothers.

 

Informant: “So here in Chicago, we have a thing called snow. It actually gets quite cold if you remember.”

Interviewer: “I remember!”

Informant: “Just wanted to remind you since now you live in sunny, always blue-skied, 70 degree Cali. Anyways, there are times that so much snow accumulates that school is canceled. Not very often, but every now and then. Usually ever year, but sometimes just once every two or three years.”

Interviewer: “I totally remember those! They were the best…”

Informant: “They were! Do you remember what we all used to do in the hopes there would be a snow day?”

Interviewer: “Sort of, but not entirely.”

Informant: “Okay, let me refresh your memory. We would put a spoon under our pillow before going to bed—some people put it under their bed, and some people didn’t put a spoon but a fork—and that was supposed to make a snow day happen. But not just out of the blue. IT had to already be pretty snowy, or supposed to snow heavily.”

Interviewer: “Do you remember who told you to do that? Or who told you that worked?”

Informant: “No specific person that I remember. I think we all just sort of knew to do it. Like everyone talked about it working, or having worked.”

 

Thoughts:

I can’t figure why a spoon was the object placed under one’s bed or one’s pillow to conjure a snow day, but I do remember doing this once in the hopes of a snow day. I can’t say for sure if it was my having placed the spoon under my bed or Mother Nature, but we did in fact have school canceled the next day…

I actually googled the practice and found several articles as well as some other ways to conjure snow days! For more snow day “magic,” see http://www.grandhaventribune.com/article/strange-grand-haven/265096.

The notion of “conjuring up snow days”, talked about in the article, brings to mind Voodoo. It’s fascinating that magic or voodoo was so looked down on for so long, and even to an extent is now in the very hyper-scientific society in which we live, but that it holds such an important role for people. This again speaks to belief, and how strong it is despite changing times or new scientific discoveries.

Childhood
Customs
Game
general
Humor
Initiations

Hebrew School Pranks

The informant is a 95-year old man who grew up in Davenport, right near downtown with his parents and two brothers. His father came over from Russia and owned a grocery store in Davenport. He now lives in Skokie, IL with his wife and caretaker. He has three sons and 9 grandchildren.

Informant: “In Hebrew school they liked to play tricks on teachers. The tricks were different but they always happened. In my Hebrew school we always used to pull pranks if a substitute teacher came. The school was getting all new desks. The new desks were in the basement of the temple. They didn’t bolt them down to the cement floor, they just had them loose. When the substitute teacher went to go to the toilet, all the other guys in the class (there must have been 20 of us) moved their desks way back. And I was not going to participate in it, that kind of tomfoolery. So I kept my desk right where it was. He comes back, he’s from English this teacher, and you know he has thee gray gloves. He comes back in and sees sall the rest of them all the way back and sees me by myself up front and he looks around and tells me to come up to the front, “come up here and get your punishment.” He hit me across the face with his gloves.”

 

Thoughts:

This story reflects the insider/outsider mentality that is often involved in pranking. Pulling pranks on substitute teachers is a way of bringing closer together the pranksters (the students in the class) and in a sense, is the students’ way of demonstrating their power. It could also be seen as a sort of initiation right for new teachers, or for substitute teachers, into the class. Practical jokes create a situation and distract from a lesson, something students are often very keen on doing.

 

Childhood
Game
Riddle

Cinderella Jumping Rope Rhyme

The informant is 20-years old and finishing her sophomore year at USC. She is a Business and Music Industry Major, is involved in several on-campus organizations such as Concerts Committees. When she’s not doing her school work or work for clubs, she enjoys running, taking hikes, and going to concerts. She grew up in Washington with her mom, dad, and two younger sisters.

 

Informant: “I guess something I learned from other people would be jump roping rhymes. I was super into jump roping with my friends when I was in elementary school. Even into middle school we would play Double Dutch. It’s just an easy thing to play—jump-roping. Like all we needed to have with us was the rope.”

 

Interviewer: “Do you have a favorite rhyme you want to share?”

 

Informant: “I wouldn’t say I have a favorite…But one I think is really weird. Haha. Probably the most bizarre rhyme that circulated around is one about Cinderella. We would sing:

‘Cinderella dressed in yellow

Went downstairs to kiss her fellow

On the way her girdle busted,

How many people were disgusted?’

And then you’d count off 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. Until whoever was jumping rope tripped. And then the song would start all over again.

 

Thoughts: It’s funny that my informant learned this Cinderella rhyme for jumping rope in Washington because I learned the same one in the suburb of Chicago where I grew up. I remember seeing some kids recite it while jump roping, but where I heard it the most was in the figure skating community. I figure skated for ten years and when we had shows, all of the younger kids would convene in a sort of backstage/holding area when we weren’t on the ice. We used to play all sorts of games to pass the time and one game was a one where everyone sat in a circle with their hands touching and we would go around the circle as we sang this song slapping the person’s hand next to us, and when we got to 10, the person whose hand was slapped got out. This seems like a good example of how folklore travels, or of polygenesis, and how it attains different uses and practices as it is spread.

