Archive for March, 2008

Wedding Customs & Everyday Folklore

I’ve been a little lax in my posting this week because, well, I’m getting married on Saturday.  I’m having more nervousness than I thought I would, considering this isn’t the first time I’ve walked down an aisle. I haven’t been particularly feeling nervous, but my uclers are having a totally different experience. I’ve been cleaning feverishly and downing stomach meds for the past two days trying to fight off an ulcer flair-up. 

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about wedding customs. Of course I did a pretty extensive web search and discovered several standard busted myths about weddings. For example, the white dress has nothing at all to do with “purity” or anything to do with religion.  In fact, it was a Victorian invention that helped signify the family’s wealth because white can only be worn once.   My grandmother Waldo often talks about girls from Bullfrog Valley, Arkansas simply wearing their best church dress for their marriages because most of them couldn’t afford to send off for fancy white fabric, much less a fancy pre-made dress.

I thought about dress color pretty seriously before we started the whole wedding business. I’m not a first time bride. I just don’t feel right wearing white, since it has come to symbolize something to do with “sexual purity” and “virginity” in our culture.  I mean, who are we kidding here? I’m a thirty-something woman in the United States in the year 2008. I’d rather dispense with the whole charade of “virginity.” 

Not picking white is easy. It’s picking the right color that is hard.  Gold? A dark creamish color? Green?  I ended up finding inspiration in NYC when I was there in January. I bought a cute little blue tea-length dress off the rack at Macy’s. It’s perfect.   I was happy. 

Until I was having one of those off-hand conversations with a couple of students one afternoon. 

“What are you doing Spring Break, Ms. B?” They asked me. 

“Getting married,” I said. 

“Ooh, congrats! What does your dress look like?”  The girsl wanted to know.

“It’s real casual. It’s a little blue party-dress type thing,” I said.

“Blue?  Who ever heard of a blue wedding dress?”  One of the boys said. 

“Well, it’s not the first time I’ve ever been married. I didn’t think white was appropriate.” 

“But brides just wear white,” he said.  “I never heard of anyone wearing blue, even the fifth time they get married.” 

Then, later, an older student (in her late 50’s or early 60’s), who had overheard our conversation, stopped me the hall and whispered in my ear.  “Ms. B, you have to wear white at your wedding. It’s bad luck not to wear white.”  

I smiled at her, “Well, not everywhere and not all the time, even in this culture.  But I’ll think about it.” 

“You should think about it. Really. I feel it is terrible luck,” then she headed on to her next class.  

For a long time, scholars have said our folk-lives in the U.S. are on the verge of vanishing, thanks to television and a generalized rise in mass media.  Anyone who has written about the Ozarks in the last 100 years has spent time bemoaning the loss of an “original culture” within the region, which they generally define as a “hillbilly pioneer culture.”  Technology, they say, has pretty much wiped out the folktales, the folk beliefs, the folk customs of the area (See  Milton Rafferty, Blevins, and Hawkins on Ozark life and culture).  This isn’t the only “local culture” being wiped out by the evil hand of mass media.

But I see things a little differently.  Folk customs and cultures morph and change, but do not vanish entirely. The bits and pieces that we pick up along the way may not represent a good picture of the whole culture in the end, but they persist. My student who was so convinced I’d bring bad luck upon my head if I chose a blue wedding dress is a perfect example.  For whatever reason, that folk belief is strong for her and she clings to it. The symbolism of the color is important, and so she wants to make sure that she passes on that information.  

Weddings are one of those venues that produce such outbursts folk wisdom.  In fact, when it comes to weddings, many people feel obligated to pass on their folk beliefs.   Any bride who has ever had a friend or mother-in-law say “Oh but you must have . . .”  knows what I mean.  Any bride who has felt compelled to have something at her ceremony or reception that is completely irrational and has no basis in tradition she can articulate knows what I mean. 

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Art Amiss Call for Submissions

Art Amiss, out of Fayetteville, has a cool call for Arkansas Artists up on its website.  Deadline coming up soon for their literature call. You can see it here.

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The Waldo Line & Musing on Politics

I’d always heard through family supposition that the Waldo line of my family came from Germany.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the name itself “sounds” rather German.  Either way, I fully expected the family to come from Germany. As Bryan Sykes points out in Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, mythology of origin shouldn’t be counted out.  It’s very often right.  But this time origin myth, and I, were both wrong.  Or sort of wrong.

My ancestors on the Waldo line may well have come from Germany, but they took a very long furlough in England first.   Until recently, I knew very little about the Waldo family.  While in the midst of my “database black hole” a couple of weeks ago, I found a set of grandparents I hadn’t been able to find before.  

This lead back from  Virginia to New York, where I discovered the first Waldo to come from Europe came from England.  He was one of the most agressive slave traders in early American history.  Cornelius Waldo has been on my mind ever since. 

