Folktales and Storytelling

I am reading Virginia folk tales in search of some ghost-gold. I have come across many interesting ones. Some interesting because of their great quality and others interesting because they are so horribly lame. This post is a beginning of what will hopefully develop into some intriguing posts about folklore and storytelling. No promises about this one though.

It should be no secret by now that I love WPA posters.

In the 1930’s (generally) the Folklore Project of Federal Writers’ Project through the US Work Project Administration set out to collection, document and write about the lives and cultures of the United States’ folk. The FWP spoke with the people who told old stories, played traditional music, and lived in peculiar yet familiar ways to the nation’s majority. Many of these stories (some recorded, some written) are great, informative reads.

The stories I have read from this particular project come from Virginia Folk Legends a volume edited by Thomas E. Barden.[1] Barden mined the Virginia Writer’s Project files (VWP of the FP of the FWP of WPA) to create this excellent book. He no doubt traversed an endless mountain of daily notes left behind from six years of VWP fieldwork. The book is wonderful to read and features insightful editorial essays. It leaves one amazed at the skillful storytelling of America’s folk.

Demanding more, as any researcher would, I scooted over to the Internet and found The Journal of American Folklore, and to my surprise its publication goes much farther back that the WPA. What Joy! What intrigue! What stories await me?

I found stories like this one:

 CLOCK RUNS DOWN.’

Oncet they had a clock, and it had been runnin’ a long time. So the clock stopped runnin’, and they didn’t know what was the matter. So one was named Mike; and he said to Ike to take the clock apart and see what was the matter. He found a bug inside. He said it couldn’ run because the engineer was dead.[2]

Which is a corny story, with a intentionally comical ending. There are also ghost stories about finding treasure, and any number of woodland creatures doing all sorts of anthropomorphic things.

And then there are stories from the category I call “Poorly Told Stories,” which are quickly becoming my favorite. Here is a great example:

BRICK ON HER HEAD.3

Once there was a little girl name’ May, and she went to her grand- mother’s to stay for a while. She had a pretty little pink dress, and it was gettin’ too small for her. Her grandmother told her she couldn’t wear it next summer, because it was too small. And she tol’ her to put a brick on her head, so she wouldn’ grow more. And when she went back to her mother, her mother asked her why was she so small. She tol’ her she had been wearing a brick on her head.[3]

These are the kinds of stories that make you say “Oh…well..yea okay…” And I love them!

Why?

First: I appreciate bad jokes and bad stories. More often than not we read and interact with good stories. Even if you don’t like the plot or the characters most published writing is clear and to some extent good. These stories are not even long enough to fizzle out, they start hot and are dropped into a bucket of water–story over. This one in particular sounds more like a report than a story, it is very matter-of-fact and it is that oddity that I love.

Imagine someone going around collecting stories and coming up to a local man who sat them down and told them that brick story. Think of the quizzical look on the collector’s face, wondering “Thats it?” It runs right over the idea that during the time when people told folktales more casually they were all good at it. Not everyone can tell a good story, we can all think of a time when we or someone we know murdered a perfectly good story or tried to tell a lame one. The record of these stories reminds us that there is no mythical past where every town had an adorable little man wearing jean overalls, sitting in rocking-chair on the front porch of at Shotgun shack, whittling god-knows-what and just boiling over with great stories to tell strangers. Story telling is hard, and knowing that in while  reading all the great stories makes us appreciate good stories (and insightful editors)


[1] Ed. Thomas E. Barden, Virginia Folk Legends (Charlottesville and London: University of Pf Virginia, 1991), 302.

[2] A.M Bacon and E.C. Parsons, “Folk-Lore from Elizabeth Country, Virginia” The Journal of American Folklore 35, no.137 (July-September, 1922),

[3] A.M Bacon and E.C. Parsons, “Folk-Lore from Elizabeth Country, Virginia” The Journal of American Folklore 35, no.137 (July-September, 1922), 300

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