With a preface by Vic Moffett.
I Wish You Had Met My Mother
Don't You Never Say Uh-huh
The Walk-off Folks
Folklorists are painfully aware that faithfully documenting the work of a storyteller is a daunting prospect at best. The task is especially challenging when working with an artist such as Louise Anderson, who drew heavily on her experiences and talents as an actress to enliven the presentations of her tales and anecdotes.
Audio recordings preserve the storyteller's dialect and inflections, so necessary in hearing a good tale. Video goes further by adding the visual information on which we rely for most of our communication. This makes Tom Davenport's When My Life Is Over a priceless document.
Yet text is still needed, despite all its shortcomings, to provide a more comprehensive albeit pale record. Still, these are not merely transcriptions, but attempts to mimic on the written page as best I can Ms. Anderson's performances and subtleties. The editor must resist the temptation to emend too much. Interpolations alter the texture of the tale which, in Louise Anderson's stories, is as finely woven as in any well-crafted poem.
Robert Frost wrote in his essay The Constant Symbol, "The way will be zigzag, but it will be a straight crookedness like the walking stick [the artist] cuts himself [or herself] for an emblem." So for fear of zigging when the story should zag, these texts remain as close as possible to Ms. Anderson's performances and conversations while, I hope, translating them into readable prose although sometimes risking clarity. Authenticity has its price.
Frost's paradox of "a straight crookedness" could also describe the process of creating these renditions as well as the shape of Ms. Anderson's tales themselves. Any conversation with Louise Anderson quickly became more a swap-meet of stories rather than a dialogue.
When I first met Ms. Anderson, I was working on a story for the Jacksonville Daily News, and during our interview Ms. Anderson responded to my interrogations only with animal fables, allegories, and extended anecdotes. All were virtually useless to a journalist limited to snippets. Yet by the end of each tale, my questions had been answered, charmingly.
So began my work. These renditions are gleaned from audio tapes of conversations made at Ms. Anderson's and my Jacksonville homes and while traveling to some of Ms. Anderson's numerous performances across North Carolina, from Jacksonville to Rocky Mount to Raleigh to Boone. These discussions never had more than a vague agenda, which was often thrown aside, and one hour of tape often resulted in as little as ten minutes of useful content. Still, all yielded material - a bit of woof here, a bit of warp there - and all of the same fabric.
The pattern may not be clear at first, but it is here, in Ms. Anderson's style and her major themes. A story is, first and foremost, didactic. Literature teaches about one's position in society, human values, and respect for others' beliefs. To share a story is to express love. Stories are both to be preserved and to be changed as they are handed down from generation to generation. The oral tradition is an equally fragile and enduring embodiment of heritage.
The most difficult task in editing these texts has been the use of dialect. Ms. Anderson once told me a story of a young black boy who, embarrassed by her use of dialect, cringed all through her performance. He had been taught to equate dialect with ignorance and backwardness.
But Ms. Anderson felt as I do: authenticity deserves precedence. The use of dialect is part of the fabric of these tales. So my texts have attempted to reproduce as faithfully as possible Ms. Anderson's performances, complete with all traits characteristic of the Southern idiom shared by whites and blacks in this neck of the woods.
These include contractions such as ain't and y'all as well as the unvoiced g in words ending with ing, faulty agreement of subject and verb, sometimes unnecessary and sometimes very significant shifts in verb tenses, and the use of nonstandard diction. These are all elements unique to and wonderfully flavoring this linguistic heritage. Still, apologies are offered to any who might be offended, and whose tolerance is appreciated.
Mechanics have been used to minimum in these renditions, but some explanation may be needed. Words appearing in all capital letters signify increased volume when reading aloud. Words appearing in italics should be emphasized, but by inflection rather than volume. The end of a paragraph signals a pause about twice as long as that after a period, and repetitive dialog tags - i.e. “he said” - are used in the hope of representing the rhythm and responsorial structure of oral delivery so much a part of our African-American tradition.
