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Traditional Folktales in the Classroom

The Oral Tradition, Folk Stories,
Writing Resources, Folktale Collections,
Story Arts, Fakelore
and Processed Folk

Cowboy and Cowgirl Stories, Black Cowboys, Black Seminole Indians
Folk Heros, E-books



Historians are great at telling linear stories and written narratives that have a specific point of view, and an agenda. Historians try to define a moment in time with a certain set of facts while they leave out others. Now with the advent of web 2.0 pictures might prove to be history's next frontier. The Internet uses pictures to show off the natural social process that history actually is.

What historians really do. "History in the archives is not rational inquiry," he writes, "and it is seldom disinterested. It is disorganized, messy, and obsessive, much like junk-road scavenging . . .  We are suspicious of other people's narratives, but we always assemble our own stories out of the flotsam and jetsam we find." ~ Nelson

Legend scholars and other folklorists need to comment of comedian Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness".



The Fairy Tales That Predate Christianity

Using techniques from evolutionary biology, scientists have traced folk stories back to the Bronze Age. Stories evolve. As they are told and retold to new audiences, they accumulate changes in plot, characters, and settings. They behave a lot like living organisms, which build up mutations in the genes that they pass to successive generations. This is more than a metaphor. It means that scientists can reconstruct the relationships between versions of a story using the same tools that evolutionary biologists use to study species. They can compare different versions of the same tale and draw family trees—phylogenies—that unite them. They can even reconstruct the last common ancestor of a group of stories.
“Most people would assume that folktales are rapidly changing and easily exchanged between social groups,” says Simon Greenhill from the Australian National University. “But this shows that many tales are actually surprisingly stable over time and seem to track population history well.” Similarly, a recent study found that flood “myths” among Aboriginal Australians can be traced back to real sea level rises 7,000 years ago.
Many of the Tales of Magic were similarly ancient, as the Grimms suggested. Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin were first written down in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, but they are actually between 2,500 and 6,000 years old—not quite tales as old as time, but perhaps as old as wheels and writing.

The Man Who Did Not Wash for Seven Years
Folkstreams director Tom Davenport has put his old fairy/folk tale films online for free streaming. The series includes a language arts teacher guide to encourage the use and understanding of folktales. Also included is a video series about “Making Grimm Movies”  showing how to make low budget films in your neighborhood. Popular in schools and public libraries, these films have become children’s “classics”.  Davenport set the old stories in locations near his home in Delaplane, Virginia and drew from local American Folk traditions to make these adaptations “American”.  A good short film to start with is “Bearskin or The Man Who Didn’t Wash for Seven Years”


Stetson Kennedy Vox Populi (“Voice of the People”) Award

The Stetson Kennedy Vox Populi (“Voice of the People”) biennial award will be presented for the first time at the OHA 2010 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. The award honors outstanding achievement in the collecting and use of oral histories of individuals and organizations whose work has contributed to change for a better world. The award is co-sponsored by The Stetson Kennedy Foundation (, a non-profit foundation dedicated to human rights, racial and social justice, environmental stewardship, and the preservation and growth of folk culture.

Folktale Collections



STORYARTS -- Resources for writing



Storytelling in the Classroom, Lesson Plans & Activities, Story Library, Storytelling Books & Tapes, Articles, Links and a Curriculum Ideas Exchange



Black History Month



The 6 Types
of Folk Stories



Objectives: Students will be able to identify some key elements of folktales, fables, fairy tales, legends, myths and tall tales, and be able to differentiate between them.
Materials: Selections from each genre, chart paper, markers.
Procedure: Define genres (7 minutes). Say, "Today we're going to play a game to learn the differences between these six genres of literature, called folk stories. They are stories that were told aloud, passed
down by communities in every country of the world. Each of these six genres are pretty similar, but there are some important differences."
Go over each genre:

  1. A fable is very short, with a moral at the end. Characters are usually talking animals.
  2. A folk tale is a story, also usually with talking animal characters, which uses a pattern (numbers, repetition).
  3. A fairy tale is similar to a folk tale, but the characters are people. There are obvious "good guys" and "bad guys," and magic is usually involved.
  4. A myth is a magical story about how natural forces work (death, creation, weather). Sometimes myths have gods, goddesses, or heroes.
  5. A legend is similar to a myth, but it is based on actual historical events or people.
  6. A tall tale is a story about a heroic person who did completely outrageous, impossible things.

