Prairie Home Companion: Shelburne Museum Concerts on the Green

{Side note: today is Labor Day (observed). Curious as to the history of Labor Day? Check out this blast-from-the-past post from PiP (2008!)}

As mentioned yesterday, summer is not over. It sticks around for a good three weeks in September. So let’s keep talking summer. What has been your favorite part of summer? The longer daylight hours, barbecues, farmers markets, outdoor concerts, swimming, sunshine, not wearing 10s of layers of clothing, cold drinks, better moods? As for me, I love it all. Summertime in Vermont is particularly beautiful, and on sunny, warm days, I want to be outside as much as possible. This summer I had the opportunity to attend a wonderful outdoor concert at Shelburne Museum: Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Radio Romance Tour. (A huge thank you to my friend and fellow preservationist, Adam K, for bringing me along.) 

For starters, the Shelburne Museum has an absolutely beautiful setting looking to Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains.

The sun was setting as the show was beginning.

The sun was setting as the show was beginning. The picture doesn’t quite do the view justice…

I had never listened to Garrison Keillor, but knowing that he is a great American storyteller, I was intrigued (hello folklore and oral history!). And what could be an outdoor show on a beautiful Vermont summer evening with a friend? Precisely. What is Prairie Home Companion? It is a live variety radio show, written and hosted by Garrison Keillor, running (with some exception) since 1974. The show focuses on music, stories, and features such as Guy Noir, Private Eye and  News from Lake Wobegon.

A glorious sunset.

A glorious sunset.

Hundreds of people on the lawn.

Hundreds of people on the lawn.

The show was wonderful. Listening to these amazing stories, live entertainment, a radio show in person (as opposed to through the radio) was such a unique experience. Clearly, I’ve been missing Prairie Home Companion all these years. Garrison Keillor is brilliant, creating these ongoing stories for decades. There are many people who can tell a good story, but to hear someone who has what are essentially books in his head – that he’s written – and is sharing it live…wow. How many true storytellers have you heard in your life? I’m grateful to have seen this show live. And now I want to hear ALL of the Lake Wobegon stories. It reminds me of just how special folklore is in our cultures (and all cultures). Folklore represents traditions unique to certain set of people, idiosyncrasies, memories, beliefs, and treasures to that culture.

Close up on the stage.

Close up on the stage.

Have you heard or seen Prairie Home Companion? Who are your favorite storytellers?

Groundhog Day

Up here in Vermont we are finally getting our snowstorm (along with the rest of the eastern half of the USA), so I doubt the groundhog is going to see his shadow anywhere. Lucky for his adoring public, he was not snowed in and came out annual prediction. No shadow was seen in Punxsutawney, PA – spring is near! Still, regardless of the groundhog legend, spring will surely not hit Vermont in only six weeks.

Interested in the groundhog lore? From Stormfax Weather Almanac:

n 1723, the Delaware Indians settled Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania as a campsite halfway between the Allegheny and the Susquehanna Rivers. The town is 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, at the intersection of Route 36 and Route 119. The Delawares considered groundhogs honorable ancestors. According to the original creation beliefs of the Delaware Indians, their forebears began life as animals in “Mother Earth” and emerged centuries later to hunt and live as men.

The name Punxsutawney comes from the Indian name for the location “ponksad-uteney” which means “the town of the sandflies.” The name woodchuck comes from the Indian legend of “Wojak, the groundhog” considered by them to be their ancestral grandfather.

When German settlers arrived in the 1700s, they brought a tradition known as Candlemas Day, which has an early origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc. It came at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Superstition held that if the weather was fair, the second half of Winter would be stormy and cold. For the early Christians in Europe, it was the custom on Candlemas Day for clergy to bless candles and distribute them to the people in the dark of Winter. A lighted candle was placed in each window of the home. The day’s weather continued to be important. If the sun came out February 2, halfway between Winter and Spring, it meant six more weeks of wintry weather.

The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College:

February 4, 1841 – from Morgantown, Berks County (Pennsylvania) storekeeper James Morris’ diary…”Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

If the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, an animal would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of Winter. Germans watched a badger for the shadow. In Pennsylvania, the groundhog, upon waking from mid-Winter hibernation, was selected as the replacement.

Pennsylvania’s official celebration of Groundhog Day began on February 2nd, 1886 with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper’s editor, Clymer Freas: “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.” The groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” and his hometown thus called the “Weather Capital of the World.” His debut performance: no shadow – early Spring.

Visit Stormfax to see the history of the groundhogs’ predictions, as well as the name of the many groundhogs and information about the effect that the movie Groundhog Day had on the small town. Read more history from the official Groundhog Day website.

American folklore – always fun, right? Happy Groundhog Day!

If the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, an animal would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of Winter.  Germans watched a badger for the shadow.  In Pennsylvania, the groundhog, upon waking from mid-Winter hibernation, was selected as the replacement.Pennsylvania’s official celebration of Groundhog Day began on February 2nd, 1886 with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper’s editor, Clymer Freas: “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.”  The groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” and his hometown thus called the “Weather Capital of the World.”  His debut performance: no shadow – early Spring.

If the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, an animal would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of Winter. Germans watched a badger for the shadow. In Pennsylvania, the groundhog, upon waking from mid-Winter hibernation, was selected as the replacement.

