I admit that I’m a newbie to the bibliography of Roger Welsch- so I thought I’d dip my toes into the proverbial waters for this week’s Book Club Spotlight. With over 40 books to his name (11 of which are in our Book Club collection), the retired UNL English and Anthropology professor is a recognizable humorist and storyteller. And in the tradition of fellow Nebraskan Louise Pound, he is also a lauded scholar of folklore, with 50 plus years of experience in the field. His book, Why I’m an Only Child & Other Slightly Naughty Plains Folktales, was awarded the Nebraska Center for the Book Award for Nonfiction: Folklore in 2017 and features a foreword by Dick Cavett.
Why I’m an Only Child is the vehicle for Welsch to define the specific type of midwestern humor he has coined “Civil Ribaldry.” In his own words: “These jokes take the form of extraordinarily subtle, distinctly rural narratives. While there is a punchline, unlike the riddling joke, for example, “civil ribaldry” does contain a clear narrative element. The stories, while slightly off-color, can be, and are, told in mixed company, even with children present, without much danger of being understood by the innocent” (Citation). According to Welsch, the oral tradition is an essential aspect of Civil Ribaldry and it tends to be more of a performance than a joke. This form of rural wit is not something to perfect or concoct; it is simply having the talent for timing and a flair for diction and detail when the moment presents itself. Welsch discusses its relationship to other forms of wit and verbal jousting, such as the Black American game of “Dozens,” and asserts their value as linguistic American traditions.
For Welsch, while Civil Ribaldry pokes fun at the stereotypical everyman, it exists more to poke fun at ourselves and to cement ourselves within a community. So often, these stories revolve around dear neighbors or even the teller’s own shortcomings. Punching down in comedy is never appropriate- but here, you might be able to get away with punching sideways. We can see this communal self-deprecation in Welch’s depiction of his hometown of Dannebrog, Nebraska: “It’s said that if you have a hammer in Dannebrog, you’re a carpenter. If you own the hammer, you’re a contractor.”
If your group is looking for a book chock full of “slightly naughty” but lighthearted stories of the Nebraskan Plains, Why I am an Only Child is a great pick. Welsch is genuinely passionate about the rural Nebraskan diaspora, and his collection of ribaldries and musings has something everyone can appreciate and build upon in a discussion. Many of our Book Club Groups that we lend to are located in rural Nebraska, and I would love to see how they approach this type of book centered around their home, especially if they have civil ribaldries of their own. I know I do.
My final verdict? I believe that Roger has a good sense of humor. For an old man. 😉
If you’re interested in requesting this book for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request Form here. (Items must be requested by a librarian)
Welsch, Roger. Why I’m an Only child & Other Slightly Naughty Plains Folktails.University of Nebraska Press. 2016