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American folklore encompasses the folklores that have evolved in the present-day United States since Europeans arrived in the 16th century. While it contains much in the way of Native American tradition, it is not wholly identical to the tribal beliefs of any community of native people.

Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales, stories, tall tales, and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared.

Native American folklore

Native American cultures are rich in myths and legends that explain natural phenomena and the relationship between humans and the spirit world. According to Barre Toelken, feathers, beadwork, dance steps and music, the events in a story, the shape of a dwelling, or items of traditional food can be viewed as icons of cultural meaning.[1]

Native American cultures are numerous and diverse. Though some neighboring cultures hold similar beliefs, others can be quite different from one another. The most common myths are the creation myths, which tell a story to explain how the earth was formed, and where humans and other beings came from. Others may include explanations about the Sun, Moon, constellations, specific animals, seasons, and weather. This is one of the ways that many tribes have kept, and continue to keep, their cultures alive; these stories are told as a way of preserving and transmitting the nation, tribe, or band's particular beliefs, history, customs, spirituality, and traditional way of life. According to Barre Toelken, "Stories not only entertain but also embody Native behavioral and ethical values."[1]

Although individual tribes have their own sacred beliefs and myths, many stories have much in common. Myths about floods are almost universal amongst Plains tribes, stories of a flooded earth being restored. There are many "hero stories" immortalising the adventures of heroes with supernatural powers, who right wrongs and defeat evils. Animal tales are common, some explaining how features of certain animals occurred, some using animal characters for narration, and others using animals symbolically. There are also myths where supernatural beings appear in the form of animals, with the bear, elk, eagle, owl, and snake frequently referred to.[2]

Founding myths

The founding of the United States is often surrounded by legends and tall tales. Many stories have developed since the founding long ago to become a part of America's folklore and cultural awareness, and non-Native American folklore especially includes any narrative which has contributed to the shaping of American culture and belief systems. These narratives have varying levels of historical accuracy; the veracity of the stories is not a determining factor.[citation needed]

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus, as a hero and symbol to the then-immigrants, is an important figure in the body of American myth. His status, not unlike most American icons, is representative not of his own accomplishments, but the self-perception of the society which chose him as a hero. Having effected a separation from England and its cultural icons, the United States was left without history—or heroes on which to base a shared sense of their social selves. Washington Irving was instrumental in popularizing Columbus. His version of Columbus' life, published in 1829, was more a romance than a biography.[3] The book was very popular, and contributed to an image of the discoverer as a solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness frontier. As a consequence of his vision and audacity, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. In the years following the Revolution the poetic device "Columbia" was used as a symbol of both Columbus and America. King's College of New York changed its name in 1792 to Columbia, and the new capital in Washington was subtitled District of Columbia.[3]

Jamestown

Main article: Pocahontas

In May 1607, the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed sailed through Chesapeake Bay and thirty miles up the James River settlers built Jamestown, Virginia, England's first permanent colony. Too late in the season to plant crops, many were not accustomed to manual labor. Within a few months, some settlers died of famine and disease. Only thirty-eight made it through their first year in the New World. Captain John Smith, a pirate turned gentleman turned the settlers into foragers and successful traders with the Native Americans, who taught the English how to plant corn and other crops. Smith led expeditions to explore the regions surrounding Jamestown, and it was during one of these that the chief of the Powhatan Native Americans captured Smith. According to an account Smith published in 1624, he was going to be put to death until the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, saved him. From this the legend of Pocahontas sprang forth, becoming part of American folklore, children's books, and movies.[4]

Pilgrims

Plymouth Rock Monument designed for the Tercentenary (1920)
Plymouth Rock Monument designed for the Tercentenary (1920)

Plymouth Rock is the traditional site of disembarkation of William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, and an important symbol in American history. There are no contemporary references to the Pilgrims' landing on a rock at Plymouth. The first written reference to the Pilgrims landing on a rock is found 121 years after they landed. The Rock, or one traditionally identified as it, has long been memorialized on the shore of Plymouth Harbor in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The holiday of Thanksgiving is said to have begun with the Pilgrims in 1621.[5] They had come to America to escape religious persecution, but then nearly starved to death. Some friendly Native Americans, including Squanto, helped the Pilgrims survive through the first winter. The perseverance of the Pilgrims is celebrated during the annual Thanksgiving festival.

