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Advice, Discussion and References from Storytellers, Teachers and Librarians
(excerpts from Storytell posts plus original research)

1) I have never heard the oral version of this story, but from what I've gathered from previous discussions on this Listserv, it is based somewhat (or quite a bit) on John Steinbeck's wonderful short story, "The Affair at 7, Rue de M—." I'm sure you can find that in a collection of his short stories. I have it in an old New Yorker anthology.

2) I first heard the story from Colleen Sutherland of Seymour WI who got it from a southern storyteller, Francis MacCaffrey (not at all sure of spelling).

3) Cynthia Changaris has recorded "Black Bubblegum." Her recording is available on audiocassette or CD.

4) The Steinbeck story is often reported as the source of "Black Bubble Gum."

5) "Black Bubble Gum" and/or "The Affair at 7 Rue de M—" — Steinbeck did a black bubble gum story that can be found at the Storytelling Wiki. But there are other versions of the story of a boy who found some black gum that kept crawling back in his mouth and chewing itself.

6) I have my own and quite popular interpretation of “The Case of the Black Bubblegum” where I involve my own family - my son Chris, especially. The problem and perpetrator is the gum; the motive is that the gum needs my son as a host to stay alive, the clues are that the gum keeps returning to its host; and the solution is that I keep the gum from its host and it finally dies. I decided that this story would work for all ages and it did - it is always a hit!
Chris K.

7) Query: << I think we've all made up our own versions of the mysterious black bubble gum coming to life and crawling back to the victim's mouth. . . . >>
Mary G. 9/4/08


a) Your post leads me to another question .... when was "The Affair at Rue de M—" written? ... is it now in public domain .... great story .... so many variations!!! Or was it that Steinbeck used a folktale within his literary tale?
Mary K.C. 9/4/08

b) It was written in 1955 and appeared in Harper's Bazaar. Therefore, it is not in the PD. It appears to be an original Steinbeck story.
Karen C. 9/4/08

c) So if it is a literary tale .... how is it that so many of us tell it ... ???
Mary K.C. 9/4/08

d) I tell the very much adapted version by Frances Comfrey. If you read both her version and Steinbeck's it is obvious that Frances did a lot of work making it her own. I don't know the background of how she received permission. I don't know if his version was based on folklore. I know I tell it because it is a great story, folklore or not.
Karen C. 9/4/08

e) This isn't meant to be criticism, it is just that I would have stayed away from it, though perhaps others on the list have sought permission and/or there is no need to seek permission and I have totally missed something ...
Mary K.C. 9/4/08

f) I do believe one should ask permission from Frances, which I did years ago. It is her original version.
Karen C. 9/4/08

g) If you read Steinbeck's version, you will find it is quite different from any told version I've heard, and the told versions also vary widely from each other. Cathy G. and I told our versions at separate tents at the Faust Park Historical Haunting, and they were barely recognizable as the same story. I do sometimes wonder what Steinbeck would make of all these versions, but I doubt that he'd invoke copyright. . . nor would the makers of Black Jack gum be able to claim we'd stolen their gum patent just for mentioning black bubble gum. Come to think of it, that isn't really bubblegum, is it?
Mary G. 9/4/08

h) Karen, yes, I am very sure you would have gotten needed permission! AND it is a great story folklore or not!!! What surprised me was that it seems (I believe it demands a trip to an actual library :) to be a literary story and I would have thought permission from the original author or his estate (Steinbeck) etc. would have been needed. Seriously folks, am I missing something here? Actually, I think it is great to have a seeming literary tale take life in the roots of folklore .... this just seems contrary (all the different versions, etc.) to so many conversations we have had on Storytell .... Am I splitting hairs or something?
Mary K.C. 9/4/08

i) I asked a good number of years ago, but at this point not much remains the same... Didn't ask Steinbeck however, but not much remains from his either.
Stephen H. 9/4/08

j) Okay folks, no one has answered my emails, I'm thinking perhaps I am sounding a bit ignorant. Is it that the idea of gum coming alive is not copyrighted and therefore we can develop that as we please ... as long as we change the details around the incidence .... make it "our own"? I've done this so many times with stories of all kinds, however, I've refrained from using literary stories other than in ways in which, I believe, it is okay to use the story (or versions of) under fair use. So, any thoughts on this matter would be appreciated "on" or "off" list even if someone feels I am beating a dead horse to death - I would at least like to be sure I understand the concept. For those who were not reading to original thread "black bubble gum", I was surprised that Steinbeck and/or his estate, etc. did not need to be contacted for permission. Many versions of the story have been told, at least one of the other versions was written and adapted by Frances Comfrey (thanks to Karen Chase). So many people tell the story ... So what's the scoop ... Curious in Western NY ....
Mary K.C. 9/5/08

