Week 14: American Folklore

Please choose carefully! If you can't decide for yourself, let the Fates decide... Then, when you have made your choice, you can start the Week's Assignments.

Paul Bunyan & John Henry are two of America's best known "folk heroes" but the evolution of their stories could not be more different! Paul Bunyan was created as a marketing gimmick for the Red River Lumber Company back around 1912 - but his popularity was so great that he has gone from being just a trademark to an undeniable, if not exactly authentic, American legend - together with Babe, his big blue ox. John Henry, on the other hand, is a deeply authentic American folk hero, and there are hundreds of different folksongs about how he raced the steam-drill, and "died with his hammer in his hand, Lord Lord..." You will listen to recordings by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and other singers, who each offer their own version of John Henry's story in song. Here are some quotes:

Once in a while Babe would run away and be gone all day roaming all over the Northwestern country. His tracks were so far apart that it was impossible to follow him and so deep that a man falling into one could only be hauled out with difficulty and a long rope. Once a settler and his wife and baby fell into one of these tracks and the son got out when he was fifty-seven years old and reported the accident. These tracks, today form the thousands of lakes in the "Land of the Sky-Blue Water."

John Henry was a li'l baby, uh-huh,
Sittin' on his mama's knee, oh, yeah,
Said: "De Big Bend Tunnel on de C & O road
Gonna cause de death of me,
Lawd, Lawd, gonna cause de death of me."

John Henry hammered in the mountain
Till the hammer caught on fire
Very last words I heard him say
Cool drink of water before I die
Cool drink of water before I die

If you read and enjoyed the Jamaican stories about "Anansi," you will really like the Tales of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit. In the 19th century, a journalist in Atlanta, Joel Chandler Harris, collected over 200 Brer Rabbit stories from African-American storytellers. He wrote these stories out in dialect, and invented a fictional character - "Uncle Remus" - who recited the stories and added his own commentary. Brer Rabbit is the main trickster figure in these stories, along with the tricky Brer Terrapin, the turtle. Their enemies are the powerful Brer Fox and Brer Wolf. In addition to these animal stories, there are some selections from the African-American songs and proverbs that Harris collected and included in his Uncle Remus books. Here are some quotes:

"Hit's so much trouble fer ter kindle a fier," sez Brer Fox, sezee, "dat I speck I'll hatter hang you, sezee." "Hang me des ez high as you please, Brer Fox," sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, "but do fer de Lord's sake don't fling me in dat brier-patch," sezee. "I ain't got no string," sez Brer Fox, sezee, "en now I speck I'll hatter drown you, sezee." "Drown me des ez deep ez you please, Brer Fox," sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, "but do don't fling me in dat brier-patch," sezee.

"Heyo, Brer Tarrypin, whar you bin dis long-come-short?" sez Brer Fox, sezee. "Lounjun 'roun', Brer Fox, lounjun 'roun'," sez Brer Tarrypin. "You don't look sprucy like you did, Brer Tarrypin," sez Brer Fox, sezee. "Lounjun 'roun' en suffer'n", sez Brer Tarrypin, sezee.

DE ole bee make de honey-comb,
De young bee make de honey,
De niggers make de cotton en co'n,
En de w'ite folks gits de money.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM