Volume VIII, No. 3, Spring 1981
A TRIBUTE TO THE FIRST OZARK FOLKLORIST--A MAN NOT ONLY INTERESTED IN THE OZARK PEOPLE AND THEIR WAYS, BUT FASCINATED TO THE POINT OF DEVOTING MUCH OF HIS LIFE TO THE CHALLENGE OF RECORDING THIS INFORMATION FOR YEARS TO COME,
Drawing courtesy of Arkansas Gazette
The Ozarks lost a great champion in the passing of Vance Randolph on November 1, 1980 at the age of eighty-eight. He was one of the first to recognize the value of the Ozark folklore and to seriously collect, document and publish it. We at Bittersweet are awed by his prodiguous output of books on dialect, superstitions, songs, jokes and other folklore.
There has been quite a bit written lately about Vance Randolph since his death, expecially in the Ozark region. But because of our admiration of him and his work and our own association with him, we'd like to share some experiences with our readers.
A mutual friend, Max Hunter, a collector of folk songs and jokes himself, made us acquainted with Vance in the early years of our magazine. Our visit with him and his wife, Mary Parler Randolph, has to be one of the highlights of my years of publishing Bittersweet. Since then we have had some correspondence with him, and he served on our advisory board. His approval and encouragement of what we were doing have meant a great deal to me during the years of feeling our way in a somewhat similar work.
Vance Randolph came to the Ozarks in 1899 and began seriously collecting lore in 1920. He found a land where "Every hilltop has its tradition, every hollow is full of tales and legends." He felt the urgency in the 20s and 30s to collect and record as much Ozark lore as he could, for he thought at the time that the older people were the last generation not to be influenced toward standardization by radio, good roads and tourists.
Back in the early 1900s when he first became interested in the Ozarks, he found a region rich in oral tradition which was mostly forgotten in more progressive communities. The legends and stories and songs were heirlooms, some dating back to Chaucer's time in fourteenth century England. The early settlers did not think a new song or story was better than an old one. They preferred the old, enjoying it over and over, sometimes adding a modern word or event, but leaving it basically the same.
He wrote in his introduction to Ozark Magic, "Wherever railroads and highways penetrate, wherever newspapers and movies and radios are introduced, the people gradually lose their distinctive local traits and assume the drab color which characterizes conventional Americans elsewhere. The Ozarkers are changing rather rapidly just now, and it may be that a few more years of progress will find them thinking and acting very much like country folk in other parts of the United States. This standardizing transformation is still far from complete, however. A great body of folk belief dies very slowly, and I suspect that some vestiges of backwoods superstition will be with us for a long time to come."
Fifty and sixty years after he first began collecting, we at Bittersweet are talking to the children of those he knew. The present older people are the last generation which grew up well before the 1940s when the standardization accelerated. This time marks the beginning of high school education for all rural students, electricity on the farms, good farm-to-market roads, widespread use of radio and rapid increase in tourism. After the 40s life on an Ozark farm was dramatically different from before. So today at Bittersweet we feel a great urgency to talk with those born before or at the turn of the century to preserve their memories and experiences.
Two generations of high school English instruction has obliterated most of the Ozark flavor from the speech of today's youth. I never hear one of my students say far for fire, or say, "I got riled because he wouldn't jine me in toting that poke of apples." They read in Vance Randolph's Down in the Holler and are just as amused and incredulous of some of the dialect recorded there as my eastern friends were when his book first came out almost thirty years ago. Today's students cannot conceive a time when women would never use words such as bull or cock, even in such unrelated words as bull's eye or cocking a gun. Modern youth laugh at the euphemisms such as gentleman cow, brute or male animal for bull or he-chicken for cock. They cannot conceive that words even remotely related to the reproduction, of even animals on a farm that bred animals all the time, could be so taboo.
I FIRST VISITED THE OZARK COUNTRY IN 1899 AND HAVE BEEN MORE OR LESS
IDENTIFIED WITH THE REGION EVER SINCE." Quotes by Vance Randolph
Today's lack of moral restriction in language has given Vance Randolph an opportunity to publish a book of bawdy tales which he never thought of printing before, though he had collected them assiduously for years. When we visited him in 1974, he told us about the not yet published book, but wouldn't tell us the name. "I would blush to pronounce the title of it to these young people and the staid school mistress. Even my wife sometimes will throw up her head at the language, and I, myself--eighty-three years old and a tough old coot as was ever in this part of the country--I've been places, and I'll tell you, these children in the college will come in and will use words right to my face that I know what they mean, but I never would have dreamed of pronouncing them to anyone. In one lifetime--eighty-three years--we've come so far that words that were so very objectionable then are not now."
We had to wait for the book to be published in 1976 to learn that the title was Pissing in the Snow. That one book has sold over 100,000 copies, having the most sales of any book he ever wrote. But the sudden fame at the end of his life for this book worried him, for he had written over twenty scholarly and popular books and did not want to be known only for this one.
