2nd Quarter 1998

April 10, 1998

Good Friday has considerable importance in the Christian calendar, of course, but it has also been a day of significance for tradition-oriented gardeners, many of whom see it as the optimum time for planting potatoes.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April tenth. The commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus, Good Friday has also been regarded as a day for taboos on doing certain kinds of work. Sailors, for example, once refused to put out to sea on Good Friday, and many housewives would not do laundry.

In Britain, Good Friday has traditionally been a time for consuming a special treat, hot cross buns. Said to derive from the old practice of making cakes from the same dough used to produce sacramental bread, the custom of eating hot cross buns today endured well into the twentieth century. Since breakfast was the proper time for their consumption, vendors from bakeries might well make their way through the streets of London before dawn crying their wares: "Hot cross buns! / Hot cross buns! / One a penny, two a penny, / Hot cross buns! / If you have no daughters, / Give them to your sons. / One a penny, two a penny, / Hot cross buns!"

These buns are now made from a dough spiced and laced with a few raisins or currants. Any bread baked on Good Friday was supposed to be marked with a cross. Such loaves were believed to last an entire year without becoming moldy if kept in a tin. On the following Easter, they could be moistened with a few drops of holy water and then eaten for that day's afternoon tea. Anyone who received a piece of Good Friday bread that bore part of the cross mark on its crust could expect to enjoy good luck.
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April 15, 1998

Probably because her contemporary Mamie Smith was known as "Queen of the Blues," Bessie Smith received billing as "Empress of the Blues." One of several blueswomen who were responsible for the earliest blues recordings, she has become the most widely known performer of the classic city blues that appealed to both black and white audiences during the 1920s.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April fifteenth. On this date in 1894, Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Orphaned at an early age, she began earning her living as a street singer before she was ten years old and had joined several itinerant troupes as a chorus girl before she was twenty. Smith undoubtedly learned the blues, which performers such as W. C. Handy and Ma Rainey were beginning to popularize, during the century's second decade, and she may have made her first test recording as early as 1921. She was recording extensively by 1923 and became the most important African American recording artist of her generation, challenged for that distinction perhaps only by Louis Armstrong.

For many people Bessie Smith because the archetypal classic blues singer. Her style of the blues, most often sung by a woman, featured a straightforward eight-bar blues format--usually consisting of four or five stanzas united by a clearly developed theme or image. A jazz ensemble--consisting of piano and percussion with possibly guitar and wind instruments--provided accompaniment for the singer. Bessie Smith's recordings epitomize this style--which more than the rural blues recorded most often by male singers to their own guitar accompaniment appealed to white audiences of the the time and first brought blues into the mainstream of popular music.

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April 16, 1998

"Creative Expressions Beyond the Blues," the theme of a three-day symposium beginning today on the Arkansas State University campus, suggests that the African-American lyric folksong form which developed a century ago in the Mississippi River Delta, has had considerable influence. Most obviously, the blues has had an impact on African-American folk and popular music, including jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, rap, and even gospel.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April sixteenth. But the blues has also influenced musical forms and styles from outside the black American heritage. For example, by the mid-1920s country singers from the Anglo-American tradition were singing blues, which they may have learned from oral tradition or from the classic women blues singers whose records dominated the market during the decade. In 1927, one of country music's first superstars, Jimmie Rodgers, began recording his series of blue yodels, and blues lyrics and music figured prominently in the repertoires of the some of the brother duets of the 1930s--the Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys, for instance. When Bill Monroe and his ensemble, the Bluegrass Boys, began to perform the music to which they lent their name in the early forties, blues figured prominently in their choice of music.

The pioneers of rock n' roll in the early fifties also drew upon the blues. The Memphis sound produced by Sam Phillips' Sun Records began with the music of African Americans from the Delta. Picked up by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, Elvis Presley, this provided a foundation for rockabilly. When British rockers such as the Rolling Stones emerged a decade later, the blues was an important presence as it continues to be an influential force in popular music thirty years later.

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April 17, 1998

While the blues, which developed among African Americans in the Mississippi River Delta a century or so ago, has had significant impact on popular music, its influences can be found in other art forms as well. For example, American literature has drawn upon the blues both thematically and stylistically.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April seventeenth. "Creative Expressions Beyond the Blues" is the focus of a three-day symposium being held now on the Arkansas State University campus. Now in its fourth year, this event has helped to show how the blues and other Delta art forms respond to and reflect the experience of living in the Delta, while addressing human concerns that transcend any geographical region.

Perhaps the first author to draw extensively on the blues for literary inspiration was Langston Hughes. Part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hughes had encountered the blues primarily through the recordings and live performances of the decade's classic women blues singers. The music of figures such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith encouraged Hughes to adopt the three-line stanzaic format of the blues for poems which explored issues such as illusion and mutability, topics which poets in the Western tradition have been treating for thousands of years.

