Vol. 81 No. 1 – Winter, 2022
Horror Stories and Pills for Men: Social Complaint in Narratives about Contraception
ABSTRACT:Narratives about birth control provide a window into the cultural responses to current contraceptive methods and can be used to achieve greater satisfaction among contraceptive users through the informed expansion of options. Stories about negative effects attributed to hormonal contraception and rumors about male birth control express social complaint about the burden of birth control on women. They also reveal a preference for nonhormonal and male options, which form a small proportion of currently available methods. KEYWORDS: birth control, contraception, reproductive health, narrative, rumor
The Persecuted Heroine as Written by Philippe de Rémi: the Narrative Logic of the Severed Hand in ATU 706
ABSTRACT: The “Constance” version of the accused queen plot in medieval literature contains a subtype that in modern folklore is classified as ATU 706, “the Maiden Without Hands.” The threatened incest and mutilation have been the subject of much discussion, but there is no fundamental distinction between ATU 706, and other texts sharing the basic plot. Rather, the combination of threatened incest and mutilation was a plot embellishment heightening drama and resolving problems in narrative logic. KEYWORDS: folktale, incest, mutilation, persecuted, daughter
Four Laws of Folklore
ABSTRACT: Folklorists were once interested in proposing laws that described the nature of various folklore genres and behaviors. Four such laws concern ballad lyricization, folktale scene, rites of passage, and the conditions that promote superstitious behavior. I propose that folklorists resume the task of formulating laws and investigating both their range and their limitations. KEYWORDS: law, lyricization, folktale scene, rites of passage, superstition
Posthuman Folklore. Tok Thompson. (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2019. Pp. xiii +196, prologue, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, works cited, index. $30 paperback.)
Posthuman theory seeks to destabilize boundaries between definitions of humans, animals, and technology; its roots are in science & technology studies and anthropology. Folklore and other humanities-related disciplines are only now beginning to experiment with the application of cultural theories beyond human beings, making these disciplines somewhat late to the conversation. Posthuman Folklore works to correct this though an engaging and dense text, covering the role of posthumanism in the field of folklore. To do this, the book focuses on applications of the two largest branches of posthumanism: ethology (what our relationship with animals say about how humans interact with the biological world) and digital technology (which explores the ever-evolving human-machine link).
Posthuman Folklore serves not as an overview of posthuman philosophy and theory, but more as a “sampling of some of the ways that posthumanism is increasingly influencing how we think of ourselves and the world around us” (xi) as expressed through folkways. Thompson says that the term “posthuman folklore” refers to both “the folklore regarding posthumanism and folklore from beyond the human” (xiii). Folklore is the ideal discipline to discuss posthumanism because of its focus on emerging culture, putting its researchers at the forefront of cultural dialogues.
Thompson is an associate professor of anthropology and communications at the University of Southern California. He holds degrees in anthropology and folklore from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively. During his experiences in graduate school (under the tutelage of Alan Dundes), he saw what was once viewed as an “antiquated discipline” become a “cutting-edge discipline” (vii). This perspective is reflected in Thompson’s boundary-pushing academic publications on folklore, as well as in this recent work. Thompson has published in a variety of areas related to folklore, most recently on internet identities, global citizenship, and myth in everyday life. His research, which has applied folklore theory in new ways, gives him a unique perspective from which to discuss the future of folklore as it pertains to being human in the 21st century. It serves as a culmination of Thompson’s thoughts and theories regarding this subject. There could be no one better to apply posthuman thought to folklore, considering his longstanding interest in this subject and its related areas.
Posthuman Folklore contains new material from Thompson as well as revised versions of several of his articles and book chapters, including “The Ape that Captured Time,” “Ghost Stories from the Uncanny Valley: Androids, Souls, and the Future of Being Haunted” (both previously published in Western Folklore), and “New Myths for Modern Times: Changing Ontologies and the Green-Skinned Other” (originally published as a book chapter in Race and Ethnicity in Digital Culture). Each of the book’s three sections covers how posthumanism and folklore connect in specific subgenres represented by individual chapters, along with a very brief introduction and conclusion. Thompson covers a host of topics, including religion, myth, folk music, storytelling, furries, AI ghosts, aliens, and digital music mashups. Each chapter focuses on different applications of posthuman philosophy to different types of folklife to make his overall argument for combining theories of posthumanism and folklore. The first section, “The Conscious Planet,” focuses mainly on applications of posthumanism as it pertains to nonhuman animals and how humans see themselves in relation to animal counterparts. “Becoming Cyborg” discusses how personal identity and cultural productions online have blurred the boundaries between the organic, biological human and our technological selves. The final section, “Us and Them: Reimagining Ontology in the Cyborg Age,” explores the increasing acceptance of artificial intelligence (AI) as “human-ique” (a play on “unique” that Thompson uses frequently) – how humans have projected their folk beliefs and practices onto AI, as well as how AI may have folklore itself.
A major strength of Thompson’s book is its depth despite the short page count. Posthuman Folklore not only sets the groundwork for theories of the posthuman to be applied to folkloric practices; it also connects many sources from across disciplines to form a thought-provoking and original work that will inspire the reader. Thompson refers to an array of scholarship both in and outside the field of folklore and defines the complex terms that form the foundations of his argument. The book is academic-jargon–heavy, but his writing style is still accessible.
