Fearful Symmetries

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28 November, 2011

So Ole Says to Lena by James Leary



Prof. James Leary is, to my mind, one of a triumvirate of big names that really put the history of Wisconsin into the popular realm. John Gourda chronicles Milwaukee's past, Jerry Apps works to keep the state's rural past alive, and Leary is a folky anthropologist who eschews the well-worn symbols such as beer, cheese, and barns for equally pervasive but often ignored cultural markers such as Wisconsin folk music and jokes. Gourda covers Wisconsin's largest city, Apps works in a general rural/small town frameworks, but, as near as I can tell, it is Leary who looks at Wisconsin in the context of Upper Midwest region. Such is the case here with his So Ole Says to Lena: Folk Humor of the Upper Midwest.

Having grown up in Chicago, I was familiar with Polock jokes. (E.g. – "How did the Germans invade Poland? They walked in backwards and said they were leaving.") But, after moving to west central Wisconsin where there were mostly Olsons, Nelsons, Johnsons, Skogstads, etc., I soon encountered Old and Lena jokes such as this one in Leary's book.

What was that one about Ole and Lena? Oh, they were going to get married.
And they asked Ole, they says, "Are you a...what nationality are you?"
He says, "I'm a Swede."
He asked Lena, "What are you?"
Says, "I'm Norwegian, but I have a little Swede in me, too. Ole couldn't wait."


While there are plenty of Ole and Lena jokes in this book, Leary provides a comprehensive survey of jokes of various stripes here. Let me backtrack for a second and note that the book's introduction is by W.K. McNeil of The Ozark Folk Center. It's less than 20 pages long yet has 42 footnotes. He describes jokes as "complex, many-sided folk narratives" and provides a short history of academic joke collecting. Generally speaking, humor has been ignored until recently by scholars and some of the work that has been done in pretty shoddy. Furthermore, it would seem that Leary is breaking some new ground here as Upper Midwestern humor looks to have been given short shrift but Leary provides the remedy to this problem.

The jokes here were recorded by the author himself over the course of many years in the 1970s and 80s and are presented in chronological order of nationality as they appeared in Wisconsin. That is, American Indian tales come first followed by French, Cornish, and so on. Once ethnic jokes are dispatched with, we move on to those relating to vocation such as logging and farming. Humor directed at townsfolk and hunters & fishers round things out.

Leary annotates the jokes as necessary, explaining homophones, place names, and pointing out recurring motifs such as "Drunk as usual". Leary explains how jokes can deal with many topics. One common one is how they are windows into times when traditional culture meets change. I personally like the Ojibwa joke about Wenabozho, a mythical being, going to see a psychiatrist. Lots of humor is directed by one ethnic group at another so you get examples such as Norwegians telling "dumb Swede jokes".

On a more personal note, I have to admit that my own experience with Wisconsin humor is consonant with the picture that Leary paints here. When I first moved to Wisconsin, Norwegians were usually the butt of ethnic jokes. It's like you could just swap the word "Polack" for "Norwegian" or "Stash" for "Ole". About a year after I moved to Madison I met a Finnish-American who was a co-worker. He worked hard and drank a lot – a trait you find in Finnish jokes. (He took to the description "blue-faced drunken Finn" from John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy.) And he liked saunas so I was very amused by the Finnish joke in the book called "The Cannibals' Sauna". During one conversation in which Stoughton came up, this Finn told me something along the lines of "There's just a bunch of Norwegians on acid down there." Lo and behold Leary includes the following:

What do you get when you cross lutefish with a hit of LSD?

A trip to Stoughton.


The book also includes a variation of a tall tale I heard more than once living up nort – that of the hunter whose gun wasn't working so he had to jump from a tree onto a buck and kill it with his bare hands. Lastly, I'll note that it was interesting to see how jokes that rural folk made about town folk morphed into jokes that Cheeseheads make about FIBs.

Leary excludes the humor of African-, Asian-, and Hispanic-Americans as these groups haven't been in Wisconsin long enough or in large enough numbers. But there will no doubt be a companion volume at some point in the future when the jokes of these cultures lose their "Old World skin". I can only recall one Hmong joke that I heard when living up by Eau Claire. I think it was one of the city's high schools that had a bulldog mascot and the joke was "Why did the school take down the bulldog statue? Because too many Hmong pulled up thinking the school was a restaurant." Ba-dum bum. Surely there are jokes out there that aren't nasty like this one.

So Ole Says to Lena was not only funny, but I also appreciated that it filled in the picture of how Europeans settled the Upper Midwest generally and Wisconsin specifically. We tend to think of the story as simply that a bunch of Germans and Scandinavians came over and farmed but there were rivalries brought over from the Old World that persisted and you can get a glimpse of them in folk humor. The same can be said of how American Indians adapted to their fate when the territory was overrun with pale faces and how their traditions ran headlong into the dominant culture. So Ole Says to Lena is not overly academic, the introduction aside, and is some fine reading for denizens of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan's UP. (Along with some folks from Illinois, Iowa, Lower Michigan, the Dakotas.)

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|| Palmer, 4:37 PM

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