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Folklore: The Living Past

  1. The Tennessee that the tourist knows, with its standard highways and hotdog stands, its industrial areas, cities, and hustling chambers of commerce - all smoothly integrated in surface America - is much like the tourist's Maine or Ohio. But there is an older Tennessee, resistant to the leveling force of an age of radio, motion pictures, mass printing, and rapid transit, and taking its folkish pattern from habits, beliefs, and art forms rooted in the remote past of the British Isles. To an outsider these folkways may seem merely odd survivals of the quaint or decadent. They are more than that: they are the earthy Tennessee of Davy Crockett and Andy Jackson, grown old but still hale and hearty.

  2. Though the folkways of Tennessee are part of the general regional culture of the South, they belong to the upland and border area rather than to the Deep South and the Seaboard. Folkways persist most vigorously in isolated mountain and hill regions and in rural sections, but their influence is still felt in the cities and among people of all classes, whites and Negroes. Some of the traditions and beliefs are State-wide; others are peculiar to mountain, Negro, or rural communities.

  3. The speech of Tennesseans is rich in racy and vigorous folk idiom, derived from times when the English language had not yet been starched and formalized with definitions and rules of grammar. In the speech of the unlettered, especially in the mountains and hill country, there is often the metrical surge and flow of the Old Testament and of the Reformation hymns that the people sing. "My mind went a-rambling like wild geese in the West." "I went down to Chattanooga, where the smoke runs up to the sky." "I am not fitten for to knock at her door."

  4. Backcountry folk are prone to use parts of speech in strange ways - nouns as verbs, verbs as nouns, adjectives and adverbs as nouns or verbs. "I've got them weary dismals today," moans the hillman. "Granny Tatum's standing on the drop-edge of Yonder and we'll soon be laying her down in her silent grave." Of a jealous lover they say: "Oh, he's heart-burning the worst kind over that little gal." A quicksand stream is a "miring branch"; a gossip is a "bone-carrier"; a tirade is a "clapper-clawing." If a man is reserved, he is "offish," or "uncomeatable." An extravagant lie is a "ripper," a "snorter," a "screamer." A person who changes his mind often is called a "fly-up-the-creek" or a "whip-around."

  5. Often there is a broad vein of humor in the folk expressions of the people. "I'm so hungry I could eat a bull - and it bellering!" "He's as lazy as the hound that leaned against the fence to bark." "She's as ugly as a mud fence dabbed over with toad frogs."

  6. Thousands of Tennesseans still judge character by physical traits catalogued by generations of observations. "You watch," they say, "and see if politicians don't most usually always have big noses. You take a man with stubby fingers. He masters his way through the world and he's bull-stubborn. Take a man that grays early. Most likely he's a fine fellow and will lend you money. A blue-gummed Negro is a killer and his bite is as poisonous as a copperhead's. A dimple in a girl's chin is a mighty bad sign, means the devil within. But a dimpled man is a good steady sort of fellow and can be trusted. Don't know why it is, but rich men most usually are hairy. Any man who talks to himself has money in the bank, but he won't lend you any."

  7. The old weather signs have vital meaning in the lives of rural people and farmers watch them closely. "You can always tell there will be a storm," they say, "when cats and rats play after sundown. A sure sign of rain is when a rooster crows at night. Frost will come as sure as judgment just six weeks after you hear the first July fly. It never fails when birds flock on the ground that a wind storm is brewing up, and when fires commence spitting there'll be a soon fall of snow."

  8. "When it comes to farming," they will tell you, "I'd sink down to beggar-trash in no time if I didn't know the things I learnt from my daddy and he learnt from his daddy about farming. Suppose you plant potatoes near onions. Well, the onions will put their eyes out. I've never seen a garden that throve good unless it was planted in the full of the moon. You've got to be careful and don't thank a man for gift seeds or they will perish in the ground. If it thunders while the fruit trees are in bud, the orchard won't yield to amount to anything. If a hen is set in the light of the moon the eggs will hatch roosters that you can't noways keep out of the house. Don't ever set a hen during a run of wind or the chickens will cackle, crow, and sing till you're half crazy. If you'll mark the bottom of the churn with a cross or drop a dime into it, the butter will come quicker. If you want to keep your horses and cows from catching distemper, tie a strong billygoat in the stalls with them. Always plant peppers when you're good and mad at your wife and give your gourd seeds a hard cussing or they won't come up."

