Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon:
“Culture Creep”

Richard M. Dorson is a trained folklorist, which means that he has learned to take down stories just as he hears them—by tape recorder, if possible—from members of some old-established and backward community, and afterwards resist the temptation to improve them. I suspect, though, that in Negro Folktales in Michigan a certain degree of editorial censorship has been exerted by the Harvard University Press authorities—not a word of really coarse language is included, and such modest periphrases as “the hoodoo man took a nail with some of the thief’s bowel-movement on it, and drove it into a tree,” do not read quite right to me. (I have just been comparing Cecil Sharp’s published folksongs in the Journal of the English Folksong Society with the unpublished transcriptions of the verses as sung to him by dirty old men in village inns. He has done a wonderful job of purifying them of erotic and filthy expressions; but is it scientific?)

The folklorist’s next job is to arrange the stories in categories, and then go thumbing through Stith Thompson’s and Ernest Baugham’s master collections of folk tales, in search of a “type number,” or “motif number,” which can be used as a pin for securing each bright-winged specimen to the cork-lined cabinet.

I have nothing, in principle, against this lepidopterological technique. Folk tales are spread over an immense area, and their regional variations, or similarities, when studied carefully and related to archaeology and anthropology, often throw light on early tribal migrations, trade routes, and what is called “culture creep.” Though I’m not a trained folklorist, I recently noted five Corinthian religious myths which would be given the same type number as analogous incidents recorded in the early books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The differences in detail and emphasis were so great—for instance, between Jacob’s magical method of winning Laban’s cattle and his daughter, and Autolycus’s magical method of winning Sisyphus’s cattle and his daughter—that they suggested a common origin in Canaan at a very early epoch, rather than trade contact. “Did Canaanites ever seize the Isthmus?” I wondered. Again the story of Ulysses in Polyphemus’s cave is one of the most widely distributed folk tales of Europe: Sir James Frazer quotes thirty-two variants and traces it back to the Caucasus. And one of several cogent reasons for supposing that the Odyssey had a western Sicilian origin is that the nearest folk version of Polyphemus’s cave to Homer’s has been reported from Trapani; not from Chios, his reported birthplace. But these interesting problems cease to be quite so interesting when culture stops creeping, as it has done in the last generation or two, and puts on seven-league boots. The discovery of trained folklorists that Cinderella and Red Riding Hood are told by primitive storytellers both in Yucatan and Outer Mongolia may point to a slow, slow culture creep thousands of years ago eastward across the Behring Straits; or it may mean simply that early 19th-century missionaries’ wives, in charge of impressionable young Indians or Mongols, supplemented their Sunday school repertoire with these sure-fire nursery favorites.

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Dipping into Mr. Dorson’s rag-bag of one hundred sixty-five pieces, I pulled out several that have been familiar to me from childhood; and then, consulting the notes at the end, found that some of them have a hundred or more variants reported from the British Isles alone, not to mention America and other continents. This naturally set he comparing the European versions I knew with these Negro ones current in Michigan; because there seems to be little point in printing a thousand-times-told tale unless it happens to have a brand-new twist, or to be particularly well phrased, or to have been discovered among a hitherto unknown tribe in New Guinea or the Upper Amazon.

Here’s a story that I heard as a boy in North Wales, fifty years ago, related in a slow singsong by an old Baptist minister:

A philosopher and a sailor were once seated in a little boat and sailing together over a calm ocean.

Presently the philosopher says to the sailor: “My good fellow, did you ever study ontology?”

No, sir, says the sailor, “indeed I know nothing about ontology.”

Then one quarter of your life is lost, says the philosopher.

After a long time the philosopher asks again: “My good fellow, did you ever study eschatology?”

No sir, says the sailor, “indeed, I know nothing whatever about esohatology.”

Then one half of your life is lost, says the philosopher.

Soon the philosopher asks once more: “My good fellow, did you ever study epistemology?”

“No, sir,” says the sailor, “indeed, I know positively nothing whatsoever about epistemology.”

Then three quarters of your life are lost, says the philosopher.

And lo! even as he spoke, there came a little puff of wind, and over went the boat.

