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Saturday, February 19, 2011

SOUTHERN APPALACHIAN STORYTELLERS Reviewed by Gary Carden


Southern Appalachian Storytellers: Interviews with Sixteen Keepers of the Oral Tradition edited by Saundra Gerrell Kelley
Jefferson: McFarland and Company
$35.00 (paperback) - 215 pages

“The old order changeth, yielding place to the new...”

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 sixteen of the region’s most
gifted and proficient “keepers of the oral tradition.” Kelley’s basis for selection appears to be diversity, reputation and experience, and the selected storytellers range from Cherokee tribal elders and Scot-Irish traditionalists to educators/teachers and artists who combine storytelling with poetry and drama.

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. Both Arneach and Wolfe are prominent as storytellers throughout the Southeast and are often called upon to perform at schools, universities and tribal celebrations. 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, Tennessee, has gained considerable respect as a poet, author (Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom) and storyteller. All three of these Native Americans stress the importance of retaining their authentic “voices” which are inherent in their folklore.

Storytellers such as Elizabeth Ellis, Rosa Hicks (wife of renowned storyteller, Ray Hicks), Ted Hicks (Ray and Rosa’s son) and Linda Goss have strong ties to traditional Appalachian storytelling (Jack tales and old stories passed down from Scot-Irish, German and French settlers). Both Ellis and Goss have direct ties to the Ray Hicks (Beech Mountain) folktale tradition, especially their treatment of the famous tales collected by Richard Chase (Jack Tales and The Grandfather Tales).

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. She appears in national and international festivals and has won numerous awards for her contributions to the preservation of folklore. She coined the phrase “telling the sacred story” which (to Ellis) is any story that “create a world with words.” She is especially noted for her rendition of folk tales: for example “Like Meat Loves Salt” which can be traced to Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” (see Chase’s Grandfather Tales.) Ellis’ book, Inviting the Wolfe In (published by Orchard Press) delves into the meaning behind fairy tales and has become a favorite with teachers.

Goss, who is from Alcoa, Tennessee combines music (especially bells) and poetry with her performances 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. She is much sought after by schools, Afro- American storytelling events and universities in east Tennessee and the surrounding area.

A significant number of the storytellers interviewed in this anthology are noted for the fact that they use storytelling as a springboard into other creative ventures. 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, Sheila is a popular performer at folk festivals throughout the Southeast and appears annually the Piddling Pike Storytelling Festival and the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival. During the past decade she has won a significant following among in the elder-hostel programs in WNC. Adams has a large CD collection of folk songs and are
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. Betty’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). Smith’s 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, North Carolina 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, 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 Angie’s stories.

Jo Carson (Johnson City, Tennessee), 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. Jo has also proved to be a major force in the development of the organization, Alternate ROOTS, which is based in Atlanta. (According to the Alternate ROOTS newsletter, Jo is suffering from colon cancer and has exhausted her medical insurance. The newsletter is soliciting donations to assist Jo.)

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 both 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
thirty 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, is concerns a famous murder in Haywood County and its consequences. “Birdell,” which is based on the forced removal of the residents of Hazel Creek by theTVA in the 40’s, has been produced over 300 times in the libraries, theaters and schools of WNC. Carden is the recepient of both an honorary doctorate from Western Carolina College and the Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society.

Dot Jackson lives in Six Mile, South Carolina. 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 Dot’s speech. She has also proved to be a driving force behind regional organizations that are devoted to the preservation of endangered cultures (The Birchwood Center in Sunset, South Carolina and the East Tennessee State-sponsored publication, Now and Then.

Both John Thomas Fowler (Spartanburg, S. C.) and James “Sparky” Rucker (born in Knoxville, Tennessee) 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. His ability to combine folk music and storytelling has made him a familiar and popular performer at concerts and festivals. 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 Jonesborough and are especially noted for their CD, “Done Told the Truth. Goodbye!”

Kelley’s interviews with these sixteen “keepers of the oral tradition” reveal a number of common themes. All of these storytellers identify their early inspiration as their grandparents. In fact, the majority attribute their love of the oral tradition - not to instruction or research - but to the influence of family and the common or “natural language” of Appalachia.

Although the majority of Kelley’s yarn spinners are active participants in “the Jonesborough experience” and they readily acknowledge their appreciation of the opportunity to meet and study the techniques of their peers, there is a strong element of individuality in many of them. Although they speak with considerable reverence about their respect for the honored practitioners of storytelling, there 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.) but prefer to: (a) either treat the old tales as templates that serve as a basis for a imaginative variations; or (b) create their own, original folklore ... or perhaps even design a new way to tell a story.

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