 Especially today.  I watched Barack Obama’s speech last night after I got home from work. I think it was one of the best speeches on race I’ve ever heard.  He made it very clear that he understands exactly why there’s this huge gulf between blacks and whites in the U.S. He also made a point that I think is very hard to disagree with — the truth is, people of the lower and middle classes have more in common than they realize. Those commonalities have nothing to do with race. 

They have to do with basic problems that do need to solved in this country.  And while Pastor Wright’s language might be regrettable, it is definitely not surprising considering where he comes from and the challenges he has had to face as a black man in America. In fact, it is understandable in some ways. At the same time, if we continue to remain ‘stuck’ in that sort of angry phase, we will never move on to acceptance and forgiveness. Without acceptance and forgiveness, none of our problems as a country will be solved because we will be overwhelmed with what Obama calls “distractions.” 

The truth is, too, that this is a generational difference in how people relate to race in this country. Those of us in the Gen X and Gen Y categories simply do not have the same attitudes about race as the Boomer generation.   Maybe its because of more widespread school integration in the 1970’s, something our parents didn’t necessairly experience and never experienced to the degree we did. Maybe it’s a positive side effect of more cultural sensitivity in the schools and work places in general.

But here is the difference: I grew up in an America where most of the culture stressed the immorality and illegality of racism; I am the product of an America that incoporates the idea that racism is immoral into the very fabric of its school curriculum; I am the product of an America that on the surface says that all good citizens should believe in the equality of all humans, regardless of our personal prejudices.  That doesn’t mean that we didn’t (and don’t) know that racism is a serious problem that needs constant attention.  What is means is that we don’t ever question the bedrock notion that racism is a bad thing, a social problem instead of a government sanctioned social control method.

The Boomers did not grow up in that America.  They are still, in some ways, living in an America where that kind of injustice is, as Obama put it, “endemic.”  While the Boomer perspective is understandable, the continuation of that perspective is not going to get us very far in terms of solving our problems. 

At some point, we are all going to have to realize that the only way we can make a difference for all people in this country who are poor or oppressed is not to allow those who create poverty and oppression to pit small groups against other small groups. The only way we will end the war, fight poverty, and get our schools in shape is to work together across racial boundaries. 

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Ozarks Research Bibliography

Since I’m sure other people are out there doing some kind of research on the Ozarks, I thought I’d share the book collection I keep on the subject.  It’s sort of a random list in some ways, and very much in tune with my own personal research interests.  

 In no particular order, the short list:

 Hillbillyby Anthony Harkins

A nice study of the image of the hillbilly through popular culture, literature, and television.

Ozark Magic and Folklore by Vance Randolph.

A definitive tome on Supernatural traditions of the Ozarks by a master folklorist. This book is hard to buy, but you may find it in libraries.

The Voices of Moccasin Creek by Tate C. Page. 

Another tome of information on life in the Ozarks during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Family stories, folklore, as well as practical examples of technology, architecture, agricultural practices, and other fantastic tidbits. This book, I believe, was published by the University of the Ozarks Press. Tate was Dean of Education at Western Kentucky for many years. I had a copy from my grandmother who gave it to me.  But I ran across a second copy of this book in the used bookstore at the Little Rock City Library last spring.   I paid $4.00 for it. It’s going on Ebay for $199.00

Arkansas 1800-1860 by S. Charles Bolton

A good, solid, traditional history of politics and economic life in Arkansas.

Cultural Encounters in the Early Southby Jeannie Whayne

A collection of essays by various scholars on the relationship between early settlers and Native Americans.  Excellent book for setting a historical context.  

Hill Folks by Brooks Blevins

An excellent history of the people themselves, including major economic trends in the Arkansas Ozarks and social data, as well as thoughts on how the outside world views the area.   

Cracker Cultureby Grady McWhiney

 This guy is admittedly sort of controversial in some circles, but he gives some interesting background to southern highlands culture that isn’t an unconvincing argument.  And he’s not the only one who has written on the theory with much success. 

The Ozarks  by Milton D. Rafferty  

This is a sort of “natural history” of the Ozarks, delving into everything from geology to social patterns.  

This is only part of my collection, the rest isn’t exactly specific enough to the Ozarks. Most of it is oriented toward my other research obsession: The 1927 Arkansas River flood.

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Six founding mothers for Native Americans

Check this discovery story for the info:  

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/03/13/native-american-dna.html

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Family Research, Tentative Conclusions, and Famous Relatives

 On Research

Even though I think my “ancestry.com” account is entirely too expensive and that the interface is still a bit clunky, I love the access to so many other family trees and records. It’s quick and easy. If I were trying to do this work the old fashioned library way, it would take me a lifetime to discover even a few generations of my family.  