Revolutionary War figures

See also: Freedom Trail

George Washington

George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799), the country's first president, is the most preeminent of American historical and folkloric figures, as he holds the place of "Pater Patriae". Apocryphal stories about Washington's childhood include a claim that he skipped a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River at Ferry Farm. Another tale claims that as a young child, Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree. His angry father confronted the young Washington, who proclaimed "I cannot tell a lie" and admitted to the transgression, thus illuminating his honesty. Parson Mason Locke Weems mentions the first citation of this legend in his 1806 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. This anecdote cannot be independently verified. Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, is also known to have spread the story while lecturing, personalizing it by adding "I have a higher and greater standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie but I won't."[citation needed]

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799) was an attorney, planter and politician who became known as an orator during the movement for independence in Virginia in the 1770s. Patrick Henry is best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, in Saint John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. With the House undecided on whether to mobilize for military action against the encroaching British military force, Henry argued in favor of mobilization. Forty-two years later, Henry's first biographer, William Wirt, working from oral histories, tried to reconstruct what Henry said. According to Wirt, Henry ended his speech with words that have since become immortalized: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" The crowd, by Wirt's account, jumped up and shouted "To Arms! To Arms!". For 160 years Wirt's account was taken at face value. In the 1970s, historians began to question the authenticity of Wirt's reconstruction.[citation needed]

Betsy Ross sewing
Betsy Ross sewing

Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836) is widely credited with making the first American flag. There is, however, no credible historical evidence that the story is true. Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General George Washington entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial celebrations. In the 2008 book The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon,[6] Smithsonian experts point out that accounts of the event appealed to Americans eager for stories about the revolution and its heroes and heroines. Betsy Ross was promoted as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol of women's contributions to American history.[7]

Other Revolutionary War heroes who became figures of American folklore include: Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin, Nathan Hale, John Hancock, John Paul Jones and Francis Marion.[8]

Tall Tales

The tall tale is a fundamental element of American folk literature. The tall tale's origins are seen in the bragging contests that often occurred when men of the American frontier gathered. A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, relayed as if it were true and factual. Some such stories are exaggerations of actual events; others are completely fictional tales set in a familiar setting, such as the American Old West, or the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. They are usually humorous or good-natured. The line between myth and tall tale is distinguished primarily by age; many myths exaggerate the exploits of their heroes, but in tall tales, the exaggeration looms large, to the extent of becoming the whole of the story.[9]

Based on historical figures

Other historical figures include Titanic survivor Molly Brown, Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody, and sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

Fictional characters

MOLLY PITCHER. (Ten American Girls from History 1917)
MOLLY PITCHER. (Ten American Girls from History 1917)

Legendary and folkloric creatures

Other folkloric creatures include the Chupacabra, Jackalope, the Nain Rouge of Detroit, Michigan, Wendigo of Minnesota and Chessie, a legendary sea monster said to live in Chesapeake Bay.[21]

The Jersey Devil
The Jersey Devil

Literature

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, or simply "Santa", is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins. The modern figure of Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch figure, Sinterklaas, which may, in turn, have its origins in the hagiographical tales concerning the Christian Saint Nicholas. "A Visit from St. Nicholas", also known as "The Night Before Christmas" is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The poem, which has been called "arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American",[22] is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, as well as the tradition that he brings toys to children. The poem has influenced ideas about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus from the United States to the rest of the English-speaking world and beyond. Is There a Santa Claus? was the title of an editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus", has become a part of popular Christmas folklore in the United States and Canada.[23]

The Headless Horseman is a fictional character from the short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by American author Washington Irving. The story, from Irving's collection of short stories, entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, has worked itself into known American folklore/legend through literature and film.[24]

"Rip Van Winkle" is a short story by the American author Washington Irving, first published in 1819. It follows a Dutch-American villager in colonial America named Rip Van Winkle who meets mysterious Dutchmen, imbibes their liquor and falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains. He awakes 20 years later to a very changed world, having missed the American Revolution.

