Tag Archives: Southern

Decorating “Easter Trees”

MAIN PIECE

Decorating “Easter Trees”

“For some reason, we used to decorate the trees around our house like most people would Christmas trees.  Many people in the south have egg-like ornaments and easter colored string lights, like purples and yellows and greens and bright blues.  It was much more prevalent in South Carolina when I lived there.”

BACKGROUND

This informant, HA, was born in Pensacola, FL but has lived in a few different parts of the American South for awhile, specifically the Floribama coastal area.  His family has stayed in the south for as far back as he can remember.  He has learned this piece of folklore from when he moved to the suburbs of Charleston and his family were the only ones on the block that didn’t do it in their first year there.

CONTEXT

I talked to HA by inviting them onto a zoom call with a few other friends we both knew from summer vacations where I used to live in Panama City, Florida.  After the call I asked if he could stay and chat and we shared stories about our lives while I asked him questions about sayings and activities he remembered from his childhood.

THOUGHTS

There is a very heavily held belief among Americans that Southern culture is a bit more gentile and ornate than the rest of the country so it’s fascinating to see a piece of folklore that supports this idea.  What interests me is how this decorating differs between people of different financial statuses.  Looking more into it, it seems like a competitive game as well as it seems articles state that people can try and outdo other people’s easter trees.

Bless His Heart

Main Piece, transcribed from a conversation:

“Bless your heart. It means aw, you fucking idiot. We say it like an insult, like oh that poor soul. It’s a southern, midwest thing. I learned it from my mom, who is from Texas. It’s definitely not a compliment, and it’s usually said behind someone’s back when you think they are stupid. But it also applies as a synonym for thank you, like when someone does something nice to you you say ‘bless your heart’ and that is meant sincerely.”

Background: My informant is from Kansas City, Kansas with her extended family being from Texas, Kansas and some in Florida.

Context: She is a good friend of mine I made at USC. We Facetimed (quarantine prevents live conversations), and I asked her if she had any sort of folklore after explaining the concept, and she immediately thought of this. I am from LA, and I don’t know much about the midwest or south so she immediately went to those identifying factors.

Thoughts: I think this is in line with the idea of Southern hospitality existing in the same space as extreme xenophobia. I don’t know much about the South, but I found this interesting because it’s the fake nice that you would expect. I’ve heard this used in California, but only as an expression of thanks, and only ever from older white people.

“And That’s the Night That the Lights Went Out In Georgia”

MAIN PIECE

“And that’s the night the lights went out in Georgia”

“This is a saying that I’ve found is common among mothers and older Southern women.  When someone does something that will get them into massive trouble, other people will say, “And that’s the night the lights went out in Georgia.”  People use it very sparsely, like in big dramatic situations, not common small things.  It’s kind of like the equivalent of saying, “he’s a dead man.””

BACKGROUND

This informant, HA, was born in Pensacola, FL but has lived in a few different parts of the American South for awhile, specifically the Floribama coastal area.  His family has stayed in the south for as far back as he can remember.  He has learned this saying from listening to his mother and remembers it from a time a church board member sent a scathing letter about the priest to the congregation and his mother said it.

CONTEXT

I talked to HA by inviting them onto a zoom call with a few other friends we both knew from summer vacations where I used to live in Panama City, Florida.  After the call I asked if he could stay and chat and we shared stories about our lives while I asked him questions about sayings and activities he remembered from his childhood.

THOUGHTS

Looking into it, it seems  as if the saying comes from a popular country song by Vicki Lawrence that was later popularized in the nineties by Reba McEntire.  As this song came out a good amount of years before HA was born,  it makes sense that the song and it’s lasting effect on the culture of Southern vernacular fit her age demographic.  It gives a great example of just how pop culture can be  translated into folklore just as much as  folklore is turned into pop culture. It seems like the song is about killing a cheating wife so it makes sense that HA would say it’s like “he’s a dead man.”

“Sweating Like A Hooker in Church”

MAIN PIECE

“Sweating like a hooker in church”

“I believe that the saying is more of a way to describe sweating or nerves.  We probably say that down here cause we always like to make things a bit more illustrative then y’all do and we always love a church reference.  It’s not sweaty like a person whose been working all day, but more like when somebody is nervous about something that they are holding back from others like a secret or something of the sort”

BACKGROUND

This informant, HA, was born in Pensacola, FL but has lived in a few different parts of the American South for awhile, specifically the Floribama coastal area.  His family has stayed in the south for as far back as he can remember.