A weakness of the text is that the book asks many questions and offers few answers. It also does not discuss criticisms of posthuman theory—for example, how do marginalized human populations, who are often already treated as nonhumans, feel about the desire for redefinition of the term “human?” It also does not define “human” as it pertains to hegemonic standards (this is perhaps because it takes on a global or “earthling” perspective that may limit some of the specificity that comes with context), which results in a less nuanced discussion of how race, class, and ability factor into this discussion. It does discuss gender to some degree, and it is clear that Thompson himself holds liberal (if not radical) perspectives on the larger subjects of race, class, ability, and gender.
Posthuman Folklore is a call to action; Thompson inspires scholars to work on topics in the intersection between folklore and posthuman theory to better explore how people relate to their world and see themselves as human in the 21st century. It is a book I will be returning to frequently as a budding scholar interested in the intersection of posthumanism, anthropocene, and folklore studies. It would be useful for anyone interested in the expanding theories of posthumanism and how they relate to our evolving cultural practices as technological and biological beings. It is a great resource for a person looking to take the field of folklore in new directions. I enjoyed this book and will be using some of the foundational ideas as a jumping-off point for further research on the relationships between humans, animals, robots, and all “earthlings” in between.
Comfort Food: Meanings and Memories. Edited by Michael Owen Jones and Lucy M. Long. (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2017. Pp. vi + 254, introduction, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $85, hardbound; $35, paper.)
This collection of essays demonstrates how problematic the definition and significance of a term like “comfort food” can be when data from many sources is included. Sometimes, as with Rachelle Saltzman and her article on English puddings, it’s relatively smooth sailing; comfort involves the intersection of slightly guilty pleasure, tradition/nostalgia, and group identification (though even then, the love of pudding leaves many nonwhite immigrants baffled).
And even a food that we might consider hard to like, like the long viili of Finnish cuisine (stringy and slimy) is treasured by many Finns for the same reasons (Yvonne and William Lockwood, in their article on a form of Finnish-American cultured-dairy food). Just as many Norwegians suffer through an annual tasting of lutefisk, because that’s what is done, comfort here often consists of familiarity and keeping the tradition unbroken, rather than palatability. In the case of viili, some of the comfort involves associated social connections as well, since the starter for the dish is distributed among other Finnish Americans.
Occasionally, the sunny image of comfort food dims a little, as when the Amish shunt aside their famous avoidance of outsiders to offer their version of comfort food to “guests” for a price (discussed by Lucy Long, in her article on culinary tourism). Food tourism in some places has conveniently expanded to include so-called comfort food in its offerings—both as a new theme and as a sly way to include tourists who want something “different” but...not too different. Whose comfort is being maintained here?
Consider also the ambiguous position of American soul food—connected with poverty and oppression, a source of continuing bad health for black Americans, yet a tribute to resourceful creation of taste out of unpromising ingredients (in Sheila Bock’s article on the complexities of this cuisine). Soul food is strongly hooked to tradition and respect for the cooks of yesteryear, but its status as comfort food is bittersweet.
And in some cases, it turns out that what is comfort for some members of a group is definite discomfort for others—a source of family dissension, painful memories, or cultural erasure (see LuAnne Roth’s essay on how food is portrayed in film, and Annie Tucker’s welcome nonwestern article on the ambiguity of “comfort” foods in Indonesia). (One reaction not mentioned in the book is that of boredom; I was served boiled potatoes every night of the year while growing up [a point of intersection among the Scots-Irish/German/Swedish foodways of my parents] and, though one would expect this dish to be an example of comfort food for me, I would be happy never to eat it again.)
Various essays also expand the source of “comfort” beyond taste itself to include
There is even the possibility that new foods, depending on their presentation and context, can become something like comfort foods without the expected component of time, as in LuAnne Roth’s description of how new foods can acquire emotional depth.
While writing level and copyediting quality are on the whole high in this book, I have to object to the term “alimentary exchanges” in LuAnne Roth’s article. A phrase that she meant to be “the stories people tell about their family’s foodways,” I at first took to be the way a mother bird feeds her chicks.
These articles provide generous data points for the investigation of comfort food, but they do not, and perhaps cannot, provide a comprehensive folkloristic framework for examination of the phenomenon, as I had hoped. This is in part because the term “comfort food” was created by the media (and then, often, has been appropriated by readers as a convenient explanation and justification of their food choices) and in some cases has been commodified for business (as noted in Lucy Long’s article). In Michael Owen Jones’ essay, it becomes clear that there is no objective explanation, physiologically or psychologically, for the “comfort” of comfort foods; these are simply foods that have become associated with enjoyment and solace, for individuals or groups. The choice of them (and, often the combinations of them—really, French fries with ice cream?) is idiosyncratic and subject to change over time. Some comfort foods are dictated by the media, as well, and it becomes more difficult over time to separate spontaneous preferences from these suggestions. The term “comfort food” may well be too amorphous, and too influenced by commercial concerns, to be of use in folklore studies.
Johnny Breadless: A Pacifist Fairy Tale. By Paul Vaillant-Couturier. Illustrated by Jean Lurçat. Translated and adapted by Jack Zipes. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, for Little Mole & Honey Bear Press, 2020. Pp. 104, preface, color and black-and-white illustrations, afterword. $25 hardbound.)>
In 1921, the French writer and politician Paul Vaillant-Couturier (1892–1937) wrote Jean-sans-pain: Histoire pour tous les enfants (Johnny Breadless: Story for all children) about a ten-year-old boy who had nothing to eat but dry bread and who “had a life so sad that he never smiled or laughed” (7). Set in 1917 during World War I, the book (originally fifty-four pages, including twenty-nine watercolor illustrations by Paul Picart le Doux) tells of the boy’s encounters with a talking rabbit and partridges who fly him in a monoplane over the French landscape, descending periodically to observe exploited factory workers, greedy aristocrats and military officers, and soldiers from all sides who cannot explain why they are fighting each other. The story ends with the aphorism, “Whoever does not work should not eat” (43), variants of which come from Thessalonians 3:10 and Vladimir Lenin.
