Folklore and Oral Traditions

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Between 1870 and 1920, folklore studies in the United States blossomed. By the 1870s the analysis of Native American folklore already was in full swing, and serious interest in transplanted Old World traditions and American ethnic, regional, and occupational traditions was emerging.


From the late 1870s through the first couple of years of the twentieth century, John Wesley Powell, head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, oversaw the publication of many of the important works on Native American folklore as annual reports of the bureau. These included A Study of Siouan Cults (1894) by James Owen Dorsey; The Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians (1898) and Myths of the Cherokee (1900) by James Mooney; Outlines of Zuñi Creation Myths (1896) by Frank Hamilton Cushing; and The Mountain Chant: A Navaho Ceremony (1887) by Washington Matthews.

Daniel Garrison Brinton, who published The Lenâpé and Their Legends (1885), tried to find a home for the study of Native American folklore in American museums beginning in the 1880s. This coincided with the early activities of Franz Boas (1858–1942), who launched his career as an anthropological folklorist in 1883 by conducting field research among the Eskimos of Baffin Island. Five years later he was serving on the faculty of Clark University in Massachusetts and producing his monumental collections of folklore from the tribes of northwestern North America—some, such as Chinook Texts (1894) and Tsimshian Texts (1902), were published as annual reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Eventually Boas established a base and a method for studying Native American folklore at Columbia University, where in 1899 he began his long career as professor of anthropology. His talented students continued to carry the torch in Native American folklore studies throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Among his students who became renowned for their work in Native American folklore were Alfred Louis Kroeber, author of Indian Myths of South Central California (1907); Robert H. Lowie, who wrote Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians (1918); and Paul Radin, author of Literary Aspects of North American Mythology (1915). It was an aim of Boas and some of his students to reconstruct Native American history and culture through oral traditions.

Though published in 1929, the classic collection Tales of the North American Indians by Stith Thompson is extremely useful for those interested in Native American oral literature between 1870 and 1920. Many of the tales in the anthology and many of the collections and studies cited in his thorough comparative notes and exhaustive bibliography fall into the period under review. Native American tales collected during this period include myths of the origin of the world and of humans; other etiological myths, including those explaining peculiarities of animals, birds, and plants; stories of tricksters and heroes; tales of journeys to other worlds, usually to the sky world; and stories of marriages between animals and humans. Native Americans also adapted folktales they borrowed from Europeans, as Thompson's eighth chapter of Tales of the North American Indians and his published dissertation, European Tales among the North American Indians (1919), show. Although Native Americans freely borrowed and adapted European tales, European settlers, save perhaps the French, did not borrow Native American oral tales.


Though much attention was paid to Native American folklore throughout the nineteenth century, little work was done on the folklore of other North American groups until after the Civil War, when some writers discovered African American folklore. The local color writer George Washington Cable, who published a couple of articles on Creole folksongs in Century magazine in 1886, was one of these writers. Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908), another regional writer, published an article on "Folklore of the Southern Negroes" in Lippincott's magazine in 1877. It was Harris's book Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880), however, that produced the most interest in African American folklore. In all, Harris published six collections of Uncle Remus tales, including his highly regarded Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation (1905). Harris's animal tales inspired others to collect African American folklore in the United States.

The publication of William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison's Slave Songs of the United States (1867) stimulated an interested in another genre of African American folklore—folksongs—that has never abated. Many African American folksongs are functional. African work songs were fresh in the minds of newly arrived slaves, and on the plantations slaves created new work songs for picking cotton, plowing, husking corn, and other jobs in the field. When slavery was abolished, African American labor groups—often working on southern chain gangs, in prisons, and in construction camps—inherited the work song tradition. Their songs helped make the back-breaking work more bearable, and the rhythm of the songs kept the workers swinging their sledgehammers and picks more effectively than the whips of overseers. African Americans sang lyrical and narrative folksongs, too. In spirituals and blues, among the best of American lyrical folksongs, they sang their feelings. Though spirituals are religious and sung in groups and blues are secular and performed by individuals, both often express the same general feelings of bitterness and a desire to escape, sometimes employing the train as a symbol of getting away from unpleasant situations.