j) I'm no expert on copyright, but I do try to do what is right. This is truly a gray area. From my understanding you can't copyright an idea, but you can copyright the work that is produced from that idea. IMHO...and that's all it is...the idea of black bubble gum coming to life is an idea. Many storytellers have taken the idea and made it into their own work. If you tell the story like Frances tells the story, then ethically you will want to ask her permission. I do not tell the story like she does. I truly made it my own. I may be way off base here...but thems is me thoughts!
Marilyn K. 9/5/08

k) This is just MHO but -- the idea of inanimate objects coming to life is not unique to Steinbeck. My impression from the story was that he chose chewing gum in part to make a point about this "disgusting American habit." I seem to recall a comment about the chewer looking like a cow with its cud, but I could be projecting that from elsewhere. I actually first told a version in my classroom, after chastising a gum-chewer. (With the latex allergy I was extra-strict about gum, which does contain latex to make it chewy). My point is that all that's left of Steinbeck's story (you should read it; it's good) is the idea of gum coming to life, and you don't copyright an idea. By the same token, the version by Frances Comfrey is hers, and if you copy her wording, you need permission. If you take the idea and make your own story, then you probably don't. That's my take on it, anyway.
Mary G. 9/5/08

l) Not to make things too sticky in this discussion but are you referring to Frances Caffrey's version of Black Bubble Gum?
Jane C. 9/5/08

m) I was under the impression that it was Frances Comfrey. Do I have it misspelled?
Karen C. 9/5/08

n) Steinbeck's story is on line courtesy of Harvard: http://modular.fas.harvard.edu/ebooks/steinbeck/affair.txt

o) My friend Frances Caffrey is the storyteller who is referred to as the source for Black Bubble Gum in the entry on Jackie Baldwin's site. In the note accompanying the bare bones of the story, Mary Garret reported that Cynthia Changaris' award-winning version of Black Bubble Gum was inspired by a telling that Frances Caffrey did of her original story which was inspired by the Steinbeck story, The Affair at 7 Rue de M.

The first time I heard Frances tell Black Bubble Gum was in 1990. At that time she said that it was an original.

As far as misspelling Caffrey as comfrey, I have to say yes, it is misspelled. Comfrey is a beautiful perennial herb with wonderful qualities. Caffrey is a talented storyteller with twinkling eyes. Cynthia Changaris is also a talented storyteller with twinkling eyes who still remembers and can sing the songs we learned in Mademoiselle Howell's French class at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, North Carolina many years ago long before I ever heard Frances tell Black Bubble Gum.
Jane C. 9/5/08

p) This is such an interesting conversation. When you write the above are saying that Frances said it was an "original" that is not " an adaption" of the Steinbeck tale? And I must say, I simply loved reading the following: "As far as misspelling Caffrey as comfrey, I have to say yes it is misspelled. Comfrey is a beautiful perennial herb with wonderful qualities. Caffrey is a talented storyteller with twinkling eyes. Cynthia Changaris is also a talented storyteller with twinkling eyes who still remembers and can sing the songs we learned in Mademoiselle Howell's French class at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, North Carolina many years ago long before I ever heard Frances tell Black Bubble Gum"
You have a delightful way of expressing yourself!
Mary K.C. 9/6/08

q) Mary, Marilyn, Jane, Karen, Stephen and EVERYONE who shared both online and off-line.
This thread has been very interesting!!! What follows are some thoughts I've pondered after reading all the various versions and thoughts that have been sent my way. I would love to hear any further thoughts, questions that come to mind on this topic.

Frankly, reading all the versions leaves me with this thought ... they are all really the same story ... different details ... but the same story. Of course, had I the privilege of listening to each variant - that would have been even more delightful! Stephen, Karen, Jane, etc. thank you for sending me the various versions.

Steinbeck's version:

Story flow can be a wonderful thing - so many variants - so many tellers - so little time. And, I too have made folktales and fairy tales my own as well ... do it all the time. I've played with literary tales, but based on many opinions shared though numerous conversations on storytell, etc., I have really restricted myself when it came to touching LITERARY tales. When I have played with literary tales it has been in certain types of residencies in schools where fair use would come into play and or non-professional avenues.