That Vaillant-Couturier had helped to establish the French Communist Party in 1920 or that he later edited the party’s newspaper Humanity should not surprise readers of Johnny Breadless. As the rabbit tells Johnny at the start of the journey, “You see, the people who work need to learn to be strong and free.... When people are strong and free, they won’t harm each other anymore.... So, tonight you must get to know the truth and learn about those among us that suffer the most” (11).
Credit for resurrecting Vaillant-Couturier’s pacifist story goes to Jack Zipes, one of the leading scholars of fairy tales, and his Little Mole & Honey Bear Press, which seeks to “republish children’s books with timeless values,” according to its website. This volume not only reprints the original 1921 French edition, but also adds Zipes’s own English translation, accompanied by expressionist illustrations by Jean Lurçat, which had first appeared in 1934 as part of a second edition of Jean-san-pains. As Zipes explains in the book’s one-page preface, Vaillant-Couturier “was one of the very first European writers ever to write specifically and honestly for children about the evils of war. His story is still relevant for our times” (5).
Zipes also adds a six-page afterword following the English- and French-language versions, which relates some of Vaillant-Couturier’s life and career and the publication history of Johnny Breadless. What Zipes also might have included here is an explanation of why he labels this a “fairy tale” rather than a fable, and what folkloric motifs Vaillant-Couturier employs to tell the story. Readers might also wish to learn more about the book’s reception in 1921 and further specifics about what Vaillant-Couturier added for the second edition in 1934, which Zipes calls “more strident, didactic, and revolutionary” than the original (102).
I also wish that someone had employed a proofreader to correct the embarrassing mistakes. Vaillant-Couturier’s name is misspelled twice as “Valliant-Couturier” (102) and once as “Vaillaint-Couturier” (103). The French word guerre is misspelled twice as “guere” (100, 104). The protagonist’s name becomes “Jeans” rather than Jean (103). And even the book‘s cover tells us it is “illustrated by de Jean Lurçat,” not realizing that “by” and “de” mean the same thing. Nevertheless, the publication of Johnny Breadless poignantly adds to our understanding of the international, pacifist currents of the 1920s and 1930s.
Mountain Witches: Yamauba. By Noriko Tsunoda Reider. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv + 238, acknowledgements, introduction, notes, illustrations, glossary, bibliography, index. $25.95 paper.)
In recent years, Japanese folkloric monsters and spirits, collectively labeled yōkai, have garnered more and more general interest, especially among people who grew up with anime, manga, and games. There is rich scholarship on yōkai in Japanese, but until recently there has been a comparative dearth of English-language academic work on the subject. Noriko Tsunoda Reider’s new publication is therefore an extremely welcome new contribution to a slowly growing corpus.
As the title indicates, the monograph focuses on the “mountain witch”—variously called yamauba, yamamba, or yamanba—one of Japan’s best known yōkai. Reider notes that “to many contemporary Japanese, the word yamauba conjures up images of an unsightly old woman who lives in the mountains and devours humans” (3). One point of her own analysis, however, is to complicate simple characterizations by presenting differences over time and unpacking the yamauba’s common attributes. Because a consistent characteristic of the yamauba is that she is female, questions of gender undergird the book; the generally male demon figure of the oni, subject of an earlier monograph by Reider, serves as a point of contrast and comparison throughout.
Reider makes clear from the beginning that yamauba and other demonic women have a long history in Japan. Drawing on a dizzying assortment of texts, from the eighth-century mytho-historical Kojiki to late twentieth-century narrative poetry, she seeks out commonalities and contrasts. Although she hints at the possibility of an “archetypal” figure, she also problematizes broad generalizations, highlighting differences and changes over time. Indeed, if the yamauba has one overarching quality it is her ambiguous and contradictory nature—something that, ironically, remains consistent through time.
Although Reider is attentive to historical specificity, she does not structure her analysis chronologically; rather each chapter focuses on different yamauba characteristics. Chapter 1, for example, discusses her “duality,” exploring how her negative traits—particularly her habit of eating humans—can be reconciled with positive behaviors such as gift-giving and helping others. Reider references numerous texts, including several well-known folktales and two noh plays, in search of links and contrasts.
Chapter 2 addresses yamauba as a symbol of motherhood, most famously as the mother of Kintarō, a boy who would grow up to become a legendary warrior. Here Reider introduces relevant folktales, legends, kabuki plays and ukiyo-e images. She also discusses the yamauba’s association with weaving and, by extension, spiders. Chapter 3 explores the yamauba’s connection with mind-reading and prophecy, talents that appear in folktales, setsuwa (a premodern narrative genre), twentieth-century fiction, and even Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a 1957 film based on Macbeth. The theme of Chapter 4 is the yamauba’s ability to fly and Chapter 5 focusses on her association with aging, particularly in relation to the famous tales of “mountains of abandoned old women” (obasute-yama).