  9. The old wives say: "It ain't no sort of ailments except the pneumonia and bad fever sickness that you can't treat at home just as good as any doctor a-living. Nothing on this earth better for a cut than some turpentine to burn out the poison and a binding of fat bacon to heal the soreness or maybe draw out rust and splinters. You could pay five dollars a bottle for cough medicine and it wouldn't do no better than a dose of coal oil and sugar. Want to get shet of warts? Well, let a black calf lick them three times on three days and fare-ye-well warts. You drink water boiled with a silver dollar and your hives will leave you."

  10. "Now, when it's babies," they say, "it's just rightdown foolish to try to go by a book. Say a young woman goes by the book. She pays no mind to what her old mother tells her. She maybe goes to town and sees a scary movie show. Then what? The baby's born with a birth-scald on his face. When a child is born, you dasn't sweep under the bed nor take the ashes out of the fireplace for a good month if you want the mother to live. If you want the child to rise in the world, make sure you take it upstairs before you take it downstairs. Let your baby look into a mirror before it's a month old and it'll have trouble teething. Say you want to know what sort of man your boy-child's going to be. Well, when he's exactly one year old take and set him in the middle of the floor. Put things like a Bible, a hammer, a piece of money, and a snake's tongue around him. Watch which one he picks up first. Is it the Bible? He'll be a preacher. The hammer? A carpenter. Money? A banker. Snake's tongue? A lawyer."

  11. "These fresh younglings they send here to teach school now vow it ain't a thing to luck signs," they say, shaking their heads. "But don't you believe it! I've seen many a thing that the books don't tell. Now, it's a mighty mean thing to hear an owl screech at midnight. A man's got to tie a knot in a towel or stick a shovel in the fire, or he'll foul his times and seasons. If you bite your finger nails on Sunday, you are bound to be sick unless you wear something blue for a week. If you count flowers on a grave, you will die unless you swallow as many minnows as there were flowers. If, unbeknownst, you burn cherry wood, or lightning-struck wood in your stove, you better be quick to burn thornwood, or the Lord help you! It's terrible bad luck to sit in a chair backward or lay a broom on the bed, or tear up a Bible, or turn a chunk around in the fireplace."

  12. Love and marriage customs are rich in folk beliefs. "On the first day of May," they will tell you, "a girl can hold a mirror over a well and see her future husband. But she won't catch a husband at all if she ever sits on a table. Let a boy find a girl's knife or nail file and she will be his wife. If a girl and boy bump heads, they will become lovers before six months are out. Sleep with a beef bone under your pillow for nine nights and you will marry the person you dream of on the ninth night. You can set your shoes crosswise under your bed and dream of your sweetheart. September marriages will be happy. Marry during a rain and you will turn sour on your husband or wife."

  13. Sitting up with the dead has its own peculiar customs. "They's three main things you've got to be mighty careful about," they say. "First off, it's the blackest sort of luck for any member of the family to sit up with the departed. They's death in it. Be sure that every mirror is taken down or turned to the wall. If any of the folks sitting up was to see the coffin in the mirror, it's death to them. And cats! Lord, don't let a cat come near the remainders! Cats is the devil's own and they'll sure steal the soul of the departed if they can get up into the coffin."

  14. The lives of most rural folk revolve about the churches, which are not merely places of worship but also social clubs, news exchanges, and marriage marts. Country church "sociables," picnics, and "Summer Association" meetings are in essence folk festivals.

