Tag Archives: Southern

The working mule who ate too much

Background: The informant was born and raised in Western North Carolina. He has lived in North Carolina his whole life. He wanted to share some Western North Carolina stories. He explained that this is just a silly joke story that “you’d be setting around and talking to folks maybe after game of golf or tennis, you might even be out hunting, having a coke or something and talking and people would throw out things like [this]. Just Western Carolina country humor.”

“A fellow had a mule that was a great worker but he ate too much.  Giving this some thought, the fellow figured the mule was dumb as a rock, so he decided to just cut back on his hay to see what happened.  So he cut the portion in half and mule didn’t seem to notice. Being pleased himself, for the next several weeks he kept reducing the amount of hay.  Finally, just when he got the mule where he could work without eating, the durn fool died.”

This basically just means if it ain’t broke don’t fix it or why try to mess with something good?

Context of the performance: This was explained to me over FaceTime.

While the informant described it as just a silly joke tale, he supposed it had the above meaning. It could also mean that you shouldn’t cut corners, you should do everything fully. The extended metaphor reflects a local attitude and reflects the relationship between culture and folklore, especially as this idea is expressed in a vernacular and metaphor largely exclusive to the region, perhaps demonstrating the historic-geographic method of looking at folklore.

Tying Sheets to Keep Patients Alive

The informant worked as a nurse in South Carolina for almost a decade. Here, she recounts a way the nurses would try to ward off death from patients on their death beds.

T:  The first one I can think about is in nursing. When, um, I know this sounds terrible, but in nursing when a patient who would not be doing well, who would be passing away, and dying, the nurses would go into their rooms and tie sheets to the corners of their bed. And supposedly that would keep them from dying until, at least– and keep them hanging on supposedly– so they wouldn’t die until later. At least until they were gone. So they wouldn’t die while they were there. 

L: In the room with them?

T: Until the next shift, yeah. 

L: Wait, is this a thing you did in the South or a thing you did in LA? 

T: The South. I didn’t hear about it much here in LA. 

L: It’s like, “Don’t die on my shift, please!”

T: Yeah, they would do it all the time. I would go in and find the corners tied to the bedsheets and I would have to reprimand them. Because families would come in and want to know why there would be, um– and mostly it was the nursing assistants. It wouldn’t be the nurses. And you know, I hate to say it, but, you know, the nursing assistants wouldn’t want to have to deal with the extra work and everything. So I would have to go reprimand the nursing assistants cause the families would come in like, “Why are the corners tied on the end of mama’s bed sheet?” 

L: Wait, so how–? So they would tie a bed sheet to, like, the post? 

T: No, no. You know how you have the top sheet and you have the fitted sheet? The top sheet, the corners on the sides, the corners on the ends. Where the corners are, they would tie a knot in all four corners. Supposedly that would keep the patient hanging on. 

L: Oh, so they’d tie the sheet to itself? 

T: No, no. All four corners, you know how when you take the sheet out of where its tucked in– you know how it hangs down before it’s tucked in? They would take that long sheet out and then they would tie a knot in it, in that corner and the knot would hang down. And a knot would hang down on the other corner, a knot would hang down on another corner. And all four corners would have a knot hanging on it.

 And I would come in, and the family would come in and I’d be like, “Oh my God! They did it again!” It would make me so mad. And I would be like, trying to explain, “you have to understand, our nursing assistants have different beliefs. And they’re just trying to keep mama here as long as possible. And we understand we’re just trying to make her comfortable”. And it would be hospice patients too! People we were trying to make comfortable and let go. You know? And here they come, trying to look like they’re trying to hang onto them. Like, “No! Don’t do that!”

L: Do you remember if this was, like, a white person thing? Or like a black person thing? Or like a both?

T: It mostly was a black person thing, to be honest. So, um, there was a lot of education there. Especially on our hospice unit when I was involved with, um, being in charge of the hospice patients. I really had to do a lot of education and make sure the girls were not doing that. And have to really, really, “y’all can not do that with these patients”. That’s totally the opposite of what our goal is here. You could almost explain it like, “Oh, we’re just trying to make mama hang in there,” but it was really difficult on the hospice unit. 


The reason I asked the informant if this tradition was a white or black thing is because neighborhoods in the Deep South of the United States are still very much segregated based on race. While whites and blacks from the Deep South do share a unifying cultural identity, there are many differences and nuisances that distinctively the two. So I thought it important to know which community this this tradition came from.

Later, the informant agreed with me that this tradition would seem sweet on any other unit that the hospice unit. This tradition runs counter-intuitive to the purpose of a hospice unit.


Main description:

AB: “So, what other types of unique chants does your frat have?”

RD: “We have so many you have no idea. Let’s see, it’s hard to think of them. Because there’s some I can’t tell you. Oh, I know one. It’s, “Sick but Safe.”

AB: “How did “sick but safe” start?”
RD: “This was one I was there for! We were at a chapter meeting, and like most of the house was there, and we were talking about logistics and stuff for Formal. I think a couple of frats were suspended around that time, or something, because I remember we were paranoid about the university suspending us too down if we were too rowdy. Anyway, somebody asked a question about something, I don’t remember, and this one guy stood up all dramatic and then said really slow, “Make it sick, but safe.” And we all just started laughing. And ever since then we just say it all the time.”

