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Poetry Afield

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When ethnographers collect poetry in the course of a fieldwork project, they are often looking for something in addition to a recitation of an entertaining poem. Poetry, like songs or stories, can tell us something about the culture in which it is found, the local ideas about what makes a good poem, information about languages and dialects, and may also provide clues about the things most valued among the people the ethnographer studies. Ethnographers may document local poets reciting poems they composed themselves, poems current in the oral tradition of a community or ethnic group, and published poetry that have come to be part of a community’s traditions in some way.

Poetry often shows up in games, and game rhymes may be among of our first encounters with poetry as children. Such rhymes can teach us about childhood experiences in various cultures. Many of us remember using counting-out rhymes to  decide who will be “it” in a game.  “Pipi Sigallo” is an example of a counting-out rhyme in Spanish, remembered by Edith Kennedy, the wife of folklorist Stetson Kennedy, who interviews her in this recording made in Florida in 1939 as part of the WPA study of folk arts in Florida.1

The experiences of refugees fleeing the dust bowl for California in the 1930s, as pictured here, inspired poems such as “A Job’s Just Around the Corner.” Oklahoma dust bowl refugees. San Fernando, California, 1935. Prints and Photographs Division. Permalink:

Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin recorded many types of music, song, and speech from migrant workers in California, including poetry. Many of the migrants had escaped the dust bowl conditions in the Midwest and many had not been agriculturalists before having to abandon their homes and communities. Mrs. Imogene Chapin recites a poem she composed not long after arriving in California (1940). The subject, “A Job’s Just Around the Corner,” reflected the sentiments of others in the same circumstances and she says it was published in the Arvin FSA Camp newsletter. It is a good example of the sort of verse that folklorists may look for, one that speaks to local circumstances in the language of the community, just as a folksong or story might.  Todd and Sonkin also documented a migrant worker’s poem about picking cotton put to work as part of a square dance call.  When you listen to “Cotton Fever,” you will first hear fiddle music and the caller giving instructions to the dancers in what the figures will be, then the music stops for a moment and another performer recites the poem the music picks up and the poem continues with the dancers feet can be heard picking up the steps. Sometimes ethnographers may be present as a poem is set to music to become a song.  An example collected by Todd and Sonkin is “Our Mothers,” written as a poem by Flora Robertson and sung by her friend, Mary Sullivan. It reminds us that among the migrants fleeing the dust bowl were mothers and grandmothers, struggling to hold their families together and keep them safe while on the road.

Sidney Roberson Cowell went to central California during the Great Depression with the idea of recording the music and songs of various ethnic groups there. Among the recordings she made are some examples of chanted ethnic poetry, some of which are fragments of ancient sagas. Icelandic rimer are verses, usually fragments of a saga, in Old Norse.  This rima is sung by Sigurd Bardarson, who was born in Iceland. His son Leo can be heard humming the tune the poem is chanted to. Sigurd Bardarson said that this was the story of the Viking abduction of Princess Dagobert, daughter of King Louis of France. The Franks did battle the Vikings, but there are many legends about the ancient Franks and this set of verses may not be historical. It is interesting to find that the singing of the sagas was brought to North America by Icelandic immigrants such as Bardarson. More than that, these sagas continue to enrich Icelandic American culture. Bardarson composed chanted poetry in Icelandic based on the style of the Old Norse sagas. In this recording he chants verses he composed, “About the Looks of a Girl,” and two verses about Mt. Baker in Washington State where his home is.

Before rap, a style of chanted poetry that has now traveled far beyond the African American communities where it originated, there were toasts. Toasts are poems, traditionally composed and recited by African American men. They often praised the deeds of real or legendary people, and that is why they were called toasts, but they could be critical as well, and might include observations about social inequality and other issues. Among these poetic ancestors of rap, “Shine and the Titanic” is one of the most famous. Shine is a fictional person, a deck hand on the RMS Titanic who makes an escape in a humorous fashion. This version is recited by O.C. King.  Another style of African American poetry is found in the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection in a recording of  poems written by an unidentified 18-year-old African Amerian man in New York, New York made by Walt Wolfram  as part of a linguistic study of dialects in the United States in 1970 or ’71.  Wolfram asks him to recite his poems at about 7:30 minutes into the interview, and the poet offers “Oh, Heart,” which he wrote when he was about sixteen, followed by “Clish, Clash,” “Oh, My Beautiful, Beautiful Flower,” “Don’t You Know,” and “Cope, Dope, and Hope.” He gives some background in why he wrote these poems, providing a striking glimpse into the world of a young black New Yorker of that time. Wolfram was interested dialects, and one thing he captured in the interview was the way the young man’s speech changed from conversation to his more deliberately articulated performing voice as he recited his poetry.

