Washington dearly loves conferences and can never seem to get enough of them, but over the weekend there was a conference to end all conferences.
Admission was free. The conferees were extraordinarily enthusiastic, entertaining, amusing and informative. The topics were intriguing and sometimes bizarre. Also, the city was mostly empty and the sun was mostly shining. And the Library of Congress -- where the conference was held --is a pleasant enough place to visit.
It was the first annual Washington conference on American Folk Custom, "the most neglected field in all of American folklore," is how one specialist put it. Hosted by the Library's American Folklife Center and sponsored by the University of California (Los Angeles) and the University of Pennsylavania, the conference touched on some delightful items in this thoroughly delightful gathering of thoroughly delightful folkorists:
Baby showers that still reflect evil spirits of scientific advances that are supposed to eliminate old fears.
The U.G.B.A. (The United Gamebowl Breeders Association) versus the S.P.C.A. (The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals). Or, "One Step Ahead of the Law: Cockfighting."
A Hungarian folk Christmas drama in Toledo, Ohio.
Black wedding customs in Long Island, N.Y.
A Ukrainian community Easter in the Province of Alberta, Canada.
Comtemporary customs of courtship ("White material culture such as gloves, handkerchiefs, flowers and rings were once of utmost importance, verbal and body communications now usually suffice -- the bed goal rather than the alter goal characterizes today's courtship in most groups").
And there were lively discussions on farmers, cowboys, Afro-Americans, the Older Order Amish, the Dunham Elementary School in Cleveland, rodeos, the games children play, cemetary decorations in the South (plastic is winning) and "Bleows: The Whaling Complex in Beguia," by Horace P. Beck, a salty old sailing professor hooked on contemporary whaling, who has collected material from the Artic to 22 degrees south latitude.
Folklore is a booming profession, there is no doubt about it. The Smithsonian Institution pioneered the study when its early ethnologists documented dying Indian cultures in the late 19th century, and that torch has been passed on to the folklorists of today who document folk songs, tales, customs, usages and the everyday life of everyday Americans.
Hey: If folklorists can study the working life styles of firemem and cowboys and cockfighting enthusiasts, they might one day even make oral recordings of newspapermen. At any rate, the Smithsonian's festival of American Folklife that opens on the Mall on Wednesday is getting pretty close. A New York newspaper peddler is being featured, so it's probably only a matter of time when a journalistic folk hero like Carl Berstein will be manning a festival popcorn stand.
When that time comes, folklorists may well be writing about other folklorists and we will all be famous for the 15 minutes that Andy Warhol has allotted us. But let's hope we never run out of coal miners, trucks, lumberjacks, steelworkers and fisherman in the meantime.
Wayland D. Hand and Don Yoder, co-directors of the three-day conference that ended yesterday, have helped launch a new wave of study in this field. "So little has been done in the study of American custom and usage," says Hand, emeritus professor of German and Folklore at UCLA, "that we had a hard time booking speakers for this conference. No one knew what was really being done."
Hand, who has spent the last 36 years working on a dictionary of American popular beliefs and superstitions, put the conference together with Yoder, a University of Pennsylvania folklife studies professor who is president-elect of the American Folklore Society.
Only about 100 people popped in and out Saturday's 12-hour session, but they all shared an intense interest in people and their customs. They looked like folklorists, too, right down to their beards and bluejeans and three-piece professioinal suits. And during the question-and-answer sessions that followed the reading of papers there were amusing exchanges.
For example, the sailing/whaling professor, Beck of Middlebury College, tossed in a cockfighting anecdote to cockfighting enthusiast James M. Day of the University of Texas at El Paso. Beck told of a sheriff's roundup/arrest of 5,000 fighting cocks that were confiscated and then penned together. "Only one staggering cock survived that roundup," said Beck. "That's right," said Day. "And the sheriff probably called it a battle royal, the proper cockfighting term for such an engagement."
Beck, a tweedy, old-family New Englander, has been interested in folklore for 40 years. He lives and teaches in Middlebury, Vt., when he isn't sailing his teak cutter that is berthed in the West Indies. He is currently gathering material for a book on comtemporary primitive whaling.
Smoking a pipe, and with his thinning gray hair unkempt and uncombed as if he were still at sea, Beck had his crowd chuckling as he recounted the misadventures of the culturally confused whalers in the island of Beguia in the Lesser Antilles.
The Beguia islanders, it turns, out, are alone among the respected of the island community. And that is all due to "Old Bill" Wallace, a Scotsman who went to sea in the early 1800s and turned up on the island of Berguia.
Bill Jr. went to sea "against my dead father's wishes," he wrote, and suffered seasicknesses, hurricane, war, smallpox, yellow fever, shipwreck and mutiny. Eventually, he turned up in New Bedford, Mass., and returned to Berguia with his new wife while "gathering a number of offspring both in and 'outside' of the family," says Beck. His tormented wife returned to New Bedford, saying she would rather be in hell.
Old Bill, who had started a shore whale industry and a new culture, taught the natives everything there was to know about the whaling business -- how to build a whaleboat, rig it, sail it, how to find a whale, fight it, harpoon it, kill it, bring it ashore, butcher it and process it. He even taught them an absurd language: "Let fly de jib tackle falls!" meant undoing a simple knot. He taught them songs, too. And he laid out rules controlling their lives onshore as well.
Even to this day, Beck notes, these West Indians follow the rules set down by "Old Bill." But without Bill to run it, the industry declined. It did manage to survive one 10-year period when no one saw a single whale, he says, and today the industry has had less than a whale and a half per year for the last 20 years to sustain it.
Beck believes that Bill instilled courage. "These people love ritual and whaling became ritualistic. But they enjoy brief periods of intense activity interspersed with long periods of tranquility," he says. The game is not to get the whale to market, but to prove one's manhood by killing it.
"One of the more famous whalers, after Old Bill Wallace," says Beck, "received his fame not only by killing whales but also by sailing from Isle a Ronde to Berguia in the dark with his cook. In each channel (there are five) the natives say, 'he have intercourse with she.'"
But West Indians, notes Beck, seem to "enjoy their place in the sun. Each man is a hero and he would rather achieve nothing than see someone else succeed. There are tales of boats ramming other boats to prevent their taking the whale . . ." One especially good harpooner was pushed off a cliff. t
But despite everything, "whaling is the pulse of Beguia life," he says, and is the sole reason for its superior position among the islanders. Even though no one else hunts humpbacks, and only one a year is killed by Berguia islanders, environmentalists want the hunting stopped. More serious, claims Beck, is the changing economy.
The whalers now work in hotels, or carry tourists bags. But "whale hunts" are popular among tourists and it is more profitable to look for whales than catch them. "Whaling has survived on Berguia for over a hundred years," says Beck, who has often gone a-whaling with them. "But one cannot help but wonder, when and if it ceases to be, what will happen on the island. It is difficult to believe that, by Western standards, it will be benificial."
Beck, whose heart is with the islanders, puffed on his pipe and looked quizically and somewhat disheveled. His striped regimental tie went well with his black-and-white tweed sports coat, but he had forgotten to button down his button-down shirt.
"I have my eye on a sweetheart of a boat in England," he whispered in an aside as David Hufford, of the Hershey (Pa,) Medical Center, spoke of his hospital's custom of admitting Santa Claus as a patient of internal medicine every Christmas and keeping a running record of his ailments. Facing a New England winter, Beck was clearly looking south to the islands and more time in the sun.