Basically, though, what I "get" from this conversation, is that tellers .... many tellers .... approach literary tales similarly to accepted approaches to folk and fairy tales ... Based on this discussion, I can't imagine why anyone would seek permission from Steinbeck or anyone else unless they wanted to tell the "original" or the exact same variant as another. I can't imagine .... why any of the versions of this story would not also be recordable and "legal" whether written, told or recorded as long as one wasn't writing, telling or recording another's version. And so am interested to hear if there are other perspectives out there about this subject. Of course in these days with technology as it is we are all so recordable ... if someone records us and splashes up on U-tube .... does that count ???

Now, I'm going to extend this thought a bit further. Suppose someone decided to make a movie about this story and they decided to go with Steinbeck's .... supposed "original" version. My understanding is that the movie producers would need to seek permission from Steinbeck's estate (US) or other before proceeding ..... but now I wonder .... why not simply make up their own version and say the movie was inspired or based on Steinbeck's version, or Marilyn's version, or Stephen's version or ???? This could be the same for many personal stories as well. And, I'm not saying I am against this ... I'm playing devil's advocate ... it all seems, in some ways, like a very sticky wicket.

So, say ... a teller likes the story Abiyoyo and wants to tell the story ... they change the setting, details, the basic story is the same and off one goes ... theyhave their own story .... they may or may not might mention that Pete Seeger was the inspiration ... no need to seek permission unless you are telling Pete Seeger's story. Of course telling a story, any story can be much more than the brief paragraph above ... but here I'm sticking to the premise of literary tales and assume we all give due diligence to research (if needed), the process, making the story "our own" or "giving voice" to the story as might look at it.

Additionally, I feel there is much greater flow, spontaneity, than I had previously realized in the US and for that I am grateful though as Marilyn mentioned in a previous post this is a "grey area".
We each interpret it as best we can ... as ethically as we can ... respecting ourselves, others and story as well.

Speaking of Abiyoyo, here is Pete Seeger telling / singing his little ol' story ... so fine it is ... so fine it is ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHR9uJLS3XA
Mary K.C. 9/6/08

r) There's copyright law, with its various particulars, intended at best to ensure that authors get paid for their efforts. And then there's ETIQUETTE, which kinda boils down to not helping yourself to goodies until/unless they've been offered. If you want to offer your creations for anyone to reuse, adapt, etc (as we sometimes specify in collections of stories for retelling) without credit or gain to you, that's one choice. But if you've put effort into developing something new and unique, and gladly perform it for others to enjoy but don't intend for them to run off with it, that's a very different thing. -- That's why it's good manners (at the very least) to ask before you help yourself.
Fran S. 9/6/08

s) Yes, ettiquette ... good manners ... ethics ... due diligence on the part of the teller? What is it and when do we go to far? I wish we were all in a room for I believe the conversation would be a great one ... Are you saying that if one wants to tell the Abiyoyo story and they change it as in "making it their own". The person should first have the good manners to contact Pete Seeger and ask his permission? Consider the Black Bubble Gum story of which there are many variations of Steinbeck's story, are you saying that it is common courtesy for all of the people who have put their time and effort into developing a new unique version of this story to go and first obtain permission from Steinbeck or his estate or other? Or, for example, say a person read/heard Stephen's version and this sparked them to create their own version .... should then the person contact Stephen for permission to tell their own version of the story? or go back to Steinbeck?
Mary K.C. 9/6/08

t) Just wondering... has anyone asked Frances if she was inspired by Steinbeck to create the Black Bubble Gum story?

This is a difference between knowing you are inspired by something and deliberately creating an adaptation, and happening to create a new story that others can connect to an earlier source.

Let's say, I've got an idea for a story. For all I know it is an original idea. So, I develop a story I enjoy telling. Then, let's say others hear my story, and say, "oh, you must have been inspired by ____" Then, I recall that years and years ago I had read the story they mention, and it is a copyrighted literary tale. Have I adapted the literary story? I don't think so. To have adapted it, I think I would have needed to be conscious of the act of creating my adaptation from the original. To have thought of bubblegum that could move by itself and come up with the details of a Halloween story and a little boy who receives said bubblegum on Halloween and create a story around that concept does not sound to me the same as sitting down with the Steinbeck tale in hand and giving oneself the "I think I'll adapt this into a new story and call it inspired by Steinbeck's tale" assignment.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we are influenced by everything that happens to us, everything we've heard, and everything we've read whether we know it or not. Learning about a tale after creating what we believe to be an original story and concluding, "Well, I guess I must have been inspired by ____, even though I wasn't thinking about it at the time" is an entirely different activity from a deliberate "Hmm, this is copyrighted material, so to be able to use it I'd better adapt it."

