Tag Archives: folklore

Recitation research in the Virtual Age

I described in a previous post (Blogging the Wheel) how vast searching (the pedabyte era) could reveal those writings or the connection of writings to the authors who may first have penned them. This might greatly improve the quality of discourse or stimulate discourse. The value of knowing as opposed to un-knowing is to clarify the values of tradition from the folklorist’s inability to find the composer of the form.  But upon considering the subject further, I’m reasonably certain that making the writings of the past, and perhaps the music of the past available without specific goals (as the pedabyte era implies) could also improve and correct our understanding by demonstrating the wider scope of artful endeavors more broadly than previously considered.

I am specifically considering the world of cowboy poetry and the not uncommon statement that cowboys were different, unique amongst working people, for their composing and reciting of metrical verse. “Cowboy Exceptionalism” we could describe this attitude. However as many reciters and creators of cowboy poetry as well as commentators have noted is that often recitations at gatherings are not always about working cattle, but embody values shared by buckaroos and their audiences. Brian Morris’ untitled poem described in the previous post is such a poem. The value of such a description in the present is up to the audience and the person who writes, reads, or recites from memory the verses. Unlike some folklorists, my experience with reading and talking with rural people who grew up in the past is that recitation and versifying were social skills that knew no geographic boundaries and no economic barriers to participation.

What I have been most interested in recovering is the recitation tradition, having just missed the real searing effects of that form of learning. In grade school we had to memorize the “Declaration of Independence,” the “Preamble to the Constitution,” and the “Gettysburg Address.” Older people whom I have visited with told of learning long poems and speeches for school closings and other public events. Somehow with the Sputnik launch and the move to make us all scientists, the memorization of long poems was abandoned.

My mother would occasionally recite short poems that she had learned when growing up in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach, California, where she took elocution classes. Later I found small slips of paper about her recitals. Another clipping she saved was from The Journal of International Electrical Workers and Operators, [Vol 36:3 (March 1838) 168.] describes a recitation on the floor of the House of Representatives. My father would occasionally recite poetry as well. One piece I found in his papers after his death was from World War II and his service on the USS Saratoga (CV3) titled “The Finger is Upon Us.”

The Pedabyte era brings to us the possibility of researching and rediscovering the breadth and depth of metrical verse in social discourse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Just as no newspaper resisted the temptation to include rhymed couplets of wit or wisdom, virtually no American Federation of Labor affiliated trade journal, or college yearbook was deficient in a share of metrical compositions. The fluidity of these forms suggests not plagiarism, but rather the priority given to the context of publication, not to the source of the creation but the goal of recitation, not reading.  It seems apparent that research into both the volume, topics, and literary dialects of the material would make our histories of life and times of the past more nuanced and complex.

For example, consider a poem in the prior blog named for ease of writing “Was it really worth the while?” (This is not Joaquin Miller’s poem “Is It Worth While?) This poem was published in newspapers across the country (The Pensacola Journal, Ironwood (MN) Times, Tulsa Daily World, Clark Country Review) and had considerable interest for the trades at the end of the first decade of the 20th century. It also found favor with men’s colleges of the time. Between 1909 and 1918 the poem was variously published in The Plumbers’ Trade Journal, The Hardwood Record, Phi Beta Pi Quarterly (Chicago Dental College), The Bridgeman’s Magazine, The Iowa Unionist, The Clay Worker, The Longhorn (Texas A&M), The Hardware Reporter, The Cadet (VMI), The American Flint Glass Workers, The Bomb (VMI), Paper-Makers Journal, The Earth Mover, Steam, Shovel, and Dredge, and Columbia Daily Spectator (as a parody). In 1918 the poem reaches another audience, the men’s club and dinner circuit, published by John McClure, a poet and columnist in New Orleans, in the Stag’s Hornbook, for A. A. Knopf. The poem still has legs and like many other poems is “collected” by Michael Cassius Dean, and published in “Flying cloud, and one hundred and fifty other old time songs and ballads of outdoor men, sailors, lumber jacks, soldiers, men of the Great Lakes, railroadmen, miners, etc.” [Virginia, Minn., The Quickprint, 1922.] A couple of these institutions published the poem twice, such as when the Chicago School of Dentistry became part of Loyola University, the new year book Dentos published the poem in 1927. By the 1930s the poem has become the stuff of “older times”. However, Northwestern University still published this poem as “What’s the Use?” as an “exchange” with another institution. The glow of remembrance brought the poem to the “Notes and Queries” section of the New York Times, where Helen Fellman (the editor) selected it for the immensely successful collection, The Best Loved Poems of the American People, [Doubleday, 1936. Pp. 621].

