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Folklife Research: A Real-life Method of Teaching Research and Writing Skills in the Content Areas



  1. Azzie Roland (written by a 9th–10th grade team)

    We first visited Azzie Roland on a bright October day in the fall of 1986. The dock and sweetgum trees along the highway from Ruston to Marion, Louisiana, were just beginning to color up, and there was a chill of early fall in the air. We had met Roland two years earlier at a folklife festival and had admired his white oak baskets, which were strong and sturdy, like the man who made them. He had invited us to come to see how they were made.

    Roland's large white frame house stood at the end of a dirt road. When we arrived, he greeted us and introduced us to his brother Jim, also a basketmaker. Then we all went around to the back of the house, where he makes his baskets. He was ready for us. Several white oak poles, cut the day before, stood against an outbuilding, and a maul and wedge lay nearby. We watched as his powerful arms and shoulders swung the maul and sent the wedge into the green sapling. As he worked, he talked about how as a child he had learned to make baskets, how he had left the South after World War II, and how he had returned to Louisiana and basketmaking in middle age. By the time we left him in late afternoon, we had come to admire not only Roland's baskets but also Roland himself.

    Azzie Roland was born in 1916, scarcely a quarter mile from the site of his present home, which he built on land left to him by his father. His father worked for a lumber company, but in order to earn extra money, he made baskets and bottomed chairs with white oak splits in his spare time. Azzie and his brother Jim, along with their five brothers and sisters, learned how to split and weave the wood splits.

    In 1940 Roland moved to East Texas to work as a pulpwooder. There he married and, like his father, supplemented his income by bottoming chairs with white oak. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army, where he served until the war ended. He had wanted to work as a mechanic, he said, "But they needed a cook, and I knew how to do a little cooking, so they put me in the kitchen." Roland's unit set up and staffed field kitchens, and he saw front-line duty only once. "It was April of 1945. We crossed the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge. We weren't a fighting unit, just a cooking unit. There was a 3434 fighting unit and we were a 3434 cooking unit, and they got our orders mixed up. We ended up on the front lines. We had no business up there because all we had were our carbine rifles and cooking equipment."

    Roland, an African-American, had grown up in the racially segregated world of the Deep South and had never seriously questioned its rules. The attitude which many whites took toward African American soldiers disappointed him, however. He told us, "You know, it was kind of hard because some of the white men didn't want to sleep in the same barracks with a black man. We had a black general named General Davis who came and talked to us and told us not to think about our color but to think about what we could do. I think the government thought the blacks would turn their backs on it. When the black units got ready to come home to America, the Army busted them up and took away their weapons and things—took them right out of their hands. When I landed in New Jersey, I saw the 442nd Japanese-American fighting unit, and they had brought all their weapons with them. And I said to myself, 'Why does the Army treat them so well, when we were fighting Japan?'"

    "That," Roland said of such experiences, "is the reason I tried to send my kids to get a good education." Realizing that a good education would help his children rise above the limits sometimes set on African-Americans and knowing that an education cost money, Roland moved to Chicago in the late forties and went to work as a steel conditioner. He had risen to the rank of sergeant in the Army, and in the steel mill he worked up to a job that paid well and had responsibilities. He takes pride in the fact that in twenty-five years he worked as a steel conditioner, he missed only three days' work. During those years he came home for every vacation, however, and on one of those vacations he got his start as a basketmaker.

    "A man named W.G. Miller had some baskets that my father had made before he died, in 1964. I was back here on a six-week vacation, and this man said my father had made him a basket and his sister out in Texas wanted one just like it. But I said that I didn't know how to make those baskets. And he said, 'You can cut the strips, can't you?' and I said, 'Yeah, but I don't know if I can make a basket, though.' Because when we were growing up, my father only asked us to finish them up. We had to put the hoops on them. But he said, 'I'll bring you a whole load of white oak.' So he brought the load, and I made $200 worth of baskets on vacation."

    Roland and his brothers and sisters had learned to make baskets when they were children. "All seven of us children know how to make baskets," he said. "It's just like learning how to walk. My father was a gentleman basketmaker. He made baskets and bottomed chairs with oak. That was his pocket change. When I first got into this kind of work in about 1924, my father made about 200 baskets for Ewing Lumber Company. They had a delivery man who would take all those baskets to the store on Friday morning and select the groceries and sack them in those baskets and deliver them to the workers' families. My father pulled me into basketmaking. Many nights I used to sit up till twelve or one o'clock wrapping rims around the basket. That was my job, wrapping the rims."

    The baskets he made in 1968 started Roland on a second career, that of basketmaker. In 1965, after his father's death, he had moved his wife and children to Marion so they could care for his aging mother and so his children could go to college at Northeast Louisiana University, nearby. On each vacation Roland made baskets, and his wife sold them when he returned to Chicago. By the time he retired in 1979, he had acquired a local reputation as a skilled basketmaker. "I had quite a few people that wanted to keep me busy," he said.

    In the years since, Roland has continued to make white oak baskets. In addition, he has experimented making baskets like those his uncle Robert Roland had made from broom sage. He sells his baskets at crafts fairs and festivals. He was a demonstrator at the 1985 Smithsonian National Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. He has also demonstrated his art at the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Baton Rouge. His baskets have appeared in many galleries.

