American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress

By Bacchilega, Cristina | Marvels & Tales, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress


Bacchilega, Cristina, Marvels & Tales


American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress. Edited by Carl Lindahl. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003. Two vols. 729 pp.

As Peggy A. Bulger announces in the foreword, this is "a major contemporary publication that draws upon the spoken word traditions found in the Archive of Folk Culture. Here you will find Jack tales as told by traditional storyteller Ray Hicks; stories from the South as collected by John and Alan Lomax; as well as tall tales, jokes, children's stories, and personal experience narratives from contemporary American life" (xvi).

In these two precious volumes, Carl Lindahl, Martha Gano Houston Research Professor of English at the University of Houston, presents 215 tales transcribed from sound recordings in the American Folklife Center and the Archive of Folk Culture of the Library of Congress. Each story in the collection is numbered and presented with information about the teller, the recorder, and the performance; the oldest recordings are from the 1930s, the most recent ones date from 2001. The first volume includes thirty-two tales told by the celebrated storytellers from the Hicks-Harmon family of southern Appalachia, Samuel Harmon, Maud Long, and Ray Hicks; fifty-three tales by five other American storytellers follow grouped under the headings "Sara Cleveland: Irish American Tales from Brant Lake, New York"; "J. D. Suggs; Itinerant Master"; "Joshua Alley: Down-East Tales from Jonesport, Maine"; "Will 'Gillie' Filchrist: Tales of Injustice in the Urban South"; and "Jane Muncy Fugate: Healing Tales for a Mountain Child and Troubled Adults." The second volume includes twenty-eight tales collected by John Lomax (1867-1948) and his son Alan Lomax (1915-2002); twenty legends, twelve tall tales, thirty-two jokes, and fourteen stories for children; twenty stories concerning experiences from American history ranging from Native American tales and accounts of "Slavery Days and the Civil War" to "Struggles with Nature and Neighbors" and "Dust Bowl Tales" about massively destructive dust storms in the 1930s; and four "Folktales in the Making: The September 11 Project."

The organization of the stories clearly reflects Lindahl's ambitious and complex vision of the project, which he explains in his introductory chapters. His approach, especially in the first volume, is "storyteller-centered"; his focus is on representatively American storytelling traditions; his scope is oral tales only; his transcription methodology favors readability and consistency, and seeks to resist condescension.

Accessible and informative, the chapter "American Folktales: Their Stuff and Styles" articulates a definition of the folktale that Lindahl acknowledges is both narrow-"a folktale is shared by a 'folk,' a narrative community" orally and not in print, and performed by "community artists" who, on the basis of "shared values and esthetics," are recognized within their communities to be "master narrators"-and expanded to include "any traditional tale," whether it be fictional or based on beliefs, history, or personal experience. I would not be alone in finding this to be a rather unorthodox, even shaky, definition and in resisting its generalized use, but within this book and in combination with an emphasis on the storytellers' lives, it allows Lindahl to avoid creating "a skewed impression" of the storytellers' repertoires and to appreciate more fully the relationship of stories to the tellers' experiences.

Moving from "personal style" to "generic and cultural styles," the chapter then outlines distinctively American features of these "folktales. …

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