Chapter 6 is the only chapter that is explicitly historical, bringing us into contemporary urban Japan with a discussion of the so-called yamamba-gyaru (“yamamba gal”) phenomenon of the 1990s in which teenagers would bleach their hair, darken their skin, and hang out in busy commercial neighborhoods such as Shibuya in Tokyo. In terms of youth culture, gender, fashion, and other socio-cultural factors, this complex phenomenon celebrates the folkloric yamauba’s outsider and confrontational nature. In this chapter, Reider also discusses manga, anime, poetry, and other recent depictions of yamauba.
As I hope these brief chapter summaries make clear, Mountain Witches: Yamauba accesses many texts from different genres. Reider also cites an impressive array of secondary literature in both Japanese and English. At times her wide purview and erudition are challenging; as she unpacks one text after another, the reader can feel tangled in a web of influences. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, because it reminds us that all these different forms of expression—legend, folktale, noh, kabuki, manga, anime, film—are complexly interwoven and therefore cannot be analyzed in isolation. By not fixating on questions of “authenticity” but appreciating a wide variety of media, Reider illustrates the yamauba’s mutability, showing how she is constructed as much by local narratives and beliefs as by elite or commercial influences.
Because Reider accesses so many texts across different historical periods, her book may be difficult for readers unfamiliar with Japanese history and literary or folkloric genres. She also uses a certain amount of Japanese terminology; although she provides explanations, this may be challenging for anybody not versed in the language. She does provide a list of “Japanese and Chinese Names and Terms,” but a glossary and perhaps a timeline might also have been helpful.
Overall, this is a significant contribution to folklore studies. Scholars interested in the monstrous in cultures outside Japan will find the book useful for seeking points of overlap as well as difference. For scholars of Japanese folklore, Reider pulls together many valuable texts and commentaries. I can see it serving as a sourcebook for graduate students—each yamauba-related story she introduces might become the basis of a seminar paper or a master’s thesis. In fact, despite its inclusiveness, the book encourages further engagement with provocative and persistent issues—especially gender, motherhood, and patriarchy. Ultimately, the figure of the yamauba is “multifaceted” and “truly full of contradictions,” with “each creator or viewer” (164) looking for something different. By taking a deep dive into the world of this Japanese mountain witch, Reider reminds us of the dynamism and adaptability of all folkloric beings—and, for that matter, all folklore.
When Dream Bear Sings: Native Literatures of the Southern Plains. Edited by Gus Palmer, Jr. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Pp. xli+358, list of figures, list of illustrations, foreword, acknowledgment, introduction, contributors, index. $75 hardbound.)
When Dream Bear Sings is a compilation of stories, poems, letters, and various other written and oral works native to the first peoples of the Southern Plains, translated by “tribal speakers and linguists” who have an understanding of the source cultures (xxix). Filling a unique niche in Native American literature with this work, Gus Palmer addresses the problem of translating tales from Native American languages into English, especially with regard to translations previously done by non-native speakers who lacked a deep understanding of the cultures and narrative norms from which those stories arose. This collection thus strives to more closely capture the spirit of the original works, translating anew all of the entries, even if they have been recorded or published in other places. By including varied literary genres and large time periods, this work provides a historical, deep look into how these nations have interacted with the world and colonizers from first contact into the modern era. It also serves an important secondary purpose of contributing to the preservation of some Native American heritage languages that are at risk of being lost due to English hegemony (xxxiii-xxxiv).
This collection is broken down into chapters based on language families, with the individual works within each chapter grouped by specific tribes. The families represented are the Algonquian, Athabaskan, Caddoan, Iroquoian, Siouan, and Uto-Aztecan; in addition, one myth from the Tonkawa isolate is included. The subject matter of the works varies from stories of the beginning of the world and mankind to modern concerns. For instance, in chapter six, Otoe myths of Rabbit show the ways in which the world came to be as we know it. In chapter one, there is a humorous Kickapoo story in which a Native American semi driver takes revenge on a couple of motorcyclists who rudely disrupted his meal with racially charged attacks by calmly driving his truck over their bikes. Within the larger chapters, the narratives for each tribe are accompanied by a brief academic introduction that explains the culture and situations surrounding the stories, and many translations include the tale in its original language as well as in English. As an example, in the Ponca Omaha subsection of chapter six, the introduction provides the historical context for five letters written for the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper (intended to help correct the distorted and simplistic history of colonialism by showing the ways individuals felt about resisting or adapting to the “president’s servants” and the new dangers of the way of life forced on them).
Since this is an edited collection of literature from disparate original languages and translators, the formats are not consistent for all pieces, and the chapter lengths vary based on the amount of material available. Some of the narratives are offered solely in a gloss translation, while others have both direct and gloss translations in a line-by-line format. Palmer also had to navigate the issue of transcription, in that many of the languages have no native writing system or contain phonemes that do not exist in English. He chose to include a brief description of how the English alphabet and other symbols have been used to represent the sounds of the language at the beginning of these chapters. Where available, readers are also directed to websites that have spoken examples of the original pieces. While the works are generally limited to between one and three representatives for each tribe, the organization of them allows the reader to get a feel for the large variety of nations that are included in the Southern Plains and of the issues that the people of the Southern Plains have encountered, past and present.
When Dream Bear Sings is a beautiful exploration of the literature of the Native Americans from the Southern Plains, as presented by native speakers. Not only does it do an excellent job of showing the complexity of the literature from the nations Palmer has chosen to represent, it also emphasizes that the Native peoples of the Southern Plains are many distinct nations rather than the homogeneous group that is often presented in US policies and history classes. This book should appeal to the casual reader who would like a closer look at Native American literature from the Southern Plains, to academics interested in the stories and cultures of the Native American nations of the Southern Plains, and to linguists interested in the nuances of translation by native speakers.
