20 Folklore Books From Various United States Cultures
Here’s the thing that a lot of people may not realize about the United States: it may be recognized internationally as a singular country and culture, but it’s really more like a bunch of cultural regions dressed up in a trench coat and trying to pass itself off as one group, a la those kids who try to sneak into a R-rated movies by standing on each other’s shoulders. It’s a simple assumption to make, much of the culture featured or advertised from the United States is flattened to stereotypes, and most of us can’t afford to travel outside the country so it’s not like those overseas are getting a great sample size of various Americans.
But there’s much more than just your standard Cali, New York, Western, Southern, or vaguely rural cultural aspects to the United States. I mean, even within states (if they’re big enough) there are different cultural traditions. Take the state I live in, Georgia. I live in North Georgia, just outside of the Appalachia region there. And it’s very different from Atlanta, and Southern Georgia, and the coastal region of the state. Sure, there are similarities, but they’ve all had different influences and syncretized with those influences, leading to enough deviations that it would be difficult to call them the same culture. And that’s not even touching states like Texas and California. Which means each of these regions have different stories to tell. Those are the stories I’ve tried to collect here, or at least some of them since there’s a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
Generalized United States Folklore
A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People Edited by B.A. Botkin
If you were looking for a compendium of American folklore to start you off, or to re-familiarize yourself with the topic and diving deeper, this is the book to pick up. It’s what I use for my own academic folklore research. It does exactly as it says on the cover and collects various nursery rhymes, legends, tall tales, and various other memetic stories within the overarching American culture beyond stories you may have heard growing up, like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. If you’re a folklore fan like me, it belongs on your shelf.
Foxfire Story: Oral Tradition in Southern Appalachia Edited by T. J. Smith
The Foxfire Fund has become ubiquitous with Appalachian folklore, and rightfully so since they’ve been working on collecting and preserving the oral traditions and culture of Southern Appalachia since 1972. There are multiple Foxfire books out, covering various topics, but this one is the one I recommend starting with, as it collects the director T.J. Smith’s favorite stories, proverbs/sayings, songs, jokes, even local’s anecdotes of Southern Appalachia. Story telling is a deeply rooted tradition of the region and Foxfire does that tradition justice by carrying it forward to a larger audience.
The Jack Tales Collected and Retold by Richard Chase
I have no doubt in my mind that you have heard of at least one Jack tale, most likely Jack and the Beanstalk. But there are so many more, and in Appalachia, he’s their resident trickster, traveling with the Scottish and Irish immigrants to their new home, getting into situations generally of his own creation and then getting out of them with a certain amount of luck (as well as a dash of pluck and cleverness). If you’ve ever read the Fables graphic novel series, their Jack character is based off this character archetype. And you can read some of the best here, from Jack’s scrapes with giants, witches, and one of my personal favorites, a sop doll.
Central Florida Folklore
Florida’s Ghostly Legends And Haunted Folklore: Volume One: South And Central Florida by Greg Jenkins
It may be known as the Sunshine State, but Florida still has its fair share of ghosts. The first of three volumes, in this collection you’ll hear about the scarier side of Florida from Tampa to the Key West, including those centered around Disneyland and the numerous hurricanes that hit the area and the devastation that they cause. If, after reading this volume, you’re left wanting some more, the second volume covers North Florida and St. Augustine, and the final volume covers the Gulf Coast and Pensacola.
Deep South Folklore
Spooky South: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore Retold by S.E. Schlosser
Do you know how Jack o’ Lanterns came to be? Or maybe ways to outsmart Ol’ Scratch? This book is the place to read about them, and so many more lesser-known folklore stories alongside common ones like the Wampus Cat or the Bell Witch, all collected by the same woman who runs the website AmericanFolklore.net. As a nice touch, the stories are written in a way that is reminiscent of old Southern storytellers, so even if you’re reading them by yourself, you still get the feeling of sitting around a campfire or at a grandparent’s knee as they recount these old tales.
