In the late ’30s, swarms of WPA writers descended on communities all over America and took down the stories they elicited. The results are being put online as part of the amazing American Memory section of the Library of Congress site. You can search the whole corpus by keywords or by state; once you dive in, it’s hard to extricate yourself. As the site says:

The entire body of material provides the raw content for a broad documentary of both rural and urban life, interspersed with accounts and traditions of ethnic group traditions, customs regarding planting, cooking, marriage, death, celebrations, recreation, and a wide variety of narratives. The quality of collecting and writing lore varies from state to state, reflecting the skills of the interviewer-writers and the supervision they received.

Some of the accounts are in standard English, which may or may not have been standardized by the interviewer; others are in dialect, which may or may not have been precisely transcribed. Either way, it’s full of gems.

Here’s Sammy Spring, a fiddler and dirt farmer from Otis, Massachusetts:

Couple years ago we went down to the County Fair Carnival down at that rich Yatch Club in Madison, Conn. Now those folks didn’t want to dance right at all. They asked [us? -LH] to come down jest to make a monkey of us small town folks. I wasn’t ask to play until about eleven o’clock.
By that time they all were pretty much liquored up. Couldn’t dance right if they wanted to. Well I tried to get them going right, but I guess they had too much to drink and they felt kinda coltish. So I warned then [them? -LH] once fer all. Told them if they wa’n’t going to dance the proper way I would pack up and go home. Well they didn’t lissen to reasons so I told them all what I thought of them, and got out. Ain’t no sense a-foolin’ round with folks like that. Nobody is a goin’ to monkey like that with me. If they want to dance the sets proper I’ll play all night. But if they want to monkey-shine around they’d better git an organ-grinder. My o’chestry ain’t no monkeys fer anybody I don’t care how high and mighty they be….

And here’s a story from Charles Monroe, “Hill Town Mail Clerk, Philosopher,” of New Marlborough, Massachusetts:

Being away from home every other week as I am, makes it rather hard for my wife and daughters. That is the main drawback to this job of mine—although it’s certainly nice to be able to stay at home for a full week at a time too, and rest up or do work about the place. Well, several years ago we discovered that a peeping tom was prowling about. Once my wife caught sight of him peering through the window on a night when I was away. She was startled, but since nothing came of the incident, she soon stopped worrying about it.
“Several weeks later a passing neighbor caught sight of a man standing under that window there, and we soon realized that the fellow was making a regular practise of night peeking every week that I was away. We didn’t know what to do about it. I asked friends to watch the house for me to try and find out who it was, and several times the man was chased. We didn’t want to shoot at him. But my wife and daughters were getting more and more frightened.
“This went on for almost two years and my wife was near to a nervous breakdown. Then I thought of trying to trap the peeper by leaving a marked twenty-dollar bill on the desk by the open window. The scheme worked. He took the bill and a few weeks later handed it in at the store, where I’d told the storekeeper to be on the watch for it. He turned out to be a young man who doesn’t live far from here—a rather weak but by no means disrespected fellow. After talking the matter over with the judge I decided to send him to jail for a year.
“He came back from his sentence during a week when I was home. I met him walking on the street—he was across the road—and when he saw me he was all smiles and waved his arm and called out, ‘Hello, Charley!’ as if I were one of his best friends. Of course I returned his greeting for I had no intention of holding a grudge against him.
“And that was the end of our trouble. There were no bad feelings anywhere so far as I could see. Our peeping Tom did not fall down in his social standing. He and his friends looked at the whole affair as if it were an interesting adventure, and no doubt some of the younger men looked at their returned crony as if he were a sort of a hero returned from successful parleys with famous jail-birds.
“You see, there’s actually more tolerance among village people or country people simply because everyone is more or less aquainted with everyone else’s personal affairs. Life in a village is like a game of cards in which everyone holds a hand.”

Thanks for the links, Bonnie!


  1. jean pierre says

    Very interesting entry! I remember well, my first adventure and introduction to New York City was my own wanderings, mostly by foot, often via subway train, using a WPA Guide to New York City, published some time in the 30’s. I started to peruse the links to Corpus of America, and find that there is a larger amount of texts than I had imagined, promising a long while of enjoyment.

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