If You Don’t Laugh You’ll Cry: The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers. By Claire Schmidt.(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017. Pp. vii + 269, acknowledgments, introduction, map, notes, bibliography, index. $69.95 hardcover.)
This work examines how humor, both intangible and tangible, serves as a method for building traditional occupational connections in an environment that brings a diverse array of individuals together. Since humor is one of the things that can go beyond the walls of an institution, Claire Schmidt uses it to call attention to an occupational community whose expressive culture reflects frustration. As she points out, “Prison in Wisconsin is a clear example of ongoing and systematic social injustice at the state level” (5), and the correctional workers take the brunt of a vocal and critical public.
Due to having widespread personal connections to correctional workers through her family and community, Schmidt is able to take a more personal, “inside” approach to the ethnographic study of correctional workers, making the text stronger, the questions deeper, and the details more thorough. While the general public believes they understand the nature of prison work, they have, she writes, little understanding of its dynamics or how it affects those who work within it, their families, and their communities.
The first third of the book focuses heavily on how humor is a tool for breaking down the general public’s unfamiliarities with prison work and the need to negotiate code-switching between being an officer (albeit one with far less respect than a police officer or military official) and familial/community roles. One of Schmidt’s best contributions in this section is a discussion about the stigma of prison work and how it makes a deep impact on family life and communities. According to Schmidt, “Prison workers are hypervisible because of the stigma they carry by means of their work; that hypervisibility renders other experiences and identities invisible” (77). Humor is the one part of work they can take home with them.
The second part of the book delves into how essential humor is to the occupational trade within prison walls. Schmidt’s personal interest in finding out “whether prison workers tend to be particularly funny people or if I had just grown up surrounded by some exceptionally humorous prison workers” (81) drove her fieldwork. She is quick to point out that officers deal with a great deal of ambiguity (moral, environmental, and relational), and she argues that humor is what restores their humanity in an environment that often dehumanizes them. Humor creates insider knowledge, reinforces identity, and allows staff to create safer institutions that focus more on intention than strict adherence to policy. Such interpretation of policies is part of the correctional officer’s challenge: how to uphold institutions while also being aware that institutions also create problems for themselves.
In the final part of the book, Schmidt focuses on how humor is used as a tool to resist the institutions that employ correctional staff. Although expected to uphold dominant narratives, they use humor to subvert and undermine them as well as to keep the institutions from completely consuming their lives. The chapter “Class, Scapegoats, Smoke and Mirrors” highlights how prison workers are often blamed for systemic problems that are far beyond their control; scapegoating them only creates a more broken system of justice.
This book is a step forward for occupational folklife studies in that it not only draws on traditional genres of occupational folklife (e.g., humor and storytelling), but also highlights the complexity of the prison worker’s environment, both inside and outside of the walls. Through use of reciprocal ethnographic techniques and interviews of family members, Schmidt successfully highlights the difficulties of writing about such subversion and critique of the prison system. The goal—highlighting how those who work in prisons are often the most critical of how they work—is clearly stated, but the ambiguity and difficulty involved in fieldwork is also present. This work is a useful source for those wanting to expand their understandings of occupational culture, for scholars who want to understand the tensions between those who guard and those who are guarded, and for people seeking to incorporate more personal and localized context into their criminology and sociology research.
Flamenco Nation: The Construction of Spanish National Identity. By Sandie Holguín.(Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2019. Pp. xv + 361, introduction, acknowledgments, photographs, illustrations, maps, glossary, endnotes, bibliography, index. $44.95 casebound.)
In the town near my rural California home, a new restaurant has recently opened. Called La Barceloneta—presumably to evoke Barcelona’s seaside neighborhood—pre-launch advertisements featured the image of a flamenco dancer festooned in a typically elaborate ruffled dress. Yet many of the citizens of Barcelona, the capital of the would-be independent autonomous community of Catalunya, are generally openly and vociferously antagonistic to what many see as the cultural domination of everything that this southern art form represents: in particular, economic favoritism toward Andalucía and a symbol of what is perceived as Castilian hegemony over the nation, seeking to promote a more pan-Spanish hispanidad. So why, I wondered, would this new business, clearly seeking to present itself as an authentic purveyor of Catalan cuisine, still somewhat unfamiliar in the U.S., paradoxically set itself up with opposing sociocultural markers of its true identity?
Sandie Holguín’s new book, Flamenco Nation: The Construction of Spanish National Identity, helps to provide an exhaustively researched answer to my question. She leads readers through the history of this music and dance form, tracing its somewhat broken lineage with roots in the late eighteenth century (when it was derided as the vulgar product of a generally scorned ethnic group) to widespread acceptance and respectability thanks to its 2007 recognition by UNESCO as an exemplar of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. While acknowledging the plethora of scholarly and general books that have treated flamenco as an art form, Holguín’s text breaks new ground as she examines the genre’s evolution through the lens of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical, cultural, and political trends within Spain and its regional autonomous communities, as well as within Europe and beyond.
