Thursday, January 31, 2013

Folklore America: Bad Men, Blue Oxen, and Stetson Hats

"The other replied: 'I am an alligator, half man, half horse, and I can whip any man on the Mississippi, by G-d!'"-- The Pocket Treasury of American Folklore, B A Botkin, editor, New York, 1950

Nations have at least two histories...

One history is cobbled together by scholars who examine documents and contemporary chronicles so they can tell us what great kings and generals did.  The other is told by we the people.  It becomes songs and legends, tall tales of heroes in magical lands...

Although the United States is a relatively young nation, its people are creative and more prone than not to enjoy a good tall tale.  This week we visit a few of the rough and ready men who populate the secret history of America: Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, Staggerlee, Mike Fink, and Davy Crockett...

The legend of Paul Bunyan, a gigantic logger, appears to have
originated in Canada during the 19th century.  The character came
to the attention of the Red River Lumber Company of Minnesota
circa 1914.  One of the firm's employees wrote a booklet which
embellished the older stories and created the character of Babe
the Blue Ox.  As the American economy took new directions, the
logger also became an oil driller.


"Paul was mad!  He swore around for two or three days and smashed the derrick into kindling wood and was about to quit drilling (for oil) when he saw an advertisement in the paper by some bird out on the plains that wanted to buy some post holes.  Ten thousand post holes it was he wanted.  Ten thousand holes three feet long.

Well, Paul he hitched a chain around this duster hole and hooked up Babe, that big Blue Ox of his, and pulled fifteen thousand feet of that hole right up out of the ground.  He got mad again 'cause the hole broke off and left half of itself in the ground."*

Pecos Bill is entirely an invented "fakelore" character
who didn't exist before he appeared in short stories in
the early 1900s.  Here, Bill lassoes a tornado for a ride
into town.  He also dug the Rio Grande and invented
Western movies.


"According to the most veracious historians, Pecos Bill was born about the time Sam Houston discovered Texas.  His mother was a sturdy pioneer woman who once killed forty-five Indians with a broom handle and weaned him on moonshine liquor when he was three days old. He cut his teeth on a bowie knife and his earliest playfellows were the bears and catamounts of east Texas...

It wasn't long until he was famous as a bad man.  He invented the six shooter and train robbin' and most of the crimes that was popular in the old days of the West."*

John Henry symbolizes the struggle of the working man to stay
employed as technology makes his skills irrelevant.  His legend
originated about 1873 when the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad
constructed the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia.  He may or
may not have actually existed.  Most versions of the story, save
some from Kentucky, portray him as a black man.


"Boss man told John Henry/John Henry damn your soul/You'll beat this steam drill of mine/When the rocks in this mountain turn to gold/Lord, Lord, when the rocks in this mountain turn to gold."

"John Henry was the best driver on the C & O.  He could drive steel with two hammers, one in each hand.  People came from miles around to see him drive with those two 20 lb. hammers."*

"God help your children and I'll take care of your wife" are the
words said to Billy Lyons by Staggerlee in one version of a song
based on an 1898 murder (see link below).  Staggerlee shoots Billy
in a dispute over a John B Stetson hat in most versions of the tale.
Students of modern folklore have noted Staggerlee's evolution into
a trickster figure.


"Now like I told you, Staggerlee was popular with the women folks cause he could whup the blues out on a guitar and beat out boogie woogie music piano bass and the like of that, but what they liked about him most was he was so stout he could squeeze the breath out of them almost.  And his favorite one was a voodoo queen down in New Orleans French Market.

Anyway, after the devil had saved him from Jesse James, Staggerlee, knowin' the law was hot after him, lit out again, headin' west...He run into two deputies on the lookout for him in order to collect the $5000 reward for his arrest.  Staggerlee drawed his gun first 'fore they caught on as to he was and asked them their names.  When they told him, he took his 45 and shot their initials in their hats, changed hisself into a horse, galloped away with little baby red devils ridin' on his back.  Them deputies run the other way.  They was so skeered they run through a graveyard, knockin' over tombstones like pins in a bowlin' alley."*

Mike Fink, a real life cargo hauler on the Ohio
and Mississippi Rivers had a reputation for brawling
and sadistic pranks.  He was eventually murdered
by a man named Talbot who was not prosecuted for
the crime in part due to popular belief that Fink had
been killed to punish him for killing a friend of


"In ascending the Mississippi above the Ohio, Mike Fink saw a sow and a couple of pigs about a hundred feet distant on the river bank.  He declared in boatman fashion that he wanted a pig and took up his rifle to shoot one but was requested not to do so.  He, however, laid the rifle close to his face, and as the boat glided along under easy sail, shot off the tails of the pigs close to the rump without doing them any other harm."*

Davy Crockett had already become an American legend by
the time of his death at the siege of the Alamo in 1836.  A
year before this, many backwoodsmen fully expected Crockett
to climb the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains and
pull the tail off Haley's Comet to save the world from fiery


"I was out in the forrest wun afternoon and had got to a place called the Grate Gap when I seed a rakkoon sittin' all alone up a tree.  Well, I klapped the breech of Brown Betty to my sholder an' was just gonna put a piece of led 'tween his sholders, when he lifted up one paw and said 'Is your name Crockett?'  Sez I, 'You are right, sir.  My name is Davy Crockett.'  'Then, sir,' sez the rakkoon, 'you need take no further trubble, for I might as well cum down without another word.'   And then the cretur wauked rite down from the tree for he considered hisself already shot."*  

Pecos Bill met his girlfriend, Sluefoot Sue, when he saw her riding
a giant catfish down the Rio Grande after Bill had dug the river.  Sue
is seen here in a scene from a Disney feature about Pecos Bill.
 * see Credits below


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Note: All text in this essay, except for introductory comments and links, is taken directly or adapted from The Pocket Treasury of American Folklore, edited by B A Botkin, New York, 1950. All photographs for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Stagger Lee from, Pecos Bill lassoing a tornado from; Paul Bunyan children's record from; Mike Fink from; Davy Crockett March from; Slue Foot Sue rides a Catfish down the Rio Grande from

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