A question popped into my head the other day, and it began nagging at me. So I started doing some searches through Google to see what I could find on the Web. What I found pretty much confirmed what I had been thinking. The stories, the folk tales, of North America are vanishing.
I don’t mean Native, African American, or Spanish American, but the stories that grew out of the settlement of the land by our European forefathers. Now I’m sure that these tales exist in isolated pockets around North America, and some of them are still told around campfires at night, but how much are they part of everybody’s life any more?
Are Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, Pecos Bill, and Ichabod Crane still alive for our children? Tim Burton brought Ichabod back with his movie Sleepy Hollow, but what’s happened to everyone else? The people at Walt Disney used to tell the stories of American folk heroes, but that seems to have become passé, in favour of monsters and aliens. Characters such as Mike Fink, and Swamp Angel have all but disappeared. Does anyone know what a Tommy-knocker is any more?
In Canada the situation’s probably even worse. Outside of Quebec, I wonder how many children could even name one folk hero? Heck I don’t think I can name one English-speaking folk hero from Canada. Sure on both sides of the border we have our historic figures, like Davey Crockett and Laura Secord, but what about creations of pure myth and fantasy?
Think of all the different cultures through out the world that have stories, removed from their religious texts, that talk about the world around them. From the Irish with their tales of the little people, Native American stories that explain the world and offer life lessons, the folk tales of European Jews and Gypsies, through to each culture’s fairy tales that form such a large part of their heritage. North Americans seem the exception, not the rule, in our lacking of stories.
Obviously they are still out there for anyone to read, who wants to, but what are they now except cute tales for amusement and titillation? Do these stories live on to act as inspiration or guidance? Are they used as part of our living tradition to pass on lessons of life to newer generations?
The answer to both of those questions, from what I can see, is no. As a kid I remember reading about Paul Bunyon and his great blue ox Babe; listening to the story of Pecos Bill and even learning the prayer/song Johnny Appleseed at summer camp. (All of this was in Canada, by the way.) But no attempt was made, unlike Aesop’s fables, in which each moral was driven home, to have us learn anything from the tales.
With a few notable exceptions, we never developed an oral culture in North America based on our experiences here. So many of our foreparents came over with their songs and stories already established, that in the places oral culture thrived it was mainly as adaptations of old world ideas and concepts. Many of our “traditional” country songs are merely adaptations of old Irish and Scottish folk songs, and the same goes for a lot of the sayings and superstitions that sprang out of the Appalachian Mountains.
Our history precluded the chance to develop and solidify our own oral tradition in the same manner as other cultures. In the course of only a few hundred short years we went from being a predominantly rural people, with the accompanying economy and lifestyle, to the way we are today: an industrialised urban-centric society.
Unlike the old world, where traditions developed as a slow process, we moved ahead faster than culture could keep pace. It is as if we shot from infancy to adulthood without the benefit of childhood and adolescence. This wasn’t our fault, more that we were simply the victim of circumstances, and were swept away on the tide of change.
The industrial revolution of the 1800s completely changed the world, and for better or worse, became the primary influence on the development of North America. With industrialization came changes in perspective. Instead of looking to the past for instruction, we became anxious to shed what was considered backwards and primitive.
What could we learn from folk tales and stories? We had created factories capable of producing vast amounts of product, employing huge numbers of people; we were obviously beyond that old superstitious nonsense. Anyway what kind of story can you tell about a machine? Aside from warning employees not to get stuck in it, there wasn’t much you could say about them.
There is an old saying: “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” The implications being that by ignoring the past you will continually make the same mistakes over and over again
Outside of religious texts, which we did not develop, North Americans have very few stories that provide life lessons or guidance specific to our environment. The stories that have been the lifeblood of so many great civilizations either don’t exist, or have lost their places in our lives. In consequence we latch on to objects, such as flags, or institutions, like political office, to define ourselves.
These symbols of nationhood while powerful and meaningful in their own way do not provide a story to build an identity around. A folk tale like Paul Bunyon or Johnny Appleseed tells more about the American spirit than any number of flags. By severing our ties to, or diminishing the importance of, stories like these, countries do themselves irreparable harm.
Fortunately for us those few that we have are still out there, waiting for us to pick them up and tell them. A good story never dies; it just waits for someone willing to listen for it to come back to life. As a continent we need to slow down and listen to our past before it is too late to learn the lessons it has to offer.