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Monday, September 11, 2017

Ozarks Folklore

With the arrival of cooler temperatures, I'm starting to delve into research for my book of family history again. Even though I feel a lot more energetic physically when autumn arrives, I also feel the coming of hibernation time, and that leads me into project mode and the sense that active family history gathering -- genealogy as well as culture, stories, and history -- has sat on the sidelines long enough.
native Poke weed in background
"Boiled poke root used to be a famous remedy for itch, but 'it burned like fire, and the cure was probably worse than the ailment.' A strong ooze of pokeberry root, [a man said] 'will make you think hell aint a mile away, but it sure does cure the eetch.'"
Two of the most well-known old books about the Ozarks are quite different. The first is Ozark Magic and Folklore (formerly titled Ozark Superstitions) published by Vance Randolph in 1947 and based upon stories he obtained throughout the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas (the above quote is from this compilation). Some of the material was gathered together from other sources going back to 1927, while other portions came from the author's own interactions as he says:
"I first visited the Ozark country in 1899, and since 1920 I have spent practically all of my time here, living in many parts of the region, sometimes in the villages and sometimes in the wildest and most isolated 'hollers'. I fished and fought and hunted and danced and gambled with my backwoods neighbors ...." 
I've delighted in reading Randolph's book, even when he is being subtle in his condescension or derision. Much of the herbalism described has now been proven effective based upon scientific research, and some of the superstitions are familiar from my own elder relatives when they were alive. I also found some of the information to be similar to that of the folklore of Appalachia; no surprise since a good portion of the Ozarks settlers' families and ancestors came from that part of the country back in the early 19th century. One aspect that surprised me was that many of the so-called superstitions about weather relied heavily upon the astrological signs; the reliance upon lunar cycles was no surprise as many cultures followed the waxing and waning, the light and the dark cycles, but until now, I'd never heard of Ozark references to following what sign the moon or sun were in.

Some habits in the backwoods possibly harken back to Celtic beliefs (not surprising since most people in these parts have strong links to a Scots-Irish heritage) such as:
"A woman ... told me that ghosts and spirits are accustomed to stand about near cabins at night, and it is dangerous to offend these supernatural beings by throwing dirt in their faces. Sweepings are best gathered up and carried out of the house ...."
Remind anyone of the Little People of Ireland and Scotland? That said, the land which was taken over had once been part of the Osage Nation and they, too, had stories of "little people" of the woods.

Indian Pipe flower
The second book that is, or used to be, notable about the Ozarks is The Shepherd of the Hills, published by Harold Bell Wright in 1907. (The book can be downloaded for free; the movie made in the 40s can be viewed HERE.) This one is a novel, and, as far as I can find, it's the first novel written that was set in the Ozarks (here's a list of more novels set in the Ozarks, though nearly all of them are relatively recent in publication). Starting in 1959, an outdoor drama based upon the book ran nearly continuously until recently; my parents and grandparents took us kids to see it, although I can't recall what year (likely around 1970). This is the closest full-length tale we have to a sort of modern Ozarks myth, although some legends have been retained as well as ghost stories passed along.

As my research continues, I'm realizing that this place where my family has lived for over 150 years has a lot of fascinating history, some quite tragic, and I find myself eagerly scrabbling online to find out more. What's great is that bits and pieces of what I find can be incorporated into my book on family history so that future generations can catch a glimpse of it.

1 comment:

  1. Your family history project sounds interesting! The Indian pipe flowers look like they're glowing. I'm fascinated by many of the plants in your Missouri pictures because they're so different from what I see growing here in the desert. :)


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