Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is beginning to head east, but stops for an Arkansas Traveler moment with a farmer near Camas, Washington. What does that mean? Think of it like a mid-1800s version of the Abbott and Costello Who's On First. There's a little more to such moments than just comedy, sit back, laugh and enjoy the show. Oh, and take a look where Camas is located on the map.
"In Vancouver I lost the highway, found it again, and drove east on state 14 to follow the Columbia upriver until it made the great turn north....I breathed a fresh odor of something like human excrement. Near Camas I stopped where a farmer had pulled his tractor to the field edge to reload a planter. 'What's that terrible smell?' I said.
"'Like raw sewage.'
"'That's the Crown-Zellerbach papermill.'
"'How do you stand to work in it?'
"'I don't work there.'"
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 7
The passage above, where LHM asks the farmer what smells, reads almost like an Arkansas Traveler joke. If you have never seen or heard an Arkansas Traveler joke, the format goes something like this:
Traveler: Hey farmer, where does this road go?
Farmer: As long as I've been here it ain't gone nowhere.
Upon first reading of the Arkansas Traveler jokes, the farmer comes across as an uneducated hick. And some might see the Arkansas Traveler jokes as equating rural America with backwardness and a lack of education - a place full of dumb bumpkins. In fact, Arkansas itself made the Arkansas Traveler it's official state song from the 40s into the 60s, and it is now classified as the official state historical song. What the Arkansas Traveler really does is highlight tensions between people on opposite sides of the American cultural spectrum.
In the typical telling of the jokes, and in the song The Arkansas Traveler, the traveler keeps asking the farmer questions and keeps getting answers that seem evasive. The traveler gets annoyed, but never quite gets the straight answer he wants. He wants to know where the road ends up. Of course, the farmer, perhaps uneducated but also very clear, literal and to the point, is in his mind telling the traveler exactly what is, not what the traveler wants. Therefore, in the farmer's mind, the road has been there as long as he has. It is still there and as far as he can tell, it isn't going anywhere soon.
The Arkansas Traveler has been traced back to as early as the 1840s as a fiddle tune and a popular skit performed by traveling comedy troupes. The tune is the same tune that many of us teach our children to this day - "I'm bringing home a baby bumblebee. Won't my mommy be so proud of me! Yes I'm bringing home a baby bumblebee. Ouch, it stung me!" The skit, according to the website Not Even Past, looked something like this:
The skit portrayed a traveler (usually from the city or the East) coming across a squatter in rural Arkansas. As the squatter repeatedly saws the first strain of the tune on his fiddle, the two engage in pun-riddled banter. “Where does this road go?” the traveler asks. “It don’t go nowhere. Stays right where it is,” comes the reply. Tension grows as the traveler’s questions become more antagonistic and the squatter continues to dissemble. It is finally eased when the traveler grabs the fiddle and finishes the tune that the squatter had started. Laughter ensues, and the squatter welcomes the traveler to stay the night.
From Sounds of the Past by Karl Hagstrom Miller
The University of California at Santa Barbara's Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project has a copy of the Arkansas Traveler skit on an Edison Gold Moulded [Cylinder] Record issued sometime between 1889 and 1912. The performer listed is Len Spencer, and you can hear it here. There are other versions of the recording, with variations in the jokes.
One can read these types of jokes as a commentary on many different things. For those who want to look down on a rural life and see the inhabitants of a rural area in stereotype, these jokes can serve as a way to promote the superiority of the educated urbanite. For those who trumpet the virtues of a simple, back-to-the-land existence and elevate the "salt of the earth" farmer and his plain-spun homey wisdom, such jokes show how out of touch high-falutin city-dwellers are. Some might read class into the exchange between farmer and traveler, with a wealthy traveler looking down his nose at a poor farmer and the farmer taking the opportunity to poke fun at the rich traveler a little. A more middle ground on this issue might be that people in both lifestyles don't communicate well and can't understand each other.
LHM, faced with the plain answer of the farmer, responds with a simple "fair enough." However, it's clear that the farmer, living with with the smell of the paper mill every day of his life, simply takes it for granted. It has become part of his landscape, just as the dirt and the plants he grows and the farmhouse he lives in is part of his daily reality. Chances are he hasn't even thought of the smell until LHM asks him about it. Therefore, there is a disconnect when LHM asks him how he can stand to work surrounded by such a smell, and he responds by telling LHM that he doesn't work in the paper mill, thus signifying that he doesn't work in it.
I think overall, however, the jokes reveal even more about what was going on in America. At the time, rural America was made up of more small farms, but there was tension between the urban, industrial centers and the rural farming communities. We see the same types of tensions today in developing countries, for that's what the United States was in the 1800s, a developing country. Add to those tensions the political battles between the industrial and urban North and the agricultural and pastoral South. One might be able to read many of those types of tensions into the Arkansas Traveler. This was at the beginning of a great shift that has come with industrialization. Making a living at farming is difficult, and one or two bad years could bankrupt a farm. Where would a farmer go if he couldn't farm? He would end up in the slums and ghettoes of big cities and trying to find a job in the factories. Farmers may have been the salt of the earth, the backbone of the United States, once, but then they found themselves competing with new immigrants such as Italians and Irish now.
LHM's twist on the joke is that all of the elements are right there in front of our noses. The industrial Crown-Zellerbach (now Georgia-Pacific) paper mill, the rural farmer, and LHM all come together near Camas, Washington. LHM is clearly not a wealthy traveler, but he is a traveler nonetheless and unfamiliar with the ways of the region that he is in. He may be asking an innocent question, but he has no idea what suspicions, resentments. He has no idea what the farmer thinks of him. Remember, LHM at one point was looked upon suspiciously by a man and his wife traveling in an RV. At best, the farmer is poking fun at LHM. Most likely, though, the farmer thought his question a silly one, and answered accordingly.
I wrote that there is a song about The Arkansas Traveler. I really wanted to find a modern version by Michelle Shocked from her Arkansas Traveler album, but I couldn't locate one. However, I did locate a version by Archie Lee in the Florida Department of State's Florida Memory Project. He touches upon a lot of the Arkansas Traveler jokes in the song. It's very enjoyable, and shows that this particular and long-lasting version of the urban-rural divide stays alive and well even in the 21st century!
Arkansas Traveler by Archie Lee.
If you want to know more about Camas
Next up: Skamania, Washington