While the results may look the same, the action is not the same at all.

I first began to think about this issue when I was recording my retelling of the folktale Drakestail for a radio show in Philadelphia years and years ago. When I finished telling the story, a musician/storyteller on the same show, said to me, "You're using the tune from the Fran and Ollie theme song for the melody for Drakestail's song." I thought, "I am???" Then, I thought "Well, I thought I'd made the tune up, but what if I didn't? What if I were inspired by that earlier tune and actually heard that earlier tune even though I don't remember it? Do I need to have permission?" Finally I told myself to "just shut up - if you stole the tune, you did not know you stole the tune, so don't worry about it" and I stopped with the worrying already.

More than one of you have reported that Frances told what she called an original story when you first talked with her about it years and year ago. Is it not possible that the story is both original to Frances AND either coincidentally also an idea Steinbeck used OR that Frances was accidentally, but not consciously, inspired by the Steinbeck story?

Also, without a doubt, the story is folklore now -- it is being spread by word of mouth over time and across generations no matter the source. I am reminded of the story "Lockers" that is printed in the Richard and Judith Dockery Young's Favorite Scary Stories from America's Children (I may have every detail wrong here -- story title, and book title, but the book was published by August House and the stories were collected from children). As far I know, "Lockers" is an original creation of Roberta Simpson Brown, published in The Walking Trees and Other Scary Stories, August House, 1991. When children retell it later to storytelling collecting the scary folktales from children, the story is treated as folklore. The versions do vary. The author's original text is lost, but not the basic original plot. Did the children deliberately create an adaptation? I don't think so? Did the Young's create an imaginary child so they could use an adaptation of Roberta's tale in their book? Again, I don't think so. Is it easy to connect the dots after the fact and see that one story was adapted from or at least inspired by the other? Of course, I did it immediately when I read the story in the Young's book (which did come out after I had heard Roberta telling this story. And, of course I heard her tell it long before her book came out because we were part of the same storytelling community.)

Is "Lockers" now folkore? Probably, especially among children. Does that give me the right to retell Roberta's story without her permission? No, I know Roberta as the source and cannot pretend I do not.

Okay, where am I going with this? I don't know exactly, but I do think that Mary's conclusion which she stated

"Basically though what I "get" from this conversation, is that tellers .... many tellers .... approach literary tales similarly to accepted approaches to folk and fairy tales ..." is not really what is going on here.

I don't think Black Bubble Gum is a typical example of how tellers approach literary tales. I think there is a real difference in people attaching a possible source to a story AFTER becoming familiar with a well-known "possible" adaptation when compared with the process of "knowingly adapting a literary tale for retelling" in which case most tellers do know they need to secure permission from the author or publisher. I think to sit down with a literary tale and work to adapt it to "make it your own" is a process that requires permission and I think tellers know that.

Basically, I don't think M. K. Clark's conclusion from the conversation is true of accepted storyteller behavior because it is based on what has happened with one, and only one, story - and the story in question has a somewhat cloudy history. Just my thinking on this matter.
Mary H. 9/7/08

u) Just to be clear ... SOMEHOW I missed what you had so very very CLEARLY STATED!!!! My apologies! And, now another thought I've had after reading your email:
You wrote: "I think to sit down with a literary tale and work to adapt it to "make it your own" is a process that requires permission and I think tellers know that."

Why, does someone need permission ... if they are taking an idea and "making it their own" ... whether it be a literary or oral story? I believe, in my heart, that we all have permission to make any story "our own" and, in fact, if we don't make it our own we run the risk of taking the life out of the story (there are obvious exceptions to this) ... now that doesn't mean it is acceptable in any given community or that there may not be legal issues involving it.

It does mean, though, that story flourishes much more freely and it does not take away from anyone's lively hood as far as I can see. I'm tired of the ownership of stories and I think we not only need to set them free but have an ethical obligation to set them free.
Mary K.C. 9/09

v) Yikes!! I think I see the problem - I referred to M. K. as "Mary" when I quoted from her post.
What I wrote was --- Using [ ] to show what I posted because the layer of quotes within quotes would get beyond my punctuation abilities. In my post I wrote the following: (see info in [ ] please)

[I don't know exactly, but I do think that Mary's conclusion which she stated as: "Basically though what I "get" from this conversation, is that tellers .... many tellers .... approach literary tales similarly to accepted approaches to folk and fairy tales ..." ]

In the above, I mistakenly referred to M.K. Clark above as "Mary." The information quoted above is from a post by M.K. Clark and should have been attributed that way, not attributed to anyone named Mary. I don't have any idea why, but every time I see a post from M.K. Clark, I think "Mary" and that thinking is totally a mistake on my part.