From the southern fields, African Americans moved to cities after the Civil War, hoping for freedom but often finding a different kind of servitude in city slums, where crime frequently provided the only means of making a living; consequently, many African American ballads deal with crime and often with murder. While white Americans sang of Jesse James, Sam Bass, and Billy the Kid, black Americans sang of Stagolee, Bill Brady, and John Hardy, with some of their ballads being historical. The ballad "John Hardy," for example, is based on a real event. On 19 January 1894, John Hardy was executed at Welch, West Virginia, for killing a fellow miner in a crap-game dispute over twenty-five cents. It was not a bad man, though, who inspired one of the great African American ballads but a hard-working, steel-driving man named John Henry, who died "with his hammer in his hand." The exact origin of "John Henry" will never be known, but it is thought that the John Henry legend got started around 1870 during the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia. Whatever the origin, African Americans have largely been responsible for the preservation and diffusion of songs and stories about John Henry, and every state in the South claims him.


Between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century, regional folklore was best preserved by regional realists or local color writers. Representative of these authors was Rowland E. Robinson (1833–1900), a Vermont farmer, sports enthusiast, and illustrator who did not begin to write until after middle age, when his sight began failing. He wrote most of his stories and nature essays after he was blind. Robinson had a lifelong interest in the oral traditions of his region. While hiking, hunting, fishing, trapping, and sketching in the vicinity of his Ferrisburgh home, he encountered a wide variety of Vermont folk traditions. In realistic stories such as Uncle Lisha's Shop: Life in a Corner of Yankeeland (1887), Sam Lovel's Camps: Uncle Lisha's Friends under Bark and Canvas (1889), Uncle Lisha's Outing (1897), A Hero of Ticonderoga (1898), and A Danvis Pioneer (1900), Robinson drew upon nearly every form of folklife, including speech, proverbs, riddles, rhymes, games, beliefs, cures, songs, tales, customs, arts, crafts, and architecture. What is more, utilizing the frame device, he presents this lore in authentically reconstructed social and physical contexts. Because his main purpose for writing stories, as he points out in his author's note in Danvis Folks (1900), was to preserve folklore and because he was interested in context as well as in texts, his writings offer a literary ethnography of nineteenth-century Vermont folklife.

In the Midwest, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916) grew up at a time when the nation was making a transition from agrarianism to industrialism. Throughout his life he always looked back with nostalgia on his boyhood days in an Indiana village, as he suggests in one of his sentimental poems, "The Old Times Were the Best." Riley, like other regional writers, was selective in his use of folklore and altered and adapted the material to suit his purpose. But like Robinson, Riley consciously preserved folklore and believed that the creative writer who draws upon folklife should be faithful in his or her presentation. In "Dialect in Literature" (1892), for example, he says "the true interpreter" of common life should permit "his rustic characters to think, talk, act and live, just as nature designed them. He does not make the pitiable error of either patronizing or making fun of them. He knows them and he loves them" (pp. 2682–2683). Although Riley is remembered for his poetry and not for his prose, his prose sketches, especially, indicate his thorough use of proverbs, superstitions, games, tales, songs, material culture, and customs. His work is also remarkable for its accurate transcription of regional speech. One value of his writings, as those of other regional authors of the period, is that they preserve a picture of folk practices from a time when no systematic field collections were made.

Many regional writers were inspired by tall tales—humorous narratives of lying and exaggeration—which were especially popular on the American frontier among hunters, fishermen, farmers, and river men, as the tales frequently deal with hunting, fishing, rough weather, fertile soil, big crops, and fabulous animals. Many tall tales deal with the legendary logger Paul Bunyan. As Daniel Hoffman shows in Paul Bunyan: Last of the Frontier Demigods (1952), this figure quickly passed from a folk hero of lumberjacks celebrated for his sexual prowess to a mass-culture hero found mainly in advertising and children's literature. Printed texts of Bunyan's exploits, however, fail to capture the tall tale's art, which, as Mark Twain suggests in "How to Tell a Story" (1897), lies in its manner of telling, not especially in its content. Twain (1835–1910) cites an old tale, "The Wounded Soldier," as told by James Whitcomb Riley in the character of an old farmer, to illustrate what he means. For his retelling of the tale, Riley, like Robinson, re-created a context of performance. This, according to Twain, is what makes Riley's treatment of the tale effective. In suggesting the importance of context and performance in oral storytelling, Twain predated the social scientists' interests in contextual folklore studies by at least forty years. Twain, himself, made good use of southwestern tall tales in his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867), and also in Roughing It (1872). Some of his later works, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1885), are storehouses of all kinds of regional American folklore.


