Tag Archives: American folklore

Tooth Fairy – American Folk Ritual

1. Text

When asked to share a folk belief, the informant responded with the following:

“The tooth fairy is a mythical creature that is very familiar to American children. They are taught that the tooth fairy will exchange their lost teeth for some kind of prize if they put them under their pillow before going to bed. Parents will often come in while the child is sleeping and swap the tooth out for a small gift, usually money, to make it look like the tooth fairy came.”

2. Context

Informant relation to the piece:

Informant learned the ritual from hearing kindergarten classmates talk about losing teeth. Informant is currently a college student. Informant is American and grew up in the states. They mentioned that at a “young enough age everyone believed in the tooth fairy” and was “upset when they realized that she isn’t real”. The ritual made the informant “excited to lose teeth” because it meant that they would get a gift that night. They realized the tooth fairy was not real around 8 years old when they caught their dad putting money under their pillow.

Informant interpretation of the piece:

The informant has no idea where the ritual originated, and suggests that maybe it started as a way to keep kids from being scared of losing baby teeth.

3. Analysis

The American folk ritual of the tooth fairy is tied to a life cycle event of aging where children lose their baby teeth and grow adult ones that last for the rest of their lives. This ritual is not tied to a specific time or date, but rather whenever a child loses a baby tooth. It also only happens for a limited amount of times before the child loses all their baby teeth. Since most children go through this process of losing teeth, it is a common and widespread ritual for American families. This ritual is mainly a form of deception from the parents to the children as they create a mythical figure called the tooth fairy to create a sense of magic and wonder in the children that they associate with losing teeth. This seemingly harmless form of deception or fictional storytelling from parents can also be observed in rituals such as Santa Claus bringing presents on Christmas Eve. This is interesting when compared to some Asian cultures which originally did not perform rituals such as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. In Japan, when a child loses a baby tooth, they either throw it up on the roof or bury it in the dirt. There is no reward for losing the tooth like in the American Tooth Fairy ritual however it symbolizes the child maturing and wishing for good fortune and health for the child. In comparison the Japanese ritual does not involve deception from the parents as the American one does. Perhaps this speaks to how the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus act as a rite of passage for Americans, where most children believe in the mythical figures until a certain age and must deal with the realization that they were deceived by their parents, which motivates them to continue to pass down this rite of passage to their children. In a way this form of deception encapsulated in the tooth fairy ritual represents the loss of naivety and gaining of maturity when a child grows up. Since growing up often means learning a lot of unpleasant faces of the world, the tooth fairy ritual can act as a vaccine or initial exposure to American children in preparation for adulthood.

Paul Bunyan: A folk tale hero


“I think what’s not talked about a lot is Paul Bunyan.” The informant grew a smile on their face. “Paul Bunyan is an American folk tale. It’s just a guy that’s really big. So it’s this really big guy and he lives in the sort of upper-Midwest of the United States– near Canada, Minnesota. That area. And he has this big blue ox named Babe that he saved from the snow of one cold winter. That’s his pet.”

They looked up in thought for a moment. “There’s not really a single tale, he just is a folk figure. He was born big and then grew up to be even bigger. Once he was an adult he became a lumberjack, so he wore plaid and looked like, you know, the basic lumberjack with an axe made for his size. And by virtue of being big, he was very good at being a lumberjack. “

People don’t think of America having folk tales like that, but we do! And Paul Bunyan is the biggest one.”


“I don’t think of Paul Bunyan a lot, and the area he exists in isn’t one I’m particularly used to. I just have an appreciation knowing that he’s a specifically American thing.”

“I don’t remember specifically, but it’s a piece of Americana that you just absorb over time simply by being raised in the United States. Kind of like Uncle Sam and John Henry. It was just cultural osmosis.”

“He’s very much just representative of the lumberjacking culture. It’s an interesting folk tale because it’s something that was uniquely American. Folk tales are representative of the culture and Paul Bunyan uniquely represents individualism, the rugged American spirit, being self-made, and all ‘I pulled myself up by my boot straps.'”


I believe Paul Bunyan is very much representative of an average man with potential that’s larger than life. I think that a very important aspect of his character is the fact that, despite being so large and strong, his choice of work is very humble and is a huge part of his identity, marking its importance. It’s this aspect of him that makes him strangely relatable and human. Personally, I’m aware of Paul Bunyan’s tale being a result of fakelore– as it was created by lumberjacking companies, but the fact that my informant wasn’t aware of this, makes me think about the effectiveness of the tale. Maybe, since Paul Bunyan is representative of the American spirit, there’s something to say about the commercial value behind him.

Muscle White.

L is a 78-year-old Caucasian male originally from Meridian, Mississippi. L is a retired drill sergeant and veteran of the American war in Vietnam.

While visiting Phoenix, Arizona I met with L to discuss folklore, as he had previously helped me collect war stories for an oral history project. I met L at his Phoenix office where he provided me with two scary stories he remembered from his past. The following is the first of these two stories, which he first heard as a teenager in the 60s.

