If I’m Lying, I’m Dying
Legends and Life in Texas: Folklore from the Lone Star State in Stories and Song
edited by Kenneth L. Untiedt
Denton: University of North Texas, 2018.
301 pp. $45.00 cloth.
If there was a national competition to find the state that has produced the most memorable characters, Texas would surely be among the top contenders. In the 72nd volume in their long running PTFS series, Kenneth Untiedt and the Texas Folklore Society show the diversity of Texas folk heroes. A collection of scholarly work and personal stories, the curated pieces are intended to to focus on people in Texas history who have yet to be recognized.
Separated into three sections, “Legendary” Texans (Untiedt’s quotes are intentional as these are not exactly the folks of legends) Texas Folk Song and Dance, and Life in Texas – As We Remember It, the book covers a wide range of characters. From Jacob Brodbeck, a man who achieved flight in Luckenbach, Texas, about twenty years before the Wright brothers, to John Meadows’s eclectic recollections on the antics his father got up to in Austin in the 1920s with the burgeoning (and unregulated) automobile industry, the book has a bit of everything. All of the stories are interesting, and take only a few minutes to get through, making the book perfect for someone looking for light, educational reading before bed, or someone looking for stories to share with youngsters. Each of the non-memoir texts come with their own works cited page, so intrepid readers can investigate further for themselves. The memoirs in the “As We Remember It” section either follow a theme, such as the automobile industry mentioned above, or the Texas Heritage farm, to moviemaking in small towns. Further personalizing the stories, each one is accompanied by a black and white photo of the author, the subject or event in question, sometimes several.
Though the stories are all presented as historically accurate, because the subjects are sometimes obscure, the authors are upfront when the tales they’re conveying wander into myth, legend, or pure speculation. This never detracts from the stories, but posits the question of where the line between historical fact and accepted legend actually lies. For example, in the story about Jacob Brodbeck, the man who supposedly flew decades before the Wright brothers, the author, Jerry Young, notes that his blueprints went missing. He posits several theories on how the papers disappeared:
One source reports the plans and drawings went missing while Brodbeck met with Octave Chanute in Michigan. (Chanute was known for his experiments with gliders, and he was a close friend and financial supporter of Orville and Wilbur Wright.) Another source suggests the plans were stolen when Brodbeck took them to … the 1900 Saint Louis World’s Fair. A third account relates … [they] were stolen while he was in Washington D.C., trying to secure a patent and raise money for the air-ship.
This implies a range of possible suspects (including the Wright brothers) the only fact is that without his drawings and plans, Brodbeck failed to make a third attempt at flight, and that none of those drawings survived as proof of his previous attempts. He has been relegated to a footnote of history, while the Wright brothers and others were “listed among the honor roll of pioneer flyers.”
I will say, that the writing, though accessible, is not always high caliber. When Jo Virgil introduces Hugh “Hackberry Slim” Johnson II, she does so by citing the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of a “legend” and that “it fits Hackberry Slim to a T” in a move that will make any English teacher cringe. It’s a detriment to the narrative, which though mostly conveyed through hearsay, tells the story of a rodeo star who lost his leg and the various mythos that have come up around him. He’s a fascinating character and worthy of the attention Virgil gives him, but despite the scholarly guise of her endnotes, this, and a few of the other “Legendary” entries are far from novels of craft.
While some contributors are clearly stronger writers than others, there was not an uninteresting story to be had. There’s a large breadth to the subject matter on offer. For example, Karen Reinartz Haile spends most of her piece, “Here a Ditty, There a Ditty, Everywhere a Little Ditty,” transcribing ‘ditties’ or story-telling songs, she does a great job putting the songs into your head. From ones you may already know, like “Ring around the Rosie” and its tales of the Bubonic Plague, which she details fully, to one about the Junior Birdmen, formed in 1934, which ends with machine-gun noises, she thoroughly investigates the history and origins of the songs, and essentially preserving them for future generations. While, Adam Cree’s piece about Susannah Knight, who assembled signatures for the Memorial Album of, primarily, war veterans, victims of war, and restless women in an effort to “memorialize allied friendship, peaceful reconciliation, and dignity for the victims of war,” is an example of another exemplary person whose accomplishments have been dragged from obscurity to be preserved by the Texas Folklore Society. This accomplishment may not seem important, an album of famous signatures doesn’t have the same drama as the man who flew twenty-five years before the Wright brothers, which is the first piece in the book. Nevertheless, there are some new chapters and theories about famous figures such as Sam Houston and Davy Crocket.
Most of the authors of the memoirs section have gripping prose. John Meadow’s piece “Old Cars Driving Around Austin: Boyhood Adventures Behind the Wheel” is full of awesome alliteration like “oo-gah horns, beepers, and even bells … big rubber squeeze bulbs that made their horns HONK!” and “Irving said that the Hupmobile’s engine was saying, “Chick-en Hock-ey, Chick-en, Hock-ey. Gas-thirsty Cadillack engines said, “Cup-an-a-half, cup-and-a-half.” My favorite is Elizabeth Harris Duncan, who opens her memoir “Before I Was Five” thusly:
Their voices echo in my heart in the quiet moments. Your people, the people you were born to and loved first, never leave you. I hear them often, with their peculiar mixture of Texas-Tennessee-Kentucky-Virginia cadence and pronunciation, their good common sense and strict ideals. It’s a time long gone. Perhaps you will get the flavor of some of that time as I try to slip into young ‘Lisputh Ann’s skin and tell you something about my view of life back then.
The passage is so inviting, and the writing so strong that it utterly eclipses the scholarly introductions of the earlier chapters. ‘Lisputh Ann’s story is just as interesting as her opening implies, and hints at the broader book as a whole.
This book is not purely for Texans, but for anyone looking to learn about interesting people from an interesting time. Rather, the book is far more about what makes people interesting, their quirks and the things they did before anyone else, than it is about specific people in a specific place. The writing though presented in a scholarly manner, easily accessible for all ages, particularly as a short story before bed. If you are wanting to find a new hero, or have a deeper look at some old ones, you can’t go wrong with this Legends and Life in Texas.
Kathryn Conrad is a graduate student in the MA literature program at Texas State University.