One day Roger Welsch ventured to ask his father a delicate personal question: “Why am I an only child?” His father’s answer is one of many examples of the delightful and laughter-inducing ribald tales Welsch has compiled from a lifetime of listening to and sharing the folklore of the Plains. More narrative than simple jokes, and the product of multiple retellings, these coarse tales were even delivered by such prudish sources as Welsch’s stern and fearsome German great-aunts. Speaking of cucumbers and sausages in a toast to a newly married couple, the prim and proper women of Welsch’s memory voice the obscene and unspeakable in stories fit for general company. Why I’m an Only Child and Other Slightly Naughty Plains Folktales is Welsch’s celebration of the gentle and evocative bits of humor reflecting the personality of the people of the Plains.
|Publisher:||UNP - Bison Books|
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About the Author
Roger Welsch is a retired professor of English and anthropology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and a former essayist for CBS News Sunday Morning. He is the author of more than forty books, including A Treasury of Nebraska Pioneer Folklore (Nebraska, 1966), My Nebraska: The Good, the Bad, and the Husker (Nebraska, 2011), and most recently, The Reluctant Pilgrim: A Skeptic’s Journey into Native Mysteries (Nebraska, 2015). Dick Cavett is the former talk-show host of The Dick Cavett Show. Originally from Nebraska, he was a writer for The Tonight Show for host Johnny Carson and won three Emmy awards throughout his career.
Read an Excerpt
Why I'm an Only Child and Other Slightly Naughty Plains Folktales
By Roger Welsch
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
A Brief but Suitably Scholarly and Boring Introduction
Early in my tenure in Dannebrog, Nebraska, the mail carrier Bumps Nielsen told me one of my favorite stories in this collection. As you will learn when I finally get down to sharing these delightfully risqué stories with you, they are often related in the normal course and flow of conversation; so while Bumps told me the story, he pointed at the very house where the story allegedly took place, giving his narrative an aura of truth. He said that two little boys in our town had once grown curious about conversations the big boys were having about what went on at Fifi's place (I have changed the name to protect the guilty) that cost $10. Being bright and resourceful, the boys decided to work that summer and earn enough money so that they could find out for themselves. So they mowed lawns, ran errands, scrimped, and saved, but at the end of the summer they found that they had only managed to save up $7.37. They decided, however, that with school coming on, they'd better make their move anyway; so they gathered their courage, went up the front steps to Fifi's door, and knocked.
When she answered and asked them what they wanted, one boy (again Bumps provided the name of a contemporary he knew I knew) held out a hand with their entire treasury in it and said, "Miss Fifi, we aren't sure why we're here, but we want whatever it is the big boys come here for, and we have this seven dollars and thirty-seven cents." Fifi looked those boys up and down, took the money, grabbedeach of them by one ear, and banged their heads together three times just as hard as she could. Then for good measure, she threw them over the railing of the porch and out into the dust of the street. After a moment spent gathering his wits, one boy sat up, looked at the other, and opined, "I don't know about you, but I don't believe I'm ready for ten dollars' worth of that."
I feel obligated right here on the first pages of this book to do my professorial duty of defining some terms and explaining what I think is going on in the narratives I have collected over the years and now want to bring to print. And I have the feeling that by the time I am done, even though I intend to be as brief and plainspoken as I can be, you are going to be saying to yourself, "I don't know about you, but I don't believe I'm ready for ten dollars' worth of that." Well, here goes anyway. If you really don't care about the scholarly details and would just as soon skip ahead to the meatier parts of the book, I understand.
In 1976 Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph caused a considerable stir within the circle of folklore scholars and the public in general when he published his important collection of ribald folktales Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales(University of Illinois Press), with an important introduction by my old friend and colleague Rayna Green. Many people, even those within the field of folklore who should have known better, were taken aback by the overt obscenity and indelicate content and language of Randolph's tales, perhaps still thinking, even after reading the unexpurgated versions of the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, that folktales should be the stuff of bedtime and kindergarten readings. Randolph's genuinely obscene stories were of the sort seldom seen in academic and, to some degree at the time, even popular publications. The language was rough and the details of the stories downright raunchy. The title refers to one of the tales in the collection, about a man complaining to his friend that the friend's son had visited and written in the snow outside his door. When the listener agreed his son was in the wrong, but noted that the prank wasn't really all so offensive, the first man responded, "There was two sets of tracks! And besides, don't you think I know my own daughter's handwriting?" It was therefore important that the introduction to Pissing in the Snow was written by a woman (albeit a robust woman!), thus proving, I guess, that the constitution of "the gentler sex" could bear up under the assault of depictions of explicit sex and the generally offensive language used to describe such indecencies!
My collection of ribald humor is not at all the same as Randolph's. The language and content are not nearly as rough, reflecting not at all my moral standards but, as I will explain, the sense of propriety of the people who told me these tales. These stories are not nearly as thoroughly documented as Randolph's texts because I consider them to be folklore, or the intellectual property of a societal class and not of individuals. The storytellers' names and other particulars are therefore, again in my opinion and probably not in that of more meticulous or pedantic folklore scholars, of little importance.
