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What is a Tall Tale?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A tall tale is a story about a larger-than-life character, either fictional or based on a real person who has exaggerated adventures and performs exaggerated feats of daring, strength, courage, and/or intelligence. It is typical of the tall tale that everything in it is the subject of hyperbole, and in this characteristic, it bears relation to the “fish story” or “whopper,” in which a fisherman’s exploits are exaggerated for dramatic or humorous effect.

A tall tale is a kind of folk tale – a story that generally has no single author, but is passed around orally and embellished by many tellers over time. By now, some of these stories have been collected and published, and some authors have written “original” Paul Bunyan stories, for example, but the origins of this type of story — who made it up or told it first — are not usually very important. Other cultures have similar traditions to the North American tall tale, some focusing on a particular strong, legendary hero, and some sharing the characteristic of having the hero’s adventures revolve around a particular profession, but the tall tale genre is most closely associated with the United States and, particularly for logging tales, Canada.

Tall tales also are similar to fish stories in that many of them were told about a certain occupation among practitioners of that occupation. For example, railroaders have stories about the legendary, steel-driving man John Henry; lumberjacks tell of lumberman Paul Bunyan, and in Canada, of Ti-Jean, the 10-year-old French-Canadian lumberjack; cowhands recount the adventures of cowboy Pecos Bill; and trailblazers on the frontier tell of frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed. These are only a few of the North American tall tale heroes.

There are a number of elements that are typically subject to exaggeration in a tall tale. For one thing, the heroes are generally subject to an incredible rate of development at an early age, doing phenomenal things while still in their youth. John Henry, so they say, talked as soon as he was born. Paul Bunyan, who is credited with creating a number of the notable natural features of North America – Puget Sound, the lakes of Minnesota, and the Grand Canyon, to name a few – was already altering the landscape as an infant by kicking up his toes and knocking down a sizable amount of timber. Ti-Jean walks into a winter logging camp at age 10 and bests the men there in all kinds of contests.

The hero of a tall tale may also:

  • eat massive amounts of food, like John Henry
  • have companions as impressive as themselves, like Paul Bunyan’s “pet,” Babe, the Blue Ox
  • be reckoned as responsible for fundamental and important inventions within their profession, often as novices, such as Pecos Bill’s invention of the lariat and spurs, or Paul Bunyan’s invention of the two-man saw
  • win incredible contests in which the odds are stacked against them, as in the story of John Henry and the machine.
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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon350333 — On Oct 03, 2013

Okay, here’s a good Paul Bunyan birth tall tTale. I hear that Paul Bunyan was born around Bangor, Maine. From what they say, it took five giant storks to deliver ol’ Paul to his folks. His first bed was an old lumber wagon pulled by horses. His father had to drive the wagon up to the top of Maine and back just to rock baby Paul to sleep.

By WaterHopper — On Oct 07, 2010

Great stories but I have just one more. I am from Alabama and have heard this one since I was little. True or not? You be the judge.

This one is called Yellowhammer, An Alabama Tall Tale, retold by S.E. Schlosser.

Once, long ago, there was a young slave from Alabama named Sam. He was sent to the market in Georgia with his masters cattle. After taking the cattle to the market, Sam was given some free time as a reward for his good service. Sam wanted to explore the city.

Sam took a walk along the streets. He admired the fine residences of these Georgia folks. He was passing a particularly fine looking mansion when he heard something give a scream. That startled Sam. He looked around to see what made the noise. Then, he saw, up in a tree, a parrot.

“Hush,” he said to the parrot. Well that parrot didn’t hush at all. Instead, he started raging and cussing something horrible. Sam just didn’t like this bird swearing at him. He picked up a stick and tossed it at the parrot. Someone saw Sam throw the stick and told Sam not to throw the stick at the parrot anymore because it’s valuable.

“Valuable?” Sam said. “Don’t talk crazy! We’ve got millions of them yellowhammers in Alabama and ours has got more manners!

Well, the story of Sam and the parrot spread all over Georgia. Ever since then, folks in Georgia have been calling Alabama the Yellowhammer State.

By cmsmith10 — On Oct 07, 2010

I love tall tales! I have a whole book of them that I read to my kids and they try to figure out what is real and what is made up. This is their favorite:

This one is called Blue Hen’s Chicks, A Delaware Tall Tale. It was retold by S.E. Schlosser. It goes like this:

A Delaware man went off to the war during the American Revolution. For entertainment, he brought two fighting cocks along. When he was asked about these chickens, he said slyly “They are the chicks of a blue hen that I have at home.”

Boy, could those cocks fight! They were so fierce; they caused quite a stir among the men. It didn’t take long before the troops begin boasting to the troops from other states that these cocks could out-fight anyone! The theme of the Delaware troops became “We’re the Blue Hen’s Chickens. We will fight to the end!” Other troops took to calling them the “Blue Hen’s Chicks, and, to this day, Delaware is known as the Blue Hen State.

By CarrotIsland — On Oct 07, 2010

Okay, here’s a good Paul Bunyan Birth Tall Tale. I hear that Paul Bunyan was born around Bangor, Maine. From what they say, it took five giant storks to deliver ol’ Paul to his folks. His first bed was an old lumber wagon pulled by horses. His father had to drive the wagon up to the top of Maine and back just to rock baby Paul to sleep.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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