Paul Bunyan

DESCRIPTION: Recitation. Singer works Paul Bunyan's camp, where everything is done on a grand scale (e.g. the pancakes are turned with a sidehill plow). Bunyan, needing a river to run his logs, has his huge ox plow the Big Manistee. Bunyan retires when the ox dies.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1941 (Beck)
KEYWORDS: lumbering humorous recitation talltale logger
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Beck 96, "Paul Bunyan" (1 text)
Roud #8874
cf. "Round River Drive" (subject)
cf. "Paul Bunyan's Big Ox" (subject)
NOTES [3645 words]: Paul Bunyan is sometimes derided as a phony folk-hero, and he's certainly been heavily commercialized, but Beck makes clear that these were genuine folk tales.- PJS
This is a complicated question, and I will admit to having doubts -- including questions about Beck's credibility, because he seems to be the only person who actually collected Bunyan poems, and he has no fewer than five different recitations.
Hoffman, p. 1, begins his book by saying, "Perhaps, once, long ago in the woods, there was a strong and skilled lumberjack who bore the name of Bunyan. Perhaps. We shall never know, for the origina of this hero is lost to us now that the woodsmen of the nineteenth century have all passed on. Nobody ever asked them about Paul Bunyan...."
On pp. 27-28, Hoffman notes the difference in style between Paul Bunyan tales and most logging folklore. Whereas loggers sing songs such as "The Jam on Gerry's Rocks" [Laws C1] about the dangers of breaking a jam, a Bunyan folktale about a jam is a tall tale of thrusting the logs aside.
The first certain reference to Paul Bunyan is unquestionably literary. Risjord, p. 143, reports that "Paul Bunyan was popularized by a Detroit, Michigan, journalist, James McGillivray, who wrote a story for the Detroit News-Tribune on July 24, 1910 about a heroic lumberjack of immense size and strength." Similarly, Wyman,. p. 4, says that "The name on Bunyan appears for the first time in 1910 in the Detroit Evening News,, in the poem 'Round River Drive' by James McGillivray. [A full text of this, allegedly from oral tradition, occurs on pp. 77-80 of Gard/Sorden.]
It has been claimed that "Round River Drive" is older than this and was first printed in 1906. This alleged text was somewhat shorter than the 1910 version. But Hoffman, p. viii note 1, observes that the paper involved was published by McGillivray's brother -- and that their records were destroyed by fires. So, while this may push the date of the poem a little earlier, the evidence is weak and the writer is still presumably McGillivray.
Hoffman, p. 4, makes the interesting point that Paul is not the primary focus of "Round River Drive." It takes place in his camp, but most of the events involve other loggers.
Four years later Douglas McMallock rewrote the McGillivray story for the American Lumberman." A series of pamphlets and books followed in the 1920s, the most notable being Paul Bunyan by James Stevens (yes, "The Frozen Logger" author James Stevens), and eventually a Minnesota lumber company picked him up as a mascot.
There seems to be no evidence whatsoever that any of these stories were collected from loggers or based on lumbermen's tales, except for what Stevens states in his preface. In his second edition, Stevens, p. ix, states, "The Paul Bunyan legend had its origin in the Papineau rebellion of 1837. This was a revolt of the French-Canadians against their young English queen. [Victoria, who ascended in 1837.] ... Among [the rebels] was a mighty-muscled, bellicose, bearded giant named Paul Bunyan.... [He] raged among the Queen's troops like Sampson among the Philistines."
Bunyan, of course, is not a French name, but Havinghurst, p. 236, says that he was originally "Paul Bonhomme of the Two Mountain Country," and claims the stories were first told in the New Brunswick area. He cites no sources.
The Papineau rebellions were real; Louis J. Papineau struggled for decades to improve the political position of the residents of Quebec. Brebner/Masters, p. 220, notes that there had been bad harvests in 1836 and 1837, and the combination of hunger and rejection of their political demands led to uprisings. But Brebner adds that the "half-dozen skirmishes and pitched battles of November and December were pitiable, tragic affairs in which half-armed farmers faced regulars backed by artillery, and, after their defeats, saw their villages and farmsteads looted and burned by uncontrollable, vengeful volunteers."