Vance was a very modest man. He could not understand why we at Bittersweet "were interested in an old man like me." When we wrote an article about our visit with him, we sent the manuscript to him for his approval. He wrote on the top of the manuscript in black ink, "Nothing for us to object to--maybe you've laid it on a little thick; I'm not really that good. But we had best take whatever praise we can get in this world."
We probably should not presume to compare ourselves with Vance Randolph's work, but since
we have some of the same objectives, it is natural for us to do it. In some ways his job was easier,
but in more ways it was harder than ours, besides the obvious reason that there are many of us
and only one of him.
He had the distinct advantage of beginning fifty years earlier when the stories and songs were still told and sung. However, he worked alone in the belief that the material was worth collecting. Most people in the United States considered the Ozark people backward, ignorant and not worth the trouble. Even other Ozarkians sometimes got angry with him for trying to hold back progress and for displaying Ozark backwardness to the world. It was bad for business, they said.
We as yet don't have too much trouble finding sources who remember material for our research, but it is getting harder by the year. We probe people's memories; he listened as it happened naturally. We have never been criticized for what we're doing. By now the Ozark people realize their culture was not "backward" but had many admirable qualities which are disappearing. Far from being bad for business, the richness of the Ozark culture vies with the Ozark scenery and terrain in attracting tourists and new people.
Vance came to the Ozarks from Kansas. An outsider has always had trouble getting close to the Ozark people. He said, "I fished and fought and hunted and danced and gambled with my backwoods neighbors. I traveled the ridge roads in a covered wagon, consorting with peddlers and horse traders and yarb doctors and moonshiners. I learned to chew tobacco and dabbled in village politics and became a deputy sheriff and solicited local items for the newspapers. By marriage and otherwise I associated myself with several old backwoods families in both Missouri and Arkansas. I spared no effort to become intimately acquainted with the Ozarkers of the hillbilly type and succeeded insofar as such intimacy is possible to one who was born a lowlander. It is difficult for an outsider to hear the true lore and songs." His success in being accepted is evident in the wealth of material he collected.
THESE PEOPLE WERE THE BEST TALKERS I HAVE EVER KNOWN, THEIR SPEECH
WAS MUSICAL AND SOOTHING, FULL OF STRANGE, MEANINGFUL WORDS AND PHRASES,
Most of the time the Bittersweet staff has no problem in getting material, for, of course, the boys and girls are not outsiders, and the people they talk with are friends, relatives or referrals of friends and relatives. Therefore, our collecting is not as time consuming as Vance's who had to spend days getting acquainted with people before they would begin to sing for him or feel comfortable enough to tell him stories.
We have still another advantage. The modern small and relatively cheap cassette tape recorders we use, that need only a simple flip of the thumb to turn on, are a far cry from recording on aluminum disks from a hundred pound tape recorder he ran off his car battery. The one he borrowed cost $800.00. "It was a great deal of trouble getting it all set up. Then sometimes the darn thing would not work after all the trouble of setting it up and coaxing the people to sing into it."
Since the recorder was so cumbersome, he used it mostly on music. "More often I made notes as the storyteller spoke and typed the material a few hours later while the details were still fresh. The stuff was later typed on cards and placed in a trunk which I had converted into a filing cabinet, indexed and classified so that I could put my finger on any given item at a moment's notice."
We record everything on tape recorders and then transcribe word for word. We file the tapes and the original typed transcription, cutting up and subject-indexing the carbon for our use in individual stories.
Vance agreed that the tape recorders help preserve more than the words. It gets the birds singing and the frogs croaking in the background. "Those things make the tape authentic," he said. "You can hear the creaking of a split bottom on those straight chairs and the sound of the wood crackling in the stove." But tapes do not get everything. "There's a little odor maybe, surrounding a string of peppers or herbs hanging up on the wall. You can't blow that smell out of the tape. I sometimes feel that the feel of the rough boards of the seats on my rear is part of the total experience, too. Everything. It is all part of it. And the smell of perspiration, even the smell of dirt."
We can't think of Vance Randolph really being dead. The feel, the sounds and smells are still there in his many books and will not disappear as long as they are read. I believe that they will become read more and more as is attested by the fact that some books long out of print, such as Ozark Folksongs, are being reprinted. The popularity of Pissing in the Snow has turned interest to his other books such as Ozark Magic and Folklore, Down in the Holler, We Always Lie to Strangers, Ozark Outdoors: Hunting and Fishing Stories of the Ozarks, and many others. Ail these works attest to his immortality as well as much more material he has collected which someone may yet edit and publish. We are certainly glad he chose the Ozarks for his home and work, because now a large part of the Ozark culture will not be forever lost.
E .G .M.
"THE SALTIEST OF THE OLD-TIMERS ARE DEAD NOW AND NO MAN WILL HEAR
AGAIN THE RICH FOLK-SPEECH WHICH SO IMPRESSED ME IN MY YOUTH,
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues
Local History Home