Tbough Hughes may have priority as a blues-inspired poet, he has had many successors. Examples include Jack Kerouac, the beat writer of the 1950s, and Charles Simic, a contemporary poet. Though Hughes was African American and consequently shared ethnicity with the originators of the blues, the work of Kerouac and Simic shows how the blues has relevance to people from other heritages. They have indeed taken the blues beyond itself.

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April 20, 1998

April has customarily been regarded as the month for showers, so people probably get plenty of use from umbrellas and other rain gear this month. If you're not sure whether you need to carry your umbrella with you on an April day (or, in fact, at other times of the year), American folklore offers some ways of determining if rain is imminent.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April twentieth. Many people have believed that if hogs are seen carrying sticks or branches in their mouths, rain is on the way. Hearing a cow cough is invariably a sign of precipitation. If a mule shakes itself within its harness, rain will occur within twenty-four hours. Other signs of rain provided by animals include a cat washing its face, frogs croaking (or "calling" for rain, according to a West African belief that made its way to the western hemisphere), and a temporary infestation of flies. If a rooster crows before midnight, expect rain the next morning. And it will rain before morning should a rooster crow upon retiring at dusk. An English folk rhyme asserts, "If the cock crows on going to bed, / He's sure to rise with a watery head." Hearing a rain-crow (the cardinal grosbeak) means rain is in the offing, and another sign of rain is seeing a buzzard flying especially high. African American tradition includes a rhyme addressed to a high-flying turkey vulture: "Oh, Mr. Buzzard, don't you fly so high; / You can't get your living flying in the sky." When barnyard fowl fly about their realm, rain should be anticipated. Another sure sign, according to American folklore, is the call of the peacock.

While all these rain prognosticators have had their adherents, we should also note the skepticism suggested by the weather proverb, "All signs fail in wet weather." So maybe there's no sure way to forecast whether it will rain.

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April 21, 1998

Seventy-one years ago heavy rains had been soaking the Mississippi River Delta and points northward for several days. The system of levees which contained the River into a relatively narrow channel had just been completed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and those earthworks, though reinforced by sandbags, were groaning from the water pressure.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April twenty-first. On this date in 1927, the levee about twenty miles north of Greenville, Mississippi, at Mound Landing broke, and oozing muddy water began to move across the Delta at the rate of about fourteen miles per day. Within forty-eight hours the towns of Greenwood, Leland, Holly Springs, and Indianola in Mississippi were flooded, and water ran through the streets of Helena and other Arkansas communities.

Disasters such as this always generate folklore. For instance, the 1927 flooding produced some twenty or so blues recordings--not only by Delta residents such as Charley Patton but by performers from outside the region with an eye out for marketable topics for the blues such as Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Patton's "High Water Everywhere," which he recorded several years after the flood, required two sides of a seventy-eight r.p.m. record. The words words on Side One relate the progress of the flood waters through Mississippi--from Sumner to Leland and Greenville--while those of Side Two do the same for Arkansas communities such as Blytheville and Joiner. No matter where the singer considers going to escape the rising water, he realizes he's going to find flood conditions. As Patton's blues relates, there was simply no way for Delta families, often living in poorly constructed sharecropper's cabins, to avoid the consequences of the flood.

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April 22, 1998

The blossoming of dogwoods, a sure sign of spring, has undoubtedly now occurred everywhere throughout the Mid-South. Dogwood blooms have been making their way northward for more than a month now, and even those trees in the northern reaches of the Ozarks are in full flower.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April twenty-second. Perhaps the most familiar bit of folklore associated with dogwoods has religious overtones. Once a tall, sturdy tree--so the tradition goes--its wood was supposed to have been used to make the cross for Jesus' crucifixion. One result of its employment thus was that the dogwood lost its commanding stature and became the small, spindly tree that it is now. Meanwhile, the flowers of the dogwood were reshaped to serve as reminders of the crucifixion. Their overall cruciform shape recalls, of course, the cross itself, and the small indentations at the tip of each petal which are often ringed in pink represent the wounds which Jesus suffered.

This story of the dogwood reflects two extrascriptural Christian traditions. On one hand, it's an installment in what's called the "Bible of the Folk," amplifications and additions to stories in the Old and New Testaments that fill in gaps and add some prosaic humanity to the larger-than-life characters portrayed therein. The story of the dogwood is also related to the practice of reading the "Book of Nature," used by the pious during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. According to this tradition, one could find hints and reminders of Christian doctrine simply by looking at the surrounding world. The tripartition characteristic of most clover leaves, for example, recalled the Trinity and the monthly disappearance and return of the moon suggested the death and rebirth of Jesus.

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April 23, 1998

Today he's probably best known for the theme music for the film Pretty Woman--music which he first recorded in 1964. But Roy Orbison was one of the pioneers of rock and roll, bringing to the Memphis sound some of the features of the music which he'd learned in his native Texas.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April twenty-third. On this date in 1936, Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas. He studied geology at North Texas State University where classmate Pat Boone encouraged his musical career. Orbison participated in a western swing band, the Wink Westerners--named for a hamlet in the West Texas desert, and then formed one of the earliest rockabilly ensembles, the Teen Kings. His big break came when he signed with Memphis' Sun Records in 1956.

