March 23, 2015

Around the World: Tall Tales in America, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

Happy Spring! The beginning of a brand new season calls for the beginning of something new and fun here on Enchanted Conversation. I am starting a journey around the world! We will take a peek into the fairy tales and folklore from our planet’s wide variety of countries and cultures. No need for a hot air balloon: just join Enchanted Conversation and let the adventuring begin.

I’m an American, so I figured, what better place to begin our Fairy Tale Grand Tour than in my own backyard? With the United States’ fairly young history, we don’t typically think of it as a place where fairy tales come from (leaving aside contemporary fiction). We don’t have tales like Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” with roots going back all the way to the Middle Ages. (See my previous post “The Constancy of Fairy Tales.” )

But this doesn’t mean that we lack for stories. They’re just a little different. Hero stories. Legends. Tall tales.

The Americas are also rife with extraordinary tales from their many native cultures--these stories are so varied and wonderful that they deserve an entire post (or two, or three) of their own, so I will not discuss them now (definitely later!).

I grew up on the so-called “tall tales.” For example: Johnny Appleseed, who planted apple trees wherever he went as he traveled across the U.S. making friends with every person and animal he met. He wore a coffee sack as a shirt and a cooking pot as a hat. We learned the Johnny Appleseed song in pre-school, and I can still sing it off the top of my head. What I only just discovered while writing this post is that the original song comes from a Disney animated short, first aired in 1948 on Melody Time.

Johnny Appleseed is based on an actual man, Jonathan Chapman, born in 1775, who trekked across the Midwest planting apple trees in areas he deemed appropriate. He planted one nursery of trees in Fort Wayne, Indiana, using it as a home base for his journeys. The city has a festival in his honor every year.

A second tall tale hero, John Henry, is also supposedly based on an actual historical figure. An African-American steel driver, John Henry is the strongest and best driller for the railroad and is pitted against a new drilling machine. In a timed contest, he out-drills the machine, but his victory comes at the expense of his life. In the late 1920s and early 30s, a man named Guy B. Johnson researched the story’s origin and tracked down potential witnesses to the great contest. He found a man, Neal Miller, who claimed to have seen John Henry beat the drill at Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. According to Miller, the contest had lasted for more than a day, and Henry had not rested enough. Henry became ill and later died from his exertions. Whether this account is true or not, Johnson still received letters from across the United States from people who knew different versions of stories or songs about Henry and who claimed to have known him or to know someone who had known him.

Here's a song:
Here's a statue of John Henry on an overlook above the Big Bend Tunnel, WV, below:

 Our final tall tale hero of this post is Paul Bunyan. Of all the tall tales, his are the closest to being “fairy” stories with his supernatural size and impossibly blue ox companion. An incredible number of tales about Bunyan abound, most to do with extraordinary feats of strength and/or cleverness within the logging profession. The tales likely existed orally for decades among North American lumberjacks before they were recorded in print in the early 1900s. In 1914, an advertizing agency latched onto Paul Bunyan for commercial purposes, increasing his height from over-large to truly gargantuan and naming his blue ox Babe. You can read stories about Bunyan in this collection from the University of Wisconsin.

Statue of Paul Bunyan and his ox in Bemidji, MN, below.

Advertisement featuring William Laughead’s mustachioed Paul Bunyan, 1931, below:

American tall tales might not belong in the same category as European fairy tales, but they have a legitimacy of their own. John Henry may have been an actual man (and who knows, Paul Bunyan may have started that way, too--the name had to come from somewhere!) but both tales grew from strong oral traditions before spreading to a wider audience through print, song, and film. (The story of Johnny Appleseed gained popularity in this way as well, though it remains more of a hero story or legend than a folktale due to its strong connection to the original Jonathan Chapman.) They have been passed down through the generations to the point that their true origins are obscured but their simple truths, morals, and inspiration live on. America’s very own fairy tales.

Let me know in the comments what regions’ and cultures’ fairy tales and folklore you want to learn about in our travels!

Christina Ruth Johnson has her M.A. in Art History with a research focus on the ancient Mediterranean. She is currently working as a teacher and freelance writer. Her other great love is fantasy literature and folklore from ancient times to present day.

References & Further Reading:
Guy B. Johnson, “First Hero of Negro Folk Lore,” Modesto Bee and News-Herald (22 February 1930).
J.E. Rockwell, “Some Lumberjack Myths,” The Outer’s Book (February 1910): 157-160.
“Johnny Appleseed,” America’s Library.
“Paul Bunyan: America’s Best Known Folk Hero,” Wisconsin Historical Society.


  1. What a cool idea. I'm looking forward to whatever's next. I'd love to hear more about any culture outside of Western Europe. Not that I have anything against that culture, but I'm more familiar with it, so I'm looking forward to hearing about other cultures--pacific islands, India, Africa...Can't wait!

  2. Thanks, Lissa! I am currently researching for the next post in which we will travel to . . . India!