Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Learning to Listen to an All-Day Talker

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Learning to Listen to an All-Day Talker

Article excerpt


As an emerging oral tradition scholar who has also been a professional story- teller for over thirty years, I recently revisited an oral performance by the late Ray Hicks (1922-2003) of Beech Mountain, North Carolina. Because of my involvement in an archival collection project sixteen years ago, I was in the unusual position of being able to listen to Hicks first-, second-, and thirdhand, "reading" his performance via three different performance "texts"-live, dig- ital, and transcribed. Within the twenty minutes of oral storytelling selected for this study, I found evidence of Richard Bauman's "keys to performance," features of John Miles Foley's "Immanent Art," signs of what I have experienced firsthand as the cocreative "call and response" between teller and audience, performance environment and story setting, and a surprising comingling of narrative genres-including personal story, mountain Märchen, and local and family lore. In addition, by revisiting the digital recording long after Hicks's live speech act took place, I "received" a story from him that I had not been fluent enough in the registers of his spoken, physical, and cultural "dialects" to receive in person all those years ago.

Hicks's oral performance took place in the woods "on the Beech" near his home in the Southern Appalachian Highlands on 6 October 1997 (see Burch and Hudson). It was videotaped as part of the pilot effort of what became the Story- telling Project of the Cotsen Children's Library.1 A three-person team-Berkley Hudson, Fran Burst, and I-had arranged to film Hicks's hour-long performance at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, two days before and would spend more than eight hours, spread across two days, interviewing and videotaping Hicks, his wife Rosa, and their youngest son, Ted, at their home outside Banner Elk, North Carolina. The excerpt used in this study was chosen in conversation with my cocollector. Despite the sixteen years that had passed since the live performance, Hudson and I both remembered the centerpiece of that story session, a personal tale that-in the absence of Hicks's naming it-I have called "The Witch on Stone Mountain."

Referencing Dundes in their introductory essay "Note on Texts" from Jack in Two Worlds, Ellis and McCarthy remind us that "oral traditions actually have three dimensions: the text, or literal content; the texture, or style of performance; and the context, especially the significance of the tradition" (xxxv). I am con- templating all three dimensions in this article, musing on the stories themselves, Hicks's performance keys and cues, and the location of all his performances in the Appalachian storytelling tradition of the legendary Hicks-Ward-Harmon family. Ellis and McCarthy continue: ". . . Narratives in natural context are best described not as stories but as drama: performers do not simply relate narratives, they enact them" (xxxvii). Gunnell unpacks this idea further; in "Narratives, Space and Drama: Essential Spatial Aspects Involved in the Performance and Reception of Oral Narrative," he notes:

It is well known that many storytellers regularly do step over the line into role- play with their voices and gestures, thereby immediately creating new parallel worlds in front of the eyes and minds of their "audiences" . . . these performers also take on a "double" nature: each storyteller is seen simultaneously by his audience as both the performer and the role. . . . (8-9)

As numerous writers have remarked about his performances, for Ray Hicks re- lating the narrative equaled enacting the narrative equaled living the narrative of his tales.

The Storyteller and the Setting

Who was Ray Hicks? Writing about the teller's "canonization" within the story- telling community, Sobol characterized him as "the National Storytelling Festival's 'Old Man of the Mountains'" (Storytellers' Journey, 110). This appellation refers to Whisnant's trope of the mythic "mountain patriarch" (81), pressed into service by settlement schools and revival festivals as an emblem of indigenous approval of the institutional mission. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.