Can you swim? asks the sailor.

No! shouts the philosopher, struggling in the water.

Then, alas, says the sailor, “all your life is lost.”

And here is the Negro version:

The preacher had to go across the lake to the church, and the boy rowed him across. This Sunday morning a new preacher walked down to the boat, says: “Good morning, son. Are you the one carries ‘em across the lake to the church?” Boy says, “Yessa, parson.” So the preacher gets in the boat. He asks, “What do you charge, son?” “Twenty-five cents a person.” So the parson gives him a quarter. Boy shoves off from the bank. Preacher says, “Sonny, you ever go to Sunday school?” Boy answers, “I hate to tell you, parson, but I never did.” “Did you ever learn the Ten Commandments?” “I hate to tell you, parson, but I never did.” Preacher said, “Son, you lost half your life then.” Then he asks him: “Son, did you ever learn theology? Did you ever learn geography?” “No.” “That’s too bad, son; you lost half your life.”

About that time the boy paddled on a snag up there in the lake and capsized the boat. Out went the parson. Boy, he commenced swimming off. Parson went down. When he come up the boy hollered to him, “Say, parson, you ever learn swimology?” Parson said, “No, son, I never did.” “Well, parson, I hate to tell you but you lost all of your life.”

I find the Welsh version chaster, more classical, more universal—and more truly ludicrous. “Can you swim?” is poignantly practical. “Say, parson, you ever learn swimology?” is simply un-Christian.

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Have the Michigan Negroes improved on the European folk tale of the hog at the customs house? I doubt it. This is how they tell it in Majorca:

The customs duty on every hog brought into Palma market from the country used to be a peseta a score, a tax which the country folk greatly resented. But Palma was a walled town and the customs officers were posted at each gate. Early one Saturday, a peasant killed a pig which weighed fifteen score, shaved its face, dressed it in an old skirt and shawl of his wife’s, concealed its head and ears with a lace head-dress, and seated it beside him on his market cart, supporting it with one arm. When he reached the gate, the customs men asked him whether he had anything to declare.

Only a sack of sweet potatoes, he said, adding: “Have the kindness to drag it out, gentlemen. My wife has fainted, and I must support her.”

So they dragged the sack out, weighed it behind his back, and overcharged him half a peseta.

Pass on! they cried, grinning.

But Jesus Maria! said one customs man to the other afterwards. “Did you see that fellow’s wife? She looks more like a pig every time she comes through here.”

This is the Negro version: more modern, less dramatic, with no “double take,” but given a certain verisimilitude by its very untidiness and unnecessarily circumstantial de-tail, which seems to be the Negro habit.

One time there was a colored guy running a café, and he sold out all of his meat one day, when he had a large crowd of peoples. And they was steady asking for a barbecue. He went to get some meat, and all the stores were closed. And so he said: “I know what I will do. I will get my Winchester and a blanket, and drive to where there’s some hogs always in the road, and will kill me one.”

So off he went, and sure enough a big hog came across the road. He said, “No, I won’t shoot the hog; I will put this Cadillac in low gear and run over him right quick. And no one will hear me.” So he ran over the hog and put him in the back seat of his car, and put the blanket over everything but his head. By being in a hurry coming back to town he ran the light, and the cops chased him and caught him at the next light. Axed him where he was going in such a hurry. He said, “Officer, I have a sick brother in the back of the car.” The officer said, “Okay,” and looked in the car and shook his head. He said, “Go on, but if you ever run another light in this town I will pur you under the jailhouse.”

As the colored fellow started the car, the cop said, “Just a minute,” and he looked again. He said, “Go ahead, but tell your brother he is the blackest and the ugliest bastard I ever saw. Tell him he has a mouth just like a damn hog.”

Mr. Dorson’s learned note on this version runs:

Hog in Cadillac: Motif K 406: “Stolen animal disguised so that thief may escape detection.” The present type-variant should follow right after Motif K 406, 1 and Type 1525: “Stolen sheep dressed as person sitting at helm of boat.”

