Daily Archives: January 2, 2014


“I love folk music,” Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her diary, “but the name ‘Hootenanny’ rather repels me.”

Oh dear. All the hoot ’n’ holler got her goat? No need to be so owlish about it…

Not that this term for the folk music equivalent of a jazz jam session has any direct reference to owl hoots or nanny goats. It showed up in the 1920s as a word for a thingumajig, a doodad, a whatsis. But by the 1940s it had been picked up by folk musicians – well, it just sounds like a folkie thing, dunnit? I half expect there to be a folk group called the Hootin’ Annies. Oh, wait, there is. Five women who play bluegrass. Um, also there seem to be several other small-time groups going by that name. Of course.

Folk music likes to go for the earthy. It has different streams, but one thing that they mostly have in common is that they eschew the sophisticated and elegant feel. It’s folk, after all, not ladies and gentlemen. So I’m not surprised that they would be attracted by the sound of hoot with its dull round high back [u] sound, which generally carries an unrefined air – large, dull, and so on – and also by the maximally contrasting but also somehow less-refined-sounding nasal [æ̃], the usual sound used to imitate bagpipes. And it gives the speaker the chance to use a country-sounding syllabic [ʔn̩], like the end of hootin’. Simply not somethin’ yer fancy sorts a people would be caught sayin’.

At the same time, the word has rhythm to it. In fact, it neatly matches the rhythm pattern of a standard 4/4 bar of music. And it has a certain visual patterning: the paired oo in the first part, the paired nn in the second part, the h of the beginning rotated and bent to the y of the end, a t and an e in the middle hinge. So, Lady Bird notwithstanding, it has just the sort of appeal one wants… precisely because it’s an ungainly, even repellent word. It’s honest. Or it sounds like it is, and if you can fake honest, well, you’re set.

And, like a lot of folk music, it comes from who knows where. Yes, it was first a word for ‘thingamabob’ or ‘doohickey’, but who made it up, when, where, why, how? No one knows. It was penned by that great folk author, Anonymous – or confected on the spot by a bunch of people, like any good hootenanny.


Watch a video of me reading this ghost story, if you would like, or read it below. Or read along with me.

This word has a ghost in it, a little guest in the host: a letter h, symbol of a soft breath, here seen but not heard – like many a spectre.

In Old English, this word was gást, with no h. By the 1400s, it had changed to gost or goost. But it was not until William Caxton brought over the printing press from the continent that the h appeared: Caxton had spent much time in Bruges, and when he printed this word he added an h to match the h he knew in the Flemish gheest.

If Caxton had taken a freshly printed sheet, the ink still wet, and folded it, the ink would have produced another ghost: a light mirror image of the printed matter. This is one of many similar things called ghosts, such as phantom images on televisions and on radars. Things seen but not signifying the same thing.

But what, in origin, is a ghost? Let us return to that letter h. It stands for a breath. And breath has been equated with the spirit, the soul, in many cultures, languages, and times. The word for that part of us that is immortal was, in Old English, gást – not that your soul is a guest in your body, but it is the ghost that you give up when you die; it ascends to join the Holy Ghost and the heavenly host.

Over the centuries, we have come to prefer the Latin-derived spirit for that, and have reserved ghost for a spectral being – especially the echo of a person who has died. A haunted house may have a ghost that repeats the same action over and over again, something emblematic for that person, perhaps something fraught with emotion. It can be an ordinary action of an ordinary person, but to see something so eerie, so eldritch, as a bodiless spectre – a ghost without the machine – will leave us frightened.

But how are these ghosts wandering around if their spirits are supposed to be in Heaven or Hell? This is why I said echo. It has been suggested – I seem to recall by Kurt Vonnegut, but I have only the suggestion of a memory of where he suggested it – that ghosts are not actual beings but simply echo images. Something passed through and left ripples, and the ghost is the ripples. See it come… watch it go… st.

I wonder, too, whether the ripples may be not from what the supposed person saw or felt, but what we have seen and felt, perhaps what we remember or imagine of the person. A ghost could be of a living thing. I think of Laurie Anderson’s “Gravity’s Angel”: “Well, we were just laying there. And this ghost of your other lover walked in. And stood there. Made of thin air. Full of desire.”

There are many places I pass by where I can almost see, feel, or taste what happened there. Something that involved me. An argument. An accident seen or averted. A kiss. A casual touch or glance, full of intention. An understanding reached. I can stand in these places and look where I looked and almost see what I saw, almost feel what I felt. The person or people involved may be living or dead, near or far, but there is a ghost there, just for me. Made of thin air. Full of desire. Or dread. My desire or dread.

And ghosts can be things that should have happened. Or things that I think happened but did not. Things that I just wanted to have happened. For any person, their home town is a ghost town, a town not empty but full of the empties of pasts consumed and possibilities not realized.

And sometimes our ghosts create a reality. A thing that does not belong but sits there silently before our eyes because we think it should be there. Not a whole and not a hole, holy or unholy, not a sign but… a sigh, unrealized. The h in ghost.