Are you familiar with the Federal Writer’s Folklore and Life Histories project? It was a subsection of the larger FWP (itself a New Deal arts program) undertaken to support writers during the great depression. The Folklore Project, in particular, has fascinated me for years because at bottom it is simply a collection of the musings of ordinary people walking the 1930’s streets; and largely anonymous ordinary people at that. For example, the typewritten text above is all we are given by way of biographical information on the man who dictated a piece I came across today, and wanted to share. See below for I’m a Might-Have-Been, recorded in New York circa 1938.
I’M A MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN
I admit it, I’m a hog. In other words human. I enjoy women and a pair of doughnuts like anybody else. Say tomorrer I wake up I’m covered in communism, say I can go and get what I want by asking - I want six wives. You maybe want 24 suits and him, they gotta give him twelve yachts, - otherwise he’s miserable. We’re nuts, we’re all deprived so long we went nuts. Plain hogs. It’s chemical, you can’t do nothing. We’re 90% water, H20, and 10% other things - sodium helium oxygen hydrogen potassium phosphorus calcium and so forth. At the same time in this kinda world 2 plus 2 makes 5.
Now. Look at me. I look like a dirt monkey. True? I’m among the world of missing men. I’m so insignificant if they sent out a radio call for me a hundred years nobody would find me. Economically I’m collapsed, I could write my whole will on a postage stamp, not a single coin of the realm you’ll find in my pocket, I ain’t got enough real estate to put in a flower pot. Tell me, then, why should I sing my country tis of thee or welcome sweet springtime I greet you in song? And yet, my friend, you can never tell the way you stand by the way you’re sitting down. Listen to what I’m gonna say to you now, carefully - the bacteriologist of today was himself a bacteria in primeval times. Sh! Don’t talk. Think that over…
Myself, I’m a might-have-been. I could tell you something else - I’m a genius and so forth, after all, you’re a stranger tome. But it ain’t what you call yourself, you can say you’re Jesus and you ain’t even St. Patrick. True? Well, I got lost inside a sweat shop like a fly in winter time. You go into it a man and you come out cockeyed hunchbacked knockneed pigeontoed flatchested - you’re a washrag and a walking prospect for the undertaker. You gotta put a mark on your feet to know right from left. The gray matter and the different parts of cerebellum are deflated. So I was fired. The boss said he gotta take sacrifices and he started with me. Before, I was lost, after I was still worse. I had bicycles in my brain. I was asking myself always: am I coming from or going to? Here I was free, the whole day in the air, in the sun, but still I was groping, the park was the same as the shop.
One swallow don’t make a summer. When you’re alone you can bark at the moon like a boogie dog, you can go sit down on the ground and open up your mouth you’ll catch mosquitoes, that’s all. A chain is strong like its weakest link and that was me. I don’t say I didn’t let off a lotta hot air in them trying times, it’s a free country. I lived by my own oxygen. But also - we got a check and balance system here, there ain’t no dictatorship, nobody gets away with murder, you can manifest yourself, true, you can express yourself, but the other guy can check up on you if he wants to.
Well, I got plenty checking up but in the end I was a citizen of the world. I didn’t bow down to the dollar, I was international, a progressive. I followed the head, you understand, the others followed the rear end, they were retro-gressive. You find some people in this day and age they like to be both. If they’re down in the Battery they’re up in the Bronx too, these budweisers, these political fakers. They claim if you’re in a steam room at the highest temperature you’re freezing and if you go into a frigidaire you’re hot. Why does ice smoke? They tell you: because it went crazy with frost. They’re always arguing: if it’s hot as it’s warm while it’s freezing it should be cold you think it’s gonna be hot? Bah! I wouldn’t stoop myself so low. The average man should think twice before he speaks and then - shut up.
Which reminds me - ain’t it time for me too? Here I’m riding a whole cavalry of ideas and I ain’t got enough to buy doughnuts. If I had my live to live over again I’d choose an existence of plenty. But, for the present, it’s my opinion the government should take us over, otherwise it’s better for us to shut our eyes, the undertaker downtown got a special this week.
Which means this, this whole spiel. It’s an explosion, I mean an explanation, of one thing - I got cursed with a social consciousness and how much I would like to do something about it I can’t. Brain I got plenty, but the will power of a Chinese Eskimo.
I would offer you the link to the original typewritten pages but the Library of Congress site, where it is hosted, to my constant frustration does not allow for such modern conveniences as direct linking. In any case… terrific no? Expect some more highlights from this collections in future.