From courtships to characters, 'rooties' record family folklore

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''You have to get there early in the morning,'' says Sandy Ives of his research excursions to the Maine state library. ''Because by afternoon the place is full of rooties.''

''Rooties,'' he goes on to explain, are people who are searching for their family roots. Coming from Dr. Ives, a professor of oral history at the University of Maine and editor of Northeast Folklore, it's an affectionate term. Down-home family roots mean more to him than a paper forest full of genealogical trees.

''I had a student in my office just this morning, asking how he could go about researching his family history,'' Dr. Ives continues. ''I told him the first thing he should do was to collect it from himself, by writing down all the stories he could remember about the characters in his family - the stories about Uncle Hiram who came here from the old country, who got off the boat with only 50 cents in his pocket, and who couldn't speak a word of English.''

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Every family has its ''Uncle Hiram'' stories, says Dr. Ives, and many of them deal with common themes: family courtships, lost fortunes, rogues, and characters. ''A genealogical search might not be able to document that these stories are 'true,' '' he adds. ''But they're the types of stories that are believed by families and that color families' views of their own past. And for that reason, they're probably much more important than what really happened.''

Today's search for family folklore is spurting along faster than Aunt Bertha can recite her great grandfather's ''begats.'' In part, it's an outgrowth of an earlier movement that was popularized by Alex Haley's best-selling novel ''Roots'' in 1975. But the ''rooties'' of the 1980s have moved from quiet genealogical archives to noisy kitchens and back porches, collecting family stories on tape-recorded interviews that catch every hearty thigh slap.

''It's really a process of rediscovery,'' says John McDowell of the University of Indiana's Folklore Institute. ''What's happening in family folklore today is quite different from what genealogists do, which is to trace family trees. And it's different from a sociologist's approach, which is usually quantitative.

''What we're doing is looking at the family as a unit, with its own traditions and its own environment for artistic expression. We're trying to identify . . . traditions that have been passed along from one generation to the next and become a common reservoir of strength.''

At the University of Indiana, which has the oldest and best-known folklore institute in the United States, students majoring in such fields as business, economics, and telecommunications are flocking to courses that teach them how to research their family histories. ''It may be a respite from too many job-oriented programs, or it may even represent a backlash,'' Mr. McDowell adds, ''but whatever the reasons, there's a steady stream of students coming through our doors.''

One graduate of Indiana's Folklore Institute who now teaches folklore at the University of Massachusetts in Boston recalls how friends of hers have traced their family histories. ''They've looked at nicknaming traditions, and at the ways the family has celebrated various holidays,'' says Eleanor Wachs. ''Then there are always stories about wayward uncles or characters in the family closet or family members who are good storytellers. Some people have collected jewelry and embroidery and paintings.

''It's not just enough to collect these traditions, though,'' Dr. Wachs points out. ''You have to ask what they say about a particular family. Does it bring the family together somehow because it's fun, or is it a way of helping older relatives get to know younger family members?''

The family folklore collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington include quilts, diaries, letters, and home movies, as well as favorite bedtime stories and tales of the supernatural. From 1974 to 1976 folklorists set up a big tent on the grounds of the Smithsonian Mall during the annual folklife festival and recorded some 2,000 family stories from those who dropped by to chat.

''There was a lot going on during the festivals, including outdoor concerts every day, but thousands of people chose to come inside the tent and talk about their families,'' says program assistant Amy Kotkin. ''The biggest percentage of people were third-generation Americans in their 30s or younger, whose grandparents had emigrated to the US.''

''Sometimes the grandparents in a family want to forget their lives in the 'old country,' '' Miss Kotkin continues, ''and their children are usually too busy becoming Americanized to have time to talk about the 'old days.' So it's often the third generation that has the leisure time to look back and see what kinds of traditions they came from.''

''Family Folklore,'' a small booklet of suggested guidelines and questions for interviewing family members, was published as a result of the Smithsonian project and is available for $1.75 from Consumer Information Service, Dept. 189 -K, Pueblo, CO, 81009. A slightly bigger, 100-page paperback, ''How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies,'' by journalist William Zimmerman (New York: Guarionex Press), $4.95, provides still more questions.

The ''Handbook of American Folklore,'' to be published by the Indiana University Press this summer, includes essays on various ways to trace family histories. Indiana's professor McDowell points out that people also can get help from folklorists at local universities and colleges, who usually teach in the English or anthropology departments.

Julia Hunter, a librarian with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, who grew up on a Maine farm listening to her Uncle Henry tell family stories while he waited for the milking machines to finish, says it's important to have a goal in mind when starting on a family history. ''You need to figure out what you want to find out, then think about what you already know, then find the best person in the family to fill in the gaps,'' she says.

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