There he scored his first national success with "Ooby Dooby." Orbison then moved to Nashville, where he became staff songwriter for Acuff-Rose Publishing and began recording for Monument Records. His best-known songs, most of which focus thematically on unrequited love, reflect the influences of western swing as well as blues-inspired rock and roll. "Running Scared," "Only the Lonely," "Crying," and "It's Over" were performed over full ensembles and suggested the Latin rhythms that influenced Texas music.

Orbison's songs and performances demonstrate a complexity missing from the recordings of many of his contemporaries: especially unusual bar lengths and modulations which showcased a vocal range that reached to a high falsetto. He also affected a dramatic stage presence with dark glasses and clothing.

Roy Orbison might be said to represent an eclecticism that seems particularly characteristic of his Texas musical roots.

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April 24, 1998

Current ecological awareness of the value of trees for a clean atmosphere has precedent in an action taken by the Nebraska State Board of Agricultural in April of 1872. On the motion of agriculturist J. Sterling Morton, that body established April tenth as a day to plant trees and named the occasion Arbor Day.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April twenty-fourth. In 1875 the legislature of Nebraska changed the date of Arbor Day to the twenty-second of the month, the anniversary of Morton's birth, and made it a legal holiday. Though only Utah and Florida followed Nebraska's suit in assigning legal status to the occasion, every state except Alaska observes Arbor Day usually on the last Friday of April.

The custom of planting trees on special occasions has widespread cross-cultural currency. For example, many societies mark the birth of a child by planting a tree. In some parts of Mexico, the planting occurs on the first new moon after the birth. Tree planting may also accompany changes of residence. When a couple married in New England several centuries ago, the bride customarily took a sapling from her parents' land to plant in the garden she was establishing with her new husband. Once-in-a-lifetime events--for instance, the visit of a monarch to a out-of-the-way community in the English hinterlands--might occasion a communal tree-planting. Some villages still have their Victoria oaks or King George elms.

The inspiration for the Nebraska tree-planting on the original Arbor Day had both esthetic and practical sources. The generally treeless plains were forbidding to folk accustomed to eastern woodlands, and stands of trees might break some of the cold wind blowing down from Canada.

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April 27, 1998

American folklore includes a number of weather omens which predict rain, a particular concern during this month traditionally associated with showers.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April twenty-seventh. A widely held belief states that should the leaves of a tree be showing their undersides, rain is bound to occur soon. Of course, when the leaves are so disposed, it means that there has been a shift from the prevailing wind direction and that the weather probably will change. Another rain prognosticator involving the wind holds that should a whirlwind move toward a pond, lake, or other body of water, rain should be expected.

Back in the days when every home had a fireplace, the behavior of smoke and soot could predict rain. If the smoke hovered near the ground instead of floating up into the air, or if soot fell back into the fire, people knew to carry their rain gear with them when they went out for the day. Other signs of rain from the domestic sphere include shoes that suddenly begin to squeak and vessels of iron or glass that begin to "sweat." Of course, these occurrences might indeed relate to a sudden increase in relative humidity--perhaps a sign of imminent rain.

And people have frequently looked to their own bodies for indications that rain is approaching. For those suffering from what was once called "rheumatism," aching joints meant that the umbrella should be taken out of the closet and kept close at hand. People who at one time in their lives had broken a bone could anticipate rain if that bone began to trouble them. And foot problems such as bunions were supposed to become especially troublesome just before a spell of rain.

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April 29, 1998

Geoffrey Chaucer's famous collection of tales begins with the well known words in Middle English, "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote," thus setting the scene of his action during this month.

This is CALENDAR LORE for April twenty-ninth. April was indeed the season for one of the most important religious practices of the Middle Ages: the pilgrimage. The devout and those who were perhaps under the obligation of a vow or penance made their ways to shrines throughout the countryside. These places might be the sites of great events in the life of a saint or holy person. Chaucer's group were heading for Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas Beckett had suffered martyrdom. Other pilgrimage goals could be a place where holy relics were kept--something associated with a saint or with one of the figures from the New Testament, even Jesus himself. Or pilgrims might be bound for places where the miraculous power of God was especially evident--springs of healing waters, for example. Though most pilgrimages involved trips on only a local level, some wealthy believers might journey to sites such as Rome or even Jerusalem.

While the climax of the pilgrimage experience occurred, of course, when the goal was reached, the trip itself was supposed to have spiritual significance. Life itself was often metaphorically described as a pilgrimage--an image used in such medieval classics as The Divine Comedy and Everyman. People on a pilgrimage should devote themselves to spiritual concerns while enroute. Part of the irony of Chaucer's work is that his characters, even those with specific Church connections, often seem much more concerned with the earthly than the spiritual, even while they're bound for a spiritual goal.

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