Inspired by a conversation on nostalgia with his American expatriate brother-in-law, Irving wrote the story while temporarily living in Birmingham, England. It was published in his collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. While the story is set in New York's Catskill Mountains near where Irving later took up residence, he admitted, "When I wrote the story, I had never been on the Catskills."[25]

Folk music

Main article: American folk music

Native Americans were the earliest inhabitants of the land that is today known as the United States and played its first music. Beginning in the 17th century, immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Germany and France began arriving in large numbers, bringing with them new styles and instruments. African slaves brought musical traditions, and each subsequent wave of immigrants contributes to a melting pot. Folk music includes both traditional music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th-century folk revival. The term originated in the 19th century but is often applied to music that is older than that.[citation needed]

The earliest American scholars were with The American Folklore Society (AFS), which emerged in the late 1800s. Their studies expanded to include Native American music but still treated folk music as a historical item preserved in isolated societies. In North America, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Library of Congress worked through the offices of traditional music collectors Robert Winslow Gordon, Alan Lomax and others to capture as much North American field material as possible. Lomax was the first prominent scholar to study distinctly American folk music such as that of cowboys and southern blacks. His first major published work was in 1911, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, and was arguably the most prominent US folk music scholar of his time, notably during the beginnings of the folk music revival in the 1930s and early 1940s.[citation needed]

The American folk music revival was a phenomenon in the United States that began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Oscar Brand had enjoyed a limited general popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The revival brought forward musical styles that had, in earlier times, contributed to the development of country & western, jazz, and rock and roll music.[citation needed]

African-American music

Slavery was introduced to the Thirteen Colonies beginning in the early 17th century in Virginia. The ancestors of today's African-American population were brought from hundreds of tribes across West Africa and brought with them certain traits of West African music. This included call and response vocals, complex rhythmic music, syncopated beats, shifting accents, incorporation of hums and moans, which are sounds with no distinct meaning, and a combination of sound and body movements. The African musical focus on rhythmic singing and dancing was brought to the New World, where it became part of a distinct folk culture that helped Africans "retain continuity with their past through music."[citation needed] Along with retaining many African elements, there was also a continuation of instruments. Enslaved Africans would either take with them African instruments or reconstructed them once in the New World. The first slaves in the United States sang work songs and field hollers. However, slave music was used for a variety of reasons. Music was included in religious ceremonies and celebrations, used to coordinate work, and to conceal hidden messages, like when they were commenting on slave owners. African American slave songs can be divided into three groups: religious, work, and recreational songs.[26][27][28]

African American Spirituals

Protestant hymns written mostly by New England preachers became a feature of camp meetings held among devout Christians across the South. Most slaves were either animists or Muslims, so they did not know about Christianity. To destroy any remnants of African culture or make more people disciples, slaves would be encouraged and taken to church. They became attracted to the grace and freedom that was preached within the church, which was very different from the lives they were living. Slaves would learn the same hymns that their masters sang, and when they came together they developed and sang adapted versions of these hymns, they were called Negro spirituals. It was from these roots, of spiritual songs, work songs, and field hollers, that blues, jazz, and gospel developed. Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith. These songs provided them a voice for their longing for freedom and to experience it. Around the 1840s, slaves knew that in the northern states slavery was illegal, and some northerners wanted the complete abolishment of slavery. So when they sang about heaven, it was also about possibly escaping north. In the early 19th century the Underground railroad was developed, containing a network of secret routes and safe houses, and it greatly impacted slaves’ religious music. When there was any mention of trains, stations, etc. in spirituals they were directly referencing the Underground Railroad, such as the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” These songs were designed so that slave owners thought that slaves were only singing about heaven.[29][30]

African American Work Songs

Work Songs at least had two functions: one to benefit the slaves and another to benefit overseers. When a group of slaves had to work together on a hard task, like carrying a heavy load, singing would provide a rhythm that allowed them to coordinate their movements. When picking crops, music was not necessary, but when there was silence it would be uncomfortable for the overseers. Even though there was a presence of melancholy in songs, Southern slave owners would interpret that their slaves were happy and content, possibly because of their singing.[30]

