By Paddy Bowman, Sylvia Bienvenu, and Maida Owens
A certain place at Evergreen you would pass there and you would always hear somebody murmuring, and that's the place I used to be scared. When I'd get to the certain place, my hair look like it would stand up straight on my head. But I'm positive that a lot of people saw ghosts at Evergreen and at the "big garden" [La Petit Versailles].
--Grace Populas, St. John Parish
Oral narratives have always been an essential part of human existence, preceding written literature by millennia. Even in a media-saturated world driven by popular culture, oral narratives remain central to our lives. Linguistics researchers are finding that babies learn not only how to speak, but how to think through the narratives that those around them attach to objects and happenings. For example, a mother might say to a baby, "Shoe. This is your shoe. I'm going to put your shoe on, and we are going to see your grandfather. He used to sing me a song about shoes when I was little. 'All God's Children Got Shoes.' He'll sing it to you, too." She has told a story about a simple object to a baby who cannot talk, but already the baby knows that objects are made real by the narratives attached to them.
All cultures have different forms of oral narratives, from jokes to unending poems or histories that elders hold in group memory. Even today in some cultures, oral tradition is more widespread than written tradition. Oral narratives, or stories, are told to entertain, to maintain information related to cultural beliefs and practices of a cultural group, to teach or instruct about values and morals. By exploring the storytelling process and contexts students learn the importance of stories in their lives; the influences these stories have on their cultural orientation; the role and impact of language; and how certain oral narratives shape their beliefs, behavior, and social values, what they hold to be true and untrue, what is good and bad, how to interact with others--in other words, their worldviews.
In Louisiana, dialect and folk speech are an integral aspect of oral traditions and vary from region to region, or even block to block in New Orleans. In some communities, especially in Southwest Louisiana, Cajuns and Black Creoles speak French. This region boasts a substantial population of bilingual speakers. Many oral narratives and traditional songs are still in Creole French or Cajun French, or may contain a mixture of English and French patois. Creole French spoken by Black Creoles contains African linguistic structure. Often the language of people of African descent, as well as of Native Americans or recent immigrants, is dismissed by some as broken English. Yet the linguistic structure of dialects and patois has complex rules and roots, and the movement of many cultural groups speaking many languages and dialects has created a rich mixture of folk speech in Louisiana. A Creole language emerges when several language groups must communicate. In contrast, a pidgin language is more like linguistic shorthand. Language is living and dynamic, influenced continually by various cultural processes and levels: folk, popular, and elite.
The contexts for contemporary oral narratives vary: jokes on the playground, riddles in the car waiting in the drive-thru line at a fast food restaurant, or stories at family reunions. Stories surround us, but we don't always take notice. Identifying who, what, when, where, and how we tell and hear stories in our daily lives brings traditional oral narratives to life.
How do you know you are about to hear a story? How do you know when it's over? A fairytale often begins, "Once upon a time." "There was this man who. . ." signals the beginning of a joke. The frame of a narrative is part of its context. When people tell stories in their natural contexts, they are framed within conversation. Identifying the frames helps students find the stories in their lives. "One time when my sister and I.. . . ." "That reminds me of. . . ." Like written literature, oral literature has a beginning, a middle, and an ending and is usually organized chronologically.
The tales in Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana come from living people who tell these stories in various contexts: kitchens, hunting camps, family reunions, grocery stores, or public performance events like festivals. Professional storytellers have become very popular. Like revivalist folk musicians, some are not traditional tellers who have learned stories within their own folk groups and communities but from books or workshops. Some traditional storytellers do make it on the professional circuit, however, and many appear at Louisiana festivals.
The state's educators and students will benefit from the collection of contemporary storytelling, Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. A 30-minute companion video and a website augment the book, and this guide reprints referenced stories and notes. Note that the numbers given in the notes, excerpted from the original, refer to motifs (see excerpt of Swapping Stories Index of Motifs). The excerpted Louisiana's Folktale Traditions: An Introduction by Carl Lindahl and Louisiana's Traditional Cultures by Maida Owens provide important background for the teacher and older students. Or, students may read Louisiana's Folktale Traditions -- Outline and Louisiana's Three Folk Regions. Editors also offer guidelines on their decisions about transcribing the recorded collection in About the Transcriptions.