- Oblique Performance:Snapshots of Oral Tradition in Action
Consider three moments, widely separated in space, time, cultural setting. The first occurs in the northwest corner of Arkansas in the 1930s. A young woman kindles a small fire behind her family's farmhouse, kneels beside it, and burns the letters of a departed lover. The second takes place a half-century later, in 1989, in Timisoara, a provincial town in southern Romania. Captured on a bit of newsreel film, a man in a bulky coat leans from a curb and spits upon an X-crossed portrait photograph pinned by the wiper to the windshield of a slow-moving car. The bespattered face is the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, just deposed and summarily executed. The third moment returns to Arkansas, goes back to 1983. It's a retirement party arranged by his subordinates for a supervisor of custodians at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. It's a surprise, unveiled when the crew breaks for dinner. A "gag" gift comes first, a silly hat with an obscene motto. Next is a cake, decorated with a straightforward message of respect and good wishes. Coeds in swimsuits then carry in the "real" gift, wrapped (another "gag") in a series of nested boxes. It's a watch, engraved with another farewell message.
For all their differences, the three scenes hold one central feature in common: each has at its center actions inspired and shaped by oral traditions. Such traditions, that is, are operating, being put to use, despite the fact that the actors in each instance are "performers" only in the most inclusive sense. The first scene is an essentially private act—the young woman is performing primarily for herself. The spitter is surely observed by others—perhaps he even knows his gesture is being recorded—but he too is his own primary audience, his action a form of invective, a curse hurled at a man who is not there. Even the retirement party is hardly a full-scale public event. The gathered janitors constitute a sort of occupational family, and their little celebration is essentially a domestic festival. The claim here is that close examination of these scenes (and others of like miniscule scale) [End Page 177] leads to enhanced appreciation of the multiform workings and subtle powers of oral traditions.
In the first instance the traditional genre in play is folksong. The repertoire of the young woman's family includes a song they called "Dear Charlie," though published collections most often have it as "Charlie [or Charley] Brooks."1 The song's speaker is a young woman, recently jilted by mail. Charlie's letter reports his new love (usually for a Miss Gray), returns his old love's letters and evidently seeks the return of a ring, a photograph, and his own billets-doux. "Dear Charlie" is the young woman's proud, wounded, finally obliging reply. "Here is your picture, dear Charlie," opens one verse, adding that the photo's faded condition is a result of frequent kissing. "Here is your ring, dear Charlie," introduces another, which goes on to ask that Miss Gray receive a new band or at least be told the old one's prior history. But earlier than these verses is the second (in most versions), which deals with the letters: "Here are your letters, dear Charlie / I burned mine as they came. / And I hope without reading them over / You'll submit them at once to the flame."
In cold print "Dear Charlie" comes across as a hackneyed piece, thoroughly predictable both in its contents and in its overwrought expression. But this very conventionality is a point very much in its favor, given a young woman new to what seems to her a comparable situation. Alma Gilbert, in the summer of 1925, in Zion, Arkansas, has in fact just provoked a rupture with a boyfriend. Her future husband, Alex Allen, is a new boy in town, he and his brother Burl have access to the family's "model T Ford touring car," and current beau John is suddenly, awkwardly, placed squarely in the middle of the road to the future. "I had seen John with another...