African American Recreational Songs

Even if slave owners attempted to forbid things like drums or remnants of African culture, they did not seem to mind them learning European instruments and music. In some cases, black string players would be invited to play to entertain white audiences. Between the week of Christmas and New Years’, owners would give their slaves a holiday. This provided a chance for slave families who had different masters to come together, otherwise, they would not go anywhere. Some slaves would craft items, but masters detested industrious slaves. So most slaves would spend their recreational time doing other things, like dancing and singing. Masters approved of such activities, but they may not have listened carefully to the songs that were performed.[30]

Folk songs

The original Thirteen Colonies of the United States were all former British possessions, and Anglo culture became a major foundation for American folk and popular music. Many American folk songs are identical to British songs in arrangements, but with new lyrics, often as parodies of the original material. Anglo-American traditional music also includes a variety of broadside ballads, humorous stories and tall tales, and disaster songs regarding mining, shipwrecks and murder.[31] Folk songs may be classified by subject matter, such as: drinking songs, sporting songs, train songs, work songs, war songs, and ballads.

Other American folksongs include: "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain", "Skewball", "Big Bad John", "Stagger Lee", "Camptown Races" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Sea shanties

Main article: Sea shanty

Work songs sung by sailors between the 18th and 20th centuries are known as sea shanties. The shanty was a distinct type of work song, developed especially in American-style merchant vessels that had come to prominence in decades prior to the American Civil War. These songs were typically performed while adjusting the rigging, raising anchor, and other tasks where men would need to pull in rhythm. These songs usually have a very punctuated rhythm precisely for this reason, along with a call-and-answer format. Well before the 19th century, sea songs were common on rowing vessels. Such songs were also very rhythmic in order to keep the rowers together.[32]

They were notably influenced by songs of African Americans, such as those sung whilst manually loading vessels with cotton in ports of the southern United States. The work contexts in which African-Americans sang songs comparable to shanties included: boat-rowing on rivers of the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean; the work of stokers or "firemen", who cast wood into the furnaces of steamboats plying great American rivers;and stevedoring on the U.S. eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean—including "cotton-screwing": the loading of ships with cotton in ports of the American South. During the first half of the 19th century, some of the songs African Americans sang also began to appear in use for shipboard tasks, i.e. as shanties.

Shanty repertoire borrowed from the contemporary popular music enjoyed by sailors, including minstrel music, popular marches, and land-based folk songs, which were adapted to suit musical forms matching the various labor tasks required to operate a sailing ship. Such tasks, which usually required a coordinated group effort in either a pulling or pushing action, included weighing anchor and setting sail.

Shaker music

The Shakers is a religious sect founded in 18th-century England upon the teachings of Ann Lee. Shakers today are most known for their cultural contributions, especially style of music and furniture. The Shakers composed thousands of songs, and also created many dances; both were an important part of the Shaker worship services. In Shaker society, a spiritual "gift" could also be a musical revelation, and they considered it important to record musical inspirations as they occurred. "Simple Gifts" was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett and originated in the Alfred Shaker community in Maine in 1848. Aaron Copland's iconic 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring, uses the now famous Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" as the basis of its finale.[33]

Folk dancing

Folk dances of British origin include the square dance, descended from the quadrille, combined with the American innovation of a caller instructing the dancers. The religious communal society known as the Shakers emigrated from England during the 18th century and developed their own folk dance style.[34]

Locations and landmarks

The Empire State Building
The Empire State Building

Other locations and landmarks that have become part of American folklore include: Independence Hall, Monument Valley, Ellis Island, Hoover Dam, Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War Memorial, and the Grand Canyon.[citation needed]

Cultural icons

Other cultural icons include Rosie the Riveter, the United States Constitution, the Colt Single Action Army, Smokey Bear, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Columbia, and apple pie.