L: Ok so this is the story of Muscle White… and Muscle White.. was a really bad man, he was always in trouble and been to prison two or three times, and uh been in a bunch of fights and stuff and he got in a fight where he was hurt really bad one time.. and he lost his right arm. And uh, they fixed him up a hook in prison, so he had this hook on his, on his right arm… Well he was in prison, in Parchman Prison in Mississippi… and he broke out, he escaped. And there was this state wide manhunt for Muscle White because he, he was a bad man. They, everybody was looking for him because uh.. he’d been in fights he’d killed some people I mean, he, he robbed some banks this was a bad guy. So everybody was out looking for him.. So, around Meridian where I lived, there were several places where, uh, teenagers liked to go and uh, park and pad, and.. you know and, and uh.. So, one of ‘em was a place that we called Lover’s Lane. And it was a place out in the country. And so uh, this boy and, and girl went out there, they were I think sixteen years old or so, and they went out there and they’re talking. And.. and uh.. um. The girl said that uh, she thought she heard something. And, the boy said “no it’s just your imagination there’s nothing out here there’s nobody out here” and they look, there’s no other cars out here, so there’s nobody here. And she says “no I really thought I heard something, you know or somebody or something” and he goes “no no it’s ok there’s nothing, there’s nothing out here.” And uh, she says “well, see I’m scared.” She says “I really wanna go.” He says “well no, see it’s ok really no no no” she says she really really wants to go and she’s really scared. He says well ok. Uh.. I, I guess we’ll go. And, and then he heard some—a bump on the car. Just as he was cranking up, and that kinda spooked him, and he threw it in drive and he took off real quick. And went down the road, and he said well “the night is ruined so I might as well take you home.” So he took this girl over to her house.. he got out and walked around to the side of his car to open the door for her, and there was a right arm hanging on the door with a hook on the door handle. Muscle White had been there.

Reflection: I have heard the Hook Man urban legend enough times over the course of my life to assume it offered me no more surprises. Yet, L managed to offer a version of the story that was both compelling in its execution and completely unfamiliar to me. I found it fascinating how fleshed out the Hook Man was in L’s telling of the narrative, as most versions of the story I know reduce the Hook Man to a faceless, nameless escaped convict. I believe the local geographical details that L imbues Muscle White’s backstory with provide excellent insight into Mississippi’s cultural history. Specifically, I believe L’s linkage of Muscle White to Parchman prison (a real prison in Mississippi) speaks to the prison’s historical notoriety in Mississippi. As Parchman prison is linked to a storied past of forced labor and terrible conditions for its inmates, it’s not hard to imagine how the story of the Hook Man and the prison eventually melded together through a shared association with evil in the Mississippian collective conscience.

 “For another version, see Brunvand, Jan Harold. 2014, Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends, Page #1659


The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my mother/informant (SW).

HS: So you had a high school tradition that you would like to elaborate upon, is that right?

SW: So back in high school, when I was still living in Kansas there really wasn’t that much to do. Here in California, you can go to the beach, surf, play volleyball, your options are virtually unlimited. You can take a drive to the desert or go to the mountains. But in Kansas, the options are a lot more limited. So what we would do as entertainment is something that we called, “mudding.”

HS: And what exactly is “mudding?”

SW: Okay, this is going to sound dumb, but there was literally nothing to do in Kansas. That’s why I moved back to California as soon as possible! But anyway, my friends and our guy friend group would take out our jeeps and trucks to the nearest muddy, flat area, and do donuts and drive around. The competition was to get as much mud on your car as possible and the winner would get paid out by all the other drivers.


My informant is my mother. She was raised in Huntington Beach, California, but she moved to Kansas with her family when she was 16 because a majority of her family was living there and in Missouri. She always dreamed of coming back to California and took the first opportunity she could get to come back. She now lives in Dana Point.


I was sitting at dinner with my parents and was talking to my mom about why she moved back to California from Kansas.


This tradition in my mother’s community shines a light on smaller local contexts in which people seek entertainment. Mudding made me realize that traditions are widely confined to their regional context and are cultivated and transformed within those communities. Out of circumstance, individuals are confined to the cultural and regional settings in which they are raised.

The Goat-Man Of Pope Lick Creek

Informant’s Background:

My informant, AH, was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, but now lives in Los Angeles where she attends undergraduate study at USC. She is 21 years old.


The informant is a close friend and former roommate of mine. I asked her if she had any folklore from her hometown in Kentucky she could share with me. For the purposes of this performance, she is labeled as AH, and I am labeled as AT.


AH: “So there’s this creek, pretty close to my house, probably about like ten minutes away, it’s called Pope Lick, I don’t know why, but uhm me and my friends would go there pretty often because there’s these like train tracks that run up above and underneath there is where the goat man is supposed to be. So the goat man he’s supposed to be like legs of a goat, top part of a dude, and what he’s supposed to do is if you’re there at night (which we were pretty often), he’d go and like either like lure you down and then go and like grab you and eat you or he’d like fucking jump down and get you. But that was his whole thing like (*in spooky voice*) oooOOhhh we’re hanging out, and we might die! Someone’s gonna get killed by the goat man! But it was very fun, yeah, that’s most of the stuff.”

AT: “Where did you first hear about it?”

AH: “So I first heard of it… my uh-my girlfriend at the time she was like “oh, have you heard of the goat man?” and I was like “no” and she was like “yeah so if we go here at night we might see this like goat man person thing.” And that was like when I first heard about it and then we went together and we didn’t see anything, but it was definitely kind of like a creepy vibe, like abandon fucking train tracks, kind of creepy.”


The first thing that came to mind upon my hearing about this was Ray Cashman’s article Visions of Irish Nationalism, which we read in class, more specifically where Cashman discusses how a seemingly innocuous location can hold a special meaning to the locals of the area or to those properly informed (Cashman, 373). In this case, the location is seemingly mundane, a railroad trestle bridge, yet there it has a different meaning to those that live in the area that are “in the know”. According to my research, there actually have been a number of deaths as recently as 2019 at the location, as it is actually not abandoned and is a major railway for trains. So in this case we see an example where depending on the time of the visit, and how safe they were being, the informant and their partner could easily have been seriously injured by going to a location that is actively dangerous and prohibited of entry to the public, yet the myth surrounding the location provides a new meaning to the location, and makes it a desirable destination to visit for locals.

Cashman, Ray. Visions of Irish Nationalism. Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 45, No. 3. Pp. 361-381.