Tag Archives: music

Robert Johnson: Deal with the Devil

Main Piece
You know the story of Robert Johnson, right? He traded his soul to the devil to play guitar. So the idea is that the devil never holds his side of the bargain, so this is why you never make a deal with the devil. So this is like the most famous rock and roll lore, so basically this was back in the 1920’s, and he was a struggling African American guitarist, and he wanted to be famous, so the story goes he met the devil at the crossroads, and told the devil “I wanna be famous, I wanna be a famous musician, I wanna be successful”, or whatever. So the devil told him, “If you give me your soul, I will make you famous for 10 years and you will live as a celebrity and be successful, so he accepted the deal, and then recorded one album, there was just one album, and then what is spooky is the album has guitar progressions that people don’t know how to replicate even today, but the devil doesn’t hold up his side of the deal, so he died like 8 months after the recording of the album. So he released this song, its called “Hellhound on my Trail”, and its this very spooky, scary song about someone who thinks they are being hunted down by this supernatural malevolent force. Super interesting song, highly recommend you check it out, but the idea is there that the devil will not hold up its side of the deal, and will kill you, destroy you, and make you suffer forever if you make a deal with him. So basically, its telling you, don’t ever make a deal with the devil because he will destroy you.

The informant played in a worship band as a kid, and is therefore informed on both guitar-player lore as well as Christian lore. The tale seems to be a combination of both, but the informant was not sure where exactly he learned the tale.

The informant is a 25-year-old man, born and raised in Southern California. The information was provided to me outside his family home in Palm Springs, California, on April 20th, 2019.

I found this tale to remind of me other proscriptive tales, especially in terms of the “deal with the devil” aspect. I totally remember being told other stories as a child relating to the reasoning behind why you never make a deal with the devil, but had never heard this exact story. I do like how part of the story is based in fact, with the song being able to be looked up, but research shows me that the informant is slightly incorrect with his telling of the tale, although that is common in folklore, due to the nature of multiplicity and variation. I learned that the song actually hails from 1937, and does actually exist. It is interesting to me that the informant claims this to be one of the biggest pieces of rock and roll lore, yet I had never heard it before!

Miss Susie Song


Interviewer: “Do you mind if we go back to that song we were talking about earlier?”

Informant: “Sure.. I will do my best to remember all the lyrics, but I don’t know the name of the song if there is one.”

Interviewer: “Cool, go ahead when you are ready.”

Informant: “Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell / Miss Susie went to heaven, the steamboat went to / hello operator, please give me number nine / and if you disconnect me, I’ll cut off your / behind the fridgerator, there was a shard of glass / Miss Susie sat upon it, and cut her big fat / ask me no more questions, I’ll tell you no more lies / the boys are in the bathroom, zipping up their / flies are in the field, the bees are in the park / Miss Susie and her boyfriend are kissing in the / dark, dark, dark, dark / dark is like a movie, a movie’s like a show / a show is like a video and that’s not all I know / I know your ma, I know your pa, and your sister with a forty acre bra!”


The informant learned this song from young friends during elementary school. It was a common tune that kids liked to sing during recess.


The informant sung me the song during a phone conversation about childhood songs and stories.


The purpose of this song is clear: kids use it as an excuse to utilize taboo words without technically saying anything wrong (e.g. instead of stopping at ‘big fat ass,’ the next line is used to change ‘ass’ to ‘ask’ so as to disguise the usage of the disallowed word). This way, kids are able to use words they traditionally would not be allowed to without fear of getting in trouble for misbehaving. This is a classic example of children’s folklore being used to toy with the idea of authority. Through folklore, children are constantly pressing the boundaries of what is acceptable.

No Music Party Chant

Main Piece:

 Informant: It’s simple. It’s just like, if the music cuts out at a party, or if like, the speaker blows and there’s a long stretch of silence someone will stand up and start a “No Music” chant. It’s like, one person will clap three times and then the rest of the party will reply “No Music!” in rythm back. God. And that’ll keep going until someone has the music back on again.

Background:  The informant is a senior here at USC. He is my next door neighbor and we conducted this interview in person at his apartment. He is from Manhattan Beach and has lived there for his entire life. He is a social individual and has attended many parties throughout high school and college. He attended a large high school in Manhattan Beach.

Context: The informant learned of this chant/song when he experienced it first hand. Typically, this kind of chant is typical amongst high school “party” culture. The informant clearly didn’t have high praise for this piece of American high school party folklore. He had no idea when this chant came about, but was certain it had been along for much longer than he had been around.

Analysis: I specifically asked the informant whether or not he had experienced this chant in his own life. I was interested because in own hometown, whenever a situation like this would occur at a social gathering we would break out in a similar style chant. However, In my experience, the chant involved much more rhythm and was significantly more intricate. Another contrast is that I look back on this chant fondly, in comparison to the informant. This could potentially be because my school was much smaller in size and emphasized an arts-based education. This chant is folklore because it contains multiplicity and variation (Dundes) and is an example of artistic communication performed in small groups (Ben-Amos). While the informant’s chant is more simplistic, that could be due to the large nature of his high school. On the other hand, the chant I experienced could be a function of my high school emphasizing artistic performance, making my community more willing to indulge the dramatic nature of the chant.

