America’s Tall Tale Heroes
The deaths of Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, Johnny Appleseed, & John Henry
Behind the exuberant boasts, the extravagant deeds, and imaginative language, there is a fundamental wistfulness to the American tall tale. These are stories about ways of life that no longer exist, about once important heroes made insignificant by change — by the invention (for example) of barbed wire and the steam engine, by the disappearance of the frontier and great stands of virgin timber.
The stories about Pecos Bill provide an example. A figure for the Cowboy, Pecos Bill first appeared in legends that arose in the Pecos River region in Texas. Of course, the tall tales about him are extravagant and exuberant: how he was raised by coyotes, drank the milk of a mountain lion, wrestled bears, married Slue-Foot Sue, wrestled a cyclone and made Death Valley, and so forth. Pecos Bill is an Occupational Hero and represents a way of life that passed. He was the one who taught cowboys everything they needed to know — inventing the lasso and spurs, showing them how to round up cattle and drive them to railroad stations, and (most importantly) instructing them in how to sing cowboy songs. Still, the manner of his death reveals much: in most versions of his story, he dies when a piece of rusty wire gets in his coffee.
“Don’t Fence Me In” might also have been the theme song for Davy Crockett. A figure for the Backwoodsman, this Tennessee folk hero was legendary for his overpowering grin, his way with animals (especially bears), his prowess and accuracy with a rifle, his preference for common sense over book learnin’ and his oft-repeated motto (“Be sure you’re right and then go ahead”). But if there was a consistent motive to Dave Crockett’s life, it was the frontiersman’s wish to stay ahead of the crowds of settlers behind him. Like the setting sun, Crockett kept going westward while civilization nipped at his heels — until he reached the end of Tennessee. Then, legend has it, Crockett said: “The state’s getting too crowded. I’m moving to Texas!” That is, of course, where he died and where his nightmare overcame him, when crowds swarmed the Alamo and the frontiersmen who were defending it and their way of life.
Paul Bunyan was also part of this westering motion. A kind of friendly giant given to epic deeds and epic breakfasts, carrying his silver-bright axe and accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan was another Occupational Hero and a figure for the Lumberjack. Born in Maine, Paul hacked his way west through the forests alongside the Big Onion River (Michigan), St. Croix River (Wisconsin), and Lake Superior (Minnesota). After chopping down the last tree in North Dakota, he headed on to the Douglas fir in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon. One would think the Pacific Ocean would be the terminus of Paul and his lifestyle; and, indeed, at this geographical juncture Paul and Babe are now grey-haired and look back on the good life they’ve had in lumbering. But unwilling to let them go off into the sunset, their original storyteller — William B. Laughead (an advertising agent for the Red River Lumber Company of Minnesota and California) in a series of pamphlets issued between 1914 and 1930 — has Paul and Babe head up to Alaska, “as long as there is a toothpick of a tree left.”
Mike Fink was the tall-tale representative of Keelboatmen, Known for his bull-roarin’ boasts, his rowdy and exuberant nature, he was also a bit of a bully. Still, he may have been — as he proved in countless contests — the best boatman between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. But all that meant naught once Robert Fulton invented the steamboat and these vessels took over the river trade and made Fink’s prowess a pointless anachronism. But the point of Fink’s story is how this man of boasts was never daunted and bragging to the end. His last words were “I was the best keelboatman that ever lived.”
“Johnny Appleseed” was, like Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, an actual person — in this case, John Chapman. But the legends surrounding him differ from theirs. While the tall tales involving Crockett and Fink reveal a nostalgia for the disappearing wilderness, the stories of Johnny Appleseed speak of the Planter, speak of a taming of the wilderness and the planting of orchards. Here is another vision of a country on the cusp of change. And the stories of Chapman/Appleseed also differ from those of Crockett/Fink in portraying someone who is not a “macho” hero. Instead, Johnny Appleseed is something like an American St. Francis — a special friend to animals, wearing his gunnysack clothes and saucepan hat instead of sackcloth and ashes. The story of his saving Brother Wolf from a trap, and mending the creature’s leg, seems a wholesale adoption from the saint’s legend where a thorn is removed from the Brother Wolf’s foot. And his death, as the tale has it, was a Glorious Death: with all of God’s creatures coming to surround the tree under which he lay, with the appearance of a rainbow bridge so that he might walk over into paradise, and with the blossoming of apple trees all across this great land from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Gulf Stream Waters.
You’ll find it all in the anonymous ballad of “John Henry.” What you may need to know is this. Around 1870, John Henry (an African-American from West Virginia) helped build the Big Bend Tunnel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He was a steel-driver, creating holes in rocks by hammering a drill held by an assistant (a “shaker”); once the holes were made, dynamite was inserted and the rocks exploded into fragments. In the 1870’s, machines started to take over this job.
When John Henry was a little baby,
Sittin’ on his mammy’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel,
Sayin’, “Hammerin’ will be the death of me, Lord,
Hammerin’ will be the death of me.”
John Henry was a steel-drivin’ man,
And he drove all over the world,
And he came on down to Big Bend Tunnel (over on the C&O Road),
Where he beat the steam drill down, O Lord,
Where he beat the steam drill down.
John Henry said to the captain,
“Captain, you go to town,
Bring me back a twelve-pound hammer
And I’ll beat that steam drill down, Lord
I’ll beat that steam drill down.”
They placed John Henry on the right-hand side,
The steam drill on the left;
He said, “Before I let that stream drill beat me down
I’ll send my soul to rest, O Lord,
I’ll send my soul to rest.”
John Henry said to the shaker,
“Shaker, you better pray,
For if I miss that steel,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day, Lord,
Tomoorow’ll be your burying day.”
The man that invented the steam drill
He thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry sunk the steel fourteen feet
And the steam drill only nine, Lord,
The steam drill made only nine.
Then John Henry said to his loving wife,
“I’m sick and I want to go to bed,
Fix me a place to lay me down
For there’s a roarin’ in my head, Lord,
There’s a roarin’ in my head.”
They took John Henry to the buryin’ ground,
And they laid him in a grave.
And every locomotive that comes roarin’ around
Says, “There lies a steel-drivin’ man, Lord,”
Says, “There lies a steel-drivin’ man.”
For a feminist version of the tall tale, see:
The summer I was twenty I worked in the North Cascades of Washington State. A few years later I read Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” and learned we had both worked in the same place. A young man, that was the first time it occurred to me that a place I had lived in could be made into literature.
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