The area of folk-legend is what Adams defines as “...a traditional, oral expression which tells of extraordinary events in the lives of everyday people, told as if it were an historical account.”
Like the folktale, folk-legend is passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation. The folk-legend tends to be ampler and more circumstantial than the folktale. The setting is very real, giving detail and local specifics to present an “aura of validity”. Several authorities have compared the folktale to the novel or short story and the folk-legend to a newspaper story. The folk-legend can be conversational in tone with “give and take” between the teller and the audience. The legend is told with the assumption that the story really happened and the audience reaction revolves in part around the credibility or incredibility of the story. For instance, “The Song of Billy the Kid” begins with the words “I’ll sing you a
song of Billy the Kid.” This is again in contrast to the fairy tale and fable which are obviously metaphorical.
I have specifically chosen American folk-legend for sample lessons because it is ours and because of practical limitations. It would also be good to point out to students that “In a sense, the United States is the world’s greatest meeting ground of foreign folklores and an ideal arena for observing the survival of old traditions and the assimilation of new ones.”
Brunvand has divided American legends themselves into four categories. 1. Religious legends which are “traditional stories about miracles, revelations, answers to prayers and marvelous icons.”
2. Supernatural legends which tell of vampires, werewolves, trolls, fairies, little people, zombies and ghost stories, many of which are European in origin. 3. Personal legends about such figures as Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, Billy the Kid, and Paul Bunyan (whom Brunvand refers to as “fakelore”). 4. Local legends are “...those closely associated with specific places either with their names, their geographic features, or their histories.”
All four categories of American legend are described here as a point of interest and information, and also to give some kind of complete shape to the area of legend. For the teacher, awareness of various categories makes lesson planning less haphazard. For the students at least an introduction to several categories offers options for study on their own. If there is great class response, and the teacher chooses, he or she might set up groups to survey these four areas of American legend for comparative study. Setting up groups for each area would cut down on time and allow the students to share their finding in a spontaneous but orderly fashion. Because of limitations of time and space however, this study must confine itself to samples of personal legends and local legends.
When the tales and ballads of a local hero spread across the country and enlarged the circle of his admirers he became a legendary hero. Brunvand says:
“The typical hero of genuine indigenous oral tradition in the United States is not the brawling frontier trailblazer or the giant mythical laborer, but rather the local tall-tale specialist who has gathered a repertoire of traditional exaggerations and attached them to his own career.”
The pre-civil war Davy Crockett fits this description since this backwoods brawler and boaster is best remembered for the tales he told. Even though the tall-tale specialist will be given his due in this study, I would be remiss not to include same “bad men” and a giant mythical laborer or two. The legends of the bad men Billy the Kid, and Stackalee, the “miracle men” Paul Bunyan and John Henry, and the pioneer hero Johnny Appleseed are very representative of personal legends and offer a good starting place. These rich characters can be presented as vignettes in discussion form. Samples of stories, poems, and songs can be used for basic skill development with lower skill level groups. Analysis of the language and structure of the work, along with speculation of folk-legend’s role in the emerging American culture can be added for higher skill level groups. A further list of “bad men” and heroes such as Wild Bill Hickock, Jessie James, Sam Bass, Roy Bean, Buffalo Bill and Casey Jones will be given for independent study. It is sad to say that I have not found as many legendary women listed in American folklegend anthologies, but that could be included as an independent pursuit for interested students as well.
The category of “local legends” is well represented by Charles Chesnutt’s
. Here plantation stories are told in “a tale within a tale” format. The frame narrator is a white Northerner who settles in the South and meets Uncle Julius, an exslave, who tells him pre-War tales of conjuration. In the introduction to the book, Robert Farnsworth quotes Chesnutt’s daughter who says that the point of view of these tales does not gloss over the tragedy of slavery and is very different from the plantation stories of George W. Cable, Harry Stillwell Edwards and others. Indeed, it is different, and Chesnutt’s
could easily be used in its entirety or in part in the classroom. Chesnutt’s northerner speaks purely in mainstream English, and Uncle Julius tells his tales in a black North Carolina dialect. The fluency with which Chesnutt weaves in and out of the two dialects is a lesson in itself. The difficulty of understanding the dialect can be overcome by first presenting some of the material orally, and next reading with the class looking on. Individual students could be assigned passages to prepare at home and present the next day to the class.
Zora Neale Hurston’s
Mules and Men
, representative of a mixed bag of local folk-legend and folktale, could also be presented in its entirety or in part depending on the reading level and absorption capacity of the class. In it, Miss Hurston tells of her experiences upon returning home to Eatonville, Florida to collect “Negro folklore.” While she tells of her experiences we also acquire the folklore. The book’s characters deliciously lead us into the folktales. This is another case of “tales within tales” which will easily entice and draw in the students as well. The story of Miss Hurston’s return home to gather these works is a ready made anticipatory set for getting students’ attention geared toward the heart of the story the legend.