CONTEXT

I talked to HA by inviting them onto a zoom call with a few other friends we both knew from summer vacations where I used to live in Panama City, Florida.  After the call I asked if he could stay and chat and we shared stories about our lives while I asked him questions about sayings and activities he remembered from his childhood.

THOUGHTS

The American South has a fascinating way of coining certain terms that sound quintessentially Southern.  It seems upon further research that there are a lot more metaphors and similes used in Southern vernacular than in the rest of the United States.  HA’s relation of the quote to the church was very interesting as it made me think of Mary Magdalene as a possible referential point in how this statement came to be.  As well, variations of it are seen in other parts of the  world, but they still have enough variation where the meaning is shifted and holds itself as a different piece of folklore.  Ie. Midwesterners saying  “Praying like a sinner in church”

Lavinia Fisher- Southern Legend

Main Piece:

Subject: There was a traveller coming into downtown Charleston everyday to do business during the year… I’m gonna say 1850. He was coming from the North, from around Georgetown, and back in the olden’ days unless you wanted to add like, a couple days to your trip to go up the Cooper River and find a crossing, you’d have to stop… in somewhere that is now Mt. Pleasant and spend the night to cash a boat to get to Downtown Charleston the next day. So sure enough this is what he had to do. He stopped in an inn run by husband and wife John and Lavinia Fisher. And there were always rumors that circled around this couple, but it was mostly just gossip, not much of any real substance. They had a really crazy reputation… The wife- Lavinia- was supposedly one of the most beautiful women anyone had ever seen. Whereas John was this big, quiet, intimidating, imposing presence. No one paid him any attention when Lavinia was at his side. So… this traveller stops in this inn, hitches his horse, comes inside, and is greeted by Lavinia. She takes his coat, John takes his stuff up to his room…um… and the traveller is intrigued at first. He’s like “I’ve heard so many things about this couple, I’m just gonna observe and play along and see if I can tell any gossip to people I’m doing business with tomorrow in Charleston.”

Everything goes smoothly until they sit down for dinner with a few other boarders. And the traveller realizes John and Lavinia are angling their questions mostly at him. Um… and the questions are never innocent questions. They were like… “Do you have a family?” “What is your business in Charleston?” Things like “Is anyone expecting you home and how much money are you carrying?” He started to get weirded out. The boarders all go to bed, John and Lavinia stay up with the traveller. Lavinia then offers him a cup of tea! Not wanting to be rude, he accepts it. And the traveller, so as not to raise any suspicion, pretends to drink it. At this point, he’s unsettled but he also already paid for his room. And he’s thinking, “I could just be freaking myself out because yeah I’ve heard things about these people… about their guests going missing. But like… no one does that! They’re just being nice and I’m being paranoid.” But he goes to bed that night and finds that he cannot sleep. Then he hears footsteps like, outside his room, and he recognizes them as John’s. So he hops out of bed and hides behind the chair in his room. The footsteps go away and he stands up. Then he looks out the window to make sure his horse is still hitched. Then he hears this like, giant clatter, and the whole room shakes. When he looks back to his bed, there’s just an empty void in the floor. So he’s like, “I’m out.” So he hops out his window, jumps on his horse, and just books it to the dock, where he is the first person on the boat a couple hours later.

When he gets to Charleston, he tells the authorities there’s some shady stuff going down in the room. So they authorities go to the Inn, and they find… that all of the beds… are equipped with this mechanism that like… drops their guests into this murder dungeon! And they find like twelve bodies! Like this is real. John was executed, Lavinia had to watch. John’s neck didn’t break immediately, and he struggled for like… minutes. And Lavinia watched. And when it was her turn- by the way as the first woman executed in America- she looked to the crowd of curious onlookers and said… this is crazy… So Lavinia looks to the crowd of curious, morbid onlookers and she says, “If any of you have a message for the devil, tell it to me now, for I will be seeing him soon.” And then that bitch was hanged. And… she apparently still haunts the jail. 

Interviewer: Holy shit.

Subject: I know I know! I loved this legend as a little girl. I think my grandma first told it to me. My grandma is like super southern. And like yeah… Lavinia is terrifying but that last line always hit so hard. I think that’s why I remember it so well.

Context: The subject is a 23-year-old white woman born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She is of French Huguenot descent and her ancestors settled in Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. She is currently quarantining at her home in Charleston with her family. She is a close family friend, and knowing she and the rest of her family have deep ties with Southern history and folklore, I called her up over FaceTime and asked if she would mind sharing any legends she knew.

