Folk Narrative

By: Elton Miles

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: October 22, 2020

In the range of Texas folk prose narrative, myth, legend, and tale keep the same meanings they have in world-wide folklore studies. In their natural state, examples of these genres are communicated mainly by word of mouth in differing versions within groups of people. They might be quite long or as brief as a single anecdote. True myths, rare in American folklore except among the Indians, are prose narratives of supernatural or religious content meant often to explain the origin of life, geographical features, or natural phenomena. The mythology of the Lipan Apaches of the Texas South Plains includes a culture hero, Killer-of-Enemies. During his stay among the mortals, he killed men's foes, created deer, horses, and other animals, and taught Lipans all they knew, including warfare and raiding. Among Caucasian Americans a few spurious Indian myths circulate, such as the explanation of how Twin Sisters Mountains near Alpine came to be. Two Indian girls quarreled and the Great Spirit turned them into twin mountains as punishment. Mythic elements are sometimes present in legends and in tales such as the story of how God, having created the world, took dominion over most of it but gave Texas to the devil.

A legend purports to be a historical account of events and persons in the remote or recent past. Regardless of its content, it is told as truth or believable rumor. Many legends include supernatural details, and most Texas communities, like communities everywhere, have their own accounts of local people caught up in eerie doings at a nearby haunted house or graveyard. Witchcraft may be involved, as in the Waco legend of a cotton-gin worker who cut off the head of an attacking cat, only to return home and find his wife decapitated. Often such a story becomes a localized legend. A very common one of these tells of a farmer or rancher "just a few miles from here" who died of a rattlesnake bite. Afterward, one or more of his sons died because the snake's fangs were left in the inherited boots. A more recent urban legend states that Houston sewers are infested with alligators that breed after being flushed down toilets and live on white marijuana that grows in the dark. Sometimes this legend is used to warn children not to play in storm drains. Personal legends include anecdotes of local persons or the teller's own family. They may tell, for instance, of a local simpleton or skinflint such as the dying rancher who arranged to have a telephone installed in his coffin so that he could carry on his business. Some books are devoted to Texas folk place names with their legends, others to legends of treasures and lost mines from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle. Historical legends about actual persons and events claim to relate regional history, sometimes that of a great white buffalo, an oil strike, a killing, or an outlaw, and often with violent contests for revenge or ownership of property. These sometimes evolve into lengthy cycles of legends, or sagas, about the same persons and general theme. One cycle is about the supposed quarter-century conflict over the ownership of the Fort Leaton trading post and other lands near Presidio. One legend in the cycle says that in the late 1840s Ben Leaton lured a large number of Indians to a barbecue in the fort, then massacred them with a concealed cannon. This legend seems an alteration of an actual event of 1837, when Leaton was in New Mexico with a scalp-hunting party led by John Johnson, who perpetrated a massacre. In a newly-settled country, historical records help folklorists observe the vernacular legend-building process. Additionally, historical legends give the historian clues to follow in searching for facts.

A tale for entertainment is not usually meant to convey facts, though it is sometimes told to dupe the listener. Texas folk narrative is replete with such animal tales as that about the hunting dog that drives quail into a prairie-dog hole and releases them one at a time with a forepaw; with fables and magic tales for children, especially in the Mexican-American tradition; with Aggie jokes, simpleton tales adapted to students and professors of Texas A&M University; with stories about oil-rich "shirt-sleeve millionaires"; with stories in dialect, especially that of Blacks, Mexicans, or European immigrants ("Throw dot hoss over der fence some hay"); or with punning jokes about White Texan speech: "She's some doll." "Yeah, a crocodoll."

The tall tale has been the special object of serious study by Texas folklorists James Frank Dobie and Mody Coggin Boatright. As Dobie observes, the Texas tall tale has changed in nature since 1940. Earlier Texas humor "bragged on the worst." Instead of cutting out a longhorn from the thick brush of South Texas, for instance, a cowboy gave up and rode away when he saw a rattlesnake try to crawl into the brush and have to back out. "Now," says Dobie, "we are veering rapidly to the California style of bragging," as "so many Texans...have felt called upon to justify their Texan pride." The Texan of Dobie's time modestly explains to a New York friend that though his forty acres is not a ranch and has no brand or name, "some people call it downtown Houston." Boatright calls "tall lying" an art. The tall tale is made up of authentic details rather than generalized exaggeration, and these details are ludicrous in their combination. It includes such circumstantial detail as names, places, and tangential facts. In structure, "it begins plausibly and builds carefully to a climax, and the narrative must not topple until the climax is reached." One tall tale relates that at his noon break on a hot autumn day of knocking cornstalks, a farmer went for a swim in the creek. As he dived in, the southwest wind dried up all the water. Before he crashed on the rocks, a flash flood filled the creek up again. Before he could come up, he was trapped as a sudden blue norther froze the surface. But he didn't drown because the sun came out to melt the ice, and the farmer climbed onto the bank with no injury besides a sunburn.

Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams, eds., "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). Mody C. Boatright, Folk Laughter on the American Frontier (1961). James T. Bratcher, Analytical Index to Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Volumes 1–36 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1973). John Mason Brewer, Dog Ghosts and Other Negro Folktales (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957). John Mason Brewer, The Word on the Brazos: Negro Preacher Tales from the Brazos Bottoms of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1953). Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2d ed. (1978). J. Frank Dobie, The Longhorns (Boston: Little, Brown, 1941; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980). Wayland D. Hand, American Folk Legend: A Symposium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971). Stan Hoig, The Humor of the American Cowboy (1958). Elton Miles, Tales of the Big Bend (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). Patrick B. Mullen, I Heard the Old Fisherman Say: Folklore of the Texas Gulf Coast (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978). William W. Newcomb, The Indians of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961). Américo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958). University of Texas Folklore Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Elton Miles, “Folk Narrative,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 29, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
October 22, 2020