The Jack Tales and Storytelling... Part 3

So I told you WHY the Jack Tales in Part 1. And I told you about the Hollins University portion of my Jack Tales journey in Part 2. But my adventure wasn't over yet! For the next part of our journey we drove from Hollins University to Valle Crucis, North Carolina, right between Banner Elk and Boone. I used to ski on Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain with my family as a kid, and I almost went to Appalachian State University (more of that full circle thing).
     But it is seriously in the boonies (in fact, I think that's where the term might have originated). Untouched by most of the ugly industry you find in cities - I had forgotten how green and verdant this area of the country is. It's all that fog in the mornings - Smokey Mountains indeed. It's not hurting for water like so much of the country and is just beautiful as a result.
     We stayed at the lovely and historic Mast Farm Inn in the Elizabeth Gray Vining room. Recognize the name? She was the Newbery Award winner in 1943 for Adam of the Road. Apparently, she was a regular guest. How appropriate, eh?
     Across the road was the garden where the chef picked herbs for our country breakfast each morning and where we met the bees who produced the souvenirs we purchased.
     And of course we had to visit the Mast General Store which has been there since 1883 and was THE store to many of the people I'm about to talk about.
     Behind it is the old school house (now a giftshop). I think this is where storyteller Orville Hicks' (Ray Hicks' nephew) went to school. Although after reading his biography, I'm pretty sure he hung out in the woods more than in this building. Wouldn't you if you had to hike all the way down a mountain to go to school, only to have the kids make fun of your overalls and your Elizabethan accent?
     So, why did we go to Valle Crucis? National Treasure Storyteller Ray Hicks is no longer with us, but much of his family is, and several of them have carried on the storytelling tradition he exemplified (like Orville). Their homes are situated up winding roads all over the area.
     Stan and I went to meet Ted Hicks (Ray's son) in Banner Elk. He's not doing too well health-wise right now. Even so, he regaled us with jokes and wonderful stories including a Jack Tale of his own invention "Jack and the Octopus." From what we heard, he keeps the entire life center entertained! (Doesn't surprise me a bit.) He came into the storytelling tradition a little later in life, but now he's considered one of the true keepers of the Jack Tales. I'm so glad I got to meet him.
     Afterwards, we had a lovely dinner at Vidalia in Boone - what a nice treat. Nowadays, Boone is a quaint (small) college town with charming galleries and excellent restaurants. Yes, it's in the boonies (there was very little internet access), but it's a gem and not only did we take full advantage - I highly recommend you visit!
     The next morning we headed up to "The Beech." You've probably seen images of the Hicks' family home as Bob Timberlake (yes, that Bob Timberlake) made them famous in his paintings Ray's Place and Ray's Moon. (Click the links to see his artwork of the Hicks' home.)
     Lynn Salsi tried to join us - but couldn't. Nor could Lisa Baldwin, but she did hook us up with Amy Michels - probably one of the best claw-hammer banjo players in the area and a subsistence farmer.
     In fact, Amy is a bit famous herself. A producer from the BBC joined us to scout out Amy's and Rosa's farms for an upcoming documentary, which didn't seem to phase Amy a bit.
     She is a dear friend to the Hickses, so we were thrilled to have her as escort. She even pulled out her banjo.
     You know the classic tunes "Angel Band" and "I'll fly away," right? She also played one about a train (I need to find the title), which was Rosa's favorite. There's a drone to classic bluegrass singing. It sounds more like a bagpipe than what we're familiar with today and is positively haunting.
     Here's who I went all that way for... Rosa Hicks (Ray's widow). Although she tended to step back whenever the limelight was on her husband, Rosa is a singer and storyteller in her own right. You just have to catch her when she's not in the kitchen.
     I also went to meet Leonard Hicks (another of Ray's sons). They're used to visitors at the Beech as scholars, film makers, and storytellers have been dropping by for decades. If you visit Ray Hicks' website, you'll see many, many photos taken on this very same front porch. This was just my turn.
     Here I am with Leonard and Rosa (and a man doing some work at the house).
     Leonard is signing my copy of The Jack Tales. Rosa signed it too. Remember I showed you that treasure on Day 1 - well, look again... It's something else, isn't it?
     The house was built by hand in the early 1800's, although the family lived on the land long before then. They didn't buy much as they could produce almost everything they needed. Water wasn't an issue. Here's the spring house.
     Heat, however, was always a problem. Here's the old iron stove that sits dead center in the front room and for which all that wood on the front porch is for. (That and Rosa's wood-burning stove in the kitchen.)
     Many a morning they awoke covered in snow (even with the roof over their heads). It would blow through the log walls and pile up on their quilts. But apparently snow is insulating and actually kept them warm. It speaks to the nature of their living conditions. There was no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no telephone, and certainly no internet! It was a tough existence.
     Here's the garden that kept them from starving most of the time. While it produced food, Rosa and the children would put up (can) potatoes, string leather britches (green beans), shuck corn, pick berries, you name it. It had to feed them all year. Can you guess what they did while they were working so hard? Told stories - yup.
     Stan went with Leonard to pick some cabbage and potatoes for us to buy. (They sell much of their produce these days.) Have you ever picked a potato straight out of the ground? Rosa said 'taters' were her favorite food. I suppose if they were the only thing between you and starvation, they'd be yours too.
     Stan got a workout diggin' up 'taters' - here was the haul:
     I tell you, there is something awe inspiring about meeting people who are still living our history. So many of us are caught up in our cities and technology, we can't imagine a time when stories by the fire were the only source of entertainment. A time when stories kept your hands working long after you were tired and ready to quit. A time when stories were as much a part of life as breathing.
     THAT is why this trip was so important and why I'm so glad we went. Of course, now the work begins to turn it all into a book. 100's of years and generations of storytellers telling Jack Tales. Think I can do it?