  2. Black-Eyed Peas and Dark-Haired Men: Insuring Luck for the New Year (written by an 8th grade team)

    At the turn of the twentieth century in North Louisiana, New Year's Day was a major holiday, marked by many superstitions and generally celebrated with much visiting back and forth between neighbors. The general feeling associated with this holiday was that of a beginning: Each person was given the chance for a fresh start, and all were careful to make the first day of the New Year one they would not mind reliving 364 more times. Importance was attached to almost every action, from what one ate to the gender and hair color of the first visitor.

    The week preceding New Year's was a festive and enjoyable one. The Christmas glow had not yet died, and the expectation of the new year teased the minds of all. Much visiting, both between families and between neighbors, took place during this holiday week. Travel on muddy winter roads was difficult at best, and family members who came for Christmas dinner sometimes stayed until after New Year's Day. Most area people also recall much visiting back and forth between members of the community so that Mary Hasson of Jackson Parish said that as a child, she did not really understand the holidays at all and thought the celebration would go on forever.

    During the year, the families in a community helped one another with tasks like hog killing, and at Christmas, they relaxed and celebrated together. In some areas the visiting was formalized as Open Houses, occasions when guests called and enjoyed food and talk. Ella Rae Hollis of Ruston said that during her mother's childhood in rural Union Parish, each family in the community took a day of the week between Christmas and New Year's Day to entertain other families of the neighborhood. Annette Woodard of Bienville Parish also recalls the tradition of holding Open House during the holidays. In her community, however, the event took place on New Year's Day, and each family was assigned an hour, rather than a separate day, in which to receive guests.

    Few days in the year surpassed New Year's Day in tradition and ritualistic richness. New Year's was a taking out of the old and a bringing in of the new, and as such, it had great symbolic importance. This importance is well illustrated in a custom remembered by one African American woman, Annie Holmes of Grambling. She said that each year the church held a ceremony in which members took out the old Christmas tree and brought in a new one at midnight on New Year's Eve.

    Similarly, superstition required the holiday greenery be removed from the house before New Year's Day arrived. Floyd James, who grew up in Dubach, Louisiana, said his family always put the tree out before New Year's, no matter what. To have left it in would have brought bad luck.

    Rural families customarily went to bed early and got up early. To greet the new year and start correctly even from its earliest seconds, however, many stayed up until past midnight on New Year's Eve. Mrs. Emma Russell of Bienville Parish said that when she was growing up, children contrived to sneak out of the house on New Year's Eve and get a good place near the barnyard from which to view the "stomp," a shuffling or stomping dance farm animals performed at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. She remembers climbing into a tree and waiting for the magic moment, and she clearly recalls hearing the animals stomp. Mrs. Essie Lee Cole and others said that watchnight church services were common in North Louisiana communities. The faithful gathered at the church, had refreshments, and visited until midnight. Thus they started out the new year right—in church with other Christians.

    Correctness in such matters was all-important because people were like Mrs. Blanch Hammons of Lincoln Parish and were convinced that as they did on New Year's, so would they do all year. If there were friends and plenty of food on New Year's Day, Mrs. Russell said, a family was assured of friends and food all year long. In some cases the emphasis on new beginnings extended to the first visitor who entered the house on the first day of the year. According to the superstition of "first foot," the first person to set foot in a house helped determine the fortune of the house in the year ahead. If a dark-haired, dark-eyed man entered first, prosperity or good luck would come to the house; if a red-headed man entered, bad luck would be the family's lot. John Hammons of Lincoln Parish said that if a dark-haired man entered the house first, the family would have good luck with chickens in the coming year. Some people, it was said, went so far as to arrange for a dark-haired man to be the first caller of the day.

    The New Year's Day dinner was the culmination and close of the holiday. In many respects, it was the most important meal of the year because it determined whether a family would have luck, meat, and money throughout the remainder of the year. The menu for the meal was established by superstition and was designed to assure prosperity and good luck for the family in the year ahead. It was affected very little by family economic circumstances, because its staples were backyard garden products, and it varied little from community to community. The meal might have been a large extended family affair, as in the family of Allie Coots of Lincoln Parish, or it might have been served only to members of the immediate family, as in Mrs. Fields's family. Yet it always included black-eyed peas for luck and hog jowls or pork to insure meat on the table for the rest of the year. Most also believed that greens guaranteed prosperity, and whether because of this belief or because they were seasonal, either mustard, turnip, or collard greens usually appeared on the New Year's table. Mrs. Roberts recalls believing that each pea eaten would bring a dollar in the coming year. This meal put the final seal on a family's fortunes in the months ahead.

    Although New Year's Day was eagerly awaited, once it arrived, the holidays ended. Armed with peas, greens, and dark-haired men, North Louisianians once again resumed their daily routines. There would, however, be the memories of a pleasant interlude to warm them for a while, and then, after that, there would be the expectancy of yet another holiday season.

