“They come up that trail through the cornfield under a full moon. Your momma was barefooted, and your daddy was singing ‘Waltz of the Wind’.” Just two years later, “your daddy was dead with a bullet in his brain ‘n you come to live with me.” Even as a child, I knew that these were stories worth telling.
When the media began to rhapsodize about the significance of “the oral tradition” and storytelling festivals began to spread like a benign epidemic through Appalachia, I showed up on the front row at the first “tellabrations,” eager to inform the world about the tannery whistle in Sylva, my Uncle Albert’s love life and the day I accidentally burned our outhouse. If they encouraged me, I would tell my granny’s version of “the drowned baby,” and maybe a variation of “Ashpet” that I heard at my great-grandmother’s home in Macon County. I was cranked up and ready to talk. Then, I got a surprise.
There were some slick jaspers on that stage. There were women with rubber warts on their faces. One guy had a hat with a propeller and a pet possum sat on his shoulder. Another played the bones in his head and yodeled. Astonished, I reconsidered my status. All I could do was talk. How could I compete with all of that? These folks were comedians! Some were “entertainers.” In my opinion, none of them were storytellers. I sneaked home.
Later, I told stories, of course, but I learned to avoid the big festivals. Sometimes, when people called me about a storytelling event, they would ask “Are you funny?” I learned that this seemed to be an essential aspect of good storytelling. Sure, I would say, I’m funny — but I’m wondering why that is a necessary part of storytelling. The best stories I knew managed to blend pathos and humor. Anybody can be funny, but can they make you cry? Better yet, can you make them laugh with tears in their eyes?
When I go to a storytelling event and I see a lot of people in the audience with straw hats, bib overalls and bandanas — some with painted freckles and artificial buckteeth — I get worried. Here they are, all primed to laugh and I remember Peggy Lee singing, “Is That All There Is?” Maybe I need to tell more stories to small audiences — folks sitting around a pot-bellied stove in Valle Crucis, a small church congregation in Blowing Rock or a gathering of friends after a funeral (or a wedding), or maybe sitting on somebody’s front porch in the dark.
Behind all the smoke and mirrors at all of those “cultural fairs,” where – amid crying babies, traffic noise, competing quartets, barking dogs and chain saws – there are storytellers and comedians stoically struggling to make themselves heard, the “real thing” is still happening. Storytellers like Orville Hicks sit quietly talking to rapt audiences, drawing from the bottomless wells of his culture. The ancient medieval tale of “Godfather Death” has become “Soldier Jack, the Man Who Caught Death in a Sack.” Orville tells “The Heifer Hide” and “Gallaymander, Gallaymander.” There are tales that contain echoes of Grimm, Chaucer and Mother Goose — tales in which kings have become wealthy farmers, porridge has become sawmill gravy and English gingham is transformed into an Appalachian flour sack dress. Orville knows about drowned babies, too, and a specter that comes in the night inquiring about a missing big toe.
Orville is the heir to a daunting tradition. Ray Hicks, Orville’s cousin, was considered a national folklore treasury. As a consequence, Orville is steeped in Appalachian tradition, and his speech resonates with Scot-Irish dialect: “Momma’s best dress was all gaumed up.” (stained and dirty) “Our road is kinda sigogglin.” (crooked and uneven) “I think I’m foundered on green beans.” (bloated). Anyone who hears Orville’s deep, rumbling speech, knows immediately that there is nothing contrived about his performance. The language he speaks is the natural gift of his family and his tradition.
Orville’s childhood was untouched by the outside world. Exposed to no books or movies and very little radio, his experience is circumvented by his mountain home. He vividly recalls his mother’s Home Comfort stove, his mother’s cornbread and a dozen family pets. Seasoned by hard work, he can give a graphic description of cornfield labor, hog killing and his knack for finding a multitude of herbs and medicinal plants. His Christmas memories are a treasure trove of precious memories.
When Orville Hicks ambles on a stage and begins to talk, he draws from this amazing blend of experience and memory. All of it is authentic — delivered by a man who is mindful of his responsibility — to render an image of his world that has integrity. Orville Hicks is “the real thing.”
Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories – Mountain Roots (as told to Julia Taylor Ebel) Parkway Publishers, 2005. $19.95 – 149 pages