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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer 1960

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Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer, 1960

Norman Cazden

THE number of traditional songs about jails in and near the Catskill Mountains may arouse some unkind inferences. Does not the local concentration of such songs suggest that many inhabitants of the Catskills have been something less than law-abiding? When it is observed that most of these songs are probably native to the area and that they concern nearly every jail within reach, the resulting impression may well seem detrimental to the repute of virtuous citizens.

That very impression seems indeed a strong motivation for jail songs of this style, the dominant element of which is a somewhat brash amusement. When a singer tells blithely of his incarceration, the listener is supposed to become embarrassed, and to think, could any of this be true? And who would lie about having been in the clink? And just what was the singer doing there?

The more hesitant we are to ask, the more strongly the singer will hint at dark deeds and mysterious transgressions. Invariably the tales are phrased to suggest personal involvement afoul of the law, and they carefully give details that seem suspiciously realistic. Should we rise to the bait and inquire just how the singer came to know the song, he will become ostentatiously coy and with obvious relish will declare that he would rather not say, and that perhaps he had better be jogging along.

This type of song thus entails a rather deft manipulation of singer-audience relationship in the course of outwardly casual narration. Its degree of self-consciousness and sophistication implies a depth in traditional song lore that may otherwise go unnoticed. Contrary to attitudes hastily assumed regarding the naivity of folk songs and of their singers, jail song humor shows the singer very much in command of the performing situation....

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