Handbook Describes Storytelling Traditions

One of the difficulties facing Appalachian Studies has always been the lack of a good, single volume that would examine the multitude of issues and topics that, taken as a whole, would provide a good introduction to Appalachia. Such a book would need to include sections on history, natural resources, and the diverse backgrounds of the people in Appalachia. It would also need to address education, economic matters, politics, activism, religion, and health care. Finally, it would need to cover cultural matters, such as music, folklife, literature, and visual arts.

A Handbook to Appalachia: An Introduction to the Region is the first volume to adequately address all these issues. Edited by Radford University scholars Grace Toney Edwards, JoAnn Asbury, and Ricky Cox, the Handbook was designed to “reflect the thinking and input of as many Appalachian scholars as possible, that it be written in a prose style and layout appropriate for, and appealing to, a diverse audience, most of whom are not academics; that it include sources and resources for those who wish to know and do more; and that it be affordable to institutions and individuals.” This fine volume does all of these things, and should be required reading for anyone interested in Appalachia.

The following section on storytelling is taken from the chapter “Appalachian Folklife” by Deborah Thompson and Irene Moser, in A Handbook to Appalachia.

The often-noted verbal skills of the mountain people were well cultivated. Along with singing and storytelling sessions, the school yard, workplace, barber shop, bar, local convenience store, and street offer many opportunities to hone one’s riddling, word play, proverb, and joke-telling skills. Word games, riddles, and counting and alphabet rhymes enhance both verbal and “critical thinking” skills. Sermons and prayers delivered in traditional mountain churches often reflect distinctive rhetorical styles. This varied and dynamic swapping of oral forms has provided an important creative environment for Appalachia’s many poets and novelists.

Storytelling and traditional speech patterns have been of special interest to folklorists and linguists as well as to writers. Observers of the tale-telling tradition now realize that the communication achieved between storyteller and audience goes well beyond entertainment. Storytelling creates a social bond between and among teller and audience members. Some stories, for example, those of the trickster Jack, model such socially accepted behavior as cleverness, generosity, and hard work and deride such antisocial and foolish behaviors as selfishness, dishonesty, and egotism. Listeners and storytellers alike can explore the intricacy of relationships, the difficulties of growing up, or other psychological issues through following the characters in traditional stories.

Storytelling offers ordinary people a chance to exercise their verbal skills and vivid imaginations, to entertain family and neighbors, and to reassert emotional and symbolic ties to earlier generations of storytellers. Doug Stanley of Beckley, West Virginia, is always willing to tell one of his uncle’s “Jack” tales. And the audience always loved to hear him, whatever their backgrounds. A favorite subject of storytelling since the earliest exploration has been the interaction between the human and animal world. Mountaineers especially enjoy astounding newcomers and young people with accounts of bears and rattlesnakes of prodigious size, the “hoop” snake that can roll up hill, hunting dogs of unparalleled toughness, and the time twelve turkeys succumbed to a single shot.

Appalachian stories often parallel stories found in other regions of America and even throughout the world. “Vanishing hitchhikers” have appeared in Appalachia as well as in California and New York. The trickster hero, Jack, and his female counterpart, Mutsmag, have long histories in the British Isles, and their adventures share plot lines with similar folktale characters in Africa, Russia, and other parts of Europe. Many stories and legends are unique, of course, like that of the Greenbrier Ghost (of West Virginia), the only ghost in American history whose testimony has been used at an actual murder trial.

A rich repertoire of storytelling forms is an especially important inheritance for the region’s talented writers. Appalachian story forms include personal narratives, the myths of the Cherokee, psychologically complex ballads, wonder or “set” tales of northern Europe, and tall tales and exaggerated hunting stories. Legends about local residents are also popular. Mary Draper Ingles in Virginia, explorer Daniel Boone in Kentucky, Davy Crockett in Tennessee, Jesse James in West Virginia, and John Henry working an the Chesapeake and Ohio rails were real people with extraordinary stories. Before the advent of radio and television, storytelling took place in the home and in local trade and business situations, often accompanying everyday activities.

Today, storytelling and related sayings may be the most common (and unconscious) form of traditional folklore still engaged in by regular folks in their daily lives. Even so, many people today enjoy professional storytellers such as Ray Hicks, Sheila Kay Adams and Don Davis, who have captivated audiences both in and outside the region with their spellbinding and often hilarious tales. Storytelling clubs and networks (e.g., the Asheville, North Carolina, Storytelling Circle) provide a contemporary environment for an ancient art form. Many Appalachian storytellers are featured at the National Storytelling Festival, held in early October each year in Jonesborough, Tennessee, with tellers and listeners from all over the world.

Traditional storytellers enhance their style through the use of traditional speech patterns common to the region before the days of radio and television. Appalachian speech, with its Anglo-Saxon verb forms, double negatives, and unique pronunciation, still offers the linguist and tourist alike insight into the development of the English language. The use of the “a” prefix for some verbs (“a-huntin,” “a-fishin”), the lack of “g” on the present participle (added much later), and the double or triple negative were common in Anglo-Saxon England. The Scots-Irish retained such correct forms and taught their children and their new friends from other parts of Europe and America to use these forms. Along with sometimes vivid metaphorical phrases, that speech still enriches the region’s spoken and written expression.


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