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Folklore and the American Revolution

Folklore seems to build up naturally around major historical figres and events. The American Revolution spawned a plethera of folklore which is still popular today.

The great General George Washington was a figure around whom was built much folklore, including the famous (but ficticious) tale about the chopping down of the cherry tree and the fact that his teeth were made of wood. Another tale tells of how George Washington threw a silver dollar over the Potomic river, which was over a mile wide! There is even a folktale surrounding the General's penknife.

Paul Revere's midnight ride was immortalize by Longfellow and is an example of a true event that became a permanent part of American Folklore. Betsy Ross, on the other hand, was a wonderful seamstress who may not have sewn the very first American Flag. In Sleepy Hollow, New York, a Headless Hessian soldier who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War still arises from an unmarked grave to gallop through the dark streets, long after Washington Irving penned the famous "Legend of Sleepy Hollow". (There is a new retelling of the Galloping Hessian in Spooky New York by S.E. Schlosser. Listen to an excerpt.) And Ethan Allen, head of the Green Mountain Boys during the revolution, helped out an old woman with a toothache!

Other Revolutionary War folktales include a British officer falls for a Valley Forge girl with tragic results (the Phantom Drummer); the ghost of General Erskine, Geographer and Surveyor-General for General George Washington during the Revolution; and the Blue Hen's of Delaware.


Slue-foot Sue

Who else would the ultimate cowboy fall in love with than the ultimate cowgirl? That's Slue-foot Sue all right. First time Pecos Bill saw her, she was "ridin' a catfish down the Rio Grande. She was riding standing up and holdin' on with only one hand sose she could take pot-shots at the clouds with her six-shooter. Was making a right pretty pattern too." (Pecos Bill and Slue-Foot Sue retold by S.E. Schlosser) Where does this unparalleled cowgirl make her home? Well, some say its Pecos County, Texas!

In some versions of the legend, Pecos Bill and Slue-foot Sue are sweethearts who go adventuring together, like in the drama "Pecos Bill and Slue-foot Sue Meet the Dirty Dan Gang". Disney also featured Pecos Bill and Slue-foot Sue in the movie Melody Time.

In others, Pecos Bill and Slue-foot Sue get married, but before they can start on their honeymoon, Sue gets thrown from Bill's horse Widowmaker. Sue was wearing really springy hoop skirts so that "when she hit the ground, she bounced up again. She bounced so high she kept hitting her head on the moon...Finally, Bill realized that she was gonna starve to death before she stopped bouncing, so he had to shoot her."

There are a few versions of the story in which Bill manages to rescue Sue from her bouncing and they live happily -- if stormily-- ever after. ( has several variations on the Pecos Bill Story, including one with a happy ending) Since Pecos Bill and Slue-foot Sue are both such strong individuals, their courtship and marriage often reminds me of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew! There's also a fun poem by Kevin Andrew Murphy that has a different take on the Pecos Bill/Slue-foot Sue courtship!

Author's Note: There is also a folk-song about a Slue-Foot Sue who worked in a shirt-tail factory, but she doesn't sound much like Pecos Bill's girlfriend to me!


Maine folklore

Maine, the 23rd State.

Nickname: Pine Tree State
Origin of state's name: Assumed to be a reference to the state region being
a mainland, different from its many surrounding islands
Capital City: Augusta
Admission to Statehood: March 15, 1820
Area: 35387 sq.mi
Bird: Chickadee
Flower: White pine cone and tassel
Tree: Eastern White pine

The folklore of Maine is as rugged and varied as its landscape. Ghosts and spooks abound! A Watcher haunts the Isles of Shoals, waiting for the return of her pirate lover; Old Trickey the Sandman binds and hauls sand forever along the beaches of Maine; Old Betty Booker the witch curses a fisherman who won't share his lunch in Kittery; and a kind wizard living near Hallowell helps an eloping couple escape from their pursuers. (You can read the longer version of their stories in Spooky New England by S.E. Schlosser.) Another spooky Maine story deals with the infamous Colonel Buck and his monument, in which a wicked deed haunts the good colonel's name even after he is deceased.

Maine tall tales are always good for a laugh! If you though England had it bad, you should check out a Maine Fog sometime. Or stop by and sample a Gollywhopper's egg. There's nothing like them anywhere else in the world (or at least, that's what our Yankee Peddler friend told the gullible housewives in this version of the tale, retold by S.E. Schlosser!) But my favorite Maine folktale is the story of The Fisherman and the Bear! Can you guess which is the better fisherman?


Ghosts and Spooks: A couple of NY haunted houses

New York state seems to abound in haunted houses, some of them abandoned, some still standing. Today's stories are about houses that no longer exist. Considering the nature of the second ghost, I am rather glad his house is gone.

Just outside Spiegletown, New York near Albany an old couple took in some New England travelers needing a place to stay for the night. Much to the traveler's surprise, the next day they found out their host and hostess were long dead and the house where they had slept had burned to the ground long ago. The story is retold in "The Fifty-cent Piece" by S.E. Schlosser.

Another ghost in an old house in Poughkeepsie scared the wits out of all the local residents. Seems that the ghost would manifest itself one part at a time. Nobody ever stuck around long enough to see what he looked like when he was all put together! You can read his story in Piece by Piece, retold by S.E. Schlosser.


Mythology: Stories of Origins

According to The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore, the purpose of myth is etiologial -- meaning that people-groups use myths to explain the origin of things. In many myths, the main characters are gods or demi-gods and the story may have some religious meaning or background.

In the Eskimo tale of the First Tears retold by S.E. Schlosser, we discover how Man learned to cry.

Excerpt: "Once long ago, Man went hunting along the water's edge for seals. To Man's delight, many seals were crowded together along the seashore. He would certainly bring home a great feast for Woman and Son. He crept cautiously towards the seals. The seals grew restless. Man slowed down. Suddenly, the seals began to slip into the water. Man was frantic. His feast was getting away." Read more.

In the book Indian Why Tales, Frank B. Linderman explains How the Ducks Got Their Fine Feathers.

Excerpt: "It was in the fall when leaves are yellow that it happened, and long, long ago. The Duck-people had gathered to go away, just as they are doing now. The buck-deer was coming down from the high ridges to visit friends in the lowlands along the streams as they have always done. On a lake Old Man saw the Duck-people getting ready to go away, and at that time they all looked alike; that is, they all wore the same colored clothes. The loons and the geese and the ducks were there and playing in the sunlight. The loons were laughing loudly and the diving was fast and merry to see. On the hill where Old Man stood there was a great deal of moss, and he began to tear it from the ground and roll it into a great ball. When he had gathered all he needed he shouldered the load and started for the shore of the lake, staggering under the weight of the great burden. Finally the Duck-people saw him coming with his load of moss and began to swim away from the shore.
'Wait, my brothers!' he called, 'I have a big load here, and I am going to give you people a dance. Come and help me get things ready. '" Read more.

Folktales may be used etiologically -- that is, to explain origins -- but they do not contain characters who would be considered gods or demigods.

Why Dogs Chase Cats retold by S.E. Schlosser is an example of a folktale explaining the origin of the enmity between cats and dogs.

Excerpt: "Once long ago, Dog was married to Cat. They were happy together, but every night when Dog came home from work, Cat said she was too sick to make him dinner. Dog was patient with this talk for a while, but he soon got mighty tired of fixing dinner for them both after a hard day's work. After all, Cat just stayed home all day long." Read more.

Sources Used: URL: Accessed 5-9-05.
Axelrod, Alan. 2000. The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore. Penguin Reference: New York.


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