History

Historical events that form a part of American folklore include: the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's Ride, the Battle of the Alamo, the Salem witch trials, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the California Gold Rush, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Attack on Pearl Harbor.[37]

See also

References

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  2. ^ "Native American Mythology & Legends – Legends of America". www.legendsofamerica.com. Retrieved 2022-08-25.
  3. ^ a b "Columbus in History". Xroads.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2012-12-29.
  4. ^ McGeehan, John R. (2011-02-23). "McGeehan, John R., Jamestown Settlement". Netplaces.com. Retrieved 2012-12-29.
  5. ^ Aspen Design, Westbrook, CT (2012-11-08). "Pilgrim Hall Museum". Pilgrimhall.org. Archived from the original on 2010-06-20. Retrieved 2012-12-29.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ "NMAH | Resources: FAQs". amhistory.si.edu. Retrieved 2022-10-17.
  7. ^ Snell, Rachel A. (2018). ""God, Home, and Country": Women, Historical Memory, and National Identity in English Canada and the United States". American Review of Canadian Studies. 48 (2): 244–255. doi:10.1080/02722011.2018.1472946. S2CID 149523167. Retrieved 2022-07-02.
  8. ^ Crawford, Amy. "The Swamp Fox". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2019-02-24.
  9. ^ Paquette, Dan. "LibGuides: ENG 225 - Children's Literature (Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myths, and Legends): Definitions". libguides.stcc.edu. Retrieved 2021-07-21.
  10. ^ Appalachia Appalachian Mountain Club, 1964.
  11. ^ Monahan, Robert. "Jigger Johnson", New Hampshire Profiles magazine, Northeast Publications, Concord, New Hampshire, April, 1957.
  12. ^ Burton, Art; Boardman, Mark. "Once And For All, Is The Lone Ranger Based on Bass Reeves?". True West Magazine. Retrieved 2022-11-01.
  13. ^ LaCapria, Kim. "Was the Original 'Lone Ranger' a Black Man? - Truth or Fiction?". Retrieved 2022-11-01.
  14. ^ "Bigfoot [a.k.a. Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, Mapinguari (the Amazon), Sasquatch, Yowie (Australia) and Yeti (Asia)]". The Skeptic's Dictionary. Archived from the original on September 14, 2008. Retrieved August 17, 2008.
  15. ^ "Sasquatch". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008.
  16. ^ Roger Patterson & Chris Murphy (2005) [1966]. The Bigfoot Film Controversy (contains Patterson's 1966 book, Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist?). Illustrated by Roger Patterson. Hancock House. ISBN 0-88839-581-7.
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  19. ^ "The Jersey Devil & Pine Barrens Folklore – New Jersey Pine Barrens". Pinelands Preservation Alliance. Archived from the original on 2013-12-04. Retrieved 2014-01-04.
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  21. ^ Kappatos, Nicole (August 30, 2018). "From the Archives: Chessie, the Chesapeake Bay sea monster". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved 2021-02-03.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  22. ^ Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 462–463 ISBN 0-19-511634-8
  23. ^ "Holiday podcast: Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (re-aired)". Journalism History journal. 2020-12-14. Retrieved 2022-10-17.
  24. ^ Hischak, Thomas S. (2017-03-06). 100 Greatest American Plays. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-4422-5606-4.
  25. ^ Pierre M. Irving, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1883, vol. 2, p. 176.
  26. ^ Bronner, Simon J. (2017-03-29). "Folklore in the United States". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.88. ISBN 978-0-19-020109-8. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  27. ^ "Roots of African American Music". Smithsonian Music. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  28. ^ "Digital History". www.digitalhistory.uh.edu. Retrieved 2021-04-07.
  29. ^ "African American Spirituals". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
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  32. ^ Early Naval Ballads of England (1841), Printed for the Percy society by C. Richards, 2019-06-11
  33. ^ en:Simple_Gifts, oldid 877536507[circular reference]
  34. ^ R.C. Opdahl, V.E. Woodruff Opdahl, A Shaker Musical Legacy, A Shaker Musical Legacy, (London: U. Press of New England) 2004, pp. 24, 279. "’Let Us Labor’: The Evolution of Shaker Dance", Shaker Heritage Society, https://shakerheritage.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/let-us-labor-the-evolution-of-shaker-dance/
  35. ^ "Legend of the White Doe". Northcarolinaghosts.com. Retrieved 2012-12-29.
  36. ^ "Hause, Eric The Lost Colony". Coastalguide.com. Retrieved 2012-12-29.
  37. ^ e.g. Vincent Kelly Pollard, "Pearl Harbor", in Nadeau, Kathleen M.., Lee, Jonathan H. X., eds. Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, vol. 1 (Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 630-31. ISBN 9780313350665

Further reading