Moreover, because the material is — well, uh — "sensitive," I can imagine that many of my sources would prefer not to be identified. The language in the following pages is not as blunt or coarse as that found in Randolph's stories, not because of any prudery on my part but because that is the very nature of the materials I discuss here. Yes, the stories border on the ribald, although remarkably subtly; yet they are at the same time "civil." That is, they are fit for general company either because the language is seemly or because the subject is so obscured that those for whom the stories are not suitable are unlikely to understand what they are about. But still the innuendo is there, subtle or not.
I note that my stories have few analogues in Randolph's book; the mere lack of overlap suggests to me that there are significant differences between his geographic-specific corpus and mine. That is, while the stories are somewhat alike in their sexual, social, scatological, and other content, they are most assuredly not the same narratives and, for that matter, do not take the same form. One of the reasons I have written this book is that I believe civil ribaldry is a distinctive form; although related to other folktales, jokes, off-color or offensive material, and so on, the overlap is quite narrow, and the form is distinctive.
Yet those of us who work in the field with folklore materials know that such is indeed the nature of the common stories of the common man. And of the common woman. My German great-aunts were as prim and proper a lot as you can imagine. I don't think it would be an overstatement to say they were "prudish." My mother was considered something of a rebel because — and I am not joking here — she broke with tradition by not scrubbing her sidewalks every day, and (mercy!) she scandalized her North Lincoln German family by marrying a lad from a South Lincoln German family. One of these stodgy, fearsome Fraus once told me in hushed tones about the time she was cleaning my cousin's room in the attic of her modest home when she found — brace yourself for the indescribable evil of it! — a deck of cards. "The Devil's handbook," she said. She marched down two flights of stairs to the basement, grabbed a small coal shovel and scuttle, went back up to the attic, scooped up the repellent object, went back down to the basement, and pitched the offending cardboards into the furnace. As she leaned forward and stared intently into my eyes, she told me that she immediately smelled the distinctive reek of brimstone.
And yet in that same year at a wedding dance I saw that stout little lady join the other proper women of the family who gathered at the front of the hall, where the bride and groom sat in chairs. The women regaled the couple with tusch (toasts) to their marital happiness. But their tusch were not just toasts of congratulations and best wishes. No, these traditional quatrains spoke lasciviously of gummer(cucumbers) and wascht (sausages), sometimes accompanied with illustrative gestures. The crowd roared, the bride blushed, the groom grinned, and more and more of these staid aunts of mine stepped forward to offer their own metaphors of ...
Of ... what? The obscene? How can things as mundane as foodstuffs be considered obscene? There was no dirty language here. Nothing as evil as a deck of cards. Just rhymes about what the bride and groom might enjoy over the coming days and years. What could be more innocent? And where could these toasts be more at home than in peasant circles, where earthiness was not just tolerated but celebrated? All the while within these same circles, genuine obscenity such as coarse language was never to be found. (My mother's strongest curse was "Gewitter [thunderstorms]!") And these were women, after all. You know, the gentler, more sensitive gender. (I almost wrote "sex," but my aunts and mother would never have approved of that word!) Men like to think that they are the only ones who speak the unspeakable, but women know otherwise.
Obscenity is an indeterminate quality. It varies with the context in which it appears, with the language in which it is couched, with time and geography. Jokes that might be tolerated in the city are out of place in the country, while ribald narratives laughed at in a rural context might even go unnoticed by city slickers, as I discuss in the following stories. My daughter Antonia has scolded me for language that I consider innocent enough but that has become inappropriate for her generation; similarly, words she tosses about with no particular embarrassment leave me shocked and wide eyed.
Despite the common misunderstanding, laughter is not the universal language. My wife Linda and I share a common sense of humor, and it has been there from the beginning and is not a product of our long years together. Meanwhile, words and stories have resulted from those decades that are funny only to us and not even to our own children. My best friend, Mick, and I also find some of our stories to be hilariously funny while Linda thinks they are too adolescent to be considered interesting, let alone funny. In the same vein, while Americans consider extreme violence to be perfectly acceptable fare for the big screen or even the family television set, they shrink away from nudity and sex, which people in other parts of the world find as natural as the passing of the seasons. Many cultures consider greed and selfishness to be the worst of all sins, but in this country they are celebrated as "evidence of the success of the free market."