In the end, though, storytelling and writing are quite different things, and these texts don't pretend to do justice. But once I met a lady who wanted most of all to pass to future generations something of her art. And I grew to love her tales, and I grew to love her. She was a living cultural treasure. These texts are as good reflections as I can make of the work of a woman I proudly call my sister, Louise.
I Wish You Had Met My Mother
I met a friend a few weeks ago, and after we talked, and we talked, and we found common threads, she mentioned something about a plant, some flower that she had.
And I said, "Oh! That sounds marvelous!"
I said, "Oh! I wish you had met my mother."
I find this is what I'm saying when I'm giving someone a compliment.
When my mother moved, when she moved her household goods here with her husband, she had three children. And she moved her bucket that she ironed with, her charcoal bucket and charcoal iron. And she had an ironing board, a very heavy oak board that we kept movin' with us back and forth.
And she had a feather bed. And with all her things, she had little packages of seeds. And she had little tin cans with flower plants that she had brought from Georgia.
And as soon as she moved in where she was goin' to live
for awhile, she was out in her yard planting, planting her flowers.
And every place she went, she seemed to plant beauty.
And as the children got older, some things changed. After a while, she got a smoothing iron. (We still have those irons.) And then we got electricity, and she got an electric iron.
All of these things she changed, but she never stopped planting her flowers. And she never stopped giving flowers.
Each of us, when we moved someplace, we moved some of Momma's flowers. Evelyn moved to Kinston, and she moved flowers.
Mary Alice is in Raleigh, and each year she'd come over, and Momma would give her flowers for this and for that.
And we'd all have friends. We have flowers all over North Carolina. All over the United States there are some of Momma's flowers we have planted.
When I got in the Visiting Artists Program, I carried some of Momma's flowers up in the mountains. And I carried some up around Surrey County.
All of these friends have Momma's flowers.
Now Momma was beginnin' to get weaker. And I was lookin' forward to comin' home, to perhaps stayin' with her a while before she died.
But I didn't see her, and I had a hard time turnin' her loose. And I was feelin' so badly because I just couldn't get over my grief. I was in my sixties, but I still couldn't get over that.
And when I was comin' home, makin' the long trip home, I'd get to Richlands, and each time I got there, pain would just fill me.
And one day on my way back to Surrey County, I was on Highway 70. And something they had done on one side of the road there. There was all this beautiful grass, and flowers had been planted. Oh, that was the loveliest flower bed! They were all colors -- just all colors!
And oh, I just anguished.
I said, "Oh Momma! How I wish you could see this! I wish Momma could see this!"
And just as plainly as day, I thought I heard Momma say, "Oh, Louise. Don't be silly. Who do you think showed it to you?"
And of course she did.
And I had to stop awhile, and I got myself together. And from then on I sort of understood.
And anytime I see flowers, I see them through her eyes.
I don't work in flowers the way she did. But every time I see flowers, and the beauty in things, I see them through her eyes.
I loved my mother, as we all do. And I'm happy that I always carried things to her, although she didn't appreciate some of those buttercups I brought her, or some of those boyfriends.
And I've met so many good people, and I wish that you all could have met my mother.
Don't You Never Say Uh-huh
Now they're talkin' about Ray Charles has this song "Uh-huh." Well, black people hated -- your grandma and your grandpa -- hated for you to say uh-huh.
They'd say, "You want so-and-so or somethin'?"
You'd say, "Uh-huh."
They'd say, "Say 'Yes, ma'am' to me!"
You'd say, "Yes, ma'am."
They'd say, "Don't you come here with no uh-huh! That's the Devil's words!" And they'd thump you on the head like a watermelon. They'd thump you. They could hurt you right bad. I mean, you could get hurt!
You see, the Devil didn't have too many people goin' down there that week or somethin', and the Devil needed some housework done down there. So he thought he'd go up to Heaven.
And all the little angels were just a-playin' around up there outside and streakin' off clouds. So the Devil thought he'd go up there and steal him some angels.
So the Devil went up there, and he sneaked up behind them. And he got a bunch of angels, and he put them all around.
He had one under this arm and one under that arm. He had some in his pockets. And he put them in his mouth. He got all blowed up with angels.
