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Area storytellers featured in new book

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 16 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 grew up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and 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. Both are especially noted for their treatment of the famous tales collected by Richard Chase (Jack Tales and The Grandfather Tales); Goss (from Alcoa, Tenn.) also combines music (especially bells) and poetry with her performances and has expanded her repertoire to include the Grimm tales and Uncle Remus. 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 have used storytelling as a springboard into other creative ventures. Sheila Kay Adams, a well-known folksinger from Madison County, has parlayed her “personal folklore” into a successful novel (My Old True Love) and short story collection; Betty Smith from Black Mountain, 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.

Angie DeBord, who is steeped in the history and folklore of her native Swain County, and is an actress (Roadside Theater) and playwright and draws heavily on her family tradition for all of her creative endeavors. Jo Carson (Johnson City, Tenn.), 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; she is the recipient of the Kesselring Award for Best American Play. 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.

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The editor says that yours truly, from Jackson County, 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”). Dot Jackson lives in Six Mile, S.C.  In addition to being a gifted storyteller and journalist, Dot has produced numerous short stories and a remarkable novel, Refuge.

Both John Thomas Fowler (Spartanburg, S. C.) and James “Sparky” Rucker (born in Knoxville, Tenn.) 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’s 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, Black Storytelling Festivals, and the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival.

Kelley’s interviews with these 16 “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.


Southern Appalachian Storytellers: Interviews with Sixteen Keepers of the Oral Tradition edited by Saundra Gerrell Kelley. McFarland and Company, 2010. 215 pages.


(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Jackson County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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