The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia McKissack
If you’re looking for some scarier folklore stories, this is your book. It tells stories based around the folklore of the Southern Black community up to the 20th century. As such, these stories are a bit on the heavier side, since many of these are set during slavery and the civil rights era, like the story of a Black woman who was denied a ride by a white bus driver and comes back to haunt him with her ghost, or the ghost of a lynching victim coming back to take his revenge. There are still happy endings, though. Stories where the protagonist triumphs and goes home safe. The book is technically aimed towards middle grade readers, but truly anyone would enjoy picking up this book and reading it. Just maybe with the lights on.
Cajun and Creole Folktales: The French Oral Tradition of South Louisiana by Barry Jean Ancelet
This book could be considered a bit of a monster when it comes to the folklore retelling world, at 300 pages, but it has good reason to be. Each story has annotations and is told in both the original Cajun French and English. On top of that, some biographies of the better known storytellers are included, making this book one of the best ways to get a near complete picture of what Cajun folklore and oral tradition is like, as well as the syncretism that occurred between French and African culture within Southern Louisiana, and especially in the Big Easy.
Louisiana Legends and Lore by Alan Brown
If you’re looking for a more generalized collection of stories from Louisiana, this is it. You can read about Marie Laveau, the terrifying and murderous Axeman, the Loup Garou, and the various outlaws who have passed through the region. It’s a short little read, at only 160 pages, but still chock-full of history and the lore that goes with it, even the stories that like to hide in the darker corners. It was just published in 2021, so you can read some of the newer arrived stories as well for a truly complete picture of Louisiana culture.
Haunted Heartland by Beth Scott and Michael Norman
There are a lot of ghosts in the Midwest, and this book has 150 of their true stories. At least, as true as a ghost story can be, even with a sprinkling of local history interspersed in each tale. The book is broken down into ten chapters, with each chapter covering a different state in the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They’re pretty scary stories as well, making them perfect to read around a campfire, and perfect for reading in small snippets to keep you from getting too scared. There’re few things scarier than a cornfield at night, and if there’s anything the Midwest has a lot of, it’s cornfields.
Folktales and Legends of the Middle West by Edward McClelland
If tall tales and larger than life heroes are your thing, then this collection of Midwest lore is the book you need to pick up. You’ll read about lumberjack Paul Bunyan (who was more than just larger than life), steelworker Joe Magerac, oarsman Mike Fink, even Rosie the Riveter. More than just that, you can read about the sea shanties of the great lakes and the spirituals sung in the area as enslaved people traveled the Underground Railroad for a chance of freedom. And who can forget the monster of Lake Erie and the Hodag of Wisconsin?
New England Folklore
Lore, Legends, and Secrets of New England by Arlene Nicholson and Thomas D’Agostino
New England is full of history, even if one starts with colonization. And with that history comes folklore. This book takes those two subjects and tells them both side by side, telling the local legends and then giving reasons as to why those stories may have come about or dispelling the myths that surround places like Devil’s Foot Rock in Rhode Island, or other locations that may be in your backyard if you live in the area.
The Children of the Morning Light: Wampanoag Tales by Medicine Story
The Wampanoag people are from the area we call Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and are the people the Tisquantum (or Squanto) came from and who first interacted with the Puritan colonists when they landed at Plymouth Rock. These are their stories, collected and written down much in the way they would have been spoken aloud, so you still get the rhythm and life that would be found in one in the stories as if there was a storyteller there telling them to you, from their creation myths to the stories about death.
Ozark Magic and Folklore by Vance Randolph
There is something about mountains that inspires a certain type of folk tradition, and the Ozarks are no different. Granted, there’s some overlap with Appalachia, due to plenty of people from Appalachia moving to this Midwest mountain range. But you isolate communities long enough, even in something like a mountain range, and deviations are bound to occur. While this book was published in 1947, making some of the wording and ideas a little off, it is still one of the most comprehensive collections of Ozark folk traditions, moving beyond just the stories they tell to the various folk magic practices they have, even beauty treatments and lucky charms. Honestly, this book is practically an ethnography, as opposed to just a story collection.
The West Folklore
Montana Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries (Legends of the West) by Ed Lawrence
History and folklore is masterfully blended in this book, with historical myths laid out and refuted clearly. More than just that, it goes into the various sea creature sightings Montana’s lakes have had, the numerous unidentified flying objects that have flown over the state, and your standard hauntings that come with any place being occupied for more than 100 years. This book is a great way to read about the state’s history and have fun in the process. You learn in the best way possible: without even realizing it.