There is no mention at all of a second Sampson. And Gartenberg, according to Hoffman, p. 97, searched for this Bonhomme character and couldn't find him in the records of the rebellion. Hoffman, p. 96, explicitly labels the Papineau hypothesis "fallacious."
Stevens, interestingly, admits that he got most of his stories from Louis Letourneau and his family, who came from Washington state (Stevens, p. x). There seem to be no evidence of a heroic figure in the records of eastern lumber camps.
I find it interesting to note that Carl Sandburg, in one of his letters (Sandburg/Mitgang, pp. 245-246), seems to be offering Stevens a tale (presumably about Paul Bunyan) which he made up himself -- an implication that Sandburg considered Bunyan mostly fake.
Garrison, p. 163, repeats a different story: "Nobody really knows for sure where Paul Bunyan came from or when. It's possible that French-Canadian fur trappers and traders of the Northwest told the earliest of all Paul Bunyan stories. They tried to resist when their territory was invaded by woodsmen who cut the trees that sheltered the animals. Telling about Paul Bunyan and Babe helped them work off some of their frustration. This theory is buttressed by the fact that Bon Jean, meaning 'brave John,' was often slurred so that it sounded a lot like Boneyaahn. Boneyaahn gradually became Bonikon and then Bunyon and eventually Bunyan, some scholars think." (Though no one seems ever to have seen the intervening forms.)
Gard/Sorden, pp. 70-71, seem to think Paul came from Wisconsin: "Professor Raney of Appleton says that the lumber camps of Wisconsin helped create an entire cycle of native American folklore. Paul Bunyan, the hero, was a mythical lumber operator who, according to Gene Shephard[,] had his camp about forty miles west of Rhinelander, Wisconsin.... After his work in Wisconsin was done, Paul Bunyan logged in the Dakotas (witness their present treeless condition) and in the Pacific Northwest." They go one to give "Paul Bunyan's Wisconsin Natural History," full of creates like "axehandle hounds," "hodags" (one of the few to be heard of outside the Bunyan stories, in my experience), giant "moskittos," and "hoop snakes," whose venom was so strong that it even made axe handles swell up.
A slight hint of support for this may come from the Wisconsin song (recitation?) called "Old-Time Lumberjacks." This item, collected "in the 1930's," does not mention the name Bunyan, but does have a line that the boasts of those old lumberjacks would "put ol' Paul to shame."
Wyman -- also of Wisconsin -- mentions that some of the people he talked to knew of a "big man" named "Joe Mouffreau." Stevens, p. xi, says that the name (which he spells Muphraw) is a variant of Murphy, and claims that he worked in Quebec some time after 1875.
Interestingly, Hoffman, p. 52, has a story in which Paul has an employee called "Sour-faced Murphy," which raises the faint possibility that he might have been an earlier incarnation of Paul. Laughead went so far as to people Paul's band with "two Joe Mufraws, one named Pete" (Hoffman, p. 80).
Stevens admits that two legends may have combined, but claims that Paul Bunyan stories were in circulation by 1860. On p. xvii, he states that "I must have known some [of the Bunyan stories] before 1910, but it was not until then that I heard a gifted and experienced bunkhouse bard give a genuine Paul Bunyan service."
One wonders who this bard might have been. I find it highly interesting that Rickaby has no songs about Paul Bunyan. Neither does Doerflinger. Nor Fowke. Peters has only the one very oblique reference. Nute, p. 45, declares that the voyageurs "loved to pull the long bow [i.e. tell tall tales], especially about their own exploits, and though Paul Bunyan seems to be a very modern mythological hero of uncertain parentage, his prototype was every voyageur's conception of himself."
Hoffman also thinks the stories have older roots, although he would see the model more in the Yankee Trickster sort of tale (Hoffman, p. 48). He observes, p. 50, that (unlike, say, the Robin Hood corpus which features other genuine characters such as Little John), the Paul Bunyan tales have no other actors than Paul himself. This goes back at least to Laughead, who said that none of his informants had names for any of the actors but Paul.
