Whether you are visiting the Coney Island Appalachian Festival, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, or the Lake Eden Art Festival in Black Mountain, NC, there is one attraction that is sure to be a favorite of all ages. To locate it simply scan for a large but quiet crowd, gathered close to a small stage, usually under a portable cover or shade tree, with their attention fixed on a lone orator. You have found the storytelling tent. Here traditional Appalachian folktales, so obviously fictitious that they may be true, are presented by individuals who can reveal their hearts and souls by merely speaking. Out of hundreds of mountain storytellers, perhaps the most famous and beloved was Ray Hicks.
A true Appalachian native, Ray was born near Boone, NC, on the same Beech Mountain farm where his grandfather and father were raised. There he spent his life with his wife Rosa. They lived in much the same fashion as previous generations: carrying water from the springhouse, gathering vegetables from their garden, and cooking on and staying warm from the heat provided by a wood stove. Ray enjoyed and carried on other family traditions like playing the harmonica, singing traditional ballads, and – most of all – storytelling.
As a boy, Ray was more interested in sitting at the feet of his Great Grandma Becky and Granddaddy Benjamin then he was in playing outside with the other children. His elders would tell him stories while they were doing small chores like canning, tanning groundhog hides, and drying apples. Ray remembered that as early as age five he was repeating those stories to his friends. Usually the narrative took the form of “Jack” parables – similar to the ones Ray would tell for the rest of his life.
Jack Tales are akin to the well-known “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack and the Giant-Killer.” The stories have their roots in ancient Celtic and European folklore. When Ray told them he would include Southern Appalachian references woven into the fanciful, fairy-tale narrative. The stories had a magical lure and often took more than an hour to complete – much to the delight of Ray’s audiences.
Ray’s first public storytelling, besides to family and close friends, came in 1951. He was the guest of schoolteacher Jennie Love at nearby Cove Creek Elementary School where he told his stories to her class. It went so well that Ray was asked back. On his second visit he spent all day going from room to room telling stories to different classes. The three dollars the school gave him for gas was the first time Ray was compensated for what would become his life’s work.
Word soon spread of this giant treasure (Ray was six feet eight inches tall) that had been discovered in the rural mountains of western North Carolina. Ray began to perform at many events and festivals throughout the region. No venue was too small or too large. The first time he used a microphone, in 1973, he was standing on a flatbed truck at the very first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. One witness said, “Ray stood ramrod straight, telling his Jack tale like the audience was in the sky.” Thirty-five people heard Ray that day, but the crowds soon grew. For the next thirty years Ray Hicks was the featured teller at the Festival. He had a way of simply being himself on stage, whether he was performing in front of one hundred or one thousand people. He entertained in public with the same voice and delivery he used sitting on his cabin porch on Beech Mountain.
Some wonderful memories come from the people who ventured up the mountain to visit Ray and Rosa in their home. The couple would always stop whatever chore they were doing to greet and welcome their guests. And those guests number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Linguists came to study Ray’s rhythms and dialect. News crews, journalists, and fans, young and old, made the pilgrimage. Ray would drawl his familiar “hey-lo” and settle on the porch while Rosa would beam with joy at all the fuss the world was making over her husband.
Ray would begin a story. One of his favorites was an animated tale called “Wicked John and The Devil.” After about thirty minutes it would end, “The Devil was a’yelling, ‘Bar the doors, boys! Yonder comes John.’ Devil took the tongs and reached ’em a coal of fire and handed it to John. Devil said, ‘You can’t come in here. Go build you a hell of your own.'” One visitor remembers that at the story’s close Ray chuckled, glanced out the window, and added, “The Brown Mountain Lights is where I think he built it at.”
Ray’s renown was certainly not limited to the Southern Appalachians. He was honored by the North Carolina Arts Council, and in 1983 he received a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one for travel, Ray never forgot the trip he took to Washington, DC, to accept his award. He joked about the entrance to his hotel: “That revolving door, took me two days to get out.” He also appeared in film documentaries and was profiled in The New Yorker. Ray’s speech retains much of the vocabulary, phrasing, expression and accent found in the patterns of western North Carolina’s original English and Scotch-Irish settlers. In fact, his dialect is so distinct he was featured on the PBS series “The Story of English.”
Folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes may have described Ray best: “There isn’t any other Ray and never has been another Ray, except, maybe, back in the Middle Ages. He moves into a story, and is totally engrossed. He talks about the characters as if they’d just stepped ’round back of his house, or gone up the road a piece.”
Ray has been called a folksayer and a tradition bearer. He was a special sort of genius; one that could take a tale and keep it fresh, make it unique, and present it with a sparkle was truly wondrous. His form of expression was rare and is rapidly disappearing. It is vital that, as we honor Ray, we encourage the new and remaining storytellers that are keeping his art alive. It is an important part of our mountain heritage.
Ray Hicks was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. When he died in 2003 at the age of 80 he was still telling stories, with great joy, to those that had gathered around his bed to say goodbye.
Essay by Timothy N. Osment
For more information please see the following:
- The Jack Tales by Ray Hicks as told to Lynn Salsi, 2000.
- Ray Hicks and the Jack Tales of Appalachia: Their Origins and Significance by Christine L. Pavesic, 2002.
- Performance, Culture, and Identity edited by Elizabeth C. Fine and Jean Haskell Speer, 1992.
- Beech Mountain Jack Tales, North Carolina Folklore Society, 1978.