Ask students to suggest examples of each type as it is described.
Describe the game (3 minutes). Divide the students into teams and give each team a genre. Say, "On the floor are some books. Each book is a kind of folk story. You have to look through the books and try to find all the folk stories that fit your team's genre. Bring the book back to your team's table when you think you have one that fits. Then you have to explain why you think the folk story falls into that genre. It's not enough to just say 'The cover says so!' Use the reasons we have listed here on this chart. In ten minutes, your team will present one of the books you chose to the class. Any questions?"
Do it (15 minutes). Assist the students as they browse the books. Listen to their discussions and offer suggestions if they seem stuck. Wrap up when most books have been brought to the tables, then go around and have each table present a justification for the books they selected.
Maggi Rohde, Library/Media Specialist maggi @ intranet . org
Allen Elementary School, Ann Arbor, MI


"Fakelore" and "Processed Folk"

Joel Bresler writes: "Folklorist Richard M. Dorson coined the term "fakelore" and defined it as "a synthetic product claiming to be authentic oral tradition but actually tailored for mass edification." Fakelore "emphasized the jolly, cute, and quaint, and contrived a picture of American folksiness wholly false to social reality." Dorson placed Botkin's regional folklore treasuries along with "Paul Bunyan books, and children's story collections" squarely in the fakelore category, and said of the Treasuries that they "shaped the general conception of American folklore to this day."
Leaving aside complete fabrications, "fakelore" seems a harsh term for works that, however altered, still retain a folkloric basis. Professor Elliot Singer has offered a more nuanced definition for what he terms "processed folk." This manipulated folklore may be non-representative, or may have undergone extensive rewrites. These materials often dovetail with or describe "traditions" that fit the beliefs and wishes of their advocates, and these advocates often use the manipulated folklore for ideological, educational, or commercial purposes. Manipulating folklore is a common practice with a very long history indeed."

Follow the Drinking Gourd - Is This Song 'Authentic'? It is not "traditional." The signature line in the chorus, "for the old man is awaitin' for to carry you to freedom," could not possibly have been sung by escaping slaves, because it was written by Lee Hays eighty years after the end of the Civil War.

Google Mashup "Follow the Drinking Gourd" Gazetteer From "Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History"

Oral Tradition Journal is an international and interdisciplinary forum for the discussion of worldwide oral traditions and related forms.


Irish Cowboys use the Irish word Buckaroos:
The first wagon train that headed west was lead by an Irish Scout. Irish cowboys and pioneers sing Irish songs going west. Jesse Chishol
m, for whom the Chisholm trail was named, was a Scots-Cherokee, His father was a Scots Gaelic speaker. Chisholm is also reputed to have spoken a number of Indian languages.

Irish / Scottish - Giant Stories Simon Bronner

America has a rich tradition of folk heroes.

African American Legend John Henry - Negro Legend Steel Drivin Man.
The song is about a terrible kind of accident or crime. It's a mourning song, a hammer song and a work song. Tunnel work in the 1870s was widely recognized as the most dangerous and nastiest job. You needed some sort of force to get people to do that work.

Paul Bunyan - Michigan is recognized as the true birthplace of the legend of Paul Bunyan as first set in ink by James MacGillivray based on the life of logger Fabian Fournier . . . ”

The American Whiskey Trail:

The real Johnny Appleseed was John Chapman September 26, 1774 - March 11, 1845 who spread apples for the purpose of creating cider orchards. John Chapman frequented Western Pennsylvania.

By the mid-1790s, around the height of the Whiskey Rebellion. Origins of Hillbilly Music / Story Roots of Moonshine Whiskey Rebellion and the Amber Waves of Grain. Chapman lived in a cabin on Grant’s Hill in Pittsburgh, where he tended an orchard. Inspiration struck after noticing the German cider mills south of the city. He gathered left over apple seeds from the cider mills’ pumice stones and sold them to settlers. This idea quickly led to Chapman’s nickname of “Johnny Appleseed. "
Chapman’s sole purpose in planting apple trees was not for the purpose of supplying the settlers with wholesome snacks along the way. Most of the apples he planted were used in the making of cider and distilling apple brandy and applejack. Apples grown from seeds are usually too sour for eating out of hand and were mainly used for this purpose.

Annie Oakley Occupation: Folk Hero
A renowned markswoman and star who worked for years with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show maiden name Phoebe Ann Moses born 1860.


Davy Crockett. King of the Wild Frontier
Crockett, spoke a dialect known today as "Highland" or "Upland Southern" like others from the areas adjoining Appalachia. Historians like David Hackett Fischer, in his landmark work Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, have traced the origins of this dialect to the English and Scots-Irish borderers that immigrated to America in the decades before the American Revolution. Intensely traditional and clannish people, the English and Scots-Irish borderers found cheap land on the very fringes of frontier America. As farming depleted the soil and new opportunities arose in the western frontier, hardy highland Southerners soon began to emigrate further west and populated states like Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. Their peculiar “speechways” ended up becoming an American iconic tradition



African Americans went westward as workers, both as slave laborers and free men and women laborers between 1870-1885.


Many Native Americans welcomed African Americans into their villages. Even as slaves many African Americans became part of a family group, and many intermarried with Native Americans - thus many later became classified as Black Indians.

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