Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth through Her Songs and Stories

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Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth through Her Songs and Stories. By Patricia Sawin. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2004. Pp. xiv + 254, preface, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 paper)

In Listening for a Life, Patricia Sawin has written an ethnographic study of an individual - her life, her stories, her repertoire of tragic and sentimental songs, her values and beliefs. There are sound reasons for us to pause and consider the contributions this work makes to folklore studies and such other fields as American studies, gender studies, and the growing area of aging studies. Of immediate concern would be such questions as audience, relevance to scholarly trends, or the book's success in presenting new material. With regard to this last, I am happy to report that it offers surprising new material to our discipline's literature on belief legends and supernatural stories - an excellent fifth chapter on "negotiating gender and power in ghost stories." But the primary achievement of Sawin's book is its careful attention to the interpretive value of dialogic analysis. Because the book moves slowly through selected segments of biography, through work narratives, personal experience stories, ghost stories, and accounts of practical joking, and through an individual repertoire of hymns and other songs, our understanding of how language is tied to values and worldview emerges as the primary text.

Why should this kind of informative, interpretive text be so important in folklore studies and adjacent fields? To paraphrase Alan Dundes' oft-repeated lament, folklorists are quick to identify folklore but slow to interpret it. His own interpretations were usually Freudian rather than Bahktinian, but he was correct to chide other folklorists for evading the risks of interpretive scholarship. In Listening for a Life, Patricia Sawin has boldly taken on the task of laying out meaning that she sees emerging over fifteen years of patient fieldwork and interaction with her willing subject, Bessie Eldreth. She has not given us a "reciprocal ethnography" as did Elaine Lawless in Holy Women, Wholly Women (1993), nor has she attended minutely to the relationship between performance and event as has Richard Bauman in Story, Performance, and Event (1986). But she has contributed, as have these researchers, to the body of literature on how meaning grows as we, as researchers, listen and dwell in oral stories and personal commentary.

Sawin offers us a set of coherent conclusions about what values, assumptions, and models most dramatically influenced Bessie Eldreth's chosen vehicles for expressing her sense of self and her vital involvement in life. Sawin sees class and gender as significant influences, along with religion and family, in the mix of analytical categories scholars would attend to when interacting with Eldreth. She was surprised to find less evidence of Appalachian regionalism than she had expected in Eldreth's toolkit. Instead, Sawin teased out effects of poverty, sexism, and domestic emotional abuse in her subject's narratives and metacommentary. Our benefit is to watch as Sawin carefully reconstructs the process whereby Bessie Eldreth creates her sense of self and confirms her chosen values.

One of the many striking examples of pithy stories intended to convey a clear value is the short narrative Sawin calls "If you want a biscuit, you pick it up" (79-80). In telling the story, Eldreth describes the many tasks she had done just before the brief confrontation with her husband, including having just driven to pick up her sons who had been in an automobile accident. When she returned home, her husband took her to task for leaving a pan of biscuits unbaked while he sat waiting for his supper. She put the biscuits in the oven, removed them when they were done, and placed them on the table. …