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Folk Arts & Culture

“Valley talkers had charms as old as fear itself, for baby, beast, and crops. Spells for managing malevolent entities and tips recognizing the Devil’s many disguises were around for the asking.”—Vaughn Ward, Introduction to The Witch of Mad Dog Hill.



Folk Tales & Legends

Traditional storytelling, like other traditional folk arts, is a form of cultural expression. John Thorn, in his Play column in Voices [“Ah Fib,”, 34(1–2), 2008] asserts, “My take is that you can’t spell ‘history’ without ‘story,’ and stories are things we make up to reassure ourselves that the world as we know it will continue.

In “The Grateful Terrorist: Folklore as Psychological Coping Mechanism,“ Trisha Smith et al. [Voices, 36(1–2), 2010) subscribe to Dégh’s postulate that stories about ‘horrible criminal acts, devastating natural catastrophes, alien invasions, life-threatening conspiracies against common people by powerful interest groups or governments...have spread like wildfire because they mesh perfectly with the anxieties of ordinary people...’ They discuss the legend of the grateful terrorist in the context of 9/11, noting that it became so prevalent, that Coca-Cola posted a product safety reassurance to their customers. The themes of this modern urban legend can be traced across 2000 years.

Jack Gladstone
Jack Gladstone. Photo: Karen Vaughn
Jack Gladstone, a great great grandson of Chief Red Crow, retells “traditional Blackfeet tales, honoring those stories sacred to Blackfeet and other nations’ cultural histories, restoring oral history through oratory (what he calls ‘storatory’)—everything in language that reminds us that all life is fundamentally spiritual...” The stories were told to him by his grandmother, passed down through his family. “She recounted the stories of her life and the mythology of their Blackfeet Indian people, something Gladstone holds sacred to this day.”
[From “Oral Culture and History Today: Joanne Shenandoah and Jack W. Gladstone” by Linda Rosekrans, in Voices 33(3–4), 2007]

Libby Tucker, writes about legend quests to explore supernatural events. She reviews the literature, including Linda Dégh’s articles on adolescent trips to haunted sites, and Bill Ellis who has written on the legend trip’s meaning, as an act of rebellion involving storytelling, invocation of a supernatural presence, and resultant discussion. He describes antisocial behavior, such as defiling tombstones. Libby explains that for college students, these quests are more meaningful. “What seems to intrigue college students most is the opportunity to play a role in a strange—perhaps supernatural—drama linked to past tragedies. By visiting legend sites, students try to discover whether supernatural forces are real and to answer other important questions. They also build up intense feelings that range from excitement to horror and fear.” [“Legend Quests,” by Libby Tucker, in Voices 32(1–2), 2006.

Libby also writes a regular “Good Spirits” column for Voices exploring stories of ghosts of the ICU, ghosts that refuse to go away, ghosts in photographs and videos, haunted dolls, inns, houses of horror, and many more tales of the supernatural.

Steve Zeitlin writes about scientists as storytellers. He discusses how scientists use stories to explain their theories, that they “share an evolving body of stories and metaphors—a kind of folklore of science—that can convey their ideas in lay terms.” [“Scientists as Storytellers,” by Steve Zeitlin, in Voices 29 (3–4), 2003]

“Among East Hampton’s fishing folk,” John Eilertsen writes that, “these stories and many like them educate youngsters about the ’things they ought to know about life,‘ as one fisherman once explained to me.” Read “Tales of an Island: Fishing and Fishermen on Long Island’s East End.” here. [New York Folklore Society Newsletter, Fall/Winter 1998].



The New York Folklore Quarterly (NYFQ) is a rich source for collections of tales. Many of these issues are no longer available, but it’s possible to order single articles. Check the tables of contents for order forms. Here’s of sampling of what you can find:

Country People and Yankee Storytellers: New Hampshire Local Anecdotes,” by Ben A. Botkin, NYFQ XX(4), 1964.

The Little People: Some Irish Lore of Upstate New York,” by Louis C. Jones, NYFQ XVIII(4), 1962.

Tales from Tug Hill,” by Marion Williams, NYFQ XIII(1), 1957.

Italian Tales in New York City,” by M. Jagendorf, NYFQ XI(3), 1955.

Tales of Buried Treasure in Rochester,” by Dorothy Dengler, NYFQ II(3), 1946.

Horse Tales,” by Helen Ireland Hays, NYFQ XX(4), 1964.

Legends of an Adirondack Grandfather,” by Miriam Whitney White, NYFQ XXII(2), 1966.

Il Paisano — Immigrant Italian Folktales of Central New York,” by Rosemary Agonito, NYFQ XXIII(1), 1967.

American Folktales from the Recent Wars,” by Catherine Harris Ainsworth, NYFQ XXIX(1), 1973.

The St. Lawrence River Skiff and the Folklore of Boats,” by Richard Lunt, NYFQ XXIX(4), 1973.

Bill Smith

Bill Smith: Traditional Storyteller and Adirondack Basket Weaver

Bill Smith is a well-known storyteller and basket maker who tells traditional tall tales of the Adirondacks as well as stories of his growing up in the North Country. He mixes narratives about the humorous antics of relatives and community members with song to present portraits of life in this region of the State.

READ a transcript of this documentary from Voices, Fall-Winter 2001.


See also “The Game Warden” by Bill Smith in the New York Folklore Society Newsletter, Fall/Winter 1998.

Additional titles in Voices on legends and their study include:

Legends, High School History Classes, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” by Sandra K. Dolby, Voices 31(1–2), 2005

Humor, History, and Tall Tales: Rereading the Adirondack College Student,” by Andrew Shawn Andermatt, Voices 33(3–4), 2007

The Absentminded Professor: A Case Study of an Academic Legend Cycle,” by Michael Taft, Voices 33(1–2), 2007

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