Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: Big Fraid and Little Fraid

Let's just start with the story. Why not listen to it? It only takes a minute. Just head on over to the Digital Library of Appalachia website and hear Jane Muncy tell it to Leonard Roberts, in the 1940s:

 Big Fraid and Little Fraid

Here's another version of it:

Once there was a little boy who was rather lazy and who often played until past time to drive the cows home from the pasture. His father had often warned him that if he continued to wait until after dark to drive them in in, something would "get" him. However, the warnings did little good. One night the father decided to throw a scare into the boy, and, covering himself with a sheet, ran down the path by which the boy had to come, and sat down on a log to wait for him. A monkey, the family pet, had seen the man put on the sheet. And it draped the white tablecloth about it and followed him. When it reached the log on which the father was sitting, it climbed up beside him unobserved. Just then the boy came along driving home the cows. He saw both white figures, and at the same time the father glanced around and saw the monkey in the white table cloth. The father started running for home, and as he did so, the boy shouted in great glee, "Run, Big Fraid, little "Fraid'll get you!"

That was told by Dora A. Ward of Princeton, Indiana, to Paul g. Brewster, on July 20, 1938. Published in the journal Folklore, Volume 50, #3, pp. 300-301.

There's a version in Maria Leach's The Thing at the Foot of the Bed.

Elllis Credle wrote a book of this story, too, which I haven't had the chance to read yet.

And now things get more complex. See, Herbert Halpert collected a version in which the father from this story is actually trying to scare his "worker," who's black. John Minton, in his monograph on this very story (which is Tale Type 1676A, for those keeping track, also motif K1682.1) makes much of this variation. And with good cause. There's something worth exploring when you've got a white farmer wearing a white sheet trying to scare his black employee. And then the reversal--the monkey in the white sheet actually scaring the white man.

Minton's book is, well, it's for folklorists. There's a lot of material in it that critiques the notion of tale type and its value. He also argues that the "Big 'Fraid and Little 'Fraid" is an African-American tale. I don't necessarily agree.

That extra layer is just one reason I love this story. One of the more famous versions (at least for folklorists) is that told by J.D. Suggs to Richard Dorson in the 1950s. Suggs makes the man a train engineer, and he's just trying to scare some kids who annoy him when the monkey intervenes. He ties it into two other episodes.

It's worth noting that in some versions, the monkey gets so annoying that the owner decides to kill it. He does so by pretending to shave. The monkey grabs a razor, lathers up its face, and does the same. The man then runs the razor across his own neck, having first turned it so the blunt side is facing him. The monkey doesn't notice this switch, so it ends up slicing itself wide open. 

So why is it one of the best in the world? As with "Leap of Faith," there's a beautiful simplicity. Short, funny, and rich in meaning. I think about this story all the time, in part because I wish it were true. I love stories that can do anything, that can fit into a variety of contexts and still work. This is one such story. The more you read about it, the better it gets.

And here's a version recorded for "Scary Spooky Stories" from the 1970s.