Watauga County’s Ray Hicks drew national acclaim for his storytelling skills focusing on the adventures of a poor but clever boy named Jack.
Hicks passed away 20 years ago. Other raconteurs have kept the tales alive, but the High Country way of telling them faces an uncertain future, and changes in the Appalachian region could determine the outlook for this centuries-old tradition.
In a crowded auditorium on the campus of Wilkes Community College, Orville Hicks is not just entertaining the audience, he’s carrying on a long family tradition.
“We got a lot of children here and I’m gonna tell a tale here Momma used to tell me when I was about their size called 'Jack and the Robbers.'”
Jack tales — you’re probably familiar with the main character from well-known stories like "Jack and the Beanstalk." On stage, Hicks breathes life into the stories in the same way that made his family famous, leaving the audience laughing.
Hicks says he learned the Jack tales at his mother’s knee in their home in rural Watauga County. There were plenty of chores to do on the farm for Orville and his 10 siblings, and Sarah Harmon Hicks’ storytelling kept her children entertained and on the job.
It was an older cousin of his, Ray Hicks, who convinced Orville to take his stories beyond the farmhouse.
Ray Hicks earned a wide reputation for his storytelling abilities, including a National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. When he died in 2003, his passing made headlines in many major news outlets, including NPR.
It wasn’t just the tales themselves that brought Ray Hicks to prominence. It was also the way he told them. A thick regional accent carried down through the generations in a largely isolated world away from modern influences.
Orville Hicks says when he would travel with Ray many people would tell him how hard it was to understand his cousin through that deep drawl. He says his own voice is a little more modern-sounding. But something can be lost when the speech evolves.
The storytellers from Ray Hicks’ circle are getting older. Orville Hicks is in his 70s, and he worries about the future of the tales.
"Nobody’s telling them much no more," he says. "And I’m getting to where I can’t go as much as I used to. We’ve got five sons — they like the tales but none of them will ever tell it. I think one of these days maybe Jack tales will probably be gone.”
The Old Mountain Road site where so many of the tales were shared can help someone understand the Hicks brand of storytelling.
In the fold of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s a rocky driveway that doesn’t appear to go anywhere. But there was once a house here. A simple farmhouse with no electricity or running water. It was a home to Ray and Rosa Hicks. Ray Hicks grew up in a family that made a subsistence living farming and collecting medicinal herbs like blood root and ginseng from the forests on Beech Mountain. The house has since burned down. But while Ray Hicks was living, it was a gathering spot for folk music, and also storytelling.
Jack tales are stories of survival through a hand-to-mouth existence. Jack’s is an enchanted world of defeating giants. Of outwitting kings. Of partnering with animals on supernatural adventures.
These tales have been an Appalachian tradition for hundreds of years, brought over by settlers from the British Islands. Through the years, they came to mirror life in the mountains.
Trevor McKenzie is director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University.
He says the stories hearken back to a time when the open land was more free. People could walk almost wherever they wanted — and walk they did. Before Ray Hicks became well-known he walked almost everywhere he went. McKenzie says that wandering spirit influenced the tales, but it’s harder to find now.
“The lifestyle was very much dependent on this sort of old idea of shared land and shared property which is not quite there anymore,” he says.
McKenzie says although it’s true the generation of storytellers is aging, he believes the oral tradition is ripe for a revival.
“I think it’s definitely a tradition that we should revisit and not think of as just being part of Appalachia’s past,” he says.
He says each generation provides change when they adopt folk traditions, so he doesn’t mind if the Jack tales aren’t told in the same way that the Hicks family made famous.
“I would just love to see sort of a riff on these things that updates them," he says. "And I think that’s due to happen, and I imagine that will happen soon.”
In the meantime, the stories, just as the Hicks family told them, are being preserved by people who know them well.
One of them is Connie Regan-Blake. She was a longtime friend of Ray Hicks and is a folk storyteller in her own right. She runs a tribute website for his work.
There’s also a listening center at the Beech Mountain History Museum where the tales can be heard. The museum includes a detailed replica of the old Hicks farmhouse that became the epicenter of the Appalachian Jack tales.
*To hear an excerpt of Ray Hicks telling the story of "Jack and the Old Fire Dragon," listen to the audio above.