Spain’s governmental and ecclesiastical elites, self-appointed and self-important protectors of their country’s national identity, historically denigrated flamenco. A cultural hybrid that drew from Andaluz and Roma (Gypsy) communities as well as from those outside Spain, especially in northern Africa, flamenco developed as the changes wrought by industrialization and urbanization also changed popular culture and how people spent their new leisure time. Ignoring the very real problems that urbanization generated—poverty, overcrowding, problems with waste disposal, insufferable working conditions, etc.—the elites, dismayed, instead seized on flamenco as the cause of modern ills: an unsavory symbol of a backward-looking country that represented moral, cultural, and spiritual decline. Flamenco, they believed, undercut patriarchal authority and class hierarchies, and fostered broad political decay.
The female dancers (it was always women who were blamed for the slackening of morals, as they were concomitantly held responsible for maintaining the honor of their families and their country) were portrayed as little more than borderline pornographic seductresses who, thanks to the attendant evils of economic changes, increasing secularization, commercialized sexuality, and race- and class-mixing, charmed higher-class young men into becoming spectators of this degenerate activity, spurring yet further moral degradation. Yet, while powerful, the combined forces of a) a conservative Catholic church that fixated on social purity and viewed flamenco as a sinister temptation that drew the innocent away from religious activities, b) the left-leaning politicians who felt that it distracted from outrage against the national government’s repressive policies, and c) the revolutionary movements who felt workers should be demanding improvements to their appalling working and living conditions instead of drinking and watching music and dance performances, were not powerful enough to quash regional and international fascination with flamenco.
This appeal was partly due to its characterization as a rare vestige of a noble, pre-industrial past, an antidote to the soul-crushing disruptions of modern civilization; the primarily Roma performers were lauded as the noble savage, the exotic Other. This inspired mainstream writers and musicians to begin to reference it in their own work, thus bestowing legitimacy on a different level (a pattern also seen in other European nations, most notably in Hungary, with Béla Bártok’s compositions based on traditional folk music). And, as Spain took periodic steps to open itself to international tourism, the allure of flamenco would not be suppressed. Despite the elites’ consistent efforts to curb or even abolish what they feared was beginning to symbolize their national identity—by means of such governmental programs as folkloric performances by the internationally-touring Coros y Danzas troupes and broad-based displays featuring its diverse regional cultures at international World’s Fairs—the aura of flamenco continued to flourish internationally, nationally, and even in Spanish regions where it had never been natively performed. (Holguín’s analysis of the Catalan response to flamenco was particularly insightful.)
The construction of any nation‘s identity—both that which is held privately and that which is advertised to the world—is complicated, and Holguín’s analysis of the dynamic “feedback loop” between the repression of Spanish governmental and ecclesiastical elites, the enthusiasm of the “popular classes,” and the zeal of international tourists has significant resonance. The moral concerns of the elites, in this increasingly secular country, diminished as an invented ancient history for the performances helped to erase its more unsavory aspects: they begrudgingly surrendered their dogmatic social and religious principles when confronted by flamenco’s increasingly obvious financial value.
Holguín’s prose is eminently readable, and her comprehensive research, verified with extensive quotes from contemporary sources, explores the varied influences on flamenco and the equally varied attempts to both restrict its performance and popularity, and to capitalize on it, in the course of constructing Spain’s national identity. Although the text would have been enhanced had the photographs and illustrations been published in full color, this is an important volume, and will rightly earn a place in the scholarly canon of a wide range of disciplines, including ethnomusicology and dance, folkloristics, political science, history, and Spanish area studies.
Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus! Photographs from the Sacred Steel Community. By Robert L. Stone. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2020. Pp xii + 180, foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, extended photo captions, notes. $40.00 hardcover.)
As someone who has attended many Holiness Pentecostal church services yet not heard the distinctive song of an electric steel guitar there, I was struck by folklorist and photographer Robert L. Stone’s description of the instrument in his monograph, Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus! Photographs from the Sacred Steel Community. “In the hands of a skilled musician,” he writes in the introduction, “it can have an almost uncanny resemblance to the human voice, singing in tones that range from moaning bass to soaring soprano.” To peruse Stone’s 152 black-and-white photos is to learn about the role of this iconic instrument in several African American Holiness Pentecostal congregations—specifically, the House of God and the Church of the Living God—in southern and eastern portions of the United States: the way its music, often guided by preachers, helps usher the Holy Spirit into church meetings and create a “joyful noise unto the Lord,” as the Bible commands. But it is also to experience the human voice of a tradition that has existed since approximately the 1930s with limited previous recognition, in a context often fraught with sensationalism and “othering.” Stone notes that images of “shouting, dancing, and the gamut of emotions expressed by African American Pentecostal worshippers” have historically been used by white photographers like him to exoticize Black people, and his book takes readers on a visual journey beyond these damaging, stereotypic portrayals.
Stone compellingly documents the use of steel guitar music in a variety of formal church functions. The first two sections of the book depict worship services, Sunday school, Bible conventions, funerals, and other events at multiple churches located from Florida to upstate New York. In all of these photographs, the steel guitar, or at least its influence, is integral to the scene unfolding around it. I find my eyes searching each image for the instrument’s oblong shape, then moving outward from it: to people lifting their hands in praise and offering testimony, to people kneeling on the floor in quiet prayer, and to people reading Bibles and eating meals together. One of my favorite images from these sections depicts the wake of a man named Henry Nelson, who rests in a coffin with metal guitar picks attached to the fingers of his clasped hands. The energy the steel guitar creates becomes palpable in this imagery, as does its ability to traverse boundaries and allow the Spirit to enter congregants’ bodies, communities, and lives. Stone’s photographs also skillfully step back from more intense moments of worship to take in their rather quiet, unassuming surroundings: an elegant brick church on an empty, snow-covered street; snack sales in a church parking lot; a church kitchen. This imagery contributes to a nuanced sense of place.
