USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘uncle’
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Uncle Ezra Sings “I’ve Been Working on The Railroad”

BACKGROUND:

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.

INTERVIEW:

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 SONG:

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

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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Udon Noodle Christmas Tradition

“D” is a 19 year old female student at The University of Southern California. She is a Chemistry major and interested in pursuing Pharmacy after college.  She is Vietnamese on both sides of her family and describes herself as very close with her sister, whom she shares many Folkloric traditions with. She played soccer up through high school and is currently active in the rugby community.

 

Transcript:

“D: So you know like the Udon noodles? Well udon noodles they take like forever to make. Ever since we were little my uncle who lives in Massachusetts, whenever he’d come down to California he’d come over and literally all the kids would help him make these noodles.

Me: Mmmhm.

D: We’d only have them during Christmas time because they was the only time that he’d come by and were all together, so like different kids would do different jobs at the time and like make the noodles.

Me: Do you guys still do it every year?

D: Expect now that we’re all older we don’t really need him to be there, so like my sister would start it and me and my sister would run it and all my little cousins would come help.

Me: When he came and stuff you could all finish it up?

D: Yeah, yeah! We did it one year without him though.

Me: So this is obviously before the meal, so you all get ready and get together and do it. Are there any other songs or sorts of rituals you do during the proccess? Or is it the very first thing that you do during Christmas dinner?

D: No. But it’s the thing that we all look forward too.”

 

Analysis:

As “D” indicated, the tradition began with her uncle within her lifetime, being motivated by the fact that it brought the whole family together. The choice of udon noodles allowed a common goal for the whole family to work on as a team, while allowing each member to play a role in the eventual creation of the meal, reinforcing the group dynamic already contained by them being in a family. As “D” and her sister can now perform the role without their uncle, it may act the symbolize competency in an ‘adult’ task that was originally denied to them as children. Much in the vein of the carving of the Thanksgiving turkey, which is passed down from father to son, this task may be passed down to former helpers as they grow up.

 

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