Podcasts are all the rage these days and we, like so many out there, have our favorites. Among those favorites is the Myths and Legends podcast. In an episode I recently listened to, the podcast host, Jason, covers two topics that hit very close to home (specifically for DUO): advertising, combined with storytelling tradition on a grander scale.
Truth In Advertising: Paul Bunyan
The episode starts out with a brief explanation of the titular character; one of the rare few discussed on the podcast that originated in American folklore. In fact, as Jason points out, American folk heroes are very small in numbers compared to the rest of the world. We are a young country, after all.
“There are statues of that famed multi-story tall lumberjack and his massive blue ox all around the northern United States. The “real” Paul Bunyan is really just an amalgamation of stories lumberjacks told each other in the bunkhouses … and stories about him were made up by authors and advertisers who had nothing to do with the original Paul Bunyan stories.”
Jason then breaks down the source of this lore, which came as quite a surprise to me. It has always been my understanding that Paul Bunyan, like many other figures of tall tales, grew from oral tradition – which he did – but the means of how those fireside stories were carried into mainstream culture was not what I expected:
“His stories started in the lumberjack camps around 1885 … By the time his stories was sought by writers, the world in which Paul Bunyan lived … was already disappearing. Regardless, [Laffed, a copyrighter for the lumber company] was looking for a way to sell lumber and he needed a mascot. This famous character was good enough, so [Laffed] used him … Paul Bunyan’s blue ox had remained unnamed up until this point. [Laffed] decided that he needed a name … So, that’s how we got Babe the Blue Ox.”
As Jason later points out, the evolution of Paul Bunyan’s story is a prime example of oral tradition changing, shifting as it solidifies into various canonized mediums:
“The Red River Lumber Company trademarked an image of Bunyan for their logo, but they never copyrighted the 20+ page book. They thought that if it was shared widely enough, then it would be just more name recognition for them. Remember: their primary aim was … selling lumber. And they were effective. The stories were printed and reprinted. They sent out thousands of booklets a year and, I mean, we’re still talking about the Red River Lumber Company one hundred years later…
One frustration that the early researchers expressed was that the stories were different everywhere. There wasn’t any Paul Bunyan ‘canon,’ so to speak. The folklore was this living, breathing thing that changed every time it was told…
We’ll never know the original stories told in those bunkhouses long ago by men who worked such dangerous, long hours because, for better or worse, the stories were taken and changed for various purposes.”
As the episode concludes, we’re left to consider the cyclical nature of storytelling as a whole. Here, in our modern age, we continue to discover new ways of sharing and telling stories:
“On this podcast, I try to get to the very early versions of the stories, but I also don’t repeat them verbatim, often taking liberties with things like dialogue and character motivation. I was worried about this at first, but it seems to have been well received. The Paul Bunyan story story is encouraging though. In doing this podcast, I realized that I inadvertently brought the folklore back a step, when it was just one person telling another person a story, making small changes to account for time period and personal taste. I’ve also heard that people find the stories on this podcast so interesting, that they tell other people, no doubt making their own changes, which is awesome.
It’s cool to think that we’re all sort of participating in this tradition as old as storytelling itself, while using this twenty-first century medium.”
This is all especially meaningful for us, because, not only is it our job to find and convey story in each project – you might even call it a daily goal – but we also just love a good yarn. And this example really goes to show just how much power can be found in advertising!
The episode is filled with so many additional fascinating details and stories. As are all the episodes on the Myths and Legends podcast. The topics are vast and aplenty and I highly recommend you check it out – to experience Jason’s presentation, if nothing else.