Oral tradition and the Internet...and a random funny bit.

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Irony first: I really enjoyed the bit on 282, which deals with Alphonse Miggs at the fair. Very bottom of the page, (extending on to the next), a woman selling paint-by-numbers paintings done in some wierd colors, is described as a bit crazy. The narrator implies this by suggesting that a second in her mind would be too much. Ironic, given that Alphonse is by this point definately the guy who is about to shoot the place up (or attempt to). Interesting, but not part of my main point.

The scene with the crackhead (Tony), got me thinkin about oral history, and our current lack of it. Thinking back, the John Henry song/legend is unique in that it really seems to me to be the last well known, oral legend/song. There are songs that have maintained for years, and are even more widely known, though they either lack a story, tell a fictional story, or simply tell one that most are unaware of. "Happy Birthday" is (according to some book), the most widely sung song in the world, but it's not really oral tradition, as it lacks a story. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is nationally known, but based on the number of people who are unaware of the war of 1812, it is likely that few really know what it's about. Nursery rhymes (which are slowly being replaced by the theme songs from cartoons) either have no basis in reality (What mouse? What clock? Is Hickory-Dickory  a field of medicine? if so when does one consult a Hickory-Dickory Doc?), or aren't connected to whatever basis they once had. (Most children don't associate "Ring Around the Rosie" with the bubonic plague). In terms of legend and song, there seems to be nothing widespread that is passed around orally. While there are stories that everyone knows, and songs that everyone knows, it tends to be because we all saw them, read them, or heard them when their author created them. 

Whereas people could once talk about John Henry as a figure that everyone was aware of, we now have only Homer Simpson, Spock, Gilligan, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Huckleberry Finn (and Hound as well), Optimus Prime and the list goes on. We can regocnize these characters, in a similar way (as they tend to be universal, dependant one one's year of birth). What seperates these characters, is that they're all fictional, and have a specific "official source," while I CAN make up new stories about them, one can point to the original source, and say, No, Homer is NOT a Jedi, Luke Skywalker isn't a fat alcoholic, and Optimus Prime turns into a truck rather than a gorilla (except in that short-lived Beast Wars series which was stupid). One can always add to the stories, but the already published is incontrovertable. There WERE plenty of Star Wars novels written after the Trilogy, but regardless of the author's talents, the original trilogy remained the standard. (The only real exception to this is that Sci-Fi tends to allow time travel, in which case history can be altered, creating alternate universes, where, for example, Vulcan is destroyed, and Kirk's dad is killed on the day of his birth...and there are two Spocks)

The other source of stories we have is non-fiction. Because these stories are true (in theory), and we have a staggeringly large mass media network, we tend to get the facts, (though the telling may slightly vary). If John Henry's competition took place today, we all could have simply turned to page F10 (D8 on a slow day, A1 in Talcott and Hinton), and read the one paragraph Associated Press article on it, and probably go watch the youtube video of it. Thus, to anyone altering the story, one could simply say "Dude, go watch the video again...I'll send you the link."

This mention of youtube brings us to my theory of the new oral tradition. Because so many of our stories have the obvious problem of having an "original," we've sort of lost oral history as a medium. However, we've lately been coming up with all sorts of new media, which in a way can replace it. Ever since my very first e-mail account (Homicidal_maniac@lycos.com, don't ask) I'd frequently get obnoxious forwards, containing stories that were likely fictional or vaguely true, yet embelished to ridiculous porportions, typically illustrating the sort of peril I'd be in if I failed to forward it to 10 friends. This sort of began a new tradition, as the fonts/word choice, etc. tended to suggest that people had altered or added to these stories. Now, this is easily expanded. With blogs and video blogs, stories tend to spread, yet retain the advantage of being alterable.

For Example, you've probably scene the "Dramatic Chimpmunk" video (posted 2 years ago) I just checked adn they've got a James Bond version, a Darth Vader Version, and several others ,many of which appear on a 2.5 minute "Best of Dramatic Chipmunk" video. This is a whole lot of variation for a 5 second clip. (17 million views on just one version of the original is a whole lot a views too)

While videos can be altered to depict a new story, simply changing the caption can significantly alter the story (much in the same way one can take the idea "John Henry dies after beating a machine in a competition" has formed thousands of different stories). Plus, blogs lacking fact checkers can quickly desseminate urban myths, etc. which can then be picked up by other forums, and blogs, and altered. While one could technically trace any given story back through the time-stamps on blogs and forum posts, it would be as staggering a task as seeking out the "real" John Henry story.

Then again the only real problem with this comparison is that the massive quality of mass media makes it so that there are millions of stories, most of which fade before there get to be many variations. Also, because the online population is staggeringly vast, what stories you get is highly dependant on your online (and real life) network of friends/aquaintances.

Anyway, it looks like, these days anyway, oral tradition is essentially supplanted by the internet.....(the comparison to John Henry Days ought to be so obvious that it needn't be mentioned) This makes the John Henry story special as it seems to be the final entry on the blog of true, pure oral tradition....ANYONE can tell a good story when they got a video clip of it on their phone. Just as the last people who witnessed John Henry died off years ago, eventually, the last people who witnessed the telling/singing of it (rather than reading it, studying it as a historical/cultural chunk of Americana/or worse watching the disney version).  

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