The power and eloquence of our everyday speech

Varick Chittenden

Varick Chittenden

I’m open to the bounty of the woods. I still get excited when I find a hollow log or a dead lilac root deep in the ground and imagine what it might be. To me, it’s a gift of nature. I always say the find makes the fashion. I may not know how or when I’ll use it, but I like to store it, keep it in sight and, someday, make it into something functional for somebody. Even if it’s just for amusement, that’s useful, too.

— Barry Gregson, Schroon Lake,
Adirondack rustic furniture builder

I love words. I always have. From the days when I’d hide under my bed covers and read stories by flashlight after my mother’s curfew or I’d listen to some of my father’s very unusual old expressions, I have been fascinated with language.

That’s probably why I studied literature in college and taught it all those years. While my friends in math or physics have sometimes seemed amused by this, I really do believe that there is an exactness in words that is almost scientific in nature. Just try to find the right thing to say when the loved one of a friend dies or when you are so angry that you only see red.

If you’re like me, the words come eventually — an hour later — or on the ride home. And then there is the occasional turn of phrase — the perfect combination of words for the moment — that a good poet or novelist creates, which makes you think long after you’ve closed the book.

We have one lady … she brings in an apple pie and on the top of the pie after she gets it made, there is an apple drawn on the top of the pie, and she does it with a cutter of some kind. Puts it right on the top of the pie. It’s very attractive. So it’s almost appliqued, as in a quilt. You’d applique a piece of pastry right on top. It’s just the way she does it. It looks lovely.

— Eunice Southworth, Bangor,
Franklin County Fair official

My favorite American authors have most often been closely associated with place. When I was a student, their work was described as “local color.”
They included Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, or Sherwood Anderson. I’ve especially liked Southern writers, like Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor.

They, like our own north country’s Irving Bacheller or Russell Banks, have captured a sense of place and the idiosyncracies of characters, especially in their dialogue. It is that folk speech, those special idioms and grammatical interpretations by local people, that give real life to these stories for me.

Years ago I used to make such an effort to — to do anything, like playin’ the guitar or the fiddle or rifle shooting. I did all of this after I lost my hand … ‘course it’s actually a lesson to anybody. If you want to do something bad enough and try hard enough and — and pray a little, the Guy Upstairs will help you to do whatever you want done.

— Dick Richards, Lake Luzerne,
fiddler and country music performer

I’m frequently reminded of all of this, as I pore through interview transcripts and listen to the original tapes as I write exhibit labels or liner notes for projects at Traditional Arts in Update New York. And it always comes back abundantly clear when we develop scripts for radio documentaries. For me, the language of the people we work with is not only informative but inspiring. I get great joy from listening to them speak — with humor, passion, enthusiasm, sometimes with sadness or remorse. But in any case, they speak from the heart, and they speak in the rhythms and the intonations we find in families and communities here in the north country.

The most important thing to me [about the annual Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel] is everything being centered around the procession. … It used to be a longer route and it was very impressive. … Years ago we used to have the band leading. … We used to have the Blessed Mother, she had a long ribbon and the older people who could never come out to the feast would wait on the corners or in front of their homes and come out and pin the traditional money on the statue….Sometimes it would bring tears to your eyes, because they could hardly walk, but this was a big thing for them. It meant so much.

— Ida Jane Alteri, Watertown,
St. Anthony’s parishioner

In the process of listening and reading, I am frequently moved by the power and eloquence of simple, everyday speech. I don’t have to go to great writers to find it. I can hear it in the oral traditions of my neighbors and local shopkeepers
and friends.

You like everything [about dairy farming], or else you would be crazy to do it. You have no control over the weather. Last summer, it didn’t rain from May to August. I couldn’t sleep. Crops weren’t growing, we didn’t have enough feed for the winter, it was a very difficult time. Farming is extremely hard. You have animals dying, you have crops failing, it’s not wet, then it’s raining too much. All these things you don’t have control over. You don’t even have control over the price you sell your product for. It’s really hard, but it’s awesome, too. That’s what makes it awesome — nobody else wants to do it. It’s a very honorable thing, you are making food. There is not much better than that.

— Blake Gendebien,Lisbon,
Twin Mills Farm

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Canton-based
Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. He lives in St. Lawrence County.