Southern Appalachian Storytellers
In view of the fact that Southern Appalachia is acknowledged to be a massive reservoir of traditional storytelling, Saundra Kelley’s objective is a daunting one: to identify, interview and publish 16 of the region’s most gifted and proficient “keepers of the oral tradition.”
The three Cherokees in this anthology—Lloyd Arneach, Jerry Wolfe and Marilou Awiakta—draw inspiration from their traditional folklore and mythology. In addition, all three perceive their roles to be “keepers of the flame.” In essence, the identity of the Cherokees (“who we are”) depends on the preservation of their stories.
Wolfe is noted for his traditional animal stories and Arneach has acquired a reputation for finding universal themes in Cherokee mythology. Awiakta, who grew up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., has gained considerable respect as a poet, author (Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom) and storyteller.
Rosa Hicks (wife of renowned storyteller, Ray Hicks) and Ted Hicks (Ray and Rosa’s son) are among those with strong ties to traditional Appalachian storytelling (Jack tales and old stories passed down from Scot-Irish, German and French settlers).
Elizabeth Ellis is one of Appalachia’s most versatile storytellers. With strong ties with the “Texas tradition,” (which shows considerable evidence of being Appalachian in origin), she shows a preference for legends that focus on women, especially the harsh life they experience in Appalachia. Ellis’ book, Inviting the Wolfe In (published by Orchard Press) delves into the meaning behind fairy tales and has become a favorite with teachers.
Linda Goss, who is from Alcoa, Tenn., combines music (especially bells) and poetry with her performances and has expanded her repertory to include the Grimm tales and Uncle Remus. Goss is noted for her ability to blend African and European fairytales, which she underscores with musical accompaniment.
Sheila Kay Adams, a well-known folksinger from Madison County, N.C., has parlayed her “personal folklore” into a successful novel (My Old True Love) and a short story collection (Come Go Home With Me). In addition, Adams is a popular performer at folk festivals throughout the Southeast and appears annually the Piddling Pike Storytelling Festival and the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival. Adams has a large CD collection of folk songs and is among the most sought after in the United States.
Betty Smith from Black Mountain, N. C., is an author, singer, playwright and storyteller. She has spent 35 years in the classrooms, concert halls and festivals of the Southeast and has received extensive recognition for collecting, singing and storytelling. Smith’s play, “A Mountain Riddle,” has been produced by Southern Appalachian Theater (SART), and she has been instrumental in nurturing several major folk festivals (Atlanta and Chattanooga). Her greatest contribution to folklore and storytelling is linked to the ballad tradition, and she excels as a collector, singer, and interpreter—especially those with tragic themes (murder, suicide, revenge, doomed lovers, etc.)
Angie DeBord, who is steeped in the history and folklore of her native Swain County, N.C., is an actress (Roadside Theater) and playwright and draws heavily on her family tradition for all of her creative endeavors. Debord received a Rockafeller Humanities Fellowship in 2003, an award that she used to pursue her interest in “storytelling as theater.” Her works have been performed on PBS, at the Spoleto Festival and at the Kennedy Center. Like other storytellers from this region, DeBord attributes much of her inspiration to her grandmother, who lives on in her stories.
Jo Carson (Johnson City, Tenn.), possibly this anthology’s most prolific artist, excels as a storyteller, a playwright (“Daytrips”) and is recognized as the driving force in launching a series of community oral history projects. Probably the most successful is “Swamp Gravy, an oral history project that became an annual presentation in the town of Colquitt, Georgia. This play has restored the town’s economy and has been running for two decades. Carson is the recipient of the Kesselring Award for Best American Play.
Charlotte Ross, in addition to being a noted storyteller and playwright (“My Grandmother’s Grandmother Unto Me”), teaches storytelling and folklore at Appalachian State University in Boone, N. C. Tracing her roots to north Georgia, Ross claims to have collected 3,000 stories from Appalachia and has spent a lifetime crafting them into stories freighted with the region’s heritage and culture. Ross perceives her primary purpose to be to reflect the region’s culture with integrity and authenticity.
Gary Carden, from Jackson County, North Carolina, has used his “personal mythology” and heritage as a basis for his stories, his books (Mason Jars in the Flood), and his plays (“The Raindrop Waltz”). The author of eight plays, all of which are based on stories that he has been telling for 30 years, Carden’s “The Prince of Dark Corners” has been widely produced (both on PBS and in regional theaters). “Nance Dude,” based on a tale that blends history and folklore, concerns a famous murder in Haywood County and its consequences. “Birdell” is based on the forced removal of the residents of Hazel Creek by the TVA in the 1940’s. Carden is the recipient of both an honorary doctorate from Western Carolina University and the Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society.
Dot Jackson lives in Six Mile, S.C. In addition to being a gifted storyteller and journalist, Dot has produced numerous short stories and a remarkable novel, Refuge. Thirty years in the writing, Jackson’s novel contains the same colorful eloquence that characterizes her speech. She has also proved to be a driving force behind regional organizations that are devoted to the preservation of endangered cultures.
Both John Thomas Fowler (Spartanburg, S. C.) and James “Sparky” Rucker (born in Knoxville, Tenn.) identify themselves as a “storytelling musician.” Much of Fowler’s material comes from his travels as a folk music researcher/consultant for the South Carolina Humanities Council. Rucker, who often tells stories in tandem with his wife, Rhonda, feels that his religious roots (Church of God) have led him to a career of collecting folk music, touring with folk singers and participating in events as varied as the Civil Rights Movement and Black Storytelling Festivals. Both Sparky and Rhonda have been “tellers in residence” at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. and are especially noted for their CD, “Done Told the Truth. Goodbye!”
The majority of Kelley’s yarn spinners readily acknowledge their appreciation of an opportunity to meet and study the techniques of their peers, but there is a strong element of individuality in many of them. As they speak with considerable reverence about their respect for the honored practitioners of storytelling, there also is considerable evidence of “maverick performers”—individuals who “go their own way.” Certainly, it appears that the most imaginative and gifted are not content to spend their lives in stasis, parroting traditional material (Jack tales, fairy tales, mythology, etc.). They prefer to either treat the old tales as templates that serve as a basis for a imaginative variations or create their own, original folklore ... or perhaps even design a new way to tell a story.
Southern Appalachian Storytellers: Interviews with Sixteen Keepers of the Oral Tradition edited by Saundra Gerrell Kelley. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company. $35 (paperback) - 215 pages.