Juneteenth Festival

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in the ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant described a cultural festival that she has taken part in every summer since she was a child.


Informant: Okay, so one thing that I think is particularly interesting is that every summer there’s a festival called the Juneteenth Festival. Basically, it’s called Juneteenth because it’s for black Americans and basically June 19th was the day the slaves were freed, but because slaves couldn’t say June 19th, they started saying Juneteenth and nobody ever changed the name of the festival. So, it’s been like going on  since then and so now we celebrate it as “Juneteenth.”  It’s a really cool way for me to personally feel a connection with my African heritage because that’s not something that I normally practice because I have a very American identity. But Juneteenth, what happens at a Juneteenth festival? So there’s a lot of dancing, a lot of praise dancing that happens. A lot of it like revolves around a lot of gospel music and there’s also… gosh there’s like Swahili that’s spoken at a lot of them. A lot of it intersects with Christianity, which is interesting and it’s probably where the gospel music comes from. But yeah, usually they are in parks and there’s usually jazz music. We celebrate a lot of black American culture, so there’s like jazz music and Hip-Hop and… black things. And yeah, it’s a family-friendly event. I think it’s really popular in the south. My dad was the one who made us go to every Juneteenth Festival because it’s really popular in Oklahoma, and that’s where he’s from. And my mom, who’s from Louisiana, knew about Juneteenth and celebrated that there, so I think it’s a really big thing in the south. But there’s a Los Angeles Juneteenth Festival that’s held every summer, which is the one that I went to, and I originally started going to because my dad is a bass player and he always played at the Juneteenth Festivals.

Informant’s relationship to this item: The Juneteenth festival holds a lot of personal significance for the informant because she attends it every year with her family. The informant described how the festival helps her feel connected to her Black American identity, from which she typically feels more removed. The entire festival serves as a reminder of the black experience in America, including the languages that are spoken there, the genres of music that are played, and even the festival’s name, which originated from the speech patterns of American slaves. The festival is also an important event for the informant’s family, as the informant’s father — a professional bass player — plays music as part of the festivities.

Interpretation: The Juneteenth festival is an example of a festival that has spatial and temporal significance. The festival typically takes place in parks in order to emphasize its family-friendly message. Additionally, it takes place on June 19 every year because that is the date in which slaves were freed in America. Thus, the date holds a lot of cultural significance to Black Americans and is a fitting date for a celebration of the African American experience. The festivals appear to have a prescribed syntax, or order of events. The informant described several events that regularly take place at Juneteenth festivals, specifically folk music and dances that always occur. Festivals also usually take place in order to project a certain message to both insiders and outsiders. In this case, the Juneteenth festival appears to communicate pride, resilience, and determination in the context of the history black America and the current experiences of black citizens.


Birthday Dirge


“Oh happy Birthday, Oh happy Birthday
Worms and germs are in the air
People dying everywhere
Oh happy Birthday, Oh happy Birthday”

Genre: Folk Song

Background: The interviewee, KP, is an American man nearing his mid-fifties. KP resides in northern California, and his family has been in the states since the second ship after the Mayflower.He also states that he doesn’t know its exact origins, but assumes they are from the South (where he and his ancestors grew up). KP notes that the birthday song was originally passed down orally by his mother. The conversation was brought up after overhearing this song at a family birthday celebration, where he states the song is traditionally sung at since others cultures may not approve of such dark and depressing nature. This depressing nature, however, is not how KP sees the song, he states they “sing it just to be funny and change up the traditional happy birthday song, and never sang it to be mean just to have fun.”

Nationality: American
Location: the South (transitioned into west coast)
Language: English

Interpretation: My initial reaction of hearing this dark and dreary birthday song was the thought of “ Who would want to hear this on their Birthday?” Often when celebrating a birthday we are trying to ignore the fact that we are growing a step closer to our impending deaths and this song seems to capitalize on this fear. After going into a deeper analysis of this text I found that the song or refrain is a variation of the Birthday Dirge a/k/a “The Barbarian Birthday Song”, “The Viking Birthday Song”, “The SCA Birthday Dirge”. This Dirge is sung to the melody of a Russian folk tune known as, The Volga Boatmen” (a 1926 American silent drama film). The Dirge often varies in lyrics based upon who it is being sung to and often is comprised of only 2-3 verses. It is said that after each refrain of “Happy Birthday”, often in Russian tradition, the noise “HUHN”-like a grunt, or a thump on the table or floor is produced. This thumping aspect has not followed into KB’s Birthday Dirge which I find extremely interesting as it is a quite prominent attribute to the Russian rendition. In addition to the thump or lack thereof, I found that the lyrics are slightly different from those recorded in the article I found; the only commonality being the line “People dying everywhere.”