Interpretation: I too was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and am all too familiar with the legend of Lavinia Fisher. This particular legend seems to be heavily commercialized in the Charleston tourism industry. I first heard it when I went on a walking ghost tour with three other tourists. Though much of this legend seems to have a factual historical basis, I know that certain elements are dramatized. Lavinia and John actually ran an inn, actually murdered people, and were actually executed. But I have heard differing iterations of the legend from the subject’s version. For example, rather than the subject’s account of Lavinia’s final words, I have heard the version, “I you have a message you want to send to Hell- give it to me. I’ll carry it.” Additionally, the concept of the beds opening up to a deadly dungeon is not necessarily based in fact, and was likely added into the legend through the years for dramatic effect. While the subject mentions only twelve bodies, other accounts mention hundreds. There is also the well known claim that Lavinia wore her wedding dress to her execution. And so on and so forth, the variations go.

Regardless, the most fascinating aspect of the legend is how much of it is based on fact, which is quite a lot of it.

For more on Lavinia, see:

Weiser, Kathy. “Lavinia Fisher.” Legends of America, 19 Dec. 2019, www.legendsofamerica.com/sc-laviniafisher/.

The Witch of Yazoo

(Setup)

Storyteller:

“On my dad’s side of the family…he grew up in a town called Yazoo City, Mississippi. And did you ever see a movie called My Dog Skip?

Me: “No”

Storyteller: “Okay, so it’s a movie..based on a book about an author who grew up in the same town as my dad did. A white author who grew up there. And in the movie, they portray this legend which is the Witch of Yazoo. And supposedly, people are like ‘well he invented that for the book.’ On the black side of town…because it is Mississippi so there is still a very distinct black side of town. On the black side of town, the Witch of Yazoo was a preexisting legend. And again, whether it was a story he coopted or whatever, I don’t know. But I know that I heard about this form my aunt and uncle before I ever heard of this author or My Dog Skip or anything.”

(Here is the chunk of the story)

Storyteller: “And so, basically the story is that there was this woman and she was…and I’m going to try to remember it as accurately  as I can. I believe she was having… an affair with a man in town and it was either an affair…or some sort of family drama. I don’t remember specifically that part of it. But she ends up being murdered essentially by the man in her life in a fire. And then they bury her and everyone forgets about it. And then at a certain point fairly soon after…or it may have bene close to the anniversary of the death, half the town burnt down. And everyone was like wtf, like what happened. And her grave had been dug up.”

Me: “Oh My God!”

Storyteller: “And so people were like…’It was her! She came back and she did it’. And of course people were like ‘that’s crazy.’ But also people were like ‘um maybe?’ So they built a chain that goes around her grave that is supposed to keep her inside.”

Me: “Oh My God, that’s terrifying”

Storyteller: “And in the movie, if you see the movie My Dog Skip, it’s like a crypt that’s there…but in the black cemetery there was a grave because we went to see my grandmothers grave and I asked about it and my aunt was like ‘oh girl lemme tell you this story.’ So either there is one for the black side of town…because you know it used to be very segregated. Or it was a thing that happened on the black side of town originally and it just got coopted on the other side of town…I have NO idea. But it is this hilarious thing because it was this chain with GIANT weights and I was like ‘what the hell is that?!’ And yeah, so the inspect the chain…or at least they used to supposedly…they inspect it so she couldn’t come back.”

Me: “So this was true and it became a movie? Or what?”

Storyteller: “The thing is I have no idea…my aunt tells that story as if it is gospel truth right? But then when the movie came out and I looked it up, all this stuff online said it came from the book. But my aunt told me that story without ever having read that book. Because I asked her and she was like ‘what are you talking about?’ And she knew the guy (the author) but she had never read the book. So I don’t…I have no idea if it’s just one of those local stories that people know so he used it in the book or what…But it’s the south and it’s full of ridiculous scary stories. Really I think all these stories are made to just keep us from doing bad stuff or whatever.”

 

Background: The storyteller is form the south and her dad’s side of the family is from the city where this legend takes place. After listening to her other story that she shared with me, it is clear that her family has passed down many stories that are unique to the south. The storyteller is a professional writer and has used some of these stories and filled in the gaps to write short stories upon the narrative.