Over the weekend, when I should have been grading essays, I fell into what I call a “genealogical hole” of database searching.  In the process, I managed to find several branches that go rather far back into English history, two lines that head into Germany, and at least one French line.  I found what I think (but I’m not sure, I haven’t double checked the records) is the only instance of first-cousin marriage in my family (a line that goes back to the early settlements in Puritan Massachusetts.  I guess there weren’t that many good Puritan folk around to marry). 

My major project right now is trying to fill in my sixth generation grandparents. I have all of the info on my fifth generation (great-great grandparents), but there are some gaping holes in parts of my list of great-great-great grandparents. I can’t seem to find any parents listed for Absolom Crandall, one of ggg-grandparents.  Nor can I seem to find any information on Zachary (or Zachariah) Trantham’s parents.    

The seventh generation has even more holes. I need the Zachary Trantham’s grandparents names, Absolom Crandall’s grandparents names, and Mary Freeman’s parents there. 

The eighth generation is also lacking in some information: I need Elizabeth Wilson’s parents names and the parents and grandparents of John G. Colburn.  If I could discover these names, several lines that halt before they get back to Europe would open up for me.  

Tentative Conclusions

I would feel like I had actually accomplished something with all this research if I could manage to track every single branch to its European origin.  I would feel this way because I think it’s pretty cool to be able to trace exactly where I came from, and to imagine the lives of the people who came together to produce me. 

I’m also interested, in a more scholarly sense, in how people came to settle in certain places in the United States and how those settlement patterns determine our current cultural and social identities.   Most specifically, I’m interested in how the Ozarks developed its particular culture. To understand this, I think I have to understand the people who created it.  To do that, I have to understand their history.  I think my family is as good an example of how someone comes to “be from the Ozarks” and how Ozarkian culture was formed.  

Some of my records at the moment are filled with what I would call “most likely suspect” information, meaning that I’m not absolutely positive I’m listing the right person, but a lot of clues are coming together to make this person the most likely ancestor.  I’ll have to do a lot more digging to absolutely confirm it. 

However, even with some of the lines filled with preliminary information, I’ve managed to notice some key themes:  First, I am mostly the child of colonial and pre-colonial immigrants, mostly from England or Ireland.  There are some connections to Germany and France.   There are no branches in my family that come to America after 1800 or so. At least two branches of the family came to the U.S. for religious reasons (Puritans and Quakers). 

Regardless of where they first settled in the U.S. (which was all over the East Coast, from South Carolina to New York), each branch of the family then proceeded to take a journey roughly 200 years long, until they settled in the Ozarks.   There they stayed for another 100-200 years.  What made them all halt right here in the mostly roughy and rocky hills?

Famous Relatives

Another sort of hokey feature of Ancestry.com is the “find famous relatives” tool.  I say “hokey” because, as my fiancee regularly points out, every is related to everyone.  We now know that this is literally true because of DNA.  However, it’s still fun to see what kinds of people our particular lines of DNA produce.  While the results can only be taken with a big grain of salt, its still fun to run a few names through the tool to see what comes up.  

According to the famous relatives tool, I’m distantly related to quite a few writers.  John Milton is supposedly my first cousin 13 times removed. Geoffery Chaucer is listed as my 17th great-grandfather.  The only instance of an African-American connection I’ve seen is the listing they give for Langston Hughes, who is supposedly my 7th cousin three times removed.   Henry David Thoreau and Stephen Crane are both sixth cousins, five times removed. Jane Austen is a seventh cousin four times removed. Gore Vidal is a ninth cousin, apparently. Laura Ingalls Wilder is an eighth cousin, three times removed. One that really thrilled me as T.S. Eliot,seventh cousin six times removed. His “Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” is my favorite poem.  Finally, George Orwell is listed as a 10th cousin, five times removed.  

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A Research Nerdette Fest

This weekend I found myself pouring over some records in my “Ancestry.com” account. It is ridiculously expensive on a yearly basis, but it is defnitely kept its “worth it” score high this weekend. Their “records hints” section, which is so often “hit and miss,” paid off big for me over the last few days.

I’ve managed to root out at least one branch of the family tree that goes directly to Germany (the first family in my tree that shows any provable relationship to Germany).  This line, for anyone who is researching this sort of thing, is the direct line of folk named Chronister and who lived in Pope County, Arkansas. I also discovered a branch that heads back into England during the year 1066.  (You know, The Battle of Hastings and all of that).  So I’ve broken through one of my goals for this whole family history exploration. I wanted to see if I could trace any families back 1,000 years.   I can.  I wanted to know if anyone came from anywhere other than England (they do).  Besides Germany, I also discovered a branch that goes into France.  

It’s been a productive weekend in that way. All those essays I have yet to mark are mocking me, however.  Carry on . . .

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