Field Assignment 1: Oral poetry

Field Assignment 1: Oral poetry


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First, collect a traditional oral poem (or song). Record an interview to document one person’s memories about that poem.

  • Examples mentioned in lectures include… American songs like “Happy Birthday” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”; lullabies, children’s songs and counting-out rhymes; soldiers’ cadences; proverbs, etc. That tiny American mummers’ rhyme, “trick-or-treat,” can also work just fine. If you have an idea but aren’t sure, discuss with your teacher or class.
  • Sometime during the recorded conversation, ask them for permission to use the recording in your essay for this class.
    If you do not have permission, please find a different person to interview.

(Privacy will be protected. Only two other people will read your essay: your teacher and one student peer reviewer. It is illegal for us to download, copy or share outside this class, without the person’s and your permission).

  • See items 1-4 below, for details to discuss during your interview (text, texture, context, variants).

Here’s an example of a fieldwork interview that I recorded online, while I prepared this Module’s Lecture 9. Because of pandemic restrictions, I was not able to meet Ia Dübois in person. But you can also have a similar conversation face to face:

Ia Dübois Interview

 (Links to an external site.)

Later I reviewed my “interview” (I prefer to call it a “conversation”), and followed up with more questions about this counting-out rhyme’s text (and English translation), variants, texture and context. It was important, for example, to see “where,” exactly, she performed the rhyme, and she told me her old address. With a few clicks of the mouse, I took a virtual trip to Stockholm and looked around in street view! Following up again, I learned she lived on the top floor, corner apartment seen here. The house used to be yellow, but the swing set in the yard is the same as back then…  One question led to another, and I could visualize the context ever more precisely!

But enough about me and my fieldwork.

Let’s return to directions for YOUR fieldwork assignment:

Write an ethnographic essay about the person and their traditional poem.

Henry Glassie’s “four conversations” are like four model Field Assignments.  In his descriptions, sketches, and analyses, people and their memories come alive for his readers.  THAT is your mission: To write an essay that helps your reader meet an interesting person!

Essay length will vary for different topics, but will probably be around 3-5 pages (750-1250 words). Cover the following information:

  1. Describe the person, and describe your conversation(s) with them (the interview context);
  2. Transcribe the text. Describe its poetic texture: rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, or other features that set it apart from everyday conversation. Interpret meanings of words or references that your reader may not know. (If the text is in a language other than English, ask them to help translate and explain).
  3. Describe variants. These might come from the person or others in their group (see item 4 below); or from books in the library, or somebody’s website on the internet. For each variant, try to document a specific source (if it’s online, whose for example, who posted it and where did they get the text?).
  4. Describe the “natural context” where they sang or recited the text. Let the person speak for themselves, and quote their words exactly as they said them, adding your explanations as needed.
    • In your conversation they might begin with generalizations like “We would always sing this…”, but don’t leave it at that. Take the conversation further. Help them recall memories about at least one very specific occasion where they sang or recited this text. Who, exactly, was there? Where, exactly, were they? When? (can they remember the approximate year for that specific occasion?)
    • Describe the tradition – where, when, from whom (name?) did they learn this song? Do they know variants?
    • Document their repertoire: Do they know more songs, poems, proverbs, etc.? You may not be able to document everything they know, but it is useful to know if other folklore connects to this text.
    • Diagrams, sketches, and old photos, if available, can help recall details that they (or your readers) might otherwise miss
  5. Consider possible functions of this folk poem in natural context:
    • The four “classic” functions listed in our textbook (Education, Entertainment, Social Control, and Validation of Culture);
    • other possible functions and meanings for that particular person and group.

Technical Notes:


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