Context: I asked her if I could interview her for this project. I knew that she was from the south and after collecting a couple stories from people who grew up in the south, I was fascinated with them and wanted to hear more. She gave me three stories…a couple were stories from New Orleans and the other was this one. Both occurring in the south. I drove back home to meet her for some coffee before diving into the interview (along with another storyteller who is in a different post)

Thoughts:  I think that the stories that come from the south are fascinating. I don’t know what it is that draws me and so many other people to them. Perhaps it’s because the stories are incredibly rich or perhaps it’s the stories’ attention to details that make the stories so real. There are a lot of stories about revenge in the south and once again, I believe that this is the case because there is a lot of unsettled business. There have been a lot of wrong done in the south and the only way for people to cope with what happened may be to create stories that serve a small percentage of justice to those that were killed or unfairly harmed.

 

 

White Suit

James, my grandpa, is a 75-year-old African American man who grew up in the South. This story took place in St. Joseph, Louisiana, in the late 1950s when James was about 10.

“This was way out in the country. We was living way out in the country. So, I was riding a bicycle one evening. It was just dark. I rode up to the end of the street here they got a curve at. So, I seen a little – at the time, I didn’t know it was a ghost; I thought it was my little friend Tom –. He had a white suit, white hat, and he was about 3 foot tall. I thought ‘What Tom doing picking up pecans in the dark?’ I said ‘Imma ride down there, get a little closer, see what he doing.’ The closer I was getting, he just started knelt right down to the ground. *laughing* I turned that bicycle around, boy, as fast I could. I was riding and it looked like he was coming behind me. When I got to the top of the street, I looked back and he had disappeared.”

James adamantly believes this was a ghost because of the way it moved: “He reached down and picked up something. Then he stand up. Go over there. Reach down and pick up something. Then stand up.” James continues, saying “It scared the devil out me. That’s when I realized it was a ghost.”

I don’t know how I feel about this story. I’m not saying I don’t believe it, but my papa says it was dark yet he had no light. Therefore, he may not have seen the figure clearly. On the other hand, it’s hard to mistake a small man dressed in all white out in the woods with anything else.

White Rabbit

James, my grandpa, is a 75-year-old African American man who grew up in the South. This story took place in St. Joseph, Louisiana, in the late 1950s when James was about 14 or 15. He was out hunting with his cousin at night with both wearing head lamps to see.

“We was hunting one night till we saw, at the fence, there was this rabbit on the other side of the fence. And he was white. I guess we were about 10 feet away from him. My cousin shot at him – *pow*–that thing didn’t even move. I said ‘Boy you must have missed it; let me shoot it.’ So, I shot – *pow*– he didn’t move! I said ‘I know I hit that thang!’ We went to the fence and looked. I said ‘There’s got to be some blood somewhere on the ground.” Wasn’t no blood on the ground so he just hopped right on away. Then we ain’t seen him no mo.’”

Upon asking James if this was a ghost story, he wholeheartedly agreed that it was. “Yea, I believe that was a ghost. Ain’t no way we would have missed that thing that close. And no blood on the ground? Nah, we didn’t hit him. Whatever it was, we didn’t hit him. It wasn’t real. That’s for sho’.’”

I fully believe James’ story as I heard stories of him being a very capable and accurate hunter when he was younger. Hunting was necessary for putting food on the food during this time; for two teenage boys who had been hunting for years to miss such a close target and for the animal not to be scared off or injured is suspicious to me. Additionally, my grandpa has never been an overly superstitious or an easily frightened man.

No Dancing in Texas/China

Context: I collected this from a high school friend when we were on a camping trip together over Spring Break.

Background: My friend was originally born in Texas, where his father is from, before moving to California as a child. His mother is an immigrant from China.

Dialogue: Yeah, um, again, I wrote a paper for dance history class that was in freshman year, about my personal experience with dance, and the professor gave me 100%, pulled me out of the class, and said, “Hey, I really enjoyed that paper, it was really cool, and I really appreciated the way that you opened up in the paper about your experiences,” because I wrote about how I have absolutely NO personal cultural experience with dance, like, in my life… Um… And that was due to the fact that my father was from the Deep South, and there, uh, at least for men, dance was seen as… something that was highly effeminate, and, like, if you danced it would somehow make you gay, um, and being from the Deep South he didn’t want me to be gay… So, I just NEVER danced as a child! And, then, on my mother’s side of the family, I had no cultural experience with dance because… uh, she was from China, but she was born under the Mao regime, and, um, during that time, a LOT of forms of art were actually pushed, um, out of the cultural sphere… And so there wasn’t really any dance except for this one dance that they did was like, “Hail the Might Mao” or whatever. Um… And, most forms of art were pushed out, so I had no culture of dance from that side either.