And he could hardly go back. And he was goin' back, and he was flyin' sorta low.
And somebody looked at him. And somebody said, "Huh, Devil, what'd you do? You go up to Heaven and get yourself some angels to take down to Hell with you?"
The Devil said, "Yeah, I thought I'd --"
And when he said that and opened his mouth, the angels started flyin' away. And he started to run after them, and then all the rest of them got away.
So the Devil said, "Well, I'll know better next time."
And so the next day the Devil went back up there again. And the Devil started to fill up his mouth and everything with them angels. And he started on back down. He was flyin' low.
Somebody looked out there and said, "Huh!"
He said, "Mr. Devil, I see."
He said, "What happened? Did you go up there and get you some more angels?"
And the Devil said, "Uh-huh!"
So that's where that word comes from. The Devil made it up.
The Walk-off Folks
God was makin' this world, and He wanted to have things straightened out. Ahh, it was hard. It was hard.
But He made things easy for Adam and Eve. He fixed them a beautiful house. They had a house right there, and a garden all around it. You know, a pretty setting.
And he gave them two of everything, you know, so they wouldn't have to argue about anything. And they had this big round porch so they could sit there on the porch.
Now their only job was to name the animals. And they had two rocking chairs, and they both had a table right there by the rocking chairs with a great big old pitcher of lemonade. And they'd just sit there and watch the animals go by.
Right across the road over there from the house, they had two spanking brand new Studebaker convertibles. So anything they wanted, they had it right there. They didn't have to say, "Give me my Studebaker," 'cause they had their own.
And they made some good names, too, for the animals. They did pretty good. What could you call a frog but a frog, you see? I mean they made good names.
"Look at that bee goin' makin' a beeline right down there!" I mean you couldn't beat it. You couldn't beat it. I mean Adam and Eve gave some good names.
One day they were sittin' there, and they'd been namin' animals as they
passed by, and Adam and Eve just walked down to the creek. They got down there, and Adam was swingin' a vine over there, and he caught a fish.
And it was right fun for both of them to sit there and fish awhile, but Eve was gonna hafta cook it. So she went back on up to the house and cooked the fish. And Adam was sittin' down there, still fishin', still fishin'.
And Adam came back, and he just fell in love with fishin'.
Well now, that just cut out the sittin' on the porch drinkin' lemonade and everything. 'Cause when Eve wanted to sit down there and finish their work and talk, laugh and talk, Adam -- Adam, he was out there fishin'.
Then he'd come home with all them fish there for Eve to clean and cook. And Eve was so mad she didn't know what to do! Eve was so mad! There she was standin' there, and here he comes there with all them fish for her to clean. And they didn't even have no newspaper to wrap no fish guts in.
Eve said, "I'm so mad!"
She said, "I could just spit! I could just spit!"
She said, "I'm sittin' up here, and I'm thinkin', I ain't gonna just clean fish all the time."
She said, "I'm tellin' you the truth."
She said, "I'd go home to my momma, if I knew where that was."
She said, "I ain't gonna be just sittin' here, doin', cleanin' all this fish all the time here by myself."
And every time Adam would come, here would go Eve on.
And Adam didn't know what to do. He was fit to be tied himself. He was tired.
So one day Adam was walkin' up the road, and he met God.
God said, "Hey, Adam."
He said, "How're ya doin'?"
Adam said, "Oh, Lord!"
He said, "I ain't doin' so well."
He said, "I've just been havin' a hard time."
He said, "I've been goin' down there fishin'."
He said, "Lord, you made that so enjoyable."
And he said, "And Eve, she's gettin' mad 'cause I don't spend no time with her. She claims she's lonesome and ain't got nobody to talk to. She's talkin' about goin' home to her momma. Whatever she's talkin' about, I don't know."
He said, "Lord, I'm just havin' it right hard."
So God said, "Well, Adam, I can understand Miss Eve."
He said, "You know what?"
He said, "I've been plannin' to make some more people."
He said, "I know she gets right lonesome, sittin' there by herself."
