USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘music’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“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.

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

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?”

Folk Dance

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:



Celebrating Selana

Selena Quintanilla was a Mexican artist who turned really famous in the United States. Her music was with Latin Culture, but sadly, she was killed by her manager. It is a common thing to throw parties and even just watch her movies and music on her birthday to remember how she prevailed as a WOMAN singer in the American culture. She is celebrated as one of the stepping stones for Hispanics/Latinos in the music industry in America.


Juan is a Mexican-American from Mexico city. He works demolition, but is super into his religion of being a Jehovah Witness. He has been passing down his traditions to his kids, just how they were passed down to him by his dad and grandpa


Raindrop, Drop Top Joke

Informant is my 11 year old sister who goes to middle school in NJ. The game is called “Raindrop, Drop Top” after a lyric in the song “Bad and Boujee” by the artist Migos. I had not heard of this game but apparently it is popular among kids in her grade.

“The game is basically, well, ok. It’s just a word game. Somebody types “Raindrop,” and then somebody else types “Droptop,” and then the third person has to come up with a funny rhyme.
She opens her phone and shows me a conversation.

Kid #1: “Raindrop

Kid #2: “Droptop

Kid #3: “Spongebob never made it to the bus stop*.”

“So basically somebody just has to come up with some kind of rhyme. That’s how it works.”

She shows me another one:

Kid #1: “Raindrop

Kid #2: “Droptop

Kid #3: “I think my dog is allergic to tater tots.”

The format of the game is interesting but reminds me of something I might have done when I was her age. I was also surprised that she was referencing the Migos song because Migos is not necessarily a kid-friendly artist. I asked her how the game gets started. She replied “Somebody just starts it. I don’t know, it depends if somebody wants to play or not.”

*This reference to “Spongebob never made it to the bus stop” can be seen in this clip, from the Nickelodeon show:

Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Unitarian Universalist Church

Context: Gathered from one of my roommates once he found out about my collection project.

Background: My roommate has never had a set religious background, and was always in something of a melting pot of faiths when he went to churches like the one described here.

Dialogue: So, I don’t know exactly how Unitarianism, like, started, but… At some point it was just this sort of culmination of, like, various Christian sects, like Episcopalian or Protestant or whatever was around Massachusetts going on. Just a bunch of them sort of, like, coalesced into one group that’s like… “You know what, Trinity or Unity, doesn’t matter! We all have spirit!”

Analysis: The intereseting thing about this piece of folklore to me is how much is blended together in a church like this. It’s not only a mixing of various religious sects, either: at one point, my roommate sang a song he was taught as a kid, about the “Seven Guiding Principles of Kindness.” He remembers only these lines:

One, each person is important
Two, be kind in all you do

The song, interestingly enough, is set to the tune of “Do-Re-Mi” fromthe mucial The Sound of Music. So we have a mashup of popular culture, religion, and folk belief, all in this single church.


Mozart and Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus


Karl is a freshman aerospace engineering major. He spent thirteen years in a traditional boy’s chorus. He is also an avid soccer player


So there is this famous song called Miserere mei deus by this italian composer gregorio Allegri. And most people either call it the Allegri or just Miserere. But there is this super famous story about it cause like it was written for the catholic church and only ever sung by the Vatican chorus during holy week within the sistine chapel because it was considered to be too perfect to ever be performed anywhere else. So in like the 1770’s or around that time Mozart got to go with his dad to listen to the Miserere and observe the holy week service within the sistine chapel. Wolfgang Mozart was only fourteen years old but his dad was an important composer who was invited to come to the service by the pope. That night though, when they got back to where they were staying Wolfgang Mozart wrote the entire piece down just from his own memory after hearing it just once. So when I hear the piece I don’t just hear the beauty of Allegri’s writing, but I also better comprehend the true genius that Mozart was.

Collector’s thoughts:

The Informant said that he learned this legend from his choir director who claimed to have heard it when they were young. The fact that this anecdote, independent of its validity, is told to young children helps to reveal that it is a way to inspire young people to unlock their musical potential by giving an example of what a famous composer accomplished when he was young. This legend is somewhat well document and more can be read here:

Additionally, Allegri’s Miserere can be heard here:




The Cat’s Manor at USC

Folk Piece

Informant: So I live in a house on [REDACTED] street at the North University Park District of Los Angeles, California. Actually, the Governor of California used to live there in the early 1900s. But whoever lived there in the 1940s or ‘50s, um, they, there was a whole third story. Like picture the old victorian houses with the spirals and stuff. But there was this third story and it burned down, like, in this crazy fire. And the like room that burned like more than any others was the room where this crazy woman that lived there had all of her cats. And like all of the cats died, so now like in the middle of the night, if you go up, there’s like this stair case that leads to the roof of the house but as you’re going up this staircase you can see the remnants of this old third floor. Um, cause they like didn’t do a really good job of getting rid of that, and when you’re going up that staircase to the roof, you can hear meows in the middle of the night. I have not personally heard them, but I’ve only gone up there once.”