     On our way home, we stopped in Asheville, North Carolina and I'd be remiss not to mention Lauren Patton's ZaPow! gallery and Leslie Hawkins' Spellbound Children's Bookshop right in the heart of downtown. Lauren is an aspiring children's book creator and getting to see her was yet another fun connection on this voyage of connecting.
     So now we're back in the big city and we've certainly eaten well since our return... cream of potato and leek soup, cabbage and potato stew. With each bite I'm reminded how lucky I am with my modern conveniences, but also to have touched a world of stories and history that continues to add such value to my life.
     And I've noticed an interesting trend... Whenever I follow the path the Jack Tales put before me, good things tend to happen. I think I might follow that clever boy for a might bit longer.


Michael John Sullivan said...

I loved the pictures and your thoughts. Keep up the great work!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

What a wonder! Loved hearing about these people and their lives. So cool.

Ruth Sanderson said...

Great posts! And we loved having you visit at Hollins. Hopefully it will be the first of many trips.

Unknown said...

Good to hear of your journey. I, too, started a journey in 1977 with Chase's The Jack Tales. Mine led me to starting Smoky Mountain Jack Tales Storytelling Theater at a campground outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee. That was 1987. Still putting on those great old tales (and some new adaptations)with locals and campers in a beautiful outdoor theater by a creek. So another journey, another chink in the Jack Tales legacy.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed reading about your journey. Mine began in 1977 with the Chase book, also. In 1987 I originated Smoky Mountain Jack Tales Storyelling Theater at a campground outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This is my 28th season of rehearsing, costuming, and presenting some of the traditional (and some new re-interpretations) of world tales. Jack comes alive weekly as we keep the stories going in a new way in a beautiful outdoor theater by a creek.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Very cool, Lew!! I hope I get to see them someday!

Unknown said...

Seeing Jack Tales live is best, but will send DVD, if interested.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Lew - I'd love to see the DVD! I'm thinking we MUST know some of the same people. Email me at elizabeth at dulemba dot com. Would love to talk further! Cheers, e