  15. After "laying-by" time in the summer the rural folk take things easy. There are visiting in the community, all-day fishing trips, which end with fish fries on the river bank, ice-cream and strawberry suppers, squirrel stews, and barbecues. As late summer approaches, preparation is begun for the Big Meeting. Women cook for weeks in anticipation of "visiting company." Singing school masters from far-gone places like Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas have taught their schools at a dollar a head, and now folk know enough about reading shaped notes to make the music good during the meeting. The Sunday community singings and the monthly all-county sings at the county courthouse have "shook the crimps out of voices." The Big Meeting is the crowning point of the summer - two weeks of fiery sermons, sweet music, prayer, shouting, conversion, baptism, dinner on the ground, visiting and courting.

  16. Every county seat has its "Liars' Bench" - the worn steps of the courthouse or the curbing on its shady side - where on Saturdays and first Mondays farmers in town to market their produce gather with townsmen to swap tall tales, and talk politics, women, and religion. In each county is one man outstanding as a wit. Trade days find him on the court square surrounded by howling men and boys. In national and local news he is well informed, and his humorous comments "make folks clear" on otherwise perplexing questions. People will say, "Don't miss first Monday, because Tom Siler will be on hand. That man's a rich card, a Joe Darter for a fact! Ain't nothing he don't know and ain't nobody he can't mock down to the point of nothing." Politicians, lovers, church folk, and the like fear the quips of such a man, but they admire him and are always on hand to hear his latest.

  17. In general, there is no sharp line of cleavage between the substance of Negro and white folk beliefs. The Negro has absorbed and modified many white folk beliefs, as he borrowed speech and religion. However, his temperament and vivid imagination have given this old European lore a new richness of imagery and a naive freshness authentically his own. The humorous philosophy which often underlies his life brightens for him circumstances that would be unrelieved bleakness for the whites. The Negro's powerful folk instincts have softened the hard angularity of his adopted religion. His Lord is made in man's own image: an all-wise, benevolent and thoroughly human deity. Some of the traits of the Calvinist God are transferred to the devil - and even the devil is sometimes an "old rip," malicious but amusing, rather than a foul fiend. The weight of evil power rests with witches and the vague rabble of dark forces which prowl the night. These things are true, of course, only of the uneducated Negro. The high school or college graduate follows the urban mores.

  18. Negro religious services are highly emotional, and in many Negro churches of the rural sections dancing is one of the most important elements in the worship. These dances and the songs accompanying them are called "reels." Although they are tabooed in the city congregations, it is in general considered proper to dance, provided the feet are not crossed, as "hit ain't railly dancin', lessen de feets is crossed." The Baptist churches in many places follow the old custom of baptism. Dressed in white robes, the minister, his assistants, and those to be baptized march into the water. A man called a "feeler" goes ahead of the minister with a pole, feeling the way for the others, so that there may be no "pit falls." After a suitable place is reached, the applicants for baptism march to the minister and are immersed. As a rule they come from the water shouting, while the onlookers on the banks of the creek chant a dirge-like melody.

  19. Belief in "cunjur" lore, an offshoot of voodoo, is fairly widespread among Tennessee Negroes. Its influence is strongest in West Tennessee where both white and Negro folkways have much in common with those of the Deep South. Cunjur spells, which may consist of anything from a muttered rigmarole of African words to scattering graveyard ("goober") dust, are relied on to accomplish a variety of things for believers. Cunjur doctors will sell you "hands" or "tobies" enabling you to detect witches and ward off their spells. Through cunjur you can cause rain, find lost property, wither the tongue of your gossiping neighbor, win your sweetheart's love, and drive your enemy insane or to the grave. It can force your debtors to pay you and your creditors to forget you, make your wife fecund or barren, cause the fish to bite, and the mosquitoes to forage elsewhere. The power of cunjur is as limitless as its user's desires.

  20. "Cunjur doctors" are often marked by physical peculiarities that add to their professional reputations. One such man who lived near Memphis had kinky hair on the sides of his head, but straight hair on top, a lucky mole on his right arm, and three birthmarks on his left arm declared to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He was chicken-breasted, indicating that he would never have tuberculosis, and had been born with a caul over his face.