We are then given the name, age, and condition of Mr. Dorson’s informant, Mr. Johnny Hampton:

Lives in Benton Harbor. Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1921. Came to Detroit in 1946 and to Benton Harbor in 1956. Works for Auto Specialties Manufacturing Company.

Then we are given cross references to another story:

John stole a pig from Old Marsa. He was on his way home with him and his Old Marsa seen him. After John got home he looked out and seen Old Marsa coming down to the house. So he put this pig in a cradle they used to rock the babies in in them days (some people called them cribs), and he covered him up. When his Old Marster come in John was sitting there rocking him.

Old Marster says, “What’s the matter with the baby, John?” “The baby got the measles.” “I want to see him.” John said, “Well, you can’t; the doctor said if you uncover him the measles will go back in on him and kill him.” So his Old Marster said, “It doesn’t matter; I want to see him, John.” He reached down to uncover him.

John said, “If that baby is turned to a pig now, don’t blame me.”

Here the note runs:

Baby in the crib: This is the Mak story from the Second Shepherd’s Play in the Towneley Cycle (see The Towneley Plays, Early English Text Society, Extra Series No. 71, 1897, repr. 1925, pp. 116ff., and pp. xxxi-xxxiv for a parallel two centuries later in the ballad of Archie Armstrang’s Aith). Baughman adds to Motif 406,2, “Stolen sheep dressed as baby in cradle,” five references from Southern states, two Negro and three white. For a related variant, see Chapter V, “Hog in the Cadillac,” which also employs the general motif K406. . . .

The informant is Mr. E. L. Smith of Calvin—

born in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, in 1886. He came to Chicago in 1921 after the boll-weevil began destroying the cotton crop. His present wife induced him to come to Calvin in 1933. He farms a little and works in his son-in-law’s hoisting-machinery plant.

Call me stupid, but I can’t see the point of this megillah about Motif K406, when we have no means of knowing whether Mr. Johnny Hampton heard the “Hog in the Cadillac” story from his cousin Sam Whitaker way down in Pond, Mississippi, or from the white sales clerk in the Auto Specialties Manufacturing Company who read it in a joke-a-day tear-off calendar published in Trenton, New Jersey, and compiled by a displaced Esthonian lawyer, with a Scottish mother, educated in Honolulu. Mr. E. L. Smith may equally have heard the story of the “Baby in the Crib” from a traveling hog-gelder back in Georgia, or in Chicago from one of Al Capone’s more literary gun-men to whom his son-in-law paid protection money. Culture creeps every which-a-way in the States, and these Michigan Negroes, unlike those of Bolivia County, Mississippi (Where Mr. Dorson collected a neat packet of folk tales in 1954), do not form an old-established, backward community. They are casual immigrants from several different Southern states, and have been subjected to so many linguistic influences that even the dialect is not homogeneous.

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Beside folk tales, two or three of them in the “Brer Rabbit” African vein, there are dozens of old-fashioned comic-but-clean stories about stupid Irishmen, or clever Jews, or thievish hired men, or famous liars, or hypocritical preachers; a few second-hand accounts of multiple murders, cannibalism, and “hants”; and at least one ordinary white man’s smoke-room yarn that has been going the rounds ever since Clark Gable was Rudolph Valentino, and Joe Louis was Jack Johnson. Walter Winfrey, the narrator, has played professional baseball, served in the army, and worked in the transmission line at Ford’s factory. He does not reveal the source of “Three Wishes,” but it is no more a Negro folk tale than “The Wreck of the Hesperus.”

This was a cowboy, and he wanted to be a strong man. So he saddled his horse and went down the street riding along. A snake crossed the path before him, and he taken his gun out to shoot it. So the snake says, “Mr. Cowboy, don’t shoot me, and I’ll make you any deal that you want me to.” So the cowboy says: “All right. Make me three wishes.” The snake tells him. “Go ahead and wish.” So the cowboy says: “I wisht I had muscles like Joe Louis. And I’d like to have features like Clark Gable.” And he says, “I’d like to be as strong as this stud I’m riding.”

So the snake says, “Okay, you go home, go to bed early, get up in the morning and see if you’ve got your wishes.”