The name attached to the poem changes often, though there does not appear to be a clear succession to these titles. It is printed as “Is It Worth While?” “In the Cold, Gray Dawn” “The Morning After” “The Modern Vampire” “Tomorrow You May Die” “Bill’s Silioquy the Morning After” “Old Pal” “Remorse” “The Best and the Worst” “Three Sheets In the Wind” “For the Benefit of the Night Hawks”

“The State Goes Dry” (a parody on prohibition), “Be Merry Today, For Tomorrow You May Die” “What’s the Use?” and “Is It Really Worth the While?”  What’s more although many newspapers or publications list the author as “anonymous” “correspondent,” or “exchange,”  there still a number of other people claiming or attributing authorship: Sam Davis, Frank F Fish, Ned D Lewis MD,  F. L. Scharfle, C.U.B., L. K. M. ’15 [L. K. Moore], E. J. M., C W Aplin (parody), Edgar Allen Pell (parody). No named attribution has ever been found twice. This willingness to connect attribution is more in keeping with the formula of ear-playing fiddler’s who attribute the tune to the person whom they learned it from, “Quince Dillion’s High D”, for example.

What do you make of this overblown blog on carpe diem, Gaudeamus igitur, or ubi sunt? The Ballad Index by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle cite the Dean collection (1922) and Steve Roud classifies this as Roud #9588. The problems of classification make every attempt for textual analysis quixotic because of the multiple intentions of writers and reciters. The poem is simultaneously pensive and joyful. One great service of this “pedabyte era” to folklore then will be to bring greater inter-textuality to the sub-literary forms of verbal arts. This formlessness of the domain of possibility is (I believe) a truer stance to the multiplicity of performers and potential audiences, giving greater light to the granularity of the text as it is made serviceable to the particular audience each iteration serves.

Blogging the Wheel

Having been such a negative ion initially in the discussion of the digital scholar, I need to qualify and perhaps positively restate some of what I previously posted. Digital scholarship creates two (among other) roles that both honorable. One is the migration of information from hard copy or microfilmed copies to a digital format that can be shared broadly by internet services. These resources can be then indexed and made searchable. If this is a paradigm shift then there will be new understandings and a general re-definition as a result of this activity.

In my field, folklore, there is clearly an advantage to having as many comparable instances of an aesthetic production as possible. Both the dynamic and conservative character of the lifestyles, the use of language, material culture, narrative and problem solving all are informed by having available many variants both spatially and temporally.

One theoretical assumption in Folklore is that products of culture will display variation between communities, but will have greater similarities within a particular community. When the scholar lacks a clear provenance and chain-of-learning for the cultural products she is studying, these “artifacts” are said to be “Traditional”. There are many ways that a scholar can employ tradition to define the purposes of research and to explain the purposes of research. One unhappy use of this naming is when individual(s) who first synthesized the form is not known. Few contemporary folklorists would seriously suggest that communities create materials in tradition. The song, the story, the saying, or the chair, sled, or fiddle tune are the product of an act of creation at a particular time and place by individuals who are known within the community. The agency of individuals to create and others to modify is well-accepted within host communities and among scholars, but the act of creation is also distinct from the monetized work of writers and composers in written traditions governed by laws of copyright and conventions where the multiple components of ownership. When a cultural product lacks clear attribution and the formula of performance is shared within a community scholars will often describe the condition of unknown as “traditional”.

