Many apologies for the lateness of this. As some of you may have noticed, my site was down (for the second time in the month) for a day or two over the weekend. I’ll spare you the technical details, but it took a few calls and some shouting at my website provider to get things fixed. Unfortunately, that took up the time and energy I was going to use to do these reviews, my latest Supernatural review, and class work. So, I’m currently about five days behind. All this means is that we will be going into November with the ghost story reviews until we get the full 31, though I will continue to post them as timed in October, so that all you need to do is click on that month to get to them. Sorry about the delay.
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Baldwin, Karen, et al., eds. Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County: A Handbook and Resource Guide. Illustrated by David Norris. East Carolina University Folklore Archive, Department of English, Greenville, NC, 1990.
Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County (Pitt County, whose largest city is Greenville, is to the immediate southeast of me) is one of the more important folklore collections in North Carolina. Its introduction states that it’s intended as a resource for teachers (grade school and high school) in teaching about “folklife.” Only the last section involves itself with ghost tales and legends, though Henry Cowan, a cement sculptor and storyteller in the Material Arts section, also tells a supernatural tale or two about witches.
As you can guess, this book (which, alas, is not available online and was published in a very limited edition in 1990) comes out of the same tradition as that of Weird Tales of Martin County (which it mentions) and Whispers from the Past (which it doesn’t, though both came out the same year). There are sections on practitioners of the material arts and musical arts, occupational folklife, regional cookery, home medicine & midwifery, and (last and treated as least) narrative arts. Narrative Arts is where you find the rest of the witch tales, some ghost and UFO stories, and a short section about a tornado that hit a trailer park in 1984 because … it’s about the spread of urban legends, I guess. Honestly, I think they just didn’t know where else to put it.
“Folklife,” according to Lexico (the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary), is defined as “The way of life of a rural or traditional community. ” The book doesn’t give much of a definition of what it means by this word, but the impression I got was “Stuff old people do out in the country and isn’t that quaint.” Unfortunately, 1990 was back in the day when academics still tended to look down their noses at “folk” art and this book, unfortunately, follows in that tradition. It’s especially annoying to see now-famous whirligig makers Lester Gay and Vollis Simpson treated in a rather head-patting manner as quirky local eccentric inventors.
One could argue that the book is intended, basically, as a sort of textbook for grade school and high school, but that’s hardly an excuse. Tom Peete Cross managed to tell a rousing good tale in his copious footnotes for “Witchcraft in North Carolina” in 1919, while there was a lot more charging the horror engine for W.K. McNeil’s Ghost Stories from the American South (1985) than this book. This one comes across as condescending at times toward its subjects, a little pompous, and (too often) deadly dull.
The reason can be gleaned from a comparison to what the above two sources (as well as the Frank C. Brown Collection) did right. The introduction to Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County: A Handbook and Resource Guide claims that it was kept short (90 pages) because of limitations of space. It never explains why such limitations existed. Maybe someone thought a longer book wouldn’t fit the grade school format or maybe they ran out of budget.
But this leads to a rather odd mix of raw interview quotes of the subjects (who are often fascinating, especially Gospel/Jazz musicians like the Vines Sisters, just not presented that way) with some droning on about sociological theories of folklore and the barest minimum of context. And I think the lack of context is the real problem. You get a little biographical information about the subjects, but it’s bare bones. You get even less about the history of the towns in question.
Folklore motifs get the shortest shrift. The intros to the tales about the witch cat or the boyfriend’s head, for example, mention that these are old tropes, but don’t go any further and barely mention Stith Thompson. There are several family stories of dead relatives returning to haunt the living, with far more emphasis on the idea that this is how the family kept their history and far less exploration of them as actual ghost stories.
A quite-fascinating (if short) story about a car going dead near a sighting of mysterious red lights on NC 43 north of Rocky Mount (so, probably still in Nash County) is buried in the middle of a group of UFO stories (most of which sound like cases of mistaking an airplane or star/planet for an extraterrestrial craft). Thing is, this story could easily be a case of ghost lights and/or a roadside revenant, but the possibility is simply ignored. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in this book and that makes it a bit of a disappointment.
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