Analysis: I debated whether or not to check this under the Folk Dance category, but went against it because there isn’t actually a dance to be learned or performed. It’s interesting to compare these two different types of censorship, and see how much they’re based on the same kind of ideals. While the Maoist restriction of dance and art forms in general is more a complete totalitarian regime, the Deep South’s stereotyping and discrimination against gay people is more focused and specific. Yet they’re both based on the idea of controlling what people do through the use of villainization (against art and homosexuality, respectively).

Smothered Steak Recipe

Recipe:

“Basically, you take a piece of meat that’s probably pretty tough, but thinly sliced, you salt and pepper it, coat it with flour, brown it in a little bit of oil in the skillet. Um, you do this with as much meat as you’re going to cook. You put all the meat back in the skillet, barely cover it with water, and simmer it for as long as you have, an hour or two, ideally. Um, and the long simmering helps tenderize the meat and the flour forms its own gravy around the meat without any other extra work. And in Southern cooking gravy is always required. So, the classic recipe is kind of a hand-sized steak that, you know, is a serving for, you know, for each person. Um, by the time I knew about it, um, my mom had taken that recipe and changed it quite a bit. Uh, or in subtle ways, I guess. Uh, the salt and pepper became a classic, a family recipe of seasoned salt. So a special mix of, you know, herbs and spices, um, and the beef that was traditionally used for this, uh, we were hunters in our family and, uh, we started to use venison instead. And the deer in Texas are white-tailed deer that are smaller and so it’s hard to actually get many, um, large even hand-sized steaks out of a deer. Uh, so the pieces of meat became much smaller. Often bite-size pieces of meat. And often we would use the tenderest of the deer, what we call the backstrap which is the tenderloin of the deer, um, to, uh, make this recipe. Uh, and it was always one of the favorite recipes that my mom would cook for anyone, so, um, as I grew up and got married and started trying to cook this for myself, S and I would make our own modifications to it and the seasoned salt didn’t set well so we went back to salt and pepper and added some thyme in. Um, we didn’t have as much access to venison, being in California, so we moved back to either beef or lamb or, you know, that was pretty much it, but it works with just about anything. Um, and, uh, I guess that’s, that’s about the changes we’ve made. The other, you know, so that’s the basic recipe and evolution of it.”

Analysis:

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. He is extremely interested in grilling and cooking and often cooks for large groups of people recreationally. His parents have owned various pieces of rural Texas land over the years, ending with a cattle ranch an hour outside of Austin. His mother grew up in Louisiana and East Texas, meaning “there’s a lot of both Southern and Cajun roots in what I learned from my parents.” The informant calls this a “class Southern recipe” that he used to make when he would help his mother in the kitchen. This is a recipe the informant learned from his mother and that he thinks she learned from her mother. He describes it as “an any-meal dish,” that he often has for dinner now. One of the biggest “three or four holidays” for his family growing up was “opening day of hunting season,” when they would go out hunting early in the morning. When they returned to the house, his mother would have smothered steak, biscuits, and eggs cooked for everyone. He describes this as a “traditional, kind of, fancy winter breakfast” for them. Of this experience, he says, “You just can’t imagine coming in out of the extreme cold, being out for several hours in 25 degree weather and coming in and having this meal.” He makes it because “it tastes really good” and it’s a dish that he has never seen anyone else cook the way his mom taught him to cook it, and when he cooks it for other people they are impressed by it. It “typically gets eaten until it’s gone.”

 

This recipe was collected while I was home for Spring Break and was told to me while I was having a drink with my father in our living room. I have had this dish many times throughout my life and it is one that is often requested by other families when my father is cooking a meal for them. I think one of the main reasons it is such a hit is that it really is amazingly tasty when it is done right, but it also appears startlingly simple to the casual observer. This is especially true in Northern California, where the emphasis in cuisine is on bright, fresh, and organic meals that are presented beautifully. Placing a large skillet of smothered steak next to these things can provide quite a contrast. I think all aspects of it appeal to people’s “rustic sensibilities,” by which I mean they feel they can indulge themselves and be Southern for a meal. I think the informant cooks it so much because it is fairly simple and because it reminds him of the ranch where most of his family still lives, 1700 miles away.