Childhood
Game

Coffee and Tea jump rope song

My informant from Jacksonville, Florida gave me a second jump rope rhyme:

“I like coffee, I like tea, I like [person’s name] to play with me. [that person jumps in and their name is spelled in rhythm to the song.”

Unlike the Cinderella rhyme, I had not heard this version. When I was growing up, the rhyme we sang was “I like coffee, I like tea, I like boys and they like me. Yes, No, Maybe so. Yes, No, Maybe so… [kept going until the jumper messed up]”. Both rhymes have the same beginning and same rhythm, but the outcomes are different. In the version collected from my informant, a second person who was called on had to jump in with the first. In the version I played, the jumper kept jumping while everyone playing chanted yes, no, maybe so. Whichever one was being said when the person messed up their jumping or got caught in the rope, was the fate of the person. I played these jump rope games when I was in third grade, the same age as my informant. These games were important to me because it helped build friendships. I had certain people that I played jump rope with on a day to day basis. It was also a big part of “recess culture” to know the songs, and not different versions. I came across this a lot when I moved around from state to state when I was in elementary school. I found that different regions of the country have similar songs, but are slightly different. Knowing the songs being sung during jump rope was very important for a girl’s ability to participate in the games. Jump rope culture also developed as there were certain groups of girls that always played jump rope and there were certain jump ropes that were “better” than others, so girls would race to our bucket of toys to claim the best jump rope as recess was starting. These collections were interesting because I was able to compare them to my childhood experience and compare the songs and the actual performance of jumping rope as my informant demonstrated to me. I also found how difficult it is to swing the rope exactly right when out of practice, and my informant had to correct me a lot in my technique of rope turning.

Game

Cinderella Jump Rope Song

My informant is the same as the nose game entry. Setting is outside in my yard over spring break, and the weather was very cold. She is 8 years old, from Jacksonville Florida. She attends a small Catholic school there. My informant plays this jump rope game on the playground with her friends. She sang the song for me and we also went outside and she demonstrated how she plays the game.

“Cinderella dressed in yella went upstairs to kiss a fella. By mistake she kissed a snake, how many doctors did it take? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5..”

My informant demonstrated the jump rope game for me. A long rope is used and two people hold one end and one person is jumping to the time of the rhyme. My informant had me and another person hold the two ends while she demonstrated the jumping. I asked her who plays the game and she replied that her and her friends play. I asked her if boys played and she said no. One time a boy in her class tried it but was really bad at it- boys usually play kickball at her school. The girl who is jumping will either start standing next to the rope, or will “jump in,” if they are more experienced. The swingers chant “one, two, three and over,” swinging the rope over the jumper’s head and they begin singing the song. The alternative way to start is where the rope is swung to a beat and then jumper runs in at the right time and starts jumping. My informant showed me both ways, but had a little more difficulty running in. My informant claims to have learned the song in first grade (she is now in third grade) and has been playing ever since. This collection was interesting for me because I sang the same song when I was growing up, even though I grew up in a different state. It was interesting to see that the song is conserved across the country. However, when I played we did not chant “one, two, three, and over” to start a game. This was a game predominantly played by girls when I played at recess as well.

Game

The Nose Game

My informant is eight years old from Jacksonville, Florida. She is 8 years old, and is in third grade at a small Catholic School in her area. Her father is in the Navy, who works at a Naval base nearby and her mother stays at home. She has three sisters, all of which are older than her. While her family moved around a lot, she has lived her entire life in Florida.

The Nose Game

Me: The nose game is where if you don’t want to do something…then you put your finger on your nose real fast and the last one to do it has to do whatever the thing is

Me: do what?

Informant: whatever the people don’t want to do. Mostly answering the phone or getting off the couch.

Me: where did you learn that from?

Informant: Lisa and Bri and Katherine [informant's sisters]

Me: who do you usually play with?

Informant: I play at school a lot. For who has to clean up at recess. I’m usually the first to yell “nose game!” and point on my nose

I have also heard the version, “nose goes,” as in the person who doesn’t notice that everyone has their finger on their nose must “go” and do whatever task, usually something that no one wants to do. In my home in Minnesota, the nose game is used a lot for who has to go back outside to get something from the car when it is freezing out. It is also common for someone to just touch their nose without saying anything, and the last to notice is the loser. Sometimes this can take awhile, and it is always a little joke or point of ridicule if they didn’t notice.

 

Annotation: In an Episode of Scrubs, the nose game is used to decide who will help Dr. Perry Cox write a will.

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