American Tall Tales
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It is important to remember that some tall tale heroes are based on real people from history. Davy Crockett was a frontiersman who later became a legislator. He used his experiences taming the land in his political career. Of course, the real David Crockett is nothing like the larger than life folk hero. Below is a picture of the real Davy Crockett. (This annotation contains an image)
The heroes of tall tales typically love to brag!
One characteristic of tall tales is that the hero often has a "colorful" way of talking--with lots of personality! This feature made the stories more fun--both for the teller and the listener!
All tall tale heroes are happy characters and most use a lot of humor. Remember, one purpose these tales would fulfill is to ease the real hardships of the pioneers who were trying to tame the rugged lands of America. Humor went a long way during those times.
One characteristic of tall tales is the use of hyperbole. Hyperbole is extreme exaggeration used to make a strong point or image. Watch this video on hyperbole to get a more thorough understanding. (This annotation contains a video)
Often tall tale heroes have powerful animals or objects as companions. Paul Bunyan had Babe, the blue ox. And Davy Crockett has his panther. (This annotation contains an image)
Mike Fink is another legendary figure from the late 18th /early 19th century. Fink represents the rowdy and rough keel boat riders who worked the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The keel boats were used to transport goods up and down the rivers. Below is a picture of a keel boat from Frontierland at Walt Disney World. (This annotation contains an image)
Mike Fink, ready to shoot anything that vexes him along the river. His character is just as full of himself as Crockett's. (This annotation contains an image)
List two characteristics that both Davy Crockett and Mike Fink have in common.
Davy Crockett is such a well known figure in American tall tales that there is a Disney movie made after him. Watch this preview of the 1955 movie, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. (This annotation contains a video)
Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind
You can tell by her name that Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind must be some amazing woman!
Davy's coonskin cap is his most recognizable trademark. (This annotation contains an image)
A tiller is what men like Mike Fink use to steer their keelboats.
What does this line of dialogue by Sally Ann suggest about her?
Why do you think the writer puts the word sweetie in italics?
List at least two characteristics of Sally Ann that make her a perfect match for Davy Crockett.
This is yet another characteristic of tall tale heroes: they usually can perform great feats of either strength, skill, or wits. Clearly, Sally's whistling, eating, and grinning all at the same time takes tremendous skill!
Notice how the narrator, a third person narrator, uses the same "backwoods" colloquial dialogue as the characters do. Colloquial means a relaxed, informal way of talking. This narrator tells us that Sally's knees were "a-knocking and her heart a-hammering." When the narrator uses the same kind of speech as the characters, it contributes to the mood of the story.
Why do you think extremely powerful women were also part of American tall tales?
Tall tales are filled with figurative language. It's important to be able to identify all of the different types of figurative language when you come across them in text. Watch this video on figurative language, so you are able to recognize examples throughout these tall tales. (This annotation contains a video)
Davy Crockett Quiz
Johnny Appleseed, then, is also based on a real person, a man named John Chapman. Here is an illustration of the tall tale hero who emerged from the life of Chapman, Johnny Appleseed. (This annotation contains an image)
Below is a picture of a John Chapman memorial. (This annotation contains an image)
How could apple trees help the "brave souls traveling to a new life"?
Like Davy Crockett's coonskin cap, Johnny Appleseed's coffeepot hat is his signature trademark. (This annotation contains an image)
Johnny Appleseed is one of America's most famous tall tale heroes. He's not a giant or in possession of any great physical strength. He's just a man who loved apples and this land called America. His stories have been told and retold for over a hundred years. Watch the video about Johnny Appleseed. (This annotation contains a video)
Johnny had simple needs for himself. He wore a sack for clothes and used his pot for a hat. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the best explanation for why so many sentences on this page begin with "He saw..."?
One characteristic of tall tales is that sometimes they include references to real people and places. Here we see a reference to Audubon, the artist who studied and painted birds, and to Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president.
Here's an illustration of Johnny Appleseed near the end of his life. (This annotation contains an image)
Do you have a prediction? What might this phrase mean?
Johnny Appleseed Quiz
Below you will see an image of a clipper from the year 1850. (This annotation contains an image)
Watch this video to get a little preview of how "Old Stormalong" got his start in the shipping business. Then read on to enjoy one of the many Old Stormalong tall tales. (This annotation contains a video)
List two details from this first paragraph that quickly establish Stormalong as a tall tale hero.
Here's a little math question: How many feet are in a fathom?
A foghorn is used in lighthouses during foggy weather to help warn ships of a nearby rocky reef. Ships also have foghorns to warn other ships of their presence during a fog. Listen to the sound of a foghorn. (This annotation contains a video)
The sea is Stormy's best friend. What type of figurative language is used in this sentence?
Remember, a common characteristic of tall tales is that they include references to real people or real places. Here, you read references to several states as well as the pine barrens of New Jersey and the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. In many ways, tall tales celebrate the land that is America.
Why does the writer include these crazy details about The Courser?