  21. Cunjur doctors do a thriving business in the Negro districts of Memphis and Nashville. They traffic chiefly in good luck charms, love powders, cure-alls, and spells to insure winnings in the numbers game. Though there are many skillful Negro physicians in the towns, wrinkled red-eyed old men and women ply their trade of herb-doctoring and cunjuring in tenement districts just as they do in the most isolated swamplands.

  22. Rural Negroes are little concerned with luck charms for gambling. Their endless struggle is with witches, "ha'nts," and the like. Though ha'nts are feared, some of them are merely prankish or bothersome. But all witches are deadly dangerous and feared utterly. Among the whites, belief in witches has largely disappeared. The Negro has a double heritage of witch lore - Celtic and Teutonic from England, and a jumble of beliefs from many African peoples. A witch can take any form. The most common is the traditional toothless old hag. But the cur-dog slouching across the road, the whickering owl that perches in your yard, a cat, a snake, a fish, or even a stone may be a witch in disguise. When a witch fastens on you, you are doomed to a terrible death unless you can find a spell to rid yourself of her. The witch comes to you in the night and rides you. In the morning you find your hair plaited into stirrups and your face scratched, and you feel as if you have had a savage beating. Good charms against witches are salt sprinkled about the house, especially in the fireplace, black pepper carried on the person, sulphur matches thrust into the hair, or the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit in the pocket. Unless the witch is particularly powerful, a Bible under your pillow will keep her at bay. She must count every word before she can begin riding you, a task she can never finish before dawn. The best way to prevent harm from witches is never to offend anyone suspected of witchcraft.

  23. The uneducated Negro clings religiously to many old death customs. If a person dies hard, his ghost will return to haunt the family. Nothing must be overlooked to make the dying of your kin as "easy" as possible. The bed must never be placed "cross-way of de world," but always with the head toward west so that the spirit can flow out with the mystical east-west currents of the earth. If this does not help, the pillows are removed, because a bed containing the feathers of a fowl protects the life spark. When anyone is suffering greatly, it is better to shift him to a strange mattress to hasten the end: it is dangerous even for a well person to sleep on a strange mattress.

  24. The custom of holding several funerals for one person is not uncommon; and after the main funeral and the burying have taken place, a funeral service may be conducted by each lodge or association to which the deceased had belonged. Many a Negro will pay dues to a lodge; all his life so that he and his relatives may be "laid away" in style. A preacher often has his funeral preached in each church which has been under his pastorate. Because rural Negroes cannot always get together on short notice, a body will sometimes be buried on the day after death, and the funeral services held several months later. Occasionally, when a person dies penniless, preachings will be held for several days over the body until enough money has been collected to satisfy the undertaker. To keep the spirit from coming back again, the cup and saucer used in the last illness are placed on the grave. The medicine bottles are sometimes turned upside down with loosened corks on the grave so that the contents can soak into the ground.

  25. In every locality are men and women, Negroes and whites, who are oral libraries for neighborhood history and gossip. They can quote exhaustively from all important sermons and political speeches for years back, and have at their tongues' tip a great variety of jokes and anecdotes. They will tell you long circumstantial tales of the War of the Roses, when Fiddling Bob Taylor and Uncle Alf Taylor, brothers and political enemies, campaigned against each other for the governorship. They will tell you of the roaring sermons of Evangelist Sam Jones and of how he fought the saloon keepers and gamblers with Scripture and fist. They will tell of famous railroad wrecks, the teething troubles of children dead these many years, and they will grow eloquent on Bryan's last stand at Dayton. And from the mountains of East Tennessee to the Mississippi lowgrounds they will tell you the eerie tales of Old Kate, the Bell Witch of Robertson County, who tormented John Bell to his grave and cowed Andrew Jackson. There are stories of ghosts and badmen, of lovers, family feuds, and political killings - all true folk tales, edited and garnished by thousands of tellings. Tennessee's finest contributions to folk tale are undoubtedly the legends that grew up around the exploits of Davy Crockett as bear and 'coon hunter, marksman, politician and wit, lover, mighty drinker, and spinner of tremendous yarns.

