Heard This One? | Newberry

Heard This One?

The Cemetery Lady was a good deal of fun to work with, but we did have our disagreements on some things. One of those was her disgust at folklorists. It wasn’t that she objected to people who did research in folklore for the purpose of determining how certain stories and traditions came to be. She did a good deal of that herself.

What she couldn’t stand were people who just repeated old stories because they were folktales. “Why don’t they do a little research?” she would demand. “They’ll learn these things are lies!” I was present once when she asked someone telling ghost stories in a bookstore whether she believed in research, and when the lady replied that she was interested in passing folktales along, the Cemetery Lady lost all interest (and respect for the speaker.)

A folktale is essentially a story which has been handed down, regardless of truth or originality: it’s an artifact. I wrote an article once on showing proper respect for a folktale, even if 99 and 99/100ths pure lye soap, but I understood her side of it, too. Take the simple matter of epitaphs. Books of epitaphs have been printed for at least a hundred and fifty years (one from the 1850s came in to the Book Fair. I’d’ve sold it to the Cemetery Lady but she already had one, of course.) And the temptation to make up funny epitaphs goes back at least that far. So in her study of verses on grave markers, she was always running into books without footnotes or any substantiating evidence for their stories. “Never trust an epitaph if the book won’t tell you where the graveyard is,” she told me, and I will take that as a good rule of thumb.

I was thinking of that this week as I was reading the New York Folklore Quarterly for Spring, 1949. I read collections of folklore now and again, hoping for something fun or funny, though I often come out as dry as when I dove in. (Another good rule of thumb is that the more authentic the folktale, the less interesting it is when you take it out of the original venue.) This collection of material from New York ran to a rather broad definition of folklore. Somebody reminisced about the good old days when the whole countryside would come together to harvest hops: memories of a good and busy time that wasn’t at all like the stories of wild drinking and obscene goings on you can hear. (I apparently missed the issues with THOSE stories.) Another person remembers the stories her father and mother said they heard in the old general store. These are genuine local lore, although quite a lot of them have passed their sell by date.

And there was a collection of old epitaphs. It’s a little hard to tell, the way the story is written, but it sounds to me as if the writer collected most of these from books rather than out in the graveyard. (He likes one so much that he asks if anyone has actually seen it in the cemetery; what the Cemetery Lady would have said to him, I shudder to think.)

A large section of the magazine is primarily legal and genealogical, trying to set out the basic facts of a seventeenth century widow’s property and the thousands of stories (and lawsuits) arising from it over the years. In fact, a lot of it was historical: there are only a few glimpses of current events, and those are now sepia-toned like a vintage photograph: the tale of a veteran of the recent war in Europe collecting the epitaphs of men killed in the War of 1813, say. Then I caught up with the ballad hunter.

The man was a student of ballads which told the story of current events, a style of composition not as common today (or in 1949) but not yet dead. He advertised in Pennsylvania to find out if the autumn of 1948 had been written up by any local poets or singers. For five days in and around Donora, Pennsylvania, the fumes from local factories contributed to a killer fog that sent hordes to the hospital and some to the morgue, making people afraid to go outside, terrified that breathing in whatever was in the air would lay them low. Several ballads had been written, and one of them in particular is a fairly haunting item which made me glad to come out of the magazine and back into the safety of the twenty-first century.

Would have been fun to hear what the Cemetery Lady would have made of it, though.

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