Now comes the “pedabyte age” and the rapid transfer from analog to digital products of multiple media and with the potential to search vast compilations of materials for character strings (I don’t know of sonic search devices). The most persistent problem is cluster analysis and character recognition.  Recognition of hand written sources of the past makes translation of historical texts at best difficult but often nearly impossible.  Google’s “good enough” approach may be a business model, but it isn’t satisfactory as a scholarly model.

The advances in access to the works of the past, when done commercially is principally to translate first the analog copies of printed works, or (less frequently) to directly digitize the published text. Individuals may digitize and transcript the text more completely, but the results still have scribal or recognition errors. Recently the use of crowd-sourcing, in which large numbers of researchers agree to participate in a transcription project for documents felt to have remarkable cultural significance.

Google’s well-known exploration of massive digitizing of published works, both books and newspapers shows the dangers of leaving the heritage protection to a commercial enterprise. Having created a vast (but hardly complete) newspaper collection within the United States, Google’s financial officers found that they could not create a revenue stream from offering the service and the expansion and functionality of the service was stopped.  Other for-profit enterprises offer digital searches to major newspapers or particular time periods. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress had a similar, if more limited digital goal in their program “Chronicling Historic America.” Through grants they have encouraged not-for-profit organizations to digitize important newspaper holdings, which is then shared with the Library of Congress and potentially used at the state level.

I use this resource frequently and recommend it to students, with the caveat that the search is machine made and cannot be assumed to be completely accurate either in the hits it finds, or that it has found all occurrences of a character string. I’m excited by the possibility and the realization that digitally recognized occurrences of cultural products of unknown authorship can be identified and potentially connect the known to the unknown, making the traditional attributable.

An example, in my recent experience, involves metrical verse of the western United States. The background is this: Having some time ago (1984) worked with the Folk Arts Coordinators in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming seeking men and women who wrote and recited poetry of the West, in preparation for the First Cowboy Poetry Gathering, I have an enduring interest in who, why and what the sources of material were. Brian Morris’ recitation of an unnamed poem that I have called “Tomorrow you may die” was not specifically Buckaroo related, neither was the awesome act of memory of Chuck Dougal of Jordan Valley, Oregon reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee” written by Robert Service.  While Brian’s source is not known, the verses are traceable in the United States to a World War I era (1918) book The Stag’s hornbook, with the title “Was it Really Worth the While?” John McClure is the editor of the book but like thousands of other compilations, the attribution of this poem is Anonymous. But with the poem’s wordiness and clever (if low art) images it is certainly from the mind of a single person, but the chain is broken and we don’t know who.

A tale of unknowing of Cowboy Poetry returned to haunt me recently when a chain of telling led from the Old-Time Herald, a magazine devoted to southern music and many other things to the Library of Congress, American Folklife Center blog about categories of music use and American culture. The blog spoke of the context for Senator Gore Sr.’s recording of Soldier’s Joy in 1938, and gave a link to that recording from their collection. But it also linked to a recording of “The Darned Old Wheel” as recorded in the Arvin California Farm Security Administration Camp in August 1941 by Lum Wilson “Bill” Jackson. The American Folk Song Archive of the Library of Congress actually has a number of recordings of songs and recitations of this piece, The Massey Family The Westerners (Massey Family) “Gol-Darn Wheel” ARC 6-01-54(C 843-1) Chicago, IL, Wednesday 14, 1934 (Curt Massey f, Larry Wellington, ac, Allen Massey v/g, Milt Mabie, sb. Tony Russell, p. 610.)
recorded it in 1934 as did Johnny Horton a decade later—but its always “Anonymous.”