The Ways of My Grandmothers by Beverly Hungry Wolf
Beverly Hungry Wolf spent the late 19th and early 20th century traveling around the Blackfoot Nation and collecting oral histories from her matrilineal ancestors. Yes, it contains stories that have been passed down from mother to mother about life and death and all that falls in between, but it also tells of traditions. You’ll be able to read about Blackfoot recipes, how to tan and sew, histories surrounding war and disease, and so much more. It truly is a worthwhile read.
Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest by Jose Griego y Maestas and Rudolfo A. Anaya
Stretching back to when the Spanish first started settling in the area, this book collects 23 tales. More than just Spanish stories, they show a blending of Indigenous beliefs with the stories that were carried in the minds of the new visitors to the land. As an added bonus, the stories are told initially in their original Spanish and are followed up by English translations, making it a handy tool for brushing off any Spanish skills you have or as a supplement for language apps like Duolingo.
African American Folklore
Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
Yes, that Zora Neale Hurston. If you’ve missed the pieces I’ve written on her, then you may not be aware that she was an anthropologist who focused on Black culture and folklore. This is one of the first books she wrote on the subject. In it, she chronicles her journey to her hometown and records the various sermons and songs, oral histories and stories told in the community, some of them dating back to the time of slavery, reminding her of her childhood and preserving the tradition for others to read. Zora even studied under some hoodoo doctors as well, and documented various rituals and spells taught to her. It’s a gorgeous blend of folklore and traditions with a personal story of returning to one’s roots.
From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore Edited by Dr. Daryl Cumber Dance
This is possibly one of the largest collections of Black folklore out there, clocking in at nearly 800 pages of oral tradition. It is difficult to express just how important oral tradition was to the Black American community, especially considering that for much of their history on American soil, it was forbidden to teach them how to read and write, so any cultural knowledge had to be passed down through stories and artwork. And all of that is collected here, from recipes to folk songs to sermons, there’s even the folk art created and the literature styles that arose via authors like Paul Dunbar and Sojourner Truth.
Southeast Alaska Folklore
Spirits of Southeast Alaska: The History & Hauntings of Alaska’s Panhandle by James P. Devereaux
One of the best uses of folklore is to teach not just the traditions of the culture, but the history of the land the culture inhabits. Like many of the other books on this list, Spirits of Southeast Alaska does this masterfully, using just the ghost stories of the region. I’ve spoken to James myself about the book and can confirm that he chose the best ghost stories there, vetting each one personally and making sure that the story was verifiable in some way, making this book one you won’t regret picking up to read.
Heroes, Villains, and Ghosts: Folklore of Old California by Hector Lee
California is a cultural melting pot within the larger melting pot of the United States, and this book proves it. It’s very Old West themed, telling legends of the famous people who used to live there, both truthful and rumored, with folktales like La Llorona and Bigfoot. It’s a short read, with the page count coming in under just 190 pages. Luckily, the spookiest stories it has are not that spooky, so this is perfect for a quick read when waiting for the bus or any other opportunity you have to kill time and learn some cultural history.
Chicano Folklore by Rafaela G. Castro
If you’ve ever had interest in Mexican American or Chicano culture, this is the book to pick up. Really more of a dictionary than just a collection of books, it reaches so far back it covers the folklore and history of the region before it was even part of the United States. You’ll read about mythical figures in the region, folk recipes for hangover cures, music that sprung from the area, even clothing that started from within the culture before becoming mainstream. It’s one of the most comprehensive books on the chicano culture I’ve seen in my personal studies.
Of course, this doesn’t cover all of the cultural regions or Indigenous tribes of the United States, as that list would be hundreds of books long — and that’s assuming there’s been a book written for each cultural group. Most of the time it just gets broken down by state, which can cause a fair bit of overlap between books. Hopefully, though, this is a good place for you to start on you American folklore journey, or you come across some stories you haven’t heard of yet. If you’re curious about some of the folklore story types mentioned in these books, I recommend you check out my primer on fairytales, legends, and myths. Otherwise, if you just have a folklore itch that will not be satisfied, you can always peruse our folklore tag and see if anything there suits your fancy.