Two books that are curiously alike recently came my way.
The first is by James Still, a Kentucky poet who is one of my favorites. Rusties, and Riddles and Gee-Haw Whimmy-Diddles delves into the folkways and folk language of the place he called home. You might have to be from here to understand some of the riddles and word puzzles he poses in this short book. For example:
One dark eye
Poke its ribs
Make it sigh
Care to guess what this is?
And a fly swatter.
As Still explains in his introduction, people found their own entertainment in the days before mass media reached the mountains. Evenings by the fire were occupied with whittling, knitting and sewing, cracking nuts and telling tales and riddles. He describes rusties as "turns of wit, tricks of words, or common pranks." People in the mountains today still delight in pulling each other's legs and "pranking" as my husband calls it. The best never crack a smile as they tell their lies, and so drag the listener right into their verbal traps with great delight.
The Whim-Wham Book by Duncan Emrich is like an extended version of Still's collection. While James Still focused on his Kentucky hills for his book, Emrich's book is composed of material sent to him by children from all over the United States. Written as a follow up to two other titles (The Nonsense Book and The Hodgepodge Book), Emrich explains in the introduction that folklore is not only those things passed down to us by our elders, but also the songs, stories and riddles we make up each day. This book is a collection of both old and contemporary lore.
While Emrich's book is fun and full of zany material, I confess I like Still's collection better. Emrich credits each child who contributed to his book, and the pieces read like children's folklore. While this is entertaining and for a storyteller offers useful filler material, Still's book gives us a look back to colorful, clever language, carefully crafted stories and riddles and references to traditions and ways of life that have passed on.
Here's one from the Whim-Wham Book. Can you guess the answer?
What is this? A deaf man heard what a dumb man said: that a blind man had seen a running rabbit, and that a lame man pursued it, and that a naked man had put it in his pocket and brought it home.
"Why did the rooster cross the road?
I don't know.
To get the Chinese newspaper. Get it?
I don't either. I get the Evening Star-News."
I have only one thing to say about that. Ouch.
Ready for the answers to the others?
Pot belly: a pot-belly stove.
Two lookers: a cow
What's this? a lie.
Once again--ouch. But a good ouch because I'm smiling.
These books are old-fashioned fun, and provide a gentle mental exercise to boot. For an evening by the fire, these are good companions.