Interestingly, Hoffman, p. 11, quotes a story which a logger claimed was from Joe Muffreau -- who, in this account was "camp cook to the master logger" and, seemingly, the last Paul Bunyan survivor. Hoffman, p. 45, also mentions a tale told of a logging thief, "Joe Munion." Could "Joe Muffreau" and "Paul Bunyan" be various distortions of "Joe Munion," or Munion a combination of the other two?
Hoffman, p. 54, also described one informant -- Perry Allen -- as a source of high-quality tales, often of Bunyan. But he notes on p. 55 that Alan Lomax had to work very hard to extract the tales from Allen. It appears, in any case, that much of Allen's material was derived from printed sources such as Laughead. Thus, as Paul Stamler said above, Paul Bunyan did become a folk hero -- but Allen's tales are not evidence that he originated as "folk."
Stevens, in the revised introduction to his second edition (p. xvi), acknowledges that the Paul Bunyan stories have come under attack, listing Stuart Sherman and Ben Botkin as those doubting their veracity. But he denies that the attacks have been successful. Stevens eventually admitted that most of his work was based on literary prototypes, not folklore (Hoffman, p. 99), but that's not quite an admission of fakery.
Agnes M. Larson, in surveying lumbermen for a history of white pine logging published in the 1940s, found that none of them knew about Paul (Lass, p. 183). Similarly, Wyman apparently had students look for traces of Paul Bunyan among loggers, and found some who thought they had heard of him in lumber camps, but many more claimed never to have heard of him there.
Blegen's massive tome, written by Minnesota's best historian who was also something of a folklorist, says on page 335, "Paul Bunyan has been presented as a myth, a folk tale, drawn from oral tradition in the lumber camps.... The stories have had wide circulation.... But there is scarcely a shred of evidence that the lumberjacks were familiar with Paul Bunyan, told stories about him, or indeed had ever heard of him.... The present author interviewed a lumberjack of rich experience in the 1920s, Wright T. Orcutt, who had written about lumberjacks and woods lore, and he had never heard a Bunyan story in the woods. And the Forest History Society in its far-ranging investigations of the sources for woods history has unearthed no evidence that Paul Bunyan was the subject of bunkhouse tales."
Gilman, p. 219, finds it hard to disentangle folklore from publicity. On the one hand, she says, "Yankee lumberjacks had their own her.... [H]e belonged to more than Minnesota. In forests from Maine to the Pacific Coast they told stories of Paul Bunyan. Many were about how he solved problems." Even though she claims a folklore origin, the story she retells is straight out of the popularized accounts. Yet she also says "Paul Bunyan was different. In 1914 the Red River Lumber Company of Minneapolis printed a pamphlet with stories about him. Paul's fame spread. Writers everywhere claimed him. They made up new stories and changed him from a clever Yankee lumberjack to a frontier giant."
Jamie Moreira reports that Sandy Ives found no Paul Bunyan tales at all among his New England informants. He also reports on a student collector who had the same experience.
Richard M. Dorson had a very critical appraisal of the legends in his book American Folklore; he includes Paul Bunyan as one of his key examples of "fakelore." Duncan Emrich, Folklore on the American Land, p. ix, says explicitly that the stories of Paul Bunyan "are not folktales."
Hoffman, while more sympathetic to Bunyan tales, notes (p. 35) that very many of them are not logging tales but are "typical of an American comic genre: the enlargement of natural objects, especially plaguey critters. This is often pushed to the grotesque. While the genre contributes some good Bunyan stories, it also exists quite independently of them...."
A pretty massive collection of authorities; I would be loathe to argue with them.
On the other hand, Bunyan's place in Minnesota's urban folklore seems clear -- you can hear screams all the way to Saint Paul any time anyone messes with a Paul Bunyan monument. The first one seems to have been put up in 1937 (Lass, p. 182). Minnesota in 1965 went so far as to publish a booklet about the "Paul Bunyan Trail," four interconnected loops leading to a lot of tourist destinations -- very few of which have anything to do with Paul and relatively few of which even have to do with logging.