Larson, Grig -Punkie-. “History of the Birthday Dirge.” Punkie’s Web Page – Lyrics for Viking/Barbarian Birthday Dirge, 2019, punkwalrus.net/cybertusk/viking_birthday_dirge.html.

“Happy Valentines” by Outkast

Originally from Florida, this friend of mine grew up around a wide range of cultures and traditions. Raised by Haitian and Colombian immigrants, she speaks Haitian-Creole, French, English, and a little bit of Spanish. We share a love of food, and spend a lot of time talking about food and different recipes and whatnot, so when this project came down the pipeline, I knew I had to ask her about some unique, family recipes.

The following was recorded during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“And then Valentine’s Day, we have a little dinner too. She always plays “Happy Valentines” by Outkast in the mornings. That’s how she wakes us up. Like, the phone in our ear. It’s really upsetting. But you can’t get upset, because she’s smiling. And she’s playing the song. She’s the only morning person in the house. I can’t go back to sleep so just put it back in my ear with this big smile.”

This really highlights the overlap between authored work and folklore in that a recorded song has become a part of a folk tradition for a household in America. I’m sure if other lovers of Outkast heard about this tradition and did not already do it, they’d pick it up and start practicing it themselves. It really goes to show that culture is all about mixing and matching your favorite parts of the world to create something new and unique. The best way to enjoy folklore is to simply do whatever makes you happy.

Grateful Dead Joke

A Grateful Dead song started playing in the car while my dad was driving. The informant (my dad) is WB, I am PH.

WB: Ugh, the Grateful Dead

PH: Want me to skip it?

WB: No, that’s okay. Did I ever tell you my joke about the Grateful Dead?

PH: I think so, but tell me again

WB: What’d the Grateful Dead fan say when he got out of rehab?

PH: What?

WB: [said in a lower, “hippie” voice that my dad uses when imitating his hippie, drug addict cousin] “What’s this terrible noise stuck in my head, man?”

Uncle Ezra Sings “I’ve Been Working on The Railroad”


A woman from Sacramento, California recounts her grandfather’s interesting take on a traditional folk song that their family used to sing. Her grandfather was a part time inventor. For the World’s Fair, he created an animatronic who would play the guitar with a dog who would wag his tail to the beat. An animatronic is a robot like sculpture that automatically moves in a pre-programmed manor. In this case the animatronic was a man named Uncle Ezra who would play the American folk song, “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”. My source recounts her experience with the machine saying she’d never seen the traditional song ever performed in such a unique way.


My interview with my source, B, went as follows:

ME: Could you explain your experience with the machine and how it conveyed that song?

B: Well when I was a little girl, 6 years old, we used to drive up to Decatur, Illinois to visit [my grandfather]. When we got there he took us down into his basement where, before our very eyes, we say an animatronic man and dog. The man–he was called Uncle Ezra–played a banjo and the dogs tail would flip back and forth with the music. That animatronic man was in the World’s Fair in 1932. He was quite a wonder, way before Disney and Disneyland and all the other innovations in animatronic machines with music. And yeah, he would play that song “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”. It was quite something, I tell you that. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I knew the song but this was something else.


The traditional lyrics to “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”:

I’ve been working on the railroad
All the livelong day
I’ve been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away

Can’t you hear the whistle blowing
Rise up so early in the morn
Can’t you hear the captain shouting
Dinah, blow your horn

Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone’s in the kitchen I know
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Strumming on the old banjo, and singing

Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Strumming on the old banjo

The Lick

This folk melody was performed by my friend while we ate dinner at a dining hall. He is a jazz major. The Lick is a short melody, popular in jazz improvisations, and is often treated as a joke when performed during a song. Short jazz melodies are often called licks, so this one’s name of ‘the Lick’ implies that it is somehow a more important lick than the others.


The friend sang this melody, using the scat-style lyrics:

“Babadooba ya boo da”

The melody follows this solfege:

Do re me fa re   te do


After he performed the Lick, I asked where he thought it came from.

“These are like, Charlie Parker licks, a lot of the time. Uh, there’s other famous ones, like: [vocalizes a different jazz lick]. Uh, [vocalizes The Lick] is probably Charlie Parker.”

I then asked when it evolved into the joke it often is now.

“It became a joke when it just kept happening. I still hear people play that. Unironically, yeah. Like I hear very legit people play that. And it’s like, it’s still cool if you mean it. But if you’re just playing it…that’s, that’s where the joke came from, is like, people would just play it. Like, you were like, ‘insert Lick here.’”

He added:

“There’s so many instances of that happening, so it’s like, it’s not a joke in its existence. But it’s more of, like, a comment on, like, people trying to turn jazz into math. Where it’s like, you play this, then you play a two-five-one [vocalizes another jazz lick].”

Two-five-one is a popular jazz chord progression that finishes a section or phrase.

Here is a popular mash-up of different uses of the Lick throughout the years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKL2It6XzHA