  26. The white folk music of Tennessee, like the rest of its white folk culture, belongs to the large upland region of the southeast. It is best understood by observing it in its various functional forms. It may function, for example, as the joy of the individual or the small casual group, the religious gathering, the "singing," the dance, and the play-party - a gathering where singing games are played.

  27. The ballad ("love song" or "ballet") is still perhaps the strongest type of traditional song in Tennessee. These may be very ancient, like "Little Hugh," "Lord Lovel," and scores of others; or they may be more recent compositions in the ancestral ballad manner, like "Springfield Mountain," "Jesse James," "The Death of Floyd Collins," "Mr. Bryan's Last Fight," and "Casey Jones." The production of these ballads seems endless. Every new happening of enough importance to arouse widespread note and ruffle the feelings of the country folk is almost sure to bring a ballad in its wake.

  28. Typical of the recent compositions are the "badman" songs, one of the best of which - "Stagolee," or "Stack O'Lee" - comes from Memphis. Stagolee is pictured thus:

    Stagolee was a bully man, an' everybody knowed
    When dey seed Stagolee comin' to give Stagolee de road.
    Oh, dat man, bad man, he gives his wife his han'-
    "Goodbye, darlin', I'm going to kill a man."
    The song gives a detailed account of the murder and of the capture of Stagolee, followed by the court scene, which does not reveal Stagolee's fate. The song ends with,

    Stagolee cried to de jury, "Please don't take my life,
    I've got three little chillun an' one little lovin' wife."
    dat man, bad man, Stagolee done come.
  29. Another typical Negro folk song, relating the sinking of the Titanic, was composed by an old western Tennessee Negro:

    It was sad when dat great ship went down - ship went down,
    It was sad when dat great ship went down - ship went down;
    Women, wives, and little children los' their lives - los' their lives,
    It was sad when dat great ship went down.
  30. The ordinary Negro prayer is really a spontaneous song, since it is often intoned as a sort of chant. In moments of earnestness, stilted phrases are laid aside and prayers for particular individuals are moaned, with direct mention of particular besetting sins. Sorrow is expressed in the same fashion. There is a large group of regular Negro church songs known as "moans" because they are pitched in the sing-song fashion of prayer or grief. Tragedies and catastrophes are made themselves for chants, much like a deacon's prayer or "the moan" of the convert who has just "come through" and vividly describes his trip to hell and heaven.

  31. The dance song has practically given way to the dance fiddle tune without words. The "old fiddler" of Tennessee is far from extinction, and he still fiddles such strains as "Natchez under the Hill," and the "Arkansas Traveler," "Turkey in the Straw," "Turkey Bone Buzzer," and "Pop Goes the Weasel" - tunes of hoary age. More recently the old fiddler has associated himself with guitar and banjo players to form "hillbilly bands" which have done their part in entertaining radio listeners. Related to the dance, and less subject to the disapproval of churchly folk, is the play-party. Though now less prevalent than in earlier times, when social diversions were fewer, it is still played to the singing of "Hog Drovers," "The Miller's Lot," "Slop the Hogs," and "Possum Pie," and like swinging games.
  32. Many songs are composed and sung on the basis of "calls" and "'sponses," as:

    Leader (call): Oh, where you runnin' sinnah
    Audience ('sponse): No hidin' place down here!
  33. "Note singing" and "book singing" are rapidly replacing the "jumpup" songs among the Negroes. Individual Negro composers pass out printed copies of their songs, usually called ballads, which are learned and sung by rural congregations until it is almost impossible to separate the old from the new. Even here the creative impulse is not ended - the ballads usually come without music and a tune has to be improvised, the lines often being modified to fit the melody. This improvisation, called "chooning it," is done with surprising quickness and ease.

  34. The religious folk impulse finds expression in the spirituals, both white and Negro (see MUSIC). Particularly as developed by the Negro, these folk songs are now a unique and significant part of American music.

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