Twain, in fact, along with his friends Joel Chandler Harris and the Indiana writer Edward Eggleston (1837–1902), were charter members of the American Folklore Society when it was founded in 1888. The goals of the society, enumerated in the first issue of the Journal of American Folk-Lore, involved collecting "the fast-vanishing remains of Folk-Lore in America." This included English "ballads, tales, superstitions, dialect, etc."; folklore of "Negroes in the Southern States of the Union"; folklore of "the Indian Tribes of North America (myths, tales, etc.)"; and folklore of "French Canada, Mexico, etc." (Journal of American Folk-Lore, p. 3). Though the founders' notion of "fast-vanishing" traditions has proven false, their emphasis on English and other European folklore in the United States, African American folklore, and Native American folklore echoed the early research in American oral traditions and set the stage for folklore studies in the United States during the last part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century. A prime mover among the founders of the society was William Wells Newell, who published Games and Songs of American Children (1883), the earliest annotated compilation of children's folklore in the United States. A forgotten founding member of the society, mainly because he wrote in German, was Karl Knortz, a prolific early collector of all kinds of folklore, including customs, beliefs, legends, games, riddles, rhymes, and proverbs.

Francis James Child, first president of the American Folklore Society, made British ballads his life's work but did not do any fieldwork in the United States; however, at Harvard he trained several notable American folklorists, including George Lyman Kittredge (1860–1941). While Kittredge continued Child's work on British ballads, he enlarged his range of folklore interests to include tales, beliefs, proverbs, European folklore in America, and folklore in ancient and medieval literature. What is more, he trained at least half of the American folklorists, including Stith Thompson, active in the first half of the twentieth century. Another of Kittredge's students was John Avery Lomax, who since childhood had been collecting cowboy songs in Texas. Kittredge recognized the importance of these songs and was instrumental in securing for Lomax three summer Sheldon Fellowships from Harvard to collect more cowboy songs in western states, resulting in the publication of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910), one of the early collections of cowboy songs. It had an enormous impact on the study of occupational folklore in the United States.


As a matter of fact, many American oral traditions from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were collected from occupational groups. In addition to cowboys, these included loggers, sailors, miners, railroaders, oil drillers, and steelworkers. The heyday of the cattle drive, documented in Andy Adams's Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days (1903), occurred during the 1870s and 1880s. Adams (1859–1935) spent twelve years in the saddle, mainly herding horses, not cows, though he did herd cattle at least once. The realistic Log accurately depicts the life of the cowboy on a drive of three thousand cows and four hundred horses from Texas to Montana in 1882, emphasizing the long hours, hard work, difficult terrain, inevitable stampedes, and predictable skirmishes with rustlers and Native Americans. Though Adams's book is fiction, his intimate knowledge of cowboy life equipped him to depict the cowboy as an occupational figure and present a more accurate picture of the cowboy than most plays, novels, and films dealing with the mythical or idealized cowboy. Adams is especially good at re-creating storytelling sessions around the campfire, even providing texts of some tales, but he also includes cowboy songs, beliefs, and sayings. Most early compilers of cowboy lore, however, focused only on songs. An early example is Songs of the Cowboys (1908) by N. Howard "Jack" Thorp (1867–1940), which includes versions of "Little Joe the Wrangler" and other familiar cowboy tunes. Cowboy songs tell a lot about the occupation. "The Buffalo Skinners" tells of hardships on the buffalo range, "Git Along, Little Dogies" deals with the cattle, "I Ride an Old Paint" celebrates the horse, "The Old Chisholm Trail" describes a trail drive, and other songs deal with branding, roping, and night herding.

The logging industry began in Maine and passed through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota on its way to Washington and Oregon, taking with it a body of oral traditions and place names. Historically, no other country experienced such an intensive and prolonged period of logging. Franz Rickaby, in Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy (1926), called this era the "Golden Age of American Lumbering" (p. vii), and he sets its dates as 1870 to 1900. Rickaby—who collected songs from loggers who worked in the woods of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota during this period—claimed that no group celebrated itself in folksongs more than the lumberjack. Though many of the tunes of lumberjack songs were borrowed from Irish street ballads, the texts were unique. The songs celebrated cutting trees; hauling, rolling, and driving logs; breaking logjams; and the romance between a logger and a town girl, often ending in tragedy. Loggers preserved all kinds of songs, though, including some not dealing with their occupation. This resulted from the fact that they came from a variety of ethnic and occupational backgrounds and did not have much else to do to while away their time in the lumber camps except play checkers, tell tales, and sing songs like "Lost Jimmie Whalen," "The Banks of Gaspereaux," "The Jam on Gerry's Rock," "The Little Brown Bulls," and "Canada I. O."