West Virginia poet John Russell reading a poem at University of Charleston in Charleston, West Virginia in 1996. Coal River Folklife Project (AFC 1999/008). Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler.

The Coal River Folklife Project, documenting the connections between community and ecology in the Coal River valley of West Virginia, includes several examples of poems collected by Mary Hufford. “I like Clear Clean Water and a Big Blue Sky,” composed and recited by Dean Bone, is a celebration of the beauty of West Virginia. Bone sings the last few lines, demonstrating that his verse might be turned into a song – and he has the musical talent to make that happen. “Coal Miner’s Song,” a poem composed and recited by John Russell, reflects a conflict shared by many in the community. Russell is a coal miner, as are many men in the region, yet he is deeply concerned about the damage to the ecology of the region caused by coal mining. His poem describing the natural beauty of his home region ends with the observation that the Earth’s caretakers have become its killers.

Poetry traditions may sometimes be found among occupational groups. Poetry of ranchers has long been known as “cowboy poetry” though it may be composed and recited by people who do various types of work around a ranch. Examples may be found in some videos of events at the Library of Congress, including “Cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski and cowboy singer-composer Wylie Gustafson” recorded in 2009; and singer, songwriter, and poet D.W. Groethe from “MonDak,” the region on the border of Montana and North Dakota. For those who want to learn more about this tradition, there is a lecture by David Stanley discussing “Cowboy Poetry: History, Origins, Influences, and Forms,” [this video is currently unavailable, 2019] and a subsequent, more detailed article in Folklife Center News. Cowboy poems are usually performed when the work is done, but sometimes poems can be found as part of work as well, such as this unnamed railroad employee demonstrating calling trains for John Lomax; and Herbert Halpert and Stetson Kennedy’s recording of Alan Stuckey performing a fish vendor’s call that he heard growing up in South Carolina. Jens Lund discusses poetry among other occupational groups with similar traditions in the Pacific Northwest, loggers, miners, and fishermen in his lecture at the Library of Congress, “I Done What I Could: Occupational Folk Poetry in the Pacific Northwest.” These sources of poems related to occupations suggest that many more examples might be found elsewhere if we look for them.

Cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski performing a poem at the Library of Congress, 2009. Photo by Megan Halsband.

Although we usually think of folklore as coming from oral tradition rather than the printed word, poems taken from books or learned in school can enter oral tradition, passed by word of mouth instead of the written word, and which poems are chosen for this particular honor may prove interesting. For example, the Canadian poet Robert W. Service published poems that took inspiration from the lives and language of pioneers in Canada and the United States. These subsequently were learned by high school students, passed on from person to person, and recited from memory in many of the same settings that folksongs were sung and tales told. In a blog post last year, Stephen Winick wrote about a published poem found among Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin’s recordings in, “A Pulitzer Prize for a Cowboy Poet,” in Folklife Today. “Colorado Morton’s Ride,” by Rivers Brown and Leonard Bacon, can be heard in a version recited by a Farm Security Administration regional director, Fred Soule, recorded at the Visalia FSA Camp in 1941. You can also visit a previous post in Folklife Today to read the original text of the poem, which has entered the public domain.  This poem benefits from collaboration between Brown, who was a working cowboy, and Bacon, who was an accomplished poet, and later a Pulitzer Prize winner. The result is a poem very much in the tradition of cowboy poetry, and yet one that was published in collections by Bacon, and so reached both literary and popular audiences.

The ethnographic study of poems shows us is that poetry may be found in unexpected places. At the grass-roots level, poetry is put to work to pass on poetic heritage, entertain, complain, play, make work lighter, enlighten, and  above all, to speak to and for a community in its own language.


1. For a discussion of an adult game with song and rhyme, see  Ann Hoog’s article “LISTEN: Zora Neale Hurston Performs Folk Poetry and Song from her Native Florida,” in the Library of Congress blog In the Catbird Seat, February 28, 2014


California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties presents the recordings Sidney Robertson Cowell made in California. Search on “rimur” to find more renditions of Old Norse poetry from sagas. Oddrun Sigurasson performs songs from Icelandic sagas as well.  There is also an example of verses from the epic ballad, The Battle of Kosovo, sung by Peter Boro in Croatian and “Vaka vanha Vainamoinen,” which is from the epic The Kalevala, sung in Finnish by John Soininen.

Florida Folklife and the WPA Collections, 1937-1942.

Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.

“The Poetry of Everyday Life,” presented by Stephen Zeitlin at the Library of Congress,  2015 (webcast, also on Library of Congress YouTube).

Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia, presents items from The Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008). Search on “John Randall” to find more poetry by this artist.

Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941. Additional poems and ballads may be found in this collection.

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