Occasionally, I feel like I write the right thing when corresponding with writers and filmmakers and journalists:

On 2012 Jan 24, at 1:29 PM, abc@def.xyz wrote:

> Dear Professor Laudun,

> My name is A. B. See, and I am a writer in New Orleans. I spoke to you briefly by telephone several weeks ago, in search of folklore related to the Mississippi River, and you were very helpful. Since then, I have been researching Mike Fink and Annie Christmas, and while there certainly are many iterations of the tall tales, I have not yet encountered any information that is considered factual. My understanding is that both people were real keel boat pilots, and if that is the case, I am wondering if you know of any sources where I might find information about their true lives.

> Many thanks,
> A. B.

Dear A. B.,

I don’t know anything about the individuals you name nor have I heard any of the local character anecdotes, as folklorists tend to call such things, associated with them. I once tried to track down a local character, a legendary character if you will, but in the end, it’s not unusual for you never to be able to tie any body of such stories to a particular historical individual. And the more time that passes the more uncertain it becomes. Oh, you can find people, or bits of writing in places like newspapers, who will swear up and down that all those stories are really about X person, but it’s rarely the case that folklore is born so clearly. It takes time, and time obscures a great deal in the process.

More importantly, the truth of such anecdotes, legends, or tales isn’t in any historical reference — this is what most people who focus on urban legends get wrong — because that isn’t where their truth value lies. Their truth value, their purpose or function, is in the present moment with the tellers and the community within which the tales circulate. Like any item of folklore, the stuff has to mean something to the people who use it. If it fails to do that in any capacity, then it drifts out of existence — perhaps enshrined in pages of a book — but no longer an active part of a living tradition. What draws people like me to the study of this stuff is the idea that things decades, or even centuries, old can still produce meaning for us. What’s inside that thing that gives it such staying power? And what does it say about the nature of the human imagination, of the mind itself, that some things can continue to mean, even long after any reference to them in the “real” world is long gone?