In parts of the United States mining was an important occupation that produced a body of folklore, especially stories and songs but also speech, beliefs, naming, and other traditions. Coal miners generated most of the mining lore since more Americans worked in coal mining than in lead, gold, silver, or copper mining. Coal miners' songs are especially important for historical and sociological interests, for unlike the songs of cowboys and lumberjacks, coal-mining songs represent mass protest. In their songs there is a growing passion for unionism that does not appear in the songs of most other early occupational groups. Miners' songs tell of greedy bosses, long hours, dangerous work, poor working conditions, and disasters. In addition, miners lived with their families close to the shafts, so miners' songs reveal a domestic life that does not appear in the songs of lumberjacks and cowboys. George Korson published two important books—Minstrels of the Mine Patch: Songs and Stories of the Anthracite Industry (1938) and Coal Dust on the Fiddle: Songs and Stories of the Bituminous Industry (1943)—on mining folklore. Although published after 1920, many of the traditions Korson reports date from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Ore boats on the Great Lakes and steamboats on the big rivers generated all kinds of folklore, too, including tall tales. Along the big rivers comic legends were told of steamboat and keelboat pilots, especially Mike Fink, hero of the boatmen. A Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore: Stories, Ballads, Traditions, and Folkways of the Mid-American River Country (1955) by B. A. Botkin provides broad coverage of Mississippi River folklore. What Korson did for mining folklore, the Texas folklorist Mody C. Boatright did for oil field workers in a couple of books, including an excellent one on Gib Morgan, an oil-driller hero who told fabulous tales about himself that other drillers later retold. Following the Civil War, the fast-developing railroad industry produced another body of occupational lore, including a ballad about a brave engineer, John Luther "Casey" Jones, who in 1900 "died with the throttle in his right hand." Such tales follow a familiar pattern in American occupational folklore, for countless cowboys, loggers, miners, and railroaders get killed performing their jobs in American ballads. Another example comes from the steel industry, where there is a legend about a worker who fell into a furnace and came out in an ingot.


After World War I, there was renewed interest in regional folklore, especially ballads and folksongs, largely because of Cecil Sharp's fieldwork in Appalachia between 1916 and 1918. At the encouragement of Olive Dame Campbell, who began collecting folksongs in the Southern Highlands in 1908, Sharp, a native of England who was an experienced collector of folksongs, spent forty-six weeks collecting surviving British ballads and other folksongs in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Accompanied by an assistant, Maud Karpeles, he found a rich folksong tradition—collecting about 35 songs a week, a total of 1,612 songs with tunes, one of the largest and best collections of folk music from the United States. The efforts of Campbell, Sharp, and Karpeles not only inspired other folklorists to collect ballads and songs in other regions of the United States, they forever identified Appalachia as the region most closely linked with American folklore.

See alsoBlacks; Ethnology; Indians; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction


Primary Works

Adams, Andy. The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of Old TrailDays. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903.

Journal of American Folk-Lore 1, no. 1 (April–June 1888).

Rickaby, Franz. Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Riley, James Whitcomb. The Complete Works of JamesWhitcomb Riley. Vol. 10. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916.

Robinson, Rowland E. Works of Rowland E. Robinson. 7 vols. Edited by Llewellyn R. Perkins. Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1934–1938.

Thompson, Stith. European Tales among the North AmericanIndians: A Study in the Migration of Folk-tales. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Board of Trustees of Colorado College, [1919?].

Thompson, Stith. Tales of the North American Indians. 1929. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.

Twain, Mark. Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Secondary Works

Baker, Ronald L. Folklore in the Writings of Rowland E.Robinson. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1973.

Dorson, Richard M. America in Legend: Folklore from theColonial Period to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

Dorson, Richard M. American Folklore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Johnson, Guy B. John Henry: Tracking Down a NegroLegend. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929.

Korson, George, ed. Pennsylvania Songs and Legends. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949.

Laws, G. Malcolm, Jr. Native American Balladry: A DescriptiveStudy and a Bibliographical Syllabus. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1964.

Leach, MacEdward. "Folklore in American Regional Literature." Journal of the Folklore Institute 3 (December 1966): 378–397.

Lomax, John. "Self-Pity in Negro Folk-Songs." The Nation, 9 August 1917, pp. 141–145.

Ronald L. Baker