Tall Tales, Folk Tales, and Legends
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Tall Tale Heroes 

Paul Bunyan

Pecos Bill 

Davy Crockett

John Henry

Casey Jones

Johnny Appleseed 

Old Stormalong 

Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind 

Febold Feboldson 

Slue Foot Sue 

Joe Magarac 

Mose Humphreys

Annie Oakley

Steamboat Annie

Mike Fink

Tall talk, or exaggerated storytelling, began in the 1800s as a way for Americans to come to terms with the vast and inhospitable lands they’d come to inhabit – thick, dark forests filled with bears and panthers; treeless, arid deserts and plains; towering mountains; and uncharted seacoasts.  The heroes and heroines of the tales were like the land itself – gigantic, extravagant, restless, and flamboyant.  Their exaggerated feats of courage and endurance helped the backwoodsman face the overwhelming task of developing such a land.
                                                         --American Tall Tales, by Mary Pope Osborne, 1991.   

 

 

The American folk tradition is a rich collection of literature that grew out of the oral tradition.  These stories amaze, explain, teach, and amuse the reader of today just as they did the listener of generations ago. 
Myths are ancient tales that explain or summarize the beliefs of a culture.  

Folk Tales are stories of a region that are passed down through the generations to teach a lesson or to entertain.

Tall Tales, written in the language of the common people, often tell of life on the American frontier and contain larger-than-life characters who take part in or witness fantastic events.
                                                --Prentice Hall Literature: Silver, Prentice Hall, 2000.


Tall talk, or exaggerated storytelling, began in the 1800s as a way for Americans to come to terms with the vast and inhospitable lands they'd come to inhabit - thick, dark forests filled with bears and panthers; treeless, arid deserts and plains; towering mountains; and uncharted seacoasts.  The heroes and heroines of the tales were like the land itself - gigantic, extravagant, restless, and flamboyant.  Their exaggerated feats of courage and endurance helped the backwoodsman face the overwhelming task of developing such a land. 
              --American Tall Tales, by Mary Pope Osborne, 1991.

The oral tradition is the passing of stories, beliefs, and customs from generation to generation by word of mouth.  Many folk stories and tales were originally sung as ballads.  Only after years of being heard, remembered, and loved were they written down.

A tall tale is a humorous story that recounts exaggerated events in a matter-of-fact way, using the everyday speech of the common people.  Tall tales are often associated with life on the American frontier.  They are considered to be part of the oral tradition because they have been handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Tall tales, like other folk tales, develop in predictable patterns.  You can predict that the characters will perform exaggerated or even impossible feats.  Once you learn the character's traits, you can predict the kinds of events that will occur.  For example, John Henry is known for his strength, so you can predict that he will perform some amazing feat of strength.
                                                  --Prentice Hall Literature: Silver, Prentice Hall, 2000.

At first the hero of the tall tale was often the fellow who told it, or maybe it was a "fella down the road."  But as a story was passed from campfire to campfire and from cabin to cabin, it just didn't seem right that such a wonderful tale should be told about an ordinary man.  Pretty soon, folks decided that the story really happened to a more famous hero - a rip-roarin' character who lived for great adventures.

Some were real heroes, like Davy Crockett and Jim Bridger; others were made-up heroes, like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill; others were just great storytellers, like John Darling and Gib Morgan.  Sometimes, the same story was told about several heroes: John Darling, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill all had similar adventures with giant mosquitoes; Old Stormalong's ship, Gib Morgan's oil derrick, and Pecos Bill's wife all got in the way of the moon. 
             --Big Men, Big Country, by Paul Robert Walker, 1993.

 

Other
Helpful Links

American Folklore 

American Museum of Photography 

Larger Than Life Folk Heroes 

Tall Tale 

Characteristics of Tall Tales 

Introduction to Studying Tall Tales 

Think Questions 

*What is a tall tale?

*What are the defining characteristics of a tall tale?