Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Rhymes, Jingles, and Little Poems: The World War II Rumor Project Collection in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress

"Rumor," wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2, "is a pipe / Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures / And of so easy and so plain a stop / That the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still-discordant wavering multitude, / Can play upon it." We here at P&PC don't know about all of that, but we've certainly had our fair share of rumor-related surmises and conjectures of late, all stemming from our recent forays into the World War II Rumor Project Collection in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Our time in the nation's capital is quickly coming to an end, but now that the lion's share of our proposed research about Edna St. Vincent Millay's World War II-era poem The Murder of Lidice is done, we just couldn't pass up an opportunity to find out what folks on the street were saying sotto voce around the same time. And you know what? It turns out that many of them were talkin' poetry.

The World War II Rumor Project Collection is exactly what it sounds like it is. Worried that Axis agents were infiltrating the U.S. and spreading false rumors with the goal of damaging national morale and the unity of the war effort, a certain Dr. Eugene Horowitz working for the Office of War Information did a pilot study coordinating the collection of rumors for analysis and counteraction. He collected them in two main ways: via designated, already well-placed individuals (hair stylists, cab drivers, etc.) who reported what they were hearing in their communities; and via teachers and students at a select number of high schools and colleges.

Much of the project's collection consists of rumor reports obtained via the first method, and this was the material we initially targeted, thinking how awesome it would be to go back home to Oregon with a  handful of the juiciest, choicest rumors that grandmas and grandpas in the Beaver State were passing along. Well, it turns out that Oregonians didn't have much of a taste for rumor or (what's more likely) the federal government—or perhaps they couldn't get their ground game up and running in time. Because we found a grand total of two Oregon-generated rumors. That's right. Two.
We were about ready to sigh, pack it all up, and move on to something else, but that's usually the sort of moment when something happens for us. Indeed. Just to be thorough and make sure our bases were covered, we decided to check out the student responses—all contained in the last three narrow boxes of the collection. And what do you know. There, right at the start, we found a template "speech" that each teacher was asked to give when administering a "standardized" rumor collection in class—you know, the "always use a #2 pencil" type of thing—and part of that speech instructed students to "write down five jokes, anecdotes, puns, rhimes [sic], or 'cracks' about the war." Rhimes? You can imagine our ears pricking up, and not just because of the unconventional spelling. And sure enough, later on, the speech reminds students to write down "any kind of story, joke, pun, toast, or jingle about the war." Jingle? Now you're talking. And wouldn't you know it, the entire instructional concludes with yet another reference to poetry. "If you can't remember the exact words of a little poem or jingle, give it as near as you can. Please write these down now—let's not take too long over it."

Rhimes, jingles, and little poems? Who today would even think to ask for rhimes, jingles, and little poems when trying to assess "what passes by word of mouth ... things which often fail to appear in print"? So, we started reading, and you know what? There were rhimes, jingles, and little poems all over the place, from rhyming slogans ("Pay your taxes to beat the Axis") to full-on, multiple-stanza verses about everything from Hitler's nether regions to sugar and shoe rationing.

But wait, there's more—there always is. Each student response is anonymous (the study never asked for names), but at Dr. Horowitz's instruction, each form (almost each, at least) contains a notation identifying the respondent's year in school, gender (M or F), and race (W or C/N [Colored/Negro]). And as we first read through—quickly, without method or clear goal—we started to feel like the African American students reported rhimes, jingles, and little poems more frequently than white students. How very interesting, we thought. What little archive have we stumbled upon? How can we tally up the numbers? How do we crunch and analyze them, and what might they reveal to us? It turns out that Dr. Horowitz's project never got beyond the pilot stage, but could we, almost seventy-five years later, use the data he collected to say something about the relative importance or unimportance of popular poetry to African American and white students nearing mid-century and thus, presumably, to the communities from which they came? How would we then map gender onto this? How about age? And how would all of this data intersect with the poems themselves? Might there be discernible patterns in who reported what types of poems?

We're a long way from answering all those questions, dear reader, but by now much of the data has been recorded for transport back to Oregon. We couldn't have gotten this far without further support from folks at the Kluge Center, who loaned us a real-live intern to help: Cooper Kidd (pictured here), a sociology major at Montgomery College who's just returned from a summer studying social responses to AIDS in San Francisco, and who's spending the Fall semester doing LoC research on poverty and trans women of color. Pretty much side by side in the Folklife Center for the past three or so weeks, we've been making spreadsheets, talking through what we've been finding, and sharing more than just a few rhimes, jingles, and little poems with each other.

Really, we don't have much data to make public at this point, but we can dangle this little morsel in front of you (and in front of all of you granting foundations out there): of the 2,250 responses we've recorded, about half are from African American students, and half are from white students. (We think this is statistically sound.) The percentage of African American students who report rhimes, jingles, and little poems is 28%, and much higher than white students, who report poems 14% of the time. Our initial hypothesis confirmed, we now prepare to move on—Cooper back to school, P&PC back to Oregon, and both of us deeper into the data. Please wish us safe travels, and make sure to check back for more breaking news—well, breaking as of 1943, at least—about "the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still-discordant wavering multitude."