    (from The Pinecone: I)

  3. Interview Report (written by a 6th grade student)

    Netty Jones Bridger

    Mr. Netty Jones Bridger was a typical young girl growing up on a farm in Vernon, Louisiana, in Jackson Parish during the early 1900s. Born in 1899, she was reared on an average-sized subsistence farm. Her family lived primarily on the foods the raised on the farm. Her fondest memories are of school, fall harvests, syrup making, and hogkillings.

    Mrs. Bridger, still an active, lively woman, enjoyed almost everything relating to school and mastered her courses with ease. She attended a two-room schoolhouse which she reached by walking several miles a day across many hills. However, she said the distance did not seem great to her when she was a child. She took her lunch to school, and it was typical of the ones other children brought—usually boiled eggs or friend chicken or a biscuit oozing with homemade can syrup.

    Mrs. Bridger recalled the fun that the children had at recess, when they played homemade games. One of their favorite games was called Flying Jenny. This was created from a tree stump which had a long board centered on it, either nailed or pegged into it, making a kind of wheel. Some of the children pushed the wheel and the others rode joyously around and around, laughing and having a great time. Another popular game was tin-can-shinny, which resembled hockey. The children divided into two teams, and each player got a stick. The object of the game was for one team to hit a tin can into a hole on the opposing team's territory. The game probably got its name from the bruised shins that resulted from playing it.

    Harvest time was important to the Jones family because they earned their living from their farm. Cotton was their money crop, but they also grew a number of other crops. They had fruit trees, and juicy peaches were a luxury in the years when they were harvested. They had about seventy acres of land, and in order to harvest all the crops, the whole family had to help.

    The end of October had a special place in the Jones children's hearts. That was the time for syrup making. The Joneses grew their own sugar cane, and syrup making time was a time when the family was able to relax and enjoy themselves.

    Mrs. Bridger recalled the process of syrup making. Her family made syrup in a vat about four feet wide and ten feet long which was divided into sections. The vat was put over a glowing fire. The thin cane juice was cooked on the hottest part of the fire. Then someone would dip the juice into the next part of the vat. They kept dipping it and dipping it farther on to the other parts of the vat, using a great big spoon. Each time they dipped the juice into another section, it got thicker and began to look more and more like syrup. Down at the end of the vat, in the last section, they turned the spigot that was attached to the bottom of the vat and let the golden syrup pour into waiting jugs. Years later, when they produced syrup, they used buckets. Mrs. Bridger said today she can taste the fresh cane juice.

    Another special part of her childhood autumns was hogkilling time. Her father would not permit the children to attend the slaughtering of the hogs, but the children loved hearing their parents describe the fascinating process. After the men had slaughtered the hogs, they butchered the meat and hung it to cure in their smoke houses. The women ground some of the meat and mixed it with spices to make sausage. Grease was made from the hog fat. But the best part was eating the meat, she said. The Joneses ate every part of the hog except the chitterlings, or intestines, of the hog. They gave these to neighbors who liked preparing them. The sausage and other parts became the center of a great feast.

  4. Interview Summary (written by a 7th grade student, 1983)

    Alice Holland

    Alice Holland was an African-American woman who lives near Choudrant, Louisiana, was born in 1905 into a family of sharecroppers. There were twelve members in her family and everyone child and adult, worked. Life was hard, but Christmas offered a short respite from the labors of the year.

    Preparations for Christmas began a week in advance of Christmas day. This week included cooking the food and cleaning the house and yard. The children wanted to clean the yard because they were confident that Santa Clause would not stop at their house if they did not get the yard spotless. According to Ms. Holland, their yard was so clean "even the wind that blew through the yard was clean." Her family did not have decorations or a tree because they worked in the field all day and had no time to spend on decorating or getting a tree. But on Christmas Eve, each child hung up a flour sack for Santa to fill with gifts.

    They had no stockings or shoes, and when they worked clearing the fields in winter, they wrapped their feet in feed sacks to keep them warm. Nevertheless, they went to sleep on Christmas Eve, secure in the belief that Santa Clause would deposit something in the flour sacks at the foot of their beds.

    That night they went to bed early so they could get to sleep early. Their parents told them that someone would put snuff in their eyes if they did not go to sleep quickly.

    On Christmas morning, Mrs. Holland and her brothers and sisters got up early to see what Santa Clause had brought the night before. Usually they received fruit and nuts. Once Alice found a bought doll in her flour sack, and she was incredulous. That doll was altogether different from her other dolls. Those were made of broom straw, pulled up with its roots intact. Allce and the girls tied rags around the straw to make a head, and when the roots dried, they curled to make hair. After the children found their gifts, they went outside to look for sleigh marks on the grounds. They were true believers.

    Christmas dinner was one of the big events of the year in Mrs. Holland's house, and her mother began by preparing for it a week in advance. During her limited spare time, she cooked cornbread for dressing and made several cakes. There were twelve people to feed and this was a special meal. On the table was chicken, usually a hen but sometimes a rooster, which was tougher. There was dressing, black crowder peas, and cakes. The next day everyone would have to wrap up and return to the fields, but on Christmas day, no one thought of the fields. Santa Clause had come, and there was dressing and cakes.

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