549. The Oral Tradition

After several repetitions of “Knock, knock!” “Who’s there?” “Banana.”, the child finally answers with “Orange.” “Orange who?”, I ask (as if I didn’t know). “Orange you glad I didn’t say ‘banana?'” And I am. Very glad. I’ve said “Who’s there?” to so many bananas over the years that I really welcome that orange when it finally comes. I invite it in, and ask it to stay and visit. I spend a lot of time with young children who are just learning how to tell jokes, and I’ve answered the door to much more than my share of bananas.
But I don’t refuse to participate. The oral tradition is hard at work linking the generations, and for some reason, that feels important. Not that knock-knock jokes are an important part of our culture that needs to be preserved. There were other kinds of jokes – elephant jokes and moron jokes – as I was growing up, and they haven’t survived and prospered nearly as much as knock-knock jokes have. Knock-knock jokes are passed on through the generations in a way that no one quite understands. I used to think my brothers made them up. I think children tend to believe that their bits of oral culture come from somewhere closer to here and now than they actually do.
And it’s not just knock-knock jokes. Miss Mary Mack, Pig Latin, and many more elements of oral culture hang in there despite all the changes in children’s culture that bewilder adults. Children learn the old riddles, jokes, and songs, and think they’re new. They’re surprised to find out that adults know them. The bits of culture that travel this way tend not to be what adults consider the finest elements of our culture. The lady with the alligator purse does not have a well-developed character. There are no great works of literature written in Pig Latin.
But the oral tradition lives on, passed from sibling to sibling, friend to friend. A child in California comes up with an idea, and somehow, a child in Massachusetts uses that idea only a short time later. Or your child comes home from school and asks you a riddle you asked your parents a long time ago. Maybe you suprise and disappoint the child by answering correctly, or maybe you feign ignorance and surprise.
Having taught and parented children since , the effectiveness of the oral tradition is still somewhat of a mystery to me. I’m sure television and other media have helped it along. There are books of knock-knock jokes, and children love to buy them or take them out of the library. But it’s still a little surprising when a child asks me a riddle I asked years ago, tells me a joke I once told my parents, or sings “Jingle bells, Batman smells,” etc. I don’t think they were great jokes, riddles, or songs when they first came out (whenever THAT was), and it’s surprising that they lasted.

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