American Folktales: From the Collections of the Library of Congress

Edited by Carl Lindahl. 2004. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe. 824 pages. ISBN: 0-7656-8062-9 (hard cover).

Reviewed by William Bernard McCarthy, emeritus, Pennsylvania State University

[Review length: 1005 words • Review posted on September 26, 2006]

What a good idea for a book! Lindahl's anthology introduces readers not only to the riches of American storytelling but also to the riches of the Library of Congress and its Folklife Center. And what riches! The two-volume collection is divided into three parts. The first seven chapters are each devoted to a single collector or single storyteller or group of storytellers. So Chapter 1 presents tales from the Hicks-Harmon family of North Carolina and Tennessee, with tales from Sam Harmon, recorded by Herbert Halpert, Maud Long, recorded by the Library itself, and Ray Hicks, recorded by Frank and Anne Warner and by the National Storytelling Festival, along with a few tales from other members of the family. Succeeding chapters offer the tales of Sara Cleveland as recorded by Kenneth Goldstein, J. D. Suggs as recorded by Richard Dorson, Joshua Alley as recorded by Marguerite Chapallaz of the American Dialect Society, "Gillie" Gilchrist as recorded by Sterling Brown, Jane Muncy Fugate as recorded by both Leonard Roberts and Carl Lindahl, and, in the first chapter of Volume 2, a wide range of storytellers including Aunt Mollie Jackson and J. Frank Dobie as recorded by John and Alan Lomax. The next four chapters in Volume 2 are devoted to short folktale genres: legends, tall tales, jokes, and stories for children. The final two chapters are devoted to stories with strong connections to history (e.g., Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl stories) and to stories about September 11, 2001.

The emphasis on collectors as well as storytellers continues throughout the book. In the later chapters Lindahl groups jokes, legends, and so on by performer and collector, usually with at least two stories recorded from each storyteller.

“Recorded” is the operative word here. All the tales are transcribed from recordings in the American Folklife Center's holdings. Though some of the performances have been transcribed and published before, most notably the J. D. Suggs tales published by Richard Dorson, Lindahl did not work from printed versions. He went back to the original recordings, listened—sometimes as much as a hundred times—and transcribed. He prints these transcriptions using, as far as possible, standard orthography, saving specialized orthography for non-standard combinations such as “gonna” and “wanna,” or to distinguish specialized pronunciation within the story, as when a storyteller switches from “fellow” to “feller,” or “get” to “git.” The transcriptions are admirable. I have transcribed a few of the same performances and, while Carl and I inevitably heard some things differently, I recommend these transcriptions as models for others to emulate.

The great weakness of the collection is a weakness of American folklore studies in general. Although Lindahl states that some forty states are represented in the volume, he admits that a disproportionate number of tales come from Appalachia and the Southeast. But things could not be otherwise, as that part of the country is where a disproportionate amount of American fieldwork has been carried out. Fortunately this imbalance is being rectified to some extent by contemporary scholars doing fresh fieldwork all across America. But as these scholars pursue fresh approaches and fresh genres in fresh fields, let them be reminded that the old traditional genres have not yet been recorded adequately in many states of the Midwest, the Mountain West, the West Coast, and even the Northeast.

But enough of weakness. What are the strengths of this anthology? Let me describe a few. As is already clear, the tales are all transcribed from oral performances, the transcriptions are models, and the presentation highlights the relationship of collector to storyteller. Each story or group of stories is introduced by an informative, jargon-free, and engrossing account of the storyteller. These essays are often followed by the storyteller's own story of storytelling in his life. Different storytellers sometimes tell versions of the same tale type, allowing for interesting comparison. While the text tends to emphasize the storytellers, the notes, relegated to the end of each volume, emphasize the stories themselves. They identify each tale by Aarne-Thompson type and/or Thompson motif(s). They discuss particular aspects of the variant in question and go on to discuss the place of the tale type in American storytelling tradition, identifying other versions and where the reader can find them. Though the notes of necessity are more technical than the essays that introduce stories and storytellers, even here Lindahl wears his erudition lightly.

Among other strengths of the collection are the three introductory essays. The Introduction proper provides a vivid sense of storytelling in America, then goes on to describe the folktale holdings of the American Folklife Center. This introduction would be a good place to start for anyone seeking to do research in the Center. It is followed by a valuable essay laying down Lindahl’s principles for transcribing folktales. Third comes an extensive essay describing American folktales. This essay clearly defines the term “folktale” as understood by American scholars, then discusses the various genres of folktales with special reference to the tales included in this collection. These comments lead me to the final strengths that I will remark on in Lindahl's work. From an educational viewpoint, his book provides a trustworthy introduction to the study of American folktales, gently sidestepping popular misapprehensions and leading the reader onto firm ground. And in his choice of materials he has admirably represented the range of types or genres in American folk storytelling. He includes even personal experience stories and helps the reader see not only how they fit into the field of folktales but also how they help us to understand the more fantastic genres.

Lindahl assures us that this book does by no means exhaust the folktale resources of the American Folklife Center. Hundreds, even thousands of tales still remain to be savored. This book should send the professional folklorist in one or both of two directions: to the Library of Congress to investigate some of the material still unstudied; out into his own neighborhood, town, state, field of research, to gather the tales that are there if only someone would ask for them.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.