Folk tale: A short narrative that has been orally transmitted through successive generations within a given community and that typically evolves over time. Although folk tales usually begin as oral tales of unidentified origin, they are generally committed to writing at some point. Occasionally, the reverse happens: an original, published story by a specific, identified person comes to be thought of as a folk tale and thus enters the realm of folklore.
Folk tales may include fables, fairy tales, legends, myths, tall tales, ghost stories, stories about giants, stories about saints, and humorous anecdotes.
EXAMPLES: Stories about Annie Oakley, Casey Jones, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jesse James, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Sacajawea are staples of American frontier folklore, as are stories about former slave John Henry, who was said to be the strongest steel-driver working the railroads. As the folk tale goes, Henry beat out a steam-powered drill in a contest of man against machine, only to die immediately thereafter. People say that Henry’s image can be seen — and his hammering heard — in the tunnel where he worked.
Many African American and Native American folk tales feature animals and recount stories of trickery or the origin of certain animal characteristics. Anansi (a spider), Brer Rabbit, and the tortoise are often clever tricksters in African American lore, whereas Coyote is one of the major tricksters in Native American tradition. For a collection of African American folk tales arranged by subject — such as fool tales, mistaken identity tales, and preacher tales — see Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumously published Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States (published 2001; collected in the 1920s).
The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, or Märchen, have been widely translated from German and include such favorites as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel. In The Tales of Uncle Remus (1880), Joel Chandler Harris claimed to have recorded accurately the dialect and plot of tales told by slaves he encountered during his childhood in Georgia.
Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819) is an example of a folk tale that began as a published literary work.