A short look at tall tales
Sometimes work can be fun. At TIP TOP, it certainly has been as we’ve prepared for our first Day Out on May 19th. The theme is castles and fairy tales, and we’ve had a great time learning more and more about these topics to share with those who join us.
Our research has put fairy tales and folklore on our minds. Thoughon the Day Out we’ll be focusing on the Brothers Grimm and the German tales they collected and retold, this Learning Nugget is going to take a look at folk stories that are important to US culture: “tall tales.”
For those raised in the USA, answering questions like “What’s a tall tale?”, “Who’s Paul Bunyan and what type of big blue animal is his best friend?”, and “What type of machine did John Henry beat in a contest?” would be relatively easy. For those who weren’t, the questions probably seem like nonsense. Today you’ll find out the answers to those queries and a few others – and probably end up knowing more about tall tales than most Americans.
What’s a tall tale?
Tall tales are thought to have gained popularity in the USA through frontiersmen (think of a typical image of someone in the old “wild west” and add some explorers and lumberjacks). As the young country expanded westward throughout the 19th century, these frontiersmen lived in rough, lonely territory, and tall tales became things they told each other to keep their spirits up.
The main feature of tall tales is exaggeration. The characters can do things or have traits and abilities that are impossible. Despite this, the stories are always told as if they are true, and some of them are even based on real people.
One of the most famous tall tale characters is the giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan. Bunyan is believed to have originated from stories 19th and early 20th century loggers across the US told of a giant man who could cut down trees faster than any person alive. It’s unknown whether he was based on one real person or a mixture of different well-known loggers of the time. What are some of the things Paul Bunyan is said to haveaccomplished?
Well, in one telling of the story, Bunyan is said to have logged all of the Dakotas with just himself, a small team of men, and his giant blue ox named Babe. Babe – another important part of the Bunyan tales – was also said to have wandered away from camp into Minnesota, where his footprints became that state’s thousands of lakes (one mother and child were said to have fallen into one of Babe’s footprints, and the child was 57 by the time he was able to climb out again).
Bunyan also used Babe to pull the crooked logging roads straight so that travel could be faster, which was good because sometimes Babe would drink whole rivers and logs couldn’t be transported on them anymore.
The Northern Lights were also Bunyan’s doing. They were an experiment to see if he could let loggers work at night, too, but he stopped that because the lights were too inconsistent.
These details of Bunyan’s deeds – and plenty of others – were recorded by W.B. Laughead, who wrote them as a way to advertise Minnesota’s Red River Lumber Company. The pamphlets he created with these stories became extremely popular, and many historians believe that without this advertising campaign, Paul Bunyan never would have become a national icon.
The story of John Henry has many similarities to that of Paul Bunyan. He was said to have been the biggest, strongest man around. Also, his job was one that required a lot of physical strength: building railroads. One of the biggest differences is that John Henry was African American and a freed slave.
Another difference is that the tale of John Henry mainly focuses on one heroic feat rather than Bunyan’s countless fanciful deeds.
The story goes that Henry was helping to build a railroad in the late 1800s. The company Henry was working for got told by a salesman that there was a steam-powered machine that could drive the giant steel nails needed to build railroads into the ground faster than a whole team of men. To save his job and those of his fellow workers, Henry entered a contest against the machine. If he could drive a nail faster than the machine, the company wouldn’t buy it to replace workers.
In the end, Henry won the contest, but he worked so hard that his heart gave out, and his victory cost him his life.
This story grew in fame through songs and retellings. Its message of humans being able to overcome machines spoke to many people at the end of the 19th century whose jobs were being taken over bynew inventions. It is also a story important to the African American community, with Henry offering a role model of strength, determination, and resilience in the face of impossible odds.
If you’ve enjoyed learning about these American tales and like getting outside in the fresh air, you’ll love what we have planned for the Day Out. There are still a few places available, and if you’re interested in reserving one, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. More details about the day’s events can be found here.
Excite Your Senses
prepare for sth. – auf etwas vorbereiten
though – obwohl
fairy tales – Märchen
folklore – Folklore, Volkskunde
folk stories – Volksgeschichten
tall tales – Lügengeschichten
raised – aufgewachsen
nonsense – unsinnig
answers to those queries – Antworten zu den Fragen
to be thought to have gained popularity – es wird angenommen, dass … bekannt wurden
frontiersmen – Grenzbewohner
explorer – Forscher
lumberjacks – Holzfäller
westward – westlich
to keep spirits up – um bei Laune zu bleiben
exaggeration – Übertreibung
traits – Chraktereigenschaften
despite sth. – trotz
logger – Holzfäller
it’s unknown whether – es ist nicht bekannt, ob…
to cut down trees – Bäume fällen
is said to have accomplished – wird gesagt, dass er es geschafft/erreicht hat
Dakotas – Bewohner Dakotas (Nord oder Süd)
ox – Ochse
footprints – Fußabdrücke
to climb out – herausklettern
crooked logging roads – krumme Forststraßen
logs – Stämme
The Northern Lights – Die Nordlichter
lights were too inconsistent – Lichter waren zu unbeständig
pamphlets – Flugblatt
similarities – Ähnlichkeiten
railroad – Eisenbahn(strecke)
freed slave – ein befreiter Sklave
heroic feat – Heldentaten
countless fanciful deeds – unzählig gute Taten
steam-powered machine – Dampfmaschine
victory – Sieg
grow in fame – zu Ruhm kommen
being taken over by – übernommen werden durch/von
new inventions – neue Erfindungen
resilience – Belastbarkeit
in the face of impossible odds – angesichts scheinbarer Unmöglichkeiten