I apologize for any confusion I may have caused. I thank M.K. Clark for quickly asking what conclusion I was referring to when I correctly referred to her later in my post, yet created confusion by not correcting attributing the information quoted from her earlier in my post. I'm sorry. I hope folks can follow the idea thread now. Again my apologies to all for creating confusion by inaccurate attribution of quoted material.
Mary H. 9/8/08

w) Yes, I did say: ""Basically though what I "get" from this conversation, is that tellers .... many tellers .... approach literary tales similarly to accepted approaches to folk and fairy tales ..." No need for an apology ... though I assume you were referring to a different Mary in the second email? For some reason (the topic didn't quite sound like it had stemmed from me). AND you are right to think of "Mary" when you see "MK". Mary is my name too, but it became too confusing with all the Mary's so I changed my name to MK a while back. Occasionally I will put through an odd email with a signature of "Mary" So I totally understand the confusion and hope I did not add to it ..... By the way, I really appreciated reading your comments!
Mary K.C. 9/8/08

x) Why, does someone need permission ... if they are taking an idea and "making it their own" ... whether it be a literary or oral story?

As I understand copyright law (and like someone else said, I am not lawyer nor do I play one on TV) permission is required to create an adaptation of copyrighted material. Literary stories are copyright protected material (unless they have fallen into public domain). Ideas alone cannot be copyrighted. The expression of an idea in a story form can be copyrighted.

When I wrote: "I think to sit down with a literary tale and work to adapt it to "make it your own" is a process that requires permission and I think tellers know that." I was attempting to describe much more than taking an idea. I was picturing someone sitting down with the original work of another person (a literary tale) and using a process that went something akin to "oh, I see the author wrote - 'long ago' I think I will change that to 'many years ago' to make it
my own." To me, such a process is stealing another person's work, not using an idea which cannot be copyrighted. To create such an adaptation using a process like what I've just described does not, in my opinion, constitute use of an idea but is theft. Therefore, securing permission to adapt the copyrighted work and perform the adaptation would be the appropriate way to use the work. Just my opinion.
Mary H. 9/8/08

y) Yes, an idea is not something one can copyright. If someone takes a copyrighted piece of written material and simply changes "Long ago" to "Many years ago" ... that sounds like copyright infringement ....

In the Steinbeck piece folks have done much more than what we write above ... basically though it's like reading various versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears ..... yes, the versions have the feel of folklore .... I might even claim it is folklore. But, as far as we can tell this was a literary piece ..... And, it seems to me that if folks change the detail as in the above ... they are making a variant do not need to seek permission of Steinbeck's estate or anyone else (I'm not giving legal advice folks). Also, it could be precedent setting .... and I'm no lawyer.

In Steinbeck's version the idea is that a piece of gum came alive. But the variants follow the story line in a way ... it's still a piece of gum and what happens still happens ... the names, setting, how it is told, etc. has changed but the basic story survives. That's a real cool thing ... because it brings a life to the story rather than having it fixed on the page. Hopefully, there will be many written stories of these variants as well.

But I am sure this is not the first time this has happened ... in some ways I feel the written word ... the printing press ... the sometimes "too tight" claim to ownership stops story from flowing from the lips of one to the other .... Does anyone know of any other examples similar to Black Bubble Gum either in oral or written form?
Mary K.C. 9/8/08

z) Or, not knowing the timeline for either Frances or Steinbeck, maybe Steinbeck was inspired by Frances.
Gail F. 9/8/08

aa) That is a very interesting and valid point. I remember an interview with Ray Bradbury, in which he commented on his unconscious inspiration for writing "The Smile." It wasn't until he went to see Disney's _Pinocchio_ for a second time that he consciously focused on the children-turned-donkeys throwing rocks and mud at the Mona Lisa. I see two lessons from that: 1) as Mary says, we are all inspired by many things, some of which we are not even aware of. 2) Disney isn't all bad.
Mary G. 9/8/08

Created 2003; last update 5/24/09