Day 157: Nakedness in the Ozarks

One of the more interesting collections from Vance Randolph is of anecdotes related to nakedness in the Ozarks. Now, many would think that these stories were just yarns spun for “furiners” and the local newspapers, even Randolph mentions that many of the anecdotes were likely made up, but if there’s any truth at all at the basis of these traditions that’s an interesting thought indeed.

Here are some particularly interesting excerpts from Vance Randolph’s article “Nakedness in Ozark Folk Belief”:

“Nudity sometimes plays a part in the treatment of disease, especially where it is believed that the illness may be caused by some supernatural spell. If a small boy has a fit, the parents are advised to strip him instantly and make him walk home stark naked. This is done sometimes even in very cold weather, when the ground is covered with snow. Some hillfolk say that if a child is bewitched, he should take off his clothes and stand around nude, while the garments are boiled in a kettle out of doors. A girl who thinks that her dress has a spell on it is supposed to go out naked at midnight, rinse the dress in milk and hang it on a tree, after which she ‘sleeps raw’ the remainder of the night.”

“There are several tales about a ‘wild clan’ in southwest Missouri who produced phenomenal turnips by reason of some secret magic. A very old woman said that before sunrise on July 25, four grown girls and one boy did the planting. ‘They all stripped off naked,’ she told me. ‘The boy started in the middle of the patch with them four big gals a-prancin’ round him. It seems like the boy throwed all the seed, and the gal kept a-hollering “Pecker deep! Pecker deep!” And when they got done, the whole bunch would roll in the dust like some kind of wild animals. There ain’t no sense to it,’ the old woman added, ‘but them folks always raised the best turnips on the creek.'”

“Once in McDonald County, Missouri, a giggling farm girl led me to the top of a high ridge. ‘I’ll show you something funny,’ she promised. Down in the holler was a clearing with a tiny cabin. After awhile we saw a man and two nude women romping and tumbling on the ground, in a freshly plowed garden patch. ‘Them people belong to the New Ground church, and that’s their religion,’ the girl told me. ‘They’ve got beds in the house, but they think it’s better to waller in the dirt.’ She said nothing about crops or planting. But the earth in that particular spot was prepared for seeding, and later in the season I saw turnips growing there.”

“An old gentleman in Aurora, Missouri, told me that the early settlers had a ritual for sowing flax. Just before sunup the farmer and his wife appeared in the field, both naked. The woman walked ahead of the man, and the man did the sowing. They chanted or sang a rhyme with the line ‘Up to my ass, an’ higher too!’ Every few steps the man threw some of the seed against the woman’s buttocks. Up and down the field they went, singing and scattering seed, until the planting was done. ‘Then,’ as my informant put it, ‘they just laid down on the ground and had a good time.’ It was considered essential that no outsider should see the sowing or hear the song, because if that were to happen the crop would be a failure.”

“A farmer near the Missouri-Oklahoma line was telling about the superstitions of some ‘peckerwood folks’ who lived there in the early 1890’s. ‘Soon as they got their bread planted, that fellow would take his wife out to the patch at midnight. He’d make her take off every stitch of clothes, and run around the crop three times. And then he would throw her right down in the dirt, and have at it till she squealed like a pig!’ This procedure was said to protect the corn against damage from frost, drought, crows, and cutworms. One of the girls in this family had married a Cherokee, and my informant regarded the practice as part of an Indian ceremony. But several old Cherokees whom I interviewed said that they never heard of any such foolishness.”

“Most farmers believe that cucumbers should be planted ‘when the sign’s in the arms,’ which means that the moon is in Gemini. But many old-timers think that the main thing is to get the seed covered before daylight on May 1, by a naked man in the prime of life. It is believed that the quality of a cucumber depends upon the virility of the planter. Cucumbers grown by women, children, or old men never amount to much. There are several vulgar jokes and stories about this. To say that a girl ‘ought to be raising cucumbers’ means that she needs a vigorous young husband.”

“Ginseng or sang-root is supposed to strengthen the sexual powers of aging men. Some say that for best results, the root should be pulled from the earth by a nude woman. Many persons are familiar with this theory, but I have never known a sang-digger to admit that he practiced it. I interviewed Cass Little, of Anderson, Missouri, who had a vast experience in gathering roots and herbs. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of that naked woman business,’ he told me. ‘Maybe some of them old fellows did take a girl along to pull up the roots. But there ain’t nothing to it.'”

“May Stafford Hilburn, of Jefferson City, Missouri, tells of an old woman who ‘kept the witches away by running three times around the cabin, just at dusk-dark, shaking a white rag above her head as she ran.’ I heard the same tale in McDonald County, Missouri, except that in my version the woman was naked, and she waved an apron instead of a rag. I remarked that perhaps the housewife herself ‘talked the Devil’s language,’ but my informant didn’t think so. ‘You got to fight fire with fire,’ he said solemnly.”

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