Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pissing in the Snow

Don’t read this post if you’re easily offended.

I recently borrowed a copy of Vance Randolph’s Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales from a local public library. Vance Randolph, you should know right away, is considered the number-one collector of Ozark folktales for all time. He lived from 1892 to 1980, and spent his last sixty years in the Ozarks among the people he respected and loved.

I have to admit, it’s quite amazing that this book was published even as early as the 1970s, because it’s really pretty rude. It’s even more surprising that it became a national bestseller (although you could argue that the 1970s were less prudish than today). It’s a collection of bawdy humor—101 rude, puerile, silly, shocking stories told to Randolph by Ozarkians in the first half of the 1900s. Many of the stories, their tellers explained, had originally been heard in the late 1800s. This is a book to totally keep away from the censor-happy people: The tales are not only obscene, but also provide strong evidence for the fact that rude jokes are a perennial part, and a hilarious part, of every culture.

Here is a representative story from the collection, copied outright. It is actually one of the cleaner stories, as it doesn’t involve adultery, drunkenness, VD, hillbilly incest, or critters.

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5. Why God Made Stickers

Told by Mrs. Ethel Barnes, Hot Springs, Ark., March, 1938. She had it from relatives who lived near Hot Springs in the early 1890’s

One time there was a drummer wanted some gravels for his goose, but he couldn’t find nothing only a girl named Lizzie that worked in the tavern. The folks told him Lizzie wasn’t much good, because she ain’t got no spring in her tail, and nobody likes a woman that just lays there like a turd in a dead eddy. But poor nooky is better than none, and travelers has to make the best of it. Soon as the supper dishes was done, him and her walked out to the pasture back of the corncrib.

When they laid down on the ground Lizzie acted kind of sleepy, but soon as the drummer climbed aboard she just went plumb crazy. You never seen such wiggling and kicking and flouncing around in your life. She give several loud yells too, but the fellow stayed right in there till his gun went off, and then he let her up. “My God, Lizzie, you’re wonderful!” says he. The girl didn’t pay him no mind, but just stood there with both hands behind her. Come to find out, Lizzie had stuck her ass down in a bunch of cockleburs. That’s what made her so brisk and lively.

Lizzie spent most of the night a-grumbling, and putting witch-hazel on her bottom. But the drummer was feeling fine, and he says, “I never could understand why God made weeds with stickers on ’em, but I see it now.” There was a story went round how he always carried prickles in his buggy after that, and the folks claimed you could trail him clear across the country. Whenever they come to a town where the girls have all got scratches on their ass, the boys knowed that drummer has been there with his goddam cockleburs.

Vance Randolph, Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1976; reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 11–12.

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Now I’ve got your attention, right? Here’s more information. The introduction to the volume, contributed by folklorist Rayna Green, describes the decades-long struggle to find a publisher for these “unprintable” stories. Folklorists, of course, understood the cultural importance of raunchy, bawdy humor, but publishing companies remained timid. These stories were collected alongside the rest of the folktales that Randolph recorded over forty years of fieldwork in the Ozarks. Even among scholarly publishers of folklore studies, sexually explicit material was eschewed; such bawdy material, for example was rejected, apparently, by the scholarly publisher of Randolph’s monumental four-volume Ozark Folksongs.

The manuscript for Pissing in the Snow was ready for publication in 1954, but no publishers were found. Randolph pretty much gave up and deposited the material at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University as well as in the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folksong. Thus it was available mainly to researchers, and folklorists recognized Randolph’s materials as the best collection of bawdy stories from American folklore.

Randolph himself had one hesitation about printing the unprintable stories as a separate volume: Doing so might make it seem that Ozarkers had an inordinate fondness for puerile and obscene humor. He was careful to point out, however, “I do not believe that the bawdy ballads are more common in the Ozarks than elsewhere, or that the hillfolk as a class are especially fond of them.”

In his folksong collections, Randolph commented (I bet he added this note after his publisher had made him excise the “dirty” material): “Obscene elements occupy a prominent place in American folklore, and should be accorded proportional representation in the literature. Everybody knows that bawdy songs persist in popular tradition. If a collection of folksongs contains no obscenity, it cannot fully reflect the taste and preference of the people.” (Information from Rayna Green, introduction to Pissing in the Snow and other Ozark Folktales, ix–xxix.)

I think it is funny that of all Randolph’s folklore publications, this book, which so many publishers had rejected, turned out to be his most popular book. In fact, apparently it was a national best-seller (which goes to show you that bawdy humor still has a strong appeal).

Rayna Green, who tells the story of the book’s publication, is today the Curator and Director of the American Indian Program at the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, of the Smithsonian Institution. She has led a distinguished career focusing mainly on American Indian culture and has numerous publications to her credit. As a young academic in the early 1970s, she worked at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she met Randolph and became committed to getting this volume of Randolph’s works finally into print.

No, I wouldn’t share these stories in Pissing in the Snow with children, for they are certainly R- or X-rated. But I’m glad that Randolph collected the tales, with the names of their tellers, the date of the story, where they got it from, and even notes on folkloric antecedents, which often go back to Medieval Europe. (Remember the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales?) For one thing, it is helpful to remember that people our grandparents’ age and older “tee-heed” at the kind of rude humor we persistently wish to pretend is a vice only of newer, younger generations.

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