When writing about tall tales, I would be remiss not to mention what I’m sure many Americans think of when they hear the term, which is the adventures of frontier folk heroes. These include actual people whose deeds were exaggerated, like Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett; and totally fictional creations like Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. Which category John Henry belongs in is still a matter of debate. While Bill and Paul are certainly two of the best-known representatives of this genre, there’s some question as to whether they grew out of authentic folklore or were rather created as what Wikipedia calls “fakelore.”
Pecos Bill was first known to appear in short stories by a soldier-turned-writer named Edward O’Reilly, published starting in 1917. O’Reilly claimed that these stories came from actual cowboy lore, but this is doubtful. If he wasn’t a folk hero before O’Reilly’s stories, however, he definitely became one after that, and there are many different versions of his exploits.
Paul Bunyan, while primarily associated with the United States, probably originated in Canada. Many of the details of his legend were invented by an advertising campaign. Paul’s story has come to credit the giant and his companion, Babe the Blue Ox, with the creation of several American landmarks. For instance, the Grand Canyon resulted from Paul dragging his axe along the ground. Such fanciful origin stories are often incorporated into classical mythology as well, as with the story of Hercules making the Strait of Gibraltar by splitting apart the mountain that used to be Atlas until his fateful encounter with Perseus. Mind you, another story about Hercules has him matching wits with a very much alive Atlas, and the bit about the strait is regarded as a later addition to the original Greek myth by the Romans. Whether anyone actually believed this about Hercules, I couldn’t say, but origin stories involving Paul were obviously meant to be humorous. Then again, some people apparently think the Grand Canyon was the result of Noah’s Flood rather than ages of geological activity, and that’s not a whole lot more realistic than Paul carving it out with an axe. Of course, some of these tales would require Paul to be much bigger than he’s usually portrayed, as Lisa Simpson points out in “Simpsons Tall Tales”: “I mean, one minute he’s ten feet tall, and the next his feet are as big as a lake.”
Disney had their own versions of some of these American folk stories, including a live-action miniseries about Davy Crockett, and short cartoons about Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed in Melody Time. There was also a Paul Bunyan cartoon from 1958 that I remember watching as a kid.
Watching it again, I notice that it doesn’t include the Grand Canyon story, which I thought it did. It did, however, credit Paul and Babe for the 10,000 Lakes of Minnesota and the Grand Teton mountain range, among other geological features. Thurl Ravenscroft, most famous as the voice of Tony the Tiger but responsible for a lot of other voice work as well, provided Paul’s voice.
The part that pits Paul against machinery seems to borrow a bit from the tale of John Henry. Similarly, another one of these American folk heroes, the sailor Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, is sometimes said to have died after winning a race to England against a steamship.
The fear of machines replacing human workers has been in place for a long time, so we can root for people who compete against them. Incidentally, I’ve seen stories of Pecos Bill laughing himself to death when he saw an urban cowboy, but Paul’s death doesn’t appear to have been part of the folklore about him. There was a poem by Shel Silverstein in which Paul went to Heaven and hated it because there were no trees, so he went to see if there were any in Hell. There is a site in Minnesota identified as Paul’s grave, which reports that he lived from 1794 to 1893.