by Michael Bell

The Devil's footprints, shift marriages, May breakfasts, and more!


Photo © Cyril Place 2002. cyrilplace.com

In the early 1990s, I wrote a column on Rhode Island folklore for Guide to the Ocean State, a free monthly publication that listed events and entertainment opportunities in Rhode Island. Although the Guide ceased publication about ten years ago, I still look back on that experience with a mixture of relief and regret. Erasing one deadline per month certainly can be liberating. I mean, I didn't sit around asking myself, "How am I going to fill the void?" but lurking in the back of my mind was the growing fear that eventually I would exhaust my resources. Would I have something to write about next month? Next year? On the other hand, a firm deadline with, what seemed to me at the time, a rather severe limitation of words (about 800) forced me into an apt brutality: omit needless words—and do it quickly. I appreciated, all over again, things I must have learned unknowingly from my newspaper-reporter father when I would show up at his desk unannounced and ask for a ride home after going downtown to see a movie. Always, he would say, "Give me a minute, old man, I've got to knock out this story." He would feed an endless roll of newsprint into his manual typewriter and, with two fingers, "hunt-and-peck" his way through an article for the next day's edition in the time it took me to ask the science writer, one desk over, if he thought we'd really ever be able to go to the moon.

We did go to the moon. My dad always finished his articles. And, thanks to the demise of the Guide to the Ocean State, I didn't reach the end of Rhode Island folklore. I'm very pleased that some of the short pieces I wrote more than a decade ago will live again. (Yes, one of the articles is about Rhode Island's Rhode Island's living dead.) Folklorists are fond of saying that folklore is always the same yet always different. This apparent paradox is really a natural process. Your version and mine may be at odds, but there is a core that allows us to agree that we are dealing with the same thing, whether it's a a local legend or a stone wall. I hope that you will see the ongoing threads that connect us to our past in these articles that have been given new life through Quahog.org.

I encourage readers to supply their own versions of any of the examples of folklore discussed in this column. Address your correspondence to me at folk-lore@cox.net.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.

This article last edited December 5, 2015

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