So the cowboy got up the next morning; he throwed his bathrobe back; he says, “I got the muscles like Joe Louis.” He looked in the mirror, and he says, “I got the features like Clark Gable.” Then he pulled his bathrobe back again and looks down. He says, “Well, I’ll be durned; I forgot I was riding a mare.”

What I enjoyed most in the collection was the small residue of admirable real-life narrative—not mixed up with Motif C. 1492 or X.120 A. Thus Katy Pointer remembers every word of her father’s simple story as he told it her seventy years ago: how he escaped from slavery in 1859 at the instigation of his owner’s charitable wife and got clean away to Canada:

. . . He got on the railroad and started walking. He walked along the tracks, and hid in the daylight. Only once in all the time did he stop in the daylight to wash and shave in a little river, and two white men stopped and asked him where he was going and where he was from. He told them he was going to Michigan City, and that he would sell his life dear, though they was two against one. . . . He laid out his razor—it was a long blade with a handle—and his revolver. And they said they wasn’t going to bother him.

He walked to Ypsilanti on the railroad. (He was walking three weeks.) His shoes was all wore out, and his socks, and his feet got all swelled up, and his legs all swelled up. . . . When he got to Ypsilanti he met a colored man going to work; he had his dinner pail with him. And he asked my father, “Are you a runaway slave?” And my father said, “It’s none of your business what I am.” He was wore out with people asking him questions. The other man said, “I can see from your shoes that you’ve come a long way. You see that house up the railroad a ways—that’s where I live. You go there and tell my wife to give you breakfast, and then you go to bed and stay there till I come home; I’ll be home at six o’clock.”

. . . That night the house couldn’t hold all the colored people that came there. And they gave him carpet slippers and socks, and took up a collection and gave him quite a lot of money. In the morning one old fellow took him down to the railroad and said, “You get a ticket for Detroit, and when you get there take a ferry to Canada, just about a mile across the lake, and then you’ll be under the lion’s paw.”

When he got to Windsor he looked up Aunt Celia Flenoy, a little black woman who was Albert Campbell’s aunt. She got him a room with a colored man, and he got work on the street, at fifty cents a day. “I’m a free man now,” he said.

Those were the bad old days; but these good new days are not behind them in drama. Sarah Hall’s life story, after she came up to New Bethel, Michigan, from Gould, Arkansas, is a pretty tough one and hardly seems to be heading for happiness:

William Brown Lee was my husband. That house where you met him, the other side of Town Line Road, I bought that house at Sodus for one hundred dollars, and had it moved here for seventy-five. And then he’d never do any work, just lay around, and buy light bread and peanut butter for hisself and eat it in front of us. And during the winter he’d make his children carry his mess outside, he’d do it in the house, just too lazy to go out. And call me names! I birthed his baby fighting him.

He had my boy put in the reformatory in Lansing, and my daughter Odessa in the Adrian reform school. She was going to school and had a baby; so they took her and put her in prison, said she was too young to have a baby. She was fourteen, and lots younger girls around here had babies. Brown Lee gave my two youngest children, seven and eight, to his daughter, and she’s living with another man; they go out and play pokina at night, and leave the young ones fastened at home. When the Church at Benton Harbor was going to help me, Brown Lee stopped them, and called me a whore.

Year before last two of my kids, Barbara and Effie Dean here, were playing around his house, and they found some stuff in a bottle in the toilet. He’d put a piece of my bloomers and skirt and some roots and something like water, but red, in the bottle. That was to hoodoo me. The kids brought it back and poured it out. But it killed my father and my uncle.

Papa came down from Muskegon, and offered me a home with him, after I broke up with Brown Lee. Brown Lee told my papa he’d never see my face alive again. My father went back to Muskegon to build our house, and died in less than three months. My uncle, Cole Young in Benton Harbor, came out to visit me, and Brown Lee said, “You’ll never see his damn face again.” My uncle died a month later, loving his wife. Then William Brown Lee told me, “You’ll be the next one to be buried.”

And ever since I been having fits.

But is unhappy personal reminiscence, or even an old woman’s account of what happened to her father, long ago, a folk tale? Especially when it can find no motif number in either Thompson or Baugham?

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