18 January 2010

Humor: Tall Tales of the Old West

By Jacquie Rogers

Tall tales aren't anything new. The structure has been around for millennia, and many follow the same structure as the Greek myths. So from Ancient Greece, let's climb into the time-machine and step into 19th Century America. The wild country and isolation of the North American west where each day brought a new battle with nature, was fertile ground some pretty entertaining stories to sprout.

Let's sit around the campfire or the family hearth and chew the fat about these tales.

What do Paul Bunyan and John Henry have in common? They're seemingly ordinary men in ordinary jobs, average Joes, really, except these men have extraordinary abilities. Nineteenth century superheroes, you might say. They run into a problem, something we all relate to, only their problem is escalated. Not to fear, though, because they also have a solution--something a normal person would never have thought of.

Seemingly ordinary man in every day circumstances
Finds himself in a pickle
Uses extraordinary powers as a solution

Most of the stories were (and are) funny because of the imagery, metaphors, and exaggeration. Here's S.E. Schlosser's interpretation of Pecos Bill Rides a Tornado, which explains in just a few short paragraphs how the Grand Canyon and Death Valley came into existence, as well as the creation of rodeo. Quite a tall order, I'd say!

Exaggeration is the key. A tall tale just isn't tall without stretching the truth a bit--sometimes a good bit. Like my grandpa always said, "A little embellishment always makes a good story better." His brother took that to heart when he wrote Can Farm Boys Be Cow Boys.

Now, if this had taken place in about 1868, with cowpunchers sitting around the campfire eating sourdough biscuits and beans, you can just imagine how this story could grow with each telling. Pretty soon, Nebraska Neil would be there right beside Pecos Bill, riding a tornado or using a river to rope a lightning bolt.

The Greeks had Herakles and Perseus, the Spanish had El Cid, we have Superman and the Green Hornet, so it's no wonder that the cowboys came up with Pecos Bill, Bigfoot Wallace, and Sal Fink, the Mississippi Screamer.

And we're not done telling tall tales yet!

American Folklore

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