He said, "And I've meant to come down and make some more people."
He said, "But Adam, whatever you do, don't get involved in no world!"
He said, "This is the hardest job I've ever had."
He said, "This is a hard job."
He said, "As soon as I get one thing done, somebody else is hollerin'. I made a camel there. I made one of them one hump and the other one two humps."
He said, "It just gets to be a mess."
He said, "But I've got a little time on my hands."
He said, "Come, go on here and help me so we can make some people."
So Adam went down there with God to the creek to make some people. And so they started to make some people. And so God and him started to pull some clay out of the creek there. And they started to shape up the people.
And He made all kinds of people. He had long people and short people and tall people and skinny people and fat people and middle-sized people and all people with big heads and people with little heads and big feet and little -- all kinds -- with big nose and crooked nose. And he made squinch eyes. Just any kind of people, he made.
And then they got some stuff together, and they made up some dye so they could paint the people. And they didn't have too many, but they had enough dye there.
And He painted Him some red Indian people. And He painted Him some yellow Chinese people. And He painted Him some black African people. And He pulled some chalk off there, and He painted them, and He had Him some chalk white caucasian people -- all them people.
And God said, "Adam, ain't they some pretty people?"
And Adam said, "Well, I ain't gonna say they're all pretty."
He said, "Look at that man over there."
God said, "Don't, don't talk about my people like that, Adam."
He said, "They're all pretty."
He said, "Everything God made is pretty in His sight."
He said, "Now I'm just about finished with them."
He said, "But one, one little, little detail I left."
He said, "See there? Right up on top of their heads, they got a little soft spot?"
He said, "I ain't put the brains in 'em yet."
He said, "But now, tomorrow mornin'."
He said, "You let 'em dry, and tomorrow mornin' I'm gonna come here, and I'm gonna put the brains in 'em."
And He said, "You meet me here early in the mornin'."
And He said, "You let Miss Eve know that she's gonna have somebody to talk to."
So Adam went home, and Eve was real happy that he didn't have no fish. He'd been busy workin' with God.
He got up there and told her, and they got sorta right happy. They laughed and talked. They had a good time.
Adam overslept. And he started runnin'.
"Oh, God's gonna be mad at me!"
He said, "Well, I'm gonna tell Him."
And he got down there, and he could see where the people were gone.
He said, "God's done already been here."
He said, "What can I tell Him?"
He said, "Lord, I'm gonna tell ya somethin'."
He said, "Whatever them people said ...."
And God said, "What people, Adam?"
And Adam said, "I ain't seen none."
He said, "I'm sorry."
He said, "Sir, I'm a little late this mornin'."
He said, "A little somethin' came up."
And he said, "Well, your people are gone."
God said, "Gone?"
He said, "Whattya mean 'gone'?"
He said, "They ain't got no brains."
And Adam said, "Well, I don't care if they ain't got no brains or not, but they ain't out there."
So God went down there, and the people sure enough had done walked off, walked off.
He said, "Ah, Adam, this is messin' up my day in the beginnin'."
He said, "I knowed somethin' was wrong when I got up this mornin'."
He said, "Now I ain't got time."
He said, "Look at 'em. Just look at those foot tracks."
He said, "I ain't got time to search everybody down. They ain't got no brains. There's no tellin' where they went."
He said, "We got some more clay over there?"
Adam said, "Yessir."
God said, "Well, let's take that clay, and we'll make the rest of 'em, and then we'll paint 'em."
So they brought the rest of the clay up, and they made some more people. And they still had enough paint. They had some black and some yellow and some red and some chalk white. And they painted the folks up. And this time they put the brains in 'em.
And those people grew. And they went out. And God sent them on out in the world. And they replenished the Earth, replenished the Earth, and Eve was happy.
But now them Walk-off Folks, what didn't have no brains, they too, they too went out and sort of replenished the Earth. I don't know.
They say a whole lot of 'em, a disproportional part of 'em, went into politics. I don't know about that.
But I'll tell you one thing. I don't care what kind of committee you get on, at least one or two of them Walk-off Folks are on that committee.