 

Pennsylvania’s official celebration of Groundhog Day began on February 2nd, 1886 with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper’s editor, Clymer Freas: “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.” The groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” and his hometown thus called the “Weather Capital of the World.” His debut performance: no shadow – early Spring.

A Favorite Quote

“Folk culture is nothing if not continuous. Of course all of human culture is constantly changing, but it is the thread of history and tradition that keeps us creatively linked to each other and to our pasts.”

–Meg Glaser, Andrea Graham. Different Hairs of the Same Dog: The Work of a Public Folklorist. Elko, Western Folklife Center, 1999.

Spooky Neighborhood Folklore

Children tend to create stories in their social circles, often stories intended to scare their friends before daring them to touch the haunted house or look in  that window. Every group (whether societal or cultural) shares familiar stories, experiences, riddles, etc. – what we might call folklore. According to The American Folklore Society, folklore is defined as: the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Many more definitions can be found on the website, with varying definitions that all add further depth the study of folklore.

Halloween seems like an appropriate holiday on which to discuss folklore, even though folklore goes far and beyond shared spooky tales of children.  Yet, the antics of children are included, so I’m going to share some of the tales from my neighborhood when I was in elementary and middle school.

The Witch’s House

A brown, dreary looking ranch house, just two houses past mine, had been unoccupied for a few months and it was starting to look rather creepy.  My good friend Sara and I would routinely sit on the edge of my neighbor’s property and peer through the hedges just to get a glimpse at the house. We wanted to get as close as possible without actually crossing the property line.

One gloomy, cloudy day, Sara and I decided to walk past the house.  She stopped me in the middle of the street and swore that she saw someone’s hand on the window sill. And then she saw something move!  Always easily scared, I believed her and we ran back to my house.  We were convinced that a witch lived in the house.

Sara had likely imagined her vision and exaggerated it because she knew that I would believe her, but I avoided that house thereafter.  This is the same friend who later told me she saw a ghost in my other neighbor’s window.

The Woods behind Norwood Avenue

Now the property is a gated community of town houses and swimming pools, but 15 years ago, the woods behind my elementary school yard were filled with garbage and the creepiest thing imaginable to my nine-year-old self.  These woods scared me so much that if I was at the school yard on a weekend with my sisters and we were swinging on the swings, I wouldn’t face my back to the woods.

Two of my friends, Elisabet and Amy, and I always played together at recess and we would often talk about how scary the woods were.  One day the girls told me that one of their brothers had actually gone into the woods.  And he saw all sorts of garbage.  But then, he saw a gun leaning against a tree and he was chased out of the woods!

The story has since faded from my memory (i.e. I’m finally over it), so the details are fuzzy, but the images of a gun and a psycho killer living in the woods hung in my imagination for a long time and I wished that I had never heard the story. I would never walk near the fence separating the school yard and the woods.

Elisabet and Amy either also found me very gullible or their brothers passed along an exaggerated, scary story to a couple of fourth graders.

Gun Shots

One winter afternoon, Sara and I were playing outside in the big maple tree in front of my house, which was a common activity for us. We heard noises that sounded like gun shots from far away.  (Of course, I didn’t really know what gun shots sounded like since I was growing up in a house full of girls who didn’t watch such things on television.  Regardless, we assumed the sounds were gun shots.)

We froze. Sara and I looked around, wondering what was happening.  Suddenly, Sara told me that she saw someone in a car parked on the side of the street.  And she said that she saw a gun.  (Sara had a wild imagination.)  So we didn’t move.  It felt like forever. We thought that if we just pretended to be part of the tree, then no one would see us. However, there were not any leaves on the trees and we probably had on brilliantly colored early 1990s jackets.

I think we spent most of our afternoon frozen in the tree.  I don’t remember how we finally convinced ourselves to go inside.

Sara was not an evil friend, just to clarify this. I think she just liked to pretend.  It’s probably caused some damage and can attributing to my distaste for scary movies, but it was always an adventure with Sara.

The Old Man’s House

Around the bend in my street, there is a house that has always been a mystery to my sisters and me.  It’s a large lot, mostly hidden by tall maple trees and large shrubbery, and barricaded from the public by a four foot chain link fence and a really tall mailbox. For the longest time, there was a hole in the roof and cats would come and go as they pleased, through the hole.  It often smelled like cat urine around that bend.  Occasionally I’d see a light through the window or the front door would be open just a crack.

Needless to say, it was spooky. Probably after years of gazing at the house as I passed on my bike or in the car, I finally saw a tall, skinny old man who lived there.  I asked my mom many questions. But what did he do? Where did he go?  Did he ever leave the house? Why did he have so many cats?

This man and this house is still a mystery to us, but the roof has since been replaced, following the tarp that protected it for a while.  However, it’s still a dark and hidden house with cats all around.

These stories are vaguely tied to folklore, but I do think it’s interesting to hear the stories that children tell each other and how these stories affect what they do.  I think it can be categorized as folklore because it can help to define a certain group (in this case children of one neighborhood) by how they play and what they believe.  I wonder if children younger than my friends and I believed the same stories, years later.

What do you think about the folklore of children? Should it be studied? Can it be studied? (Or has it been?)  Or am I off the mark? Please feel free to share your thoughts.

I’m still easily scared.

Happy Halloween!