Real history beats folklore, local nostalgia

Monday Book Review

April 15, 1991|By John Goodspeed

MARYLAND FOLKLORE. By George G. Carey. Tidewater Publishers. 163 pages. $12.95.

SMITH ISLAND, CHESAPEAKE BAY. By Frances W. Dize. Tidewater Publishers. Photos by M.E. Warren, A. Aubrey Bodine and others. 214 pages. $22.95.

GEORGE G. Carey was once the official state folklorist of Maryland, and Frances W. Dize lived for a long time with her husband on Smith Island, but neither the state's folksy lore nor Smith Island's water-bound history -- the subjects of their books -- was quite enough to keep either author in permanent residence here. Carey is now a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, and Dize now lives in Florida -- so Maryland readers may well ask: Don't you like our beautiful Free State?

Well, Carey writes that Maryland provides "incredible potential for study" by professional folklorists, and Dize says she "learned to appreciate the basics of life" on Smith Island and still calls it home. So, yes, they like Maryland, like it well enough to write books admiring it that will not likely become best sellers. How many of us permanent Maryland residents can say that?

Carey did folklore research in the 1960s and '70s, mostly among old watermen on the Eastern Shore, and his "Maryland Folklore" is based on stories they told him and on previous folklore studies by other scholars, notably Dorothy Howard in Western Maryland and Elaine Eff in Baltimore. Carey's book covers Maryland tall tales, legends, heroes and local characters, jokes, puns, riddles, proverbs, folk medicine and children's games -- everything, he indicates, except folk songs, which he omits because (1) he covered them in an earlier book and (2) "traditional singing in Maryland is not what it used to be."

Some of his material is new to me -- for example, the following rhyme which, according to Carey, is chanted by children when they jump rope in Easton:

Johnny over the ocean,

Johnny over the sea,

Johnny broke the milk bottle --

Blamed it on me.

The book also tells us more than most of us want to know about the history, methods and standards of the folklorist profession.

A lot of true Maryland history is exciting, probably including that of the bay's isolated communities like Smith Island, population about 600 (and declining), located just west of Crisfield and barely north of the Virginia line. But there are apparently so few records of Smith Island activity available that its true history may never be known in detail. (Environmental writer Tom Horton, now based in Salisbury, also is working on a Smith Island book.) We don't find out much in detailed documentation in Dize's "Smith Island, Chesapeake Bay." She tries hard, but she falls back on a lot of generalization and repetition.

We do learn that Smith Island is named after a Henry Smith, who owned much of it in the 17th century. We gather, though, that he was not the first European settler and may not have lived on Smith Island. And we learn, not to our surprise if we've read the papers, that generations of Smith Island watermen and their hard-working women are proud and independent.

They probably do deserve to be proud that they've made a hard living gathering crabs, oysters and fish -- and proud that they've never needed a Smith Island police force. But are they proud of the fact that some of their ancestors were Tories in the Revolution? That some collaborated with the British in the War of 1812? Were slaveholders and Confederate blockade runners in the Civil War? Were pirates between wars? And how independent are island people who have depended on supplies from the mainland for centuries?

Both of these books about Maryland are worth reading, but real Maryland history is more exciting than folklore and local nostalgia.

John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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