Tall Tales and Tricksters: Legends and Stories from American Folklore
"America has an exuberant folklore, a tradition of wit that possesses the rare capacity to reinvent itself over and over." Kemp P. Battle
American Tall Tales possess some of the very essence of the American spirit.
Though many of the tales like their tellers were immigrants, the big new land inspired big new tales. It seems to be the nature of telling tall tales - that spirit of "one-ups-man-ship" that each successive teller tries to add to the "myth" be it folklore or "fakelore". And the pioneer and frontier spirit manages to live on in the stories whether about the giant logger Paul Bunyan, or the Steelman Joe Magarac, or the cowboy Pecos Bill. Or Western bound homesteaders like Febold Feboldson or Windwagon Smith; or legendary figures like Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, John Henry or Mike Fink.
There are plenty of collections of Tall Tales available. One of the best is
Tall Tale America : A Legendary History of Our Humorous Heroes by Walter Blair. A broader treatment of American Folklore is Great American Folklore:Legends, Tales, Ballads and Superstitions from All Across America, Compiled by Kemp P. Battle. Two other collections, American Tall Tales (Puffin Books) by Adrien Stoutenburg, and American Tall Tales
by Mary Pope Osborne, also recounts the adventures of these larger than life characters and Cut from the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend and Tall Taleby Robert D. San Souci, Brian Pinkney (Illustrator) proves that some women are larger than life as well.
As a youngster I loved those tall tales. I got from them a sense of wonder for our "big" land and the mighty endeavors that it has taken to tame it. They were a locus of my pride in being an American - for they portrayed the spirit that built this nation. Now I know about the real builders of our nation and the tremendous "stuff", courage and vision, that took on the wilderness, struggling through financial panics, dustbowls and wars to develop resources and build railroads and dams and cities. The men were smaller, but their deeds were just as great. But there is another sense in which Tall Tales are "American". It seems that many of them have arisen from mass media rather that folk roots. For a scholarly discussion of this, look for Folklore or Fakelore and/ or American Folklore both by Richard M. Dorson. He concludes that many of the roots for these tall tales are in Madison Avenue advertizing rather than their supposed popular cultural beginnings. Other works by this author on American folklore include: Buying the Wind : Regional Folklore in the United States and the Handbook of American Folklore which he edited. Teaching Tall Tales by Tracey West is a guide for elementary teachers for using Tall Tales in the elementary curriculum.
Paul Bunyan is the Thor and Hercules of American Folklore.
Paul Bunyan was an industrious man. He is credited with logging off most of North America: Maine and Michigan; California, Oregon and Washington, even logged off Minnesota and North Dakota - Babe conveniently stomping all the stumps into the ground - creating the 10,000 lakes. He herded whales in the Great Lakes. He dug the Mississippi, to irrigate corn in Illinois that grew so fast he had difficulty chopping it down. He dug Puget Sound as a port for Seattle - tossing the dirt into the piles called Mts. Rainier and Baker, when the folks in Bellingham refused to pay him, he started throwing it back creating the San Juan Islands. There are statues and stories of him in the California Redwoods. Babe, the great blue ox, ran away with a plow one day and dug the Grand Canyon.
Community pride festivals have abounded claiming him as their own. Dorson's forty five page essay in his Folklore or Fakelore describes the community and journalistic "battles" over which geographical locale had the legitimate claim to Paul Bunyan's deeds, and he has backed it up with a tremendous amount of documentation. Most of the legends about him originated in publications written mostly in 20's and 30's - they provided good public relations for the Timber industry - surprisingly most are still available!
Ol' Paul The Mighty Logger: Being a True Account of the Seemingly Incredible Exploits and Inventions of the Great Paul Bunyan (1936 - It has been reprinted more than 40 times) by Glen Rounds has Paul in various places including North Dakota and Minnesota and building the Rockies.
Both popular and affordable, Paul Bunyan by Steven Kellogg - has been a Reading Rainbow book. Paul Bunyan stories have also been published by Esther Shephard (1924), Wallace Wadsworth (1926) Stanley Newton (1946) Harold Felton (1947), Daniel Hoffman (1966) and Louis Untermeyer (1945).
B'rer Rabbit's tales are an important part of African-American tradition.
These tales are immigrants to the new world, but have taken a character all their own. America has been a land where humor abounds and champions the underdog who often triumphs by his wits and ingenuity. Similar tales of the Trickster Hare and Anansi (Spider) are found in African folklore and travelled to the Caribbean and North America along with the slave trade. There have been numerous collection and versions of the B'rer Rabbit tales. They formed the basis of the Gullah - Nancy Tales in the West Indies and the well known stories of that were collected as Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris. The latter are controversial - his attempts to use dialect and the servile character of Uncle Remus are seen by many as demeaning to Afro-Americans; however he did preserve a rich heritage of stories. Handling his dialect is beyond most tellers today.
The best modern versions of these are by Julius Lester who says of the Trickster "in these tales created by slaves is the vital voice of our humanity."
Another outstanding writer of stories in the African American tradition is Virginia Hamilton. She has created her own trickster, Jahdu and her several books of stories about this little one always running have been collected in The All Jahdu Storybook, illustrated by another outstanding African American illustrator, Barry Moser. I have found these stories a rich resource for tales such as when Jahdu outwits the Giant named Trouble which will appeal to all children regardless of race. She recently published a volume of stories When Birds Could Talk & Bats Could Sing : The Adventures of Bruh Sparrow, Sis Wren and Their friends Eight fables gathered (and some, perhaps written) by Martha Young, a contemporary of Joel Chandler Harris - also illustrated beautifully by Barry Moser. She is also the author of the The People Could Fly : American Black Folktales. and numerous other books for children. A collection of work from African American storytellers is African-American Folktales. editted by Richard and Judy Dockery Young
The Appalachian Jack tales present us another folk immigrant to America.
Jack, is the little guy, who has fantastic adventures, but always makes his way back home. With roots in European folklore, Jack takes on an American spirit in the New World. Richard Chase says of them: "... through Jack, we participate in the dreams, desires, ambitions and experiences of a whole people. His fantastic adventures arise often enough among the commonplaces of existence, and he always returns to the everyday life of these farm people of whom he is one.... the unassuming representative of a very large part of the American people."
One of the best collections is Jack Tales by Richard Chase; his collection of other Appalachian stories: Grandfather Tales is also an excellent resource.