Another characteristic of the tall tale is that it cleverly explains the existence of geographical places and features of the land. Here is a picture of the white cliffs of Dover. (This annotation contains an image)
This is another humorous explanation for the existence or reason for something. Sailors do indeed include A.S. after their names to indicate "Able Seaman." But the tale's explanation is more sentimental, isn't it?
Here's a picture of Mose Humphreys, the volunteer firefighter/urban hero. (This annotation contains an image)
By now you should recognize a tall tale hero right away. Which phrase below reveals a characteristic of a tall tale hero in the first paragraph?
Check out the image below to view an old fire machine. (This annotation contains an image)
Where do you think the baby is?
Mose's big hat was worn at the time by many men. (This annotation contains an image)
There really were gangs in New York called the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits. There was a movie made in 2002 called The Gangs of New York. This was the time of Mose, the firefighter. Below is a picture from the movie of the Bowery Boys' Gang. (This annotation contains an image)
A horse drawn steam fire engine (This annotation contains an image)
Remember that sometimes tall tale heroes like things done the "old fashioned way" and don't like progress. How is Mose going to feel about this new steam engine?
What trait of tall tales does this highlighted section demonstrate?
Here is a picture of Febold Feboldson. (This annotation contains an image)
See the image below of a sod house in the prairie. (This annotation contains an image)
What type of figurative language is this?
Of course, all the real pioneers of the Great Plains could identify with this story since the heat, cold, and dryness of the plains caused many hardships.
Febold Feboldson Quiz
The word "yarns" is another name for stories.
In Greek and Roman mythology, stories often mention other characters and events from other myths too. In ancient times, this made the myths seem more real and believable. In folklore, it just makes the tall tales even more entertaining to read.
Here is one of many illustrations of Pecos Bill. (This annotation contains an image)
This humorously shows how vast the land was during that time in America. Imagine living somewhere where your closest neighbor is fifty miles away!
Here is Pecos Bill as a baby with the coyotes. (This annotation contains an image)
This is an idiom meaning to be effective and deserving. The origin of this expression comes from the fact that salt was so important in preserving food that Roman soldiers received a "salary," which was money needed to buy salt. "Sal" in Latin means salt. So being "worth your salt" used to mean worth your pay. Watch this video on idioms and their role in languages. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following is the best interpretation of what some of the meaner cowboys claim about Pecos Bill?
See the image below of Bill and the rattler to better visualize this scene. (This annotation contains an image)
Remember, a common trait of a tall tale hero is to have a fierce companion. Pecos Bill has two now, the rattler and the mountain lion. Settlers of the West, didn't tame wild animals, but they sure had to deal with them and learn to live among them. Here's a picture of Bill riding the mountain lion using his rattler as a lasso. (This annotation contains an image)
Remember, tall tales often gave humorous explanations for the creation and existence of some things.
Traveling to different places was a whole lot harder to do than it is today, and most people, once settled, never left their homestead again. Another trait of the tall tale is referencing other places in America. This trait helped bring those places into people's homes through the stories.
This is one of the most famous stories of Pecos Bill: taming the cyclone. (This annotation contains an image)
Bill riding the cyclone. Tornadoes (aka cyclones) still pose a constant danger to people who live in states like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. (This annotation contains an image)
Below is a picture of Slue-foot Sue. (This annotation contains an image)
Pecos Bill Quiz
The video below is a ballad (song that tells a story) about Pecos Bill. (This annotation contains a video)
Read the information on this sign for Big Bend Tunnel. (This annotation contains an image)
There is a statue of John Henry in West Virginia. (This annotation contains an image)
To show her beauty, the writer uses what type of figurative language when describing Lucy?
What common trait of a tall tale do you predict the steam drill will bring out?
Do you think this was a real fear to the people of the late 1800's?
Unlike Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed who have many different stories, John Henry really has only one tale told about him--the contest against the steam drill. Listen to the song below about this famous story. (This annotation contains a video)
Inside the mountain (This annotation contains an image)
Dying for a cause has always been a mark of a hero. John Henry symbolizes man's drive, determination, and his pride in his work. John Henry said, "A man's got a heart, but a machine ain't nothing but a machine." (This annotation contains an image)
John Henry Quiz
Watch this video about the real men who built the railroads across America. The song playing, of course, is the Ballad of John Henry. (This annotation contains a video)
Here's Paul's red and black mackinaw (wool) coat. (This annotation contains an image)
Here is Paul Bunyan with his companion, Babe. (This annotation contains an image)
What two types of figurative language (in order) are used here?
Because Paul Bunyan was so gigantic, it's easy to imagine him creating something as big and grand as the Grand Canyon! (This annotation contains an image)
There are actually eleven geographic landmarks attributed to Paul Bunyan: Mount Hood, Mount Lassen, Niagara Falls, The Missouri River, Ten-Thousand Lakes, The Black Hills, The Bay of Fundy, The Great Lakes, The Finger Lakes, The Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon.
To show just how popular Paul Bunyan is as a tall tale hero, watch this video which includes MANY different illustrations of Paul Bunyan. (This annotation contains a video)
Paul Bunyan Quiz