Hardin, p. 296, says "The legends of Paul Bunyan are widely distributed throughout the lumber camps of the North," and claims to have assembled a batch of materials from 1916 -- though the book seems to use only one source, which looks secondary to me.
Havinghurst declares on p. 237 that "By 1870 [Bunyan] was a full-fledged deity, and in the next fifty years his fame completed its spread across the continent. Paul Bunyan became the logger's god from Maine to Oregon." Once again he supplies no source for this information.
Beck, collecting primarily in Michigan, gathered enough material to make a Paul Bunyan book, and to have some material left over for other collections. (In this context, it's interesting to note that Gardner and Chickering, who gathered much Michigan logging material, do not seem to have found any Paul Bunyan material.)
Norm Cohen cites the following from Leach's Standard Dictionary of Folklore: "As far as can be determined, the legend originated in Canada during the [nineteenth] century, and was considerably amplified as it spread west and south with the lumber industry, centering in the Lake states and the Northwest. In the course of his migration Paul Bunyan incorporated elements of local heroes like Jigger Jones (Johnson), Joe Mufraw, and Jean Frechette, whom he supplanted."
Cohen himself concluded, "He first appeared in print in stories published by James MacGillivray in 1910, but oral tales from lumbermen in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the Northwest circulated considerably earlier.... Paul was first introduced to a general audience by W.B. Laughead, a Minnesota advertising man, in a series of pamphlets (1914-44) used to publicize the products of the Red River Lumber Company.... James Stevens, also a lumber publicist, mixed tradition and invention in his version of the story, Paul Bunyan (1925). Along the way, the Bunyan stories took on the character of lying contests -- who could tell the biggest whopper about the good-natured Paul."
Cohen adds, in a message to the Ballad-L mailing list, "In a letter to Louise Pound (SFQ 7) Laughead states that he began with what he 'remembered from Minnesota logging camps (1900-1908)... then picked up odds and ends from letters received....'"
Laughead also produced the first Bunyan illustrations, some of which are shown after the preface of the new edition of Hoffman. Interestingly, these illustrations -- with a mustache that sticks out almost like a cat's whiskers and no beard -- bear little resemblance to the standard Paul Bunyan I seem to recall from my youth. Laughead's book The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan does admit that the author "embellished" the tales.
Hoffman, p. 5, quotes a newspaper story in which Laughead admitted to mixing advertising copy with stories about Paul. Laughead also confessed to creating Babe the Big Blue Ox (according to Hoffman, p. 75, the ox had been mentioned as early as 1910, but Laughead supplied the name and various particulars). Hoffman, pp. 6-7, demonstrates how Laughead gradually popularized his picture; the first edition, of 1914, is full of lumbering terms and proved not very popular; the later editions reduced the logging vocabulary and started adding the vocabulary of ordinary business.
This was enough of a success that the Red River company started to call its produces "Paul Bunyan's Pine" (Hoffman, p. 74), which surely helped promote the tale. Because Laughead had claimed his stories were logger folklore, however, Paul Bunyan could not be copyrighted; others soon began to use the Bunyan name (Hoffman, p. 82). The legend quickly became popular; the first Paul Bunyan festival was held in Brainerd, Minnesota in the mid-1930s (Hoffman, p. 81).
To Laughead's credit, when folklorists started to question him about his work, he readily confessed to what he had done (unlike, say, Stevens). This does give some credence to his claim of having had some sort of legend to start from. He apparently was surprised by the extent to which it took off. (Hoffman, p. 83)
Although, as noted above, Edith Fowke found no Bunyan songs, Jamie Moreira points to her published report, "In Defence of Paul Bunyan" (New York Folklore 5, 1979, 43-52), which says that there were nineteenth century folktales about him.
Jonathan Lighter reports a speculation of Gershon Legman that Bunyan began as a figure of erotic folklore (which obviously would explain why he wasn't cited in the earlier collections). Legman on p. 227 of The Horn Book says that Bunyan was "an upstart in folklore, but folklore nevertheless" (though without explaining or justifying the statement).