In fact, a double standard seems to be the standard in cultural matters. Or maybe it should be a triple or even quadruple standard. Sometimes the very same materials are both acceptable and unacceptable within the exact same group. William Hugh Jansen, another friend and folklorist colleague of mine, formulated what he dubbed the "es-ex factor." There is a dynamic of esoteric and exoteric contexts: is the material in question being used within a closed group (esoterically) or outside the group (exoterically)? As with so many traditional things, these dynamics are not even detected in many cases, let alone understood. People who should be able to figure it out on their own nonetheless express confusion and maybe even indignation that black singers, athletes, or co-workers can use what we delicately tiptoe around by referring to as "the N-word" but then take offense when the term is used outside their own racial circles. There it is ... the es-ex factor. I now find myself enough of an insider that I can joke with my Czech in-laws about their being bohunks, a term that is pejorative when used by someone not "in the circle," and exchange inside jokes about tribal issues and characteristics with my Indian family and friends. But in fact I still exercise caution when indulging in insider humor. While I can use some language and tell some jokes when I am in the company of members of those very same societies that are the butts of the jokes and language, telling them outside those circles would be seen not as a sign of acceptance both of me in those circles and of those circles in my life but rather as an insult directed at those groups.
Moreover, as I discuss in the following section, using such language and telling tales (or jokes) in the right way and within appropriate contexts make them not insults at all but a way of appropriating and disarming insults. Nothing stops ugliness faster than laughter. As a quick survey of my published works shows, I have always enjoyed humor and sharing with others what I discover in my folklore studies. In this volume I certainly look forward to sharing with you readers the laughter I have found in these stories. At the same time, as I believe this genre of folktale has received little notice before, I hope to make a contribution to folklore studies by bringing the field's attention to what I have chosen to call civil ribaldry. I do so because I think the subtlety and polish of the materials says a lot about the elegant quality of the traditional tale.
And the following are by and large tales. They are narratives. They tell a story. They are not the same as the modern joke, which may take the form of a riddle or a one-liner or simply a wisecrack (although I do include examples of this abbreviated gag-line humor throughout the book to illustrate various points). Most of the stories I discuss in these pages have plots, even as terse and as simple as they may be. And they are folklore. That is, they are not generally materials that are invented by a single creative mind but are circulated, usually orally, from one person to another. And they are not done so in print or in a performance format or on a stage or in front of a camera but around tavern tables, at family picnics, around campfires, or in an office lunchroom.
I am eager to get on with the storytelling, yet I also want to tell you about how I collected the stories, why I included these stories here and not others, what I left out, and where and how the stories are told. Actually some of these details about the nature of the collection and the process of collecting will almost certainly be clearer to you, the reader, once you have ... well ... read the book. So at this point I am going to launch into the materials themselves, and at the end of the book, if you are patient and if you wish, you can find further particulars in the afterword.CHAPTER 2
But Enough about Me — What Do You Know about Me?
It's not common that an author thanks the publisher of his book. For one thing, the relationship between the two is not always as congenial as mine has been over the years with the University of Nebraska Press. Don't get me wrong: The press and I have had our disagreements about spellings, book design, and even cover art. I recall rather clearly standing on Bill Regier's front porch and screaming obscenities after seeing the new design for the press's edition of Catfish at the Pump: Humor and the Frontier. Bill had rejected my wife Linda's design, which was used for the first edition of the book, because it was a line drawing and was yellow. As I saw when I opened the package, the press's new edition was ... yellow. And it featured a line drawing ... that had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the book. (As it turned out, the design came from a contracting artist in Texas who had not bothered to read the book!) I was livid.
But I got over it. And small wonder, because my relationship with the University of Nebraska Press has lasted longer and has been more cordial than a lot of marriages. Ten of my forty-four books have now found a home with the press. That is important to me not simply because every writer wants his books to find a home — any home! — but also because it is an organ of the University of Nebraska. Somewhere in my closet I have a cape that a fan and friend made for me that has CAPTAIN NEBRASKA emblazoned on it. My license plates used to say CAPTNEB. And I still consider myself to be a particularly zealous advocate of this state, which a journalist from Texas, of all places, has called "a hulking giant" and which its own citizens have denigrated as a place that has nothing to offer but football. (Look out, Captain! He's about to blow!)
Excerpted from Why I'm an Only Child and Other Slightly Naughty Plains Folktales by Roger Welsch. Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
A Brief but Suitably Scholarly and Boring Introduction
But Enough about Me—What Do You Know about Me?
Plain Talk about the Plains, Definitions, and What Folklore Is, Isn’t, Might Be, and Is Mostly
A Lesson in Proper Diction
Why I’m an Only Child
A Special Announcement
Dad Instructs Me about Civil Ribaldry Even as I Thought I Was Instructing Him
Naughty Is in the Ears of the Beholder
A First Lesson in Military Nomenclature
Evoked and Provoked
Cold . . . and Deep
Speaking of Treed Raccoons
Urban v. Rural
The Eternal Cuckold
Now’s Your Chance
Using the Imagination
Ways of the Wise
Speaking of the Innocence of the Gentler Sex
Oh, Dat Ole! Oh, Dat Lena!
Same Idea, Different Names
No Boyz Aloud
The Church of What?
What Did He Say?
How You Gonna Keep ’Em down on the Farm (after They’ve Seen the Farm)?
Birds Do It, Bees Do It
Why Is It Called a “Fly?”
Age Has Nothing to Do with It
Innocent? Or Simply Not Guilty?