Benjamin Botkin once called folklore “living speech…responsive to the mood of the moment.” One of his biographers said his idea of folklore was a combination of “creative writing, an understanding of history, and cultural renewal.” Folklore wasn’t just the story- the way it was told and the cultural context surrounding it was just as important.
It should come as no surprise that under Botkin’s watch, the Federal Writer’s Project (1935-1943) recorded a massive collection of folk stories and interviews with Americans of all walks of life. And much of it’s available on the Library of Congress’ website. Right now. You can literally click this link and just start reading them. Amazing!
Botkin and his team of over 300 writers forged new paths in folklore work as they worked under the federal New Deal program from 1936-1940. Rejecting traditional notions of “legitimate” folklore that privileged “lore over the folk, the past over the present, the rural over the urban, the agrarian over the industrial, survivals over revivals, [and] older genres over newer emergent forms,” this new folklore expanded definitions of what stories were worth recording. Folk music, ex-slave narratives, conversations with city-dwellers- these all had a place in the vivid and varied tapestry of American culture.
Many of the FWP’s interviews were called “life histories” or “living lore.” I’d like to share one of them I found compelling. I happened across this while looking for accounts of living through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Pennsylvania. I quickly realized this interview was about Massachusetts and not helpful for my project, but I just couldn’t stop reading! There’s a lot of personality and expressiveness here, definitely some of the “mood” Botkin and his team were looking for.
On June 14, 1939 FWP writer Jane Leary sat down with her next interviewee from the Irish-American community in Lynn, Massachusetts. James Hughes had invited her into his home in a tenement building he shared with his elderly wife and brother-in-law. At 79 years old, Hughes surprised Leary with an energy she didn’t expect from the old shoemaker. In a character sketch of Hughes she wrote: “James walks with the bit of stoop to his gait that is characteristic of aged lasters, and his hair and close cropped mustache are altogether white. He seems a bit too restless to be 79 however; lacking is the resigned peacefulness of a life fulfilled.”
Hughes talked about his experiences living through the 1918 pandemic. Like the rest of the United States, his neighborhood was devastated by the virus and its residents never forgot living through it (though many would try and never spoke of it after living through it). Take a look at the full transcript below and you’ll find a light-hearted story that has fear and the unknown bubbling under its surface. As Hughes talks about drinking whiskey to stave off the flu, its clear that so little was known about this deadly new sickness and desperate people would try any remedies to try to protect themselves and their families.
Writing about Hughes and other Americans who lived through the 1918 pandemic (whose stories are also preserved at the Library of Congress), Stephanie Hall writes “With little knowledge of how to fight the invisible enemy of this frightening illness, people naturally turned to traditional advice handed down through the generations. The camphor in moth balls was thought to be protective against disease. If the smell kept other people at a distance perhaps it did some good! Alcoholic drink was also commonly used as a remedy for various illnesses, though likely it just made sick people feel a bit better.”
One final note before I step back and let Hughes do the talking: Leary seems to have transcribed Hughes’ words exactly as she heard them- in a thick Irish accent. If you’re having trouble understanding this at all, try reading it out loud.
Sence I seen ya last, we’ve bein havin’ a bit a spring weather. Tame, ain’t it? We hed a long cold spring.
An’ ain’t there bin a lotta sickness though? I niver seen the laike a all the pneumonia thiere’s bin. An’ most inybody that ya see on the strate’s got a cold.
But at thet, it ain’t as biad laike I knowed it ta be ainy’s the tame in Lynn sence I come hiere. D’ya remimber the fly thet come the tame a the war? Alwiays a war brengs somethin’ an’ I alwiays thought thet flu wasn’t jes the flu. It euz more laike the buabatic pliague. Anywiays a lotta this thet daied a it, tirned black, jest laike thiey quz said ta heve tirned black in Ireland in ’46 an’ ’47 whin thiey had the bumbatic pliague thiere.
Thra (three) months the rage a it wuz hiere in this city. Down in Philadelphia an’ arou’ ther wiay I hierd it wuz a lot the worse. thiere I guess thiey daied laike fleas.
Wuz biad enough hiere too. The people wuz scared iverywhiere. Most iverybody wore a bag with somethin’ in it ta pravent gettin’ it. Somethin’ laike moth balls thiey wuz thet wuz in thet bag. I wore one laike all the rest.
Everybody wuz adrekin’ whiskey too ta prevent it. I balave it helped tii, inywiay it did me.
I wuz in Boston whin I felt it comin’ on me. I took a couple drenks an’ ya know I hardly felt ’em stall. Iny other tame an’ I’da bin afeelin’ good from the drenks I took, but this I didn’t feel atall.
Whin I got ta Lynn, I took a couple more, an’ thin I din’t feel neither. Just laike I niver heda one. Whin I get home, I said to ma wife, ‘I got the flu an’ whin I get in bed, I went ya ta give ma some more a this whiskey ta drenk
An’ did I sweat? I hed ta keep changin’ ma nightclothes two, three times. But ya know, it done the trick all raight. I wuz a lot better in the mornin’.
I hed ta kape awiay from the shop fir about a month. But I din’t daiy laike a lotta others did. I thenk it wuz thet whiskey thet siaved me.
Whin I wint back ta wirk, thiere wuz only about four min in the rank win there shoulda bin aroun’ fifteen. Thiey wuz all sick with the flu. Thim thet wuz thiere looked at me whin I come in an’ said, ‘You’re as pale as a ghost.'”
In the old daiys thiere wuz an awful lotta consumption in the shops. Thin, the doctors said they disease run in families. An’ I balave it does. Inywiays thin, thiey din’t do nothin’ about it, fir thiere wuzn’t the hospitals an’ the laike ta tiake care a this. So most of thim fellas thet had it, jest kept raight on wirkin’ jest as long as they could. Miny’s the one ‘ould spit up blood sometimes, but thiey kept on wirkin’.
I knowned one fella that wirked at the bench with ma, thet had it an’ hed it biad. But he din’t piay no special attintion ta it. He quz always cheerful. Well, one diay he hed a hemorrhage raight thiere bafore us. Thiey took him home an’ the next diay he daied.
Yes, thiere wuz a lot laike thet. A body thet din’t have it, din’t thenk thiere wuz iny hope atall fir inybody thet hed the consumption. But the one thet hed it wuz alwiays cheerful an’ ‘ould try ta miake himself balave he din’t have it atall.
Thet’s the wiay with this. But I balave it runs in families. Don’t you?