Hoffman, p. 8, however makes an interesting point: There are unquestionably folktales about Bunyan *now*, but they all appear to derive from print. He cites a tale about Bunyan's macaroni farm. This is not lumbering folklore; it is a tall tale gone into tradition. If there is a traditional core, it is secondhand.
Hoffman, p. 65, says that the writers who, starting in 1912, contributed most to the Bunyan legend were W. B. Laughead, Ida Virginia Turney, Esther Shephard, James Stevens, Glen Round, and Harold Felton.
Turney, who wrote in 1916, tells a series of tales about Paul so close to Laughead's that they clearly show direct dependence (Hoffman, p. 83) -- if not direct plagiarism, then she took the tales from informants who themselves had read Laughead.
Esther Shepherd, who published a popular Bunyan book in 1924, used both popular and traditional sources, making no attempt to distinguish them (Hoffman, pp. 87-88); it thus served primarily to muddy the tradition.
Then came James Stevens, of whom Hoffman, p. 95, declares, "although [he] has departed furthest from his oral materials, he has taken the greatest pains of any popularizer to convince his readers of his roots in the old tradition." Hoffman, p. 100, contends that Stevens simply borrowed the Bunyan setting for his own fiction -- but admits that it was the logical next step in the popularization of the idea. While granting its popularity, Hoffman labels it "puerile," "vapid," and "overwritten." He also notes (p. 106) that Stevens took up a number of then-current issues, such as Prohibition) that could hardly have been part of the original Bunyan legend.
I must admit to agreeing. The opening chapters of Stevens, e.g., show Paul living in a cave as an independent "scholar" and living on the wild moose meat his dog NIagara hauled in (p. 7). It sounds like a tall tale when described, but it reads like bad fantasy.
Hoffman does say that the second Stevens book on Bunyan, The Saginaw Paul Bunyan, published in 1932, is better (Hoffman, p. 113), lacking the political overtones. Frank Shay's Here's Audacity, from 1930, includes Paul among other heroes such as Paul Bunyan; it qualifies as one of the few attempts to put Paul in the context of what Hoffman calls "frontier demigods."
Hoffman, p. 116, adds that The Saginaw Paul Bunyan was the last Bunyan book intended for an adult audience. From then on, the tales were pitched to children. By 1947, he had even worked his way into the Compton Encyclopedia for children (Hoffman, p. 120) -- in an article which, sadly, swallowed the Stevens explanation for Paul.
Harold Felton published the voluminous Legends of Paul Bunyan in 1947; according to Hoffman, pp. 123-124, this suffered from the usual problem of failing to distinguish folklore from fakelore.
Over this period, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, W. H. Auden, and Louis Untermeyer all produced Bunyan poems. Hoffman, p. 128, suggests that they were all trying to make a true American myth. Their efforts were probably better than the popularizers'. But hardly more folkloric.
Auden, indeed, seems to have tried to suppress his work, an operetta for which he supplied the words (Hoffman, pp. 143-144). Of Untermeyer, Hoffman says (p. 153), "In five hundred ways it repeats what had been written before by Laughead, Turney, Shephard, Stevens, Wadsworth, Rounds, and others, but always with a difference. The distinction is very simple: Mr. Untermeyer has one great advantage over the popularizers, and that is good writing."
Hoffman, p. xxvi, has what I think a fitting summary: "When Paul Bunyan became a popular rather than merely an occupational hero, he ceased to be the product of a homogenous folk society. In the popularization of Paul Bunyan not only were his adventures revised, but his character and the humor with which his exploits were told were altered still more. His changing lineaments reflect the changing values of American culture over the last half century."
I guess I'll have to leave it to you to draw your own conclusions beyond that.
Hoffman makes some other interesting points about Bunyan and his mythos. For instance, he observes on p. 43 that, unlike other mythic heroes, Bunyan embraces technology and even tries to enhance its application. But he adds on p. 62 that this simplifies the process of storytelling, because technology does not require characterization. - RBW
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