However, the photographs I find most illuminating in Stone’s book were created primarily outside of formal church contexts. Depicting more of the personal lives and external engagements of the sacred steel community, images from later sections of the book (“Portraits; The Sacred Steel Conventions; Festivals and Concerts; House of God Centennial; Generations”) add nuance to readers’ understanding of this music and enhance the humanity and familiarity of those who create it. I’m particularly moved by the intimate portraits Stone has made of steel guitar players, complemented by extended captions at the end of the book, and by the moments he captured of experienced musicians mentoring younger generations. I also appreciate the photographs that take sacred steel music and its practitioners beyond unfamiliar church settings and place them in wider, more accessible contexts—performing at concerts, meeting in a hotel ballroom, or traveling down a Tennessee street on a House of God Centennial parade float. It perhaps would have been even more effective to intersperse some of these images, particularly the portraits, with the preceding worship photographs.
I do wonder what some of the photography in this book would have looked like had it been created from the perspective of church members, and if community photographs of or with Stone himself could have been included in the book. An instructive example is Josh Birnbaum’s project We All Kings, which documents the lives of Peoria, Illinois hip hop artists through their own eyes as well, thereby exploring the subjectivity of the photographic process and increasing the agency of the people depicted. Nonetheless, I admire Stone’s commitment to the sacred steel community and his cultural humility as a white visitor. The relationships and trust he has built with numerous church congregations are visible, as is his intention of creating for community members a documentary record of “familiar people, traditions, rituals, and places.” The book’s photographs were made between 1992 and 2006, before congregants commonly used cell phones to photograph services or stream content on social media. Stone’s images preserve an elegant record of worship, fellowship, and figures past, and of the sacred steel music that has and will continue to shape them for future generations. They also make this book useful for photographers, students, ethnographers, and the general public.
There were also moments when I wished I could hear what I was seeing: the notes of the steel guitar, of course, but also the testimony and words of praise it accompanies, or even interviews with some of Stone’s portrait subjects. Sound is a deeply visceral experience capable of eliciting profound emotional and physical responses. As two-dimensional slices of time, photographs alone are limited in their ability to illustrate that kind of embodied experience. Future imprints of Stone’s book might consider including QR codes to online audio tracks or alternative ways for readers to aurally engage with the book’s visual content and listen to the human voice they are witnessing.
The Angel and the Cholent: Food Representation from the Israel Folktale Archive. Idit Pintel-Ginsberg.(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2021. Pp. xx + 200, preface, acknowledgments, footnotes, epilogue, appendix (list of the tales), bibliography. $34.99 paper.)
The Angel and the Cholent is delightful, informative, insightful, and well-written—in short, a pleasure to read. It focuses on the confluence of Jewish foodways and folk narrative, presenting thirty folktales from the Israel Folktale Archive (IFA) with accompanying analyses for each tale.
One might expect that the stories would be about kashrut, since “one of the main vehicles for preserving Jewish identity is the consumption of kosher food” (pp. 36-37). However, only one of the five chapters, each of which groups tales around a theme, deals explicitly with kashrut (chapter four). The other chapters’ themes are food and taste (chapter one), food and gender (chapter two), food and class (chapter three), and food and sacred time (chapter five). Kashrut may be critical, but food is clearly central to Jewish life for reasons beyond its kosher or non-kosher status.
Chapter introductions contextualize the stories in Jewish culture and religion, providing both formal sources and folk backgrounds for beliefs, customs, and rules, making the worldviews of the tales and tellers accessible to any interested reader. “You don’t have to be Jewish” to understand The Angel and the Cholent, and, in fact, it seems to have been written with non-Jewish as well as Jewish readers in mind. The book is jargon-free and explains Jewish practices simply and clearly, avoiding digressions.
If the author, Idit Pintel-Ginsberg, hadn’t already co-edited a book entitled The Power of a Tale (Bar-Itzhak and Pintel-Ginsberg 2019), she might have entitled this one “The Power of Food,” or better, “The Narrative Power of Food.” The concept of the book is not just stories in which food appears but stories in which the plot turns on food, stories in which food is essential to meaning. Food exerts power not only in the worlds the tales represent but in the structure and artistry of the narratives as well. The brief interpretive essays that accompany each tale compel the reader to recognize and even feel how “each of the thirty tales . . . represents a whole wide world” (p. 181) and to understand the true depth, humor, and wisdom they contain.
I admire the restraint it must have taken to choose a mere thirty tales (out of an initial survey that resulted in 180). Published folktale collections tend to be massive—a thousand and one, four hundred, two hundred, at least a hundred. These collections are invaluable, the backbone, along with archives, of comparative folktale studies. Still, such folktale collections are perhaps more valued as reference works than as enjoyable reads. The Angel and the Cholent is a book to be read, cover-to-cover—and to be enjoyed for its analyses as much as for its stories.
Other self-imposed constraints besides the total number of tales went into the making of the book. All the texts had to be previously unpublished. Thus, texts that had appeared in collections drawn from the IFA, like Folktales of Israel (Noy 1963), Folktales of the Jews (Ben-Amos 2006-2011), or The Power of a Tale for that matter, could not be included.