Background information

Informant: “I learned this story when I was a freshman when I joined a group that has lived there the past decade or so. I heard it from a senior who was also a very superstitious guy who said ‘Oh, I like, hear it every night.’  The people who believe it take it very, very seriously. But the people who never experienced it all kind of think of it as a joke.”



Informant: “We tell the story when we let in new members. I don’t know, it’s just a fun thing to add to the aura of it all – they’re like, typically freshman, you know? It’s just fun to make them feel like a part of the group with a little story.”



Ghost animals are not nearly as common as ghost people in folklore, as we’ve talked about in our class with Professor Tok Thompson. Yet, in this story, they are just as eerily scary. That this ghost story includes artifacts that tie the legend into real observable truth, in that the remnants of the burnt third floor are easily accessible, is truly haunting. In the participant telling the story, I could envision walking up the stairs and seeing the charred, blackened floor.

It also seems like there is somewhat of a ritualistic retelling each year for new members of this group. The story helps identify their group because they collectively lease the house year by year, and so in retelling this story and having it be retold primarily by their group, they are owning the house in more than one way. The formal telling of this story to another member is one way to extend that ownership.

Equally as interesting is that this group is a singing group and that the hauntings come in audio form. Oftentimes, ghost stories, legends, and other forms of folklore are described in terms that are familiar to that particular ‘in’ group. In no way am I comparing their singing to the meowing of 40 cats burned alive, but it is interesting that they are auditorily stimulated, rather than visually.


The Beatles Lighting Up with Bob Dylan

Folklore Piece:

“Uh, so the Beatles… This was around 1964 I believe. John Lennon and Paul had discovered a Bob Dylan record in 63 when they were in Paris, they thought it was amazing, and they really wanted to, well John in particular, really wanted to meet Bob. And they came to the US, John decided he wasn’t ready to meet Bob Dylan because he thought he had to be as ego equal. John Lennon didn’t think he was like up to bar to meet Bob Dylan. Finally, the Beatles had a little bit of success in 1964, if you know anything about the Beatles history, probably the biggest band in the world. Finally, they decide to meet Bob Dylan at this hotel, I forget the name, in New York City. And The Beatles are in there waiting with their posse. There were several rooms that Bob had to get through, like media and things, but he finally gets through and The Beatles had some wine, like some really nice wine, and they offer it to Bob and he says ‘Uh… No. Do you have any cheap wine? I’m not into super nice wine’ and they were like ‘No, so what should we do then?’  They were trying to figure it out, and Bob says ‘Well I know you guys like to smoke, so like, do you wanna, do you wanna get high?’ and they were like ‘Oh shoot, we’re not… we’re not gonna do that. That’s like, we’ve never done that, we’re not really sure about that.’ Bob actually thought they sang about smoking in one of their songs, saying ‘We get high,’ or something, when really it was something else. Um, so anyways, Bob lights up and hands it to John and Paul who are both way too scared to try it, so Ringo tries it and they all just start laughing. Hot-boxing in this room with Bob Dylan. And that’s what inspired them later when, anytime the Beatles wanted to smoke, they’d say ‘Let’s have a laugh’. Um, but yeah they all got super high with Bob Dylan and that led into the really self-concious period of The Beatles for Revolver and Rubber Soul, which I would argue are some of their best music.”


Background information:

This was told to the participant in his two unit class on The Beatles. The professor told him this story, but he claimed to not know if it was true or not. Considering that The Beatles and Bob Dylan are both rock and roll legends, he said he would not be surprised if the story was embellished over the years. He likes the story because of what impact it could have potentially had on The Beatles career and is a fun way to explain the difference in sounds between The Beatles’ records.



The informant says that the story would most likely be told in a format that people were talking about music and/or The Beatles. He doesn’t think it would be a story that he would tell his family, unless they had brought up an interest in the band or a conversation about it.



Legendary Figures can span from athletes, like Babe Ruth, to politicians, like Abe Lincoln, to musicians, like Marilyn Monroe, and everyone in between. What is unique about the legendary figure is that we know, for a fact, that these people existed. It is both their actions and the way in which they are talked about that becomes folklorized.

What helps transform these somewhat ordinary celebrities into the status of legend is often what they do beyond just their physical work. If all we had in a vacuum of knowledge was The Beatles’ CDs, we might think they’re pretty good, but would not understand the iconic image they represented for decades. To familiarize and identify ourselves with these legends, we’ll often tell folk stories that we feel are representative of their character. In this story, The Beatles make the transition from proper European rockers to far out psychedelic rockers. While the genre shift is evident in their music, this story helps explain why it may have happened, which, when combined with the personality of Bob Dylan, is what makes it so entertaining.