If you’ve been dying of wonder where the Pedabyte enters the story this is the place. Using the “Chronicling Historic America” site, searching thousands of newspapers across the United States, looking for hits on “Cowboy” and “Wheel” brought up the front page of the St. Johns’ Herald 14 March 1896, printing the stanzas to “The Cowboy and the Wheel.” But the tag line was “Gol Darned Wheel.” Just below the title was a bracketed source “[Recreation]” but no author. Well, Recreation, was the name of a sporting magazine published by G. O. Shields, as the publication of the American Canoist’s Association in 1896, in the February 1896 issue he published, “The Cowboy and the Wheel,” by James B Adams.  James B. Adams, better known as a poet and “paragrapher” for the Denver Post under his full name, James Barton Adams, is one of the well-known scribbler’s of Cowboy poetry and contributed a number of evergreens, particularly the “High-Toned Dance.” In 1899 he compiled a number of his poems into a book, Breezy Western Verse, printed by the Denver Post. But he didn’t include “The Cowboy and the Wheel” in that publication, and canoists and cowboys don’t party too often together. So a professional rhymer of the range was the source of this amusing bust-up that has been a valued part of our un-knowing for more than a century.

But by recognizing and attributing the author unveils and allows to shine more brightly the other facets of traditional that were and are always more important. Tradition proclaims the value and the respect with which performers have treated this metrical verse, molding its text, patching the forgotten phrases, singing it or saying it the piece has endured to become the fabric not only the fashion of cowboy poetry. The “pedabyte age” doesn’t destroy culture it frees it to connect with the roots while celebrating the enduring value of personal performance.

Some notes:
Jack Thorpe. Songs of the Cowboys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company (The Riverside Press, Cambridge), 1921. Pp. 71. “Mailed me by a friend from Marfa, Texas, who heard it sung by a cow-puncher named Hudspeth.” See the first edition, 1908.
Finger, Charles. Sailor Shanties and Cowboy Songs. Girard, Kansas: E. Haldeman-Julius, 1923.
Lee, Jack H., Cowboy Songs (Butte, Montana: McKee Printing Co, 1934) p. 40.
The Westerners (Massey Family) “Gol-Darn Wheel” ARC 6-01-54(C 843-1) Chicago, IL, Wednesday 14, 1934 (Curt Massey f, Larry Wellington, ac, Allen Massey v/g, Milt Mabie, sb. Tony Russell, p. 610.
Lomax, John A and Alan Lomax. Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads (Revised and enlarged edition. NYC: MacMillan, 1938. p. 269. In some case the earlier edition (NYC: Sturgis & Walton, 1910) is cited. “W. Bogel, a student at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, first sang this song to me in 1908.”
American Folklife Center. “Gol Darn Wheel” Recited by John A Lomax 5644B-1 LWO-3493 R29- A side broken) 1941 Falfurrias, Texas: “The gol darn wheel” Sung by Sterling Reason. October 1935. Fort Spunky, Texas LWO 4844, R47, side A.
Mailed me by a friend from Marfa, Texas, who heard it sung by a cow-puncher named Hudspeth.
Buck Lee. “The Gol Darned Wheel.” 11 July 1946, Clearview, Utah. Recorded by Austin and Alta Fife.
Johnny Horton 1956-1960 – Vol 3 #28 – The Gosh-Darn Wheel (CS 9940)LP 1970
Glenn Orhlin. “The Gol-Darn Wheel.” Mountain View, Arkansas on May 29, 1969. Missouri State University. Cat. #0732 (MFH #232)
G. Malcolm Laws, Native American Balladry. Appendix II “Native Ballads of doubtful currency in Tradition” page 260. cites, Lomax, “Cowboy Songs” 269, 26d couplets.
Hal Cannon, ed. Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering. Salt Lake City: Gibb Smith, 1985. Pp. 10.
Meade, Gus; Spottswood, Richard; Meade, Douglas. Country Music Sources. page 27 #26 “Gol Darn Wheel”. Two citations; 1 recording