AB: “Awesome. When would you say “sick but safe,” and what does it mean?”

RD: “I mean, we chant it before parties a lot. It’s one the rules we go through before we go to parties a lot of the time. So if we’re all going to something we’ll shout it in the bus. Then it usually means like, have fun, but don’t black out or throw up or something. But it’s also like, something you can really say whenever. It’s started as a chant, but it’s really like seeped into frat slang—frat vernacular. Like, somebody could say, “That presentation was sick-but-safe!” Well, I don’t think anybody ever said that, but you get what I mean.”

AB: “So in that case, what would sick-but-safe mean?”

RD: “Umm, I guess that your presentation was good but it was also fun to watch. Like, you said what you needed to, but you also were funny.”

AB: “So, if you said sick-but-safe to anyone on campus, would they know what it meant.”

RD: “No, it’s definitely kept within our frat. It’s not like a secret, I would say, but it’s—it’s that we don’t really share chants and stuff with other frats.”

AB: “Do you know if other frats have chants with similar meanings?”

RD: “Um, I’m sure they do. But I don’t know them.”

Informant’s interpretation:

AB: “So, what does sick-but-safe mean in general, and why does your frat say it?”

RD: “I think it says a lot about our mindset. Like I was saying, frat culture gets a lot more criticism now than it used so I think they’re all having to kind of adapt to stay frats. So sick-but-safe caught on I think because it sort of captures that, and it’s an easy way to say it.”

Personal interpretation:

The informant emphasizes that fraternity culture at his school (a small, liberal arts college in the South) balances irreverence with responsibility. “Sick-but-safe” helps to articulate this balance. Curiously, it is unique to the informant’s fraternity (other campus fraternities would not say it nor understand what it means,) so it may be that other frats may have sayings/words with similar meanings.

Pledge Secrets

Main Description:

AB: “What other frat traditions can you tell me about?”

RD: “Ugh, it’s hard… there’s like, so many things I could talk about but I can’t tell you. Oh my god, I think I know one… Maybe I’ll tell you, but let me think about it for a second… Oh I know what to tell you, this is safe.”

“So, on the first night of pledging, it’s a really long night, and most of it’s just learning the fundamentals, like chants, and stuff. That’s the part I can’t tell you about, and there’s so much there. That’s like, the stuff that’s written down in the official Chi Delt* handbook. But what I’m about to tell you about is something that just our frat does. Anyway, like I was saying, after the pledges do all the chants and other things I can’t tell you about we do something called “shut-in.”* Everybody in the frat has to be there, and we all share really personal stories. It’s really late at that point, usually like four A.M., so were all tired as hell and like, just already really drained. You don’t have to tell a story, but like, you have to. I was never ready, so I don’t remember telling any good stories, but guys will talk about really dark and really personal stuff. They’ll talk about like drug addiction and abusive family members… God, people have shared some tragic things. Sometimes people share funny ones to lighten up the mood though. Anyways, it’s a pretty big deal. People will save bad things that happened to them just to share them at shut-in. Part of the shut-in thing is also being supportive. You cheer people on when they get upset or start crying.”

Informant’s interpretation:

AB: “So, why is this tradition so important to your frat, and to you?”

RD: “I mean, I think it’s the first time you get depth out of some people. Guys don’t usually talk about super heavy stuff, so a lot of people seem just like, kinda empty until they open up. It’s a moment of connection, which is pretty much why I joined a frat in the first place. I’ve always been anxious around straight men and not super close with them, so this was really, like, probably the first time in my life I ever felt a deep connection with a straight guy.”

Personal interpretation:

The informant emphasizes the importance of connecting with fraternity brothers in this tradition. As he notes, American men are typically not open about personal difficulties, so moments like this are crucial to establishing the bonds of trust needed between fraternity members. The name, “shut-in,” suggests the security of the stories shared that night, alluding to the importance of trust.


*names invented to respect informant’s wishes

Low Country Boil

I don’t know why they call it a low country boil. Probably because it comes from Lousiana, in the swampland. Anyways, it’s a south eastern thing, and you do it outside traditionally in a big old pot. It is often accompanied by bonfires and lots of alcohol.

My dad fills the pot with water and Old Bay seasoning (very important) and fills it with snow crab legs, crawfish, shrimp, eggs, corn, spicy sausage, and potatoes. And, while it’s cooking everybody is drinking and playing games like cornhole to pass the time. When it’s finally done cooking, we pull the big foldable outdoor table out and line it with newspaper and empty the contents of the drained pot directly on the table. Everyone gathers around, and its basically a free-for-all food grab – usually without plates or utensils – where we talk and grub out.

Pro tip: the best way to eat is crawfish is to take it, twist the tail off and suck on the head, getting all the delicious residual juices of the boil.

Context: [informant] I was raised in Florida and we do this for family, birthdays, or whatever, usually in the summer.

Analysis: Having been to a low country boil I can attest that the informant is spot on with their example. The Old Bay seasoning seems to be a staple in a country boil, and the process can get really messy, but fun. Although the seafood is a central component, I think one of the biggest draws of the boil is the social aspect of being surrounded by friends and family, pigging out without the rules associated with traditional dinners. No body is judging you, food is falling on the floor, but nobody cares… you are just having a good time.