The thirty narratives in The Angel and the Cholent are meant to represent the many Jewish and non-Jewish ethnic groups (there is one story told by an Arab Israeli Muslim) whose tales are archived in the IFA. Pintel-Ginsberg sketches brief biographies of the storytellers in the tale commentaries. These gifted narrators came from seventeen different ethnic groups or locales. The quality of their narratives, after so many IFA tales had already been ruled out because of their previous publication, has to make one marvel at the riches of the IFA.
The tales were collected in Hebrew, and the book originally appeared in Hebrew. As is the case with most good translations, the reader of the English version would not guess that The Angel and the Cholent was first written in another language. Tales seem to flow off the lips of the tellers in natural conversational English, and the author’s commentaries are equally clear. Since no translator is indicated, it appears that Pintel-Ginsberg is the translator as well the author of the book.
The Angel and the Cholent would work well in a variety of undergraduate classes, but especially those dealing with foodways, folk narrative, and Jewish folklore. The book includes a table that identifies all the tale types, narrators and their countries of origin, and the names of collectors of the tales, as well as a useful food and narrative bibliography.
Bar-Itzhak, Haya and Idit Pintel-Ginsberg, eds. 2019. The Power of a Tale: Stories from the Israel Folktale Archives. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Ben-Amos, Dan, ed. 2006-2011. Folktales of the Jews, 3 vols. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
Noy, Dov, ed. 1963. Folktales of Israel. University of Chicago Press.
Music Is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change. By Brad Schreiber. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020. Pp. 238, introduction, epilogue, acknowledgments, bibliography, index. $29.95 cloth.)
The term “protest song” usually conjures up images of either the labor movement or the Sixties counterculture. But resistance music need not be limited to songs that are specifically intended for protests. In Music Is Power, Brad Schreiber argues that socially or politically conscious music emerges from practically every genre of popular music, and he takes the reader on a journey through the various ways that musicians have addressed the issues of their day.
Schreiber is certainly not the first writer to broach this topic. Dick Weissman’s Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution and Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute, for instance, both deal with much of the same material and outline the connections between music and activism. However, Schreiber’s inclusion of figures who are often not mentioned in these discussions, such as Lesley Gore or Tom Lehrer, is a welcome addition to the subject area. Additionally, Schreiber’s chapters could be read as fifteen individual essays, making it accessible for students or the general public. Organized both chronologically and thematically by genre, Music Is Power touches on the key artists who have written or performed songs that challenged various forms of oppression without bogging down the reader by listing every possible song that fits the bill.
Schreiber begins his discussion at the turn of the century with the music of socialist and labor activist Joe Hill. Hill believed that music had a staying power far beyond traditional agitprop like pamphlets because songs reached people on an emotional level and remained a part of their memory. History has certainly confirmed this view, as his songs influenced Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and practically everyone of the folk revival era. From worker organizing to the civil rights movement, musicians used protest songs to rally people together to fight for a larger cause. Few things have the unifying power of a well-written and chantable song.
Not all topical songs were explicitly political, however. When Lesley Gore sang “You Don’t Own Me” around the same time that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique became a bestseller, women considered it a feminist anthem, a fact made all the more powerful considering that Gore had to hide her homosexuality from music business executives and the press. As Schreiber notes, Gore’s performance was important not only because she defied the expectations for a female singer at her time, but also that she demonstrated how pop music could be more than just cutesy tunes for heartbroken young girls.
Writing a song that directly calls out the problems of the day is a difficult enough task, but doing so and making people laugh in the process requires extra talent. Schreiber accurately includes musical satire as an important form of political protest, evidenced in figures like Tom Lehrer and the Smothers Brothers. While Lehrer sung about all kinds of social issues, it was the Cold War that most interested the comedic mathematics professor. Lehrer, who had worked for the National Security Agency, made fun of the possibility of nuclear disaster in the songs “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” “Who’s Next?” and “MLF Lullaby,” yet he also had no problem lampooning the Vatican, touching on race relations, or commenting on environmental destruction.
Musicians in other genres used their music to draw attention to international politics. Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” or Dead Kennedys’s “Holiday in Cambodia,” for instance, spoke to the continual troubles of the Cold War. Others focused on social problems like poverty, racism, and police violence, such as in Grandmaster Flash’s song “The Message” or N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” Taking his story up through the twenty-first century, Schreiber concludes with the musical protests against the Iraq War by the Dixie Chicks and Green Day.
Perhaps to make the book feel relevant today, Schreiber sprinkles in references throughout his work to various forms of musical resistance to Donald Trump’s presidency. While it is true that musicians from a variety of genres have been outspoken about the Trump era, this element of the book seems a bit forced, and it undermines the argument he wants to make. Schreiber wants to show that pop music has the power to make political and social change, and he makes his case in many of the historically situated examples cited within the book. However, in the past few decades, socially conscious art has become fashionable, and the culture industry welcomes “controversial” artists who sound off about “the system” because rebellious art sells. Multi-millionaire celebrities speaking out against a corrupt and unjust society may ruffle a few feathers, but their work rarely amounts to any real, substantive change.
Still, Schreiber is right that music can be a powerful force, especially for those who have little political influence in the first place. It is difficult to conceive of any effective activism devoid of music that unifies and edifies those who want to make change. Whether it be creating chantable lyrics or bringing attention to social ills, it is safe to say that any movement that makes the world a better place will always be accompanied by song.
Weissman, Dick. 2010. Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution: Music and Social Change in America. New York: Backbeat Books.
Lynskey, Dorian. 2011. 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day. New York: HarperCollins.