Volume II, No. 2, Winter 1974

The Honor Was Ours

"If you want to call on us, we shall consider it an honor to meet you," Vance Randolph wrote to us at Bittersweet last summer. The honor, of course, was ours to actually visit the noted collector of Ozark folklore and his wife, Mary Parler Randolph, long time teacher of folklore at the University of Arkansas. At our visit arranged by Max Hunter, of Springfield, Missouri, himself a collector of folksongs and jokes, Bittersweet editors Jim Baldwin and Terry Brandt and I spent an inspiring afternoon at the Randolph's home in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Modest about his many books and achievements, Mr. Randolph says he is not a folklorist, but a collector of "Mostly verbal stuff like folksongs, tales and legends and superstitions." He couldn't understand why we wanted to visit an eighty-three year old man crippled in both hips as he is. Max Hunter told him that anyone who knows anything about Ozark folklore remembers Vance Randolph. Or if they are too young to remember, like Jim and Terry, they read his collections of tales and superstitions with interest and delight.

We were full of questions about his experiences at collecting. He first came to the Ozarks in 1898 and from the beginning was fascinated at the wealth of folk material in the hills, some dating back to Chaucer's time in fifteenth century England. He began seriously to collect material in 1920 by living, working, marrying and playing with the backwoods people in Missouri and Arkansas. He talked to people everywhere, at the country store, grist mill, on fox hunts, sitting up with corpses any place people get together and talk. He made every effort to become intimate with his neighbors and gain their confidence to share in their heritage before progress, tourists, good roads, electricity and radio made the Ozarker like every other American.

He told us he had an assistant at one time to take down every word in shorthand. Sometimes he used a phonographic recorder that used aluminium disks. Too expensive to buy, he borrowed the recorder from the Library of Congress to collect folk songs. At the time it cost $800.00, weighed 100 pounds and ran off a storage battery he carried in his car. He remembered, "It was a great deal of trouble and hard work to get the equipment all set up and coax the people to sing into it. And then often as not the darn thing wouldn't work. But most of the time I took notes on bits of paper I carried with me. When I'd get home they were typed and filed in an old trunk I converted to a filing cabinet."

From these notes Mr. Randolph has published many books: Ozark Folksongs, a collection of over 900 ballads and songs; Ozark Magic and Superstitions, the favorite of our students; Down in the Holler, my favorite one about Ozark dialect; and collections of tales with such interesting titles as We Always Lie To Strangers, Talking Turtle and Who Blowed up the Church House.

Nor are his publishing days over. Some of his books long out of print will be available again, as well as a new book whose title he would not say. "I would blush to pronounce the title to these young people and the staid school mistress," he laughed, explaining how words once so very objectionable are not now.

At the end of the pleasant visit I said, "We appreciate all you've said today because we are sort of feeling our way."

"You're doing beautifully finding your way," Mary smiled.

"And I tell you this is absolutely your own new job," Vance added. "You have no precedent, no regular historical basis to copy. You're first with your thesis. There are a few people who appreciate what you're doing, but they aren't important people. They are people like us."

We can not imagine any finer encouragement.

Ellen Massey


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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