Last month in the American Iconoclast / Great American Eccentrics series we looked at the work of Peace Pilgrim. This month we are going to listen to some stories with Ray Hicks, Bard of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
Respect is something I have for Ray Hicks, for the life he lived, the stories he told, the lives he touched. Lenard Ray Hicks August 29, 1922 – April 20, 2003) was a bard without ever calling himself a bard. He lived on Beech Mountain in North Carolina his whole entire life, knowing the land and its moods the way a long time married couple know each other. He was a storyteller, and a keeper of the Jack Tales, and these were his favorite to tell.
The most well known Jack tale is the one about when he goes and sells a cow to buy some magic beans. Instead of ending up in the poor house Jack climbs a huge beanstalk and comes face to face with a giant in the clouds. There are many more of these Jack tales besides the beanstalk story: Jack Frost, Jack the Giant Killer, Little Jack Horner, and This is the House that Jack Built just to a name a few. The stories are of Cornish and English progeny and were passed down as fairy tales, nursery rhymes, legends of the olden times.
Now Ray Hicks family had come to America in the 1700s and his great-grandfather on his mothers side was Council Harmon (1803-1896). Harmon's grandfather Cutliff Harmon (1748-1838) was believed to have brought the Jack tales to America when he came to settle. They found themselves in North Carolina, living deep in the hills where these stories, alongside the skills of instrument building (banjos, dulcimers' and more), distilling, foraging for food and medicine, were passed on from one generation to another. Ray grew hearing the stories and hearing the songs. The Harmon-Hicks family was also known for having a unique knowledge of old British ballads.
Living on the mountain, working on the land, knowing how to read the weather, knowing what tubers to eat when he was watching the cows up in the grazing patch, not even age ten. Hearing the stories whisper themselves to him as if by a wind on the mountain, seeing the hex signs his ma had painted on either side of the front door on the porch ceiling to keep out the ghosties, the knowledge percolated inside of him.
Sometimes when he was out on the land, tending to things, working alone, Ray would pull out his Franch harp from the front pocket of his overalls and start to play. Sometimes the birds would come and listen. Perhaps because Jack still a harp, and Ray was a kind of Jack himself, he was skilled at playing the French harp -the Harmon-ica.
Ray was experienced with old time ways of healing. A Granny Woman often came to the family when someone was sick or injured and to help deliver babies. She once saved Rays leg when it had been hit with a slop bucket thrown at him by his sister, after he stole some precious cake she was baking for her honey. The Granny Woman applied a poultice of wheat flour to his injury and it healed him. Later Ray became famous as being able to get rid of people's warts. People would even send him letters asking for help getting rid of their warts. He knew the formula and was able to do this even if they weren't sitting their together on his front porch for a spell.
Ray was a tall man, standing nearly seven feet. Perhaps some of the blood from the many encounters Jack had with giant folk had spilled into him.
When he spoke, he spoke as if from out of time. His peculiar dialect was a bit strange even for other Appalachian's. The Hicks and Harmon families had preserved in their speech many old English terms, some that had last seen regular use in the 15th century. He learned his stories the way other storyteller's do, by listening, copying and then developing the mastery to spin a yarn.
"I wasn’t teached. That’s the way I growed up a-talking. I learned my Jack tales mostly from my dad’s father, John Benjamin Hicks. My grandmother Julie told Indian, witch and haint tales, too. I’d set and pick the burrs out of the hanks as she spun, and listen. They were both well in speech.”
The Jack tales had changed somewhat after coming to America, just as the Ballads had. In the Appalachian versions the tale would often feature a sheriff in place of a king or nobleman.
To make his way in the world Ray worked as a farmer and mechanic. He kept to the ways of collecting herbs and plants, such as ginseng and many others, as way to make living.
The first time he told stories in public was in 1951. He'd been invited to speak to a classroom of students at an elementary school. Since that time his reknown as a teller of tales started to spread.
Ray married Rosa Violet Harmon, who had also grown up on Beech Mountain. They had five kids together and raised them in the same cabin he had grown up in.
He said his family was a family of talkers and that sometimes they talked just to try and out talk each other. Because talk was entertainment and that's what people did when they got together. Talked, sang, broke bread and talked some more.
In 1973 he was invited to perform at first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He was invited back many many times. This festival is considered to be a major point in the revival of storytelling, and the festival is still a going concern. It's very fitting Ray would have told his tales there in their first year.
Folk musician David Holt, who considered Ray to be one of his mentors said of him, " He was what we call an all day talker. He would start talking the minute you got there…start right in on a story. He had the most amazing accent, kinda talked way back in his throat. He’d say, “Jack seen a man comin down out of the woods with a great big head and he was knocking big trees down and hittin big rock boulders and wasn’t even hurtin’ a hair in his own head… he said, ‘Hello there. Who are ye?’ ‘ My name is Hardy Hard Head.’ ‘Well Hardy hard Head you must be…into my ship.’ ” By the end of the day he’d still be talking, telling you the story. You’d get up and say, “Ray, it’s gettin late, gotta go.” He’d follow you all the way up to the car standing in the road still telling the tale. You’d just have to put down the window, wave and say, “Ray, I’ll see you..love you” and drive off with him still standing there still telling the story in the middle of the dirt road."
Ray learned not to plan out his tale telling in advance. He called his style of story improvisation "unthoughted". “I learnt not to plan my stories. That’ll ruint you. I just tell the one that hits my mind when I hit the mic.”
In 1983 Ray was named a heritage fellow through the National Endowment for the Arts. He had to be dragged to Washington to receive the award from then vice-prez George Bush. And while he was unimpressed with the fast city ways of the nations capital, it was the one of many honors and awards given to him over the course of the rest of his life.
As Ray became famous for his gifts at telling tales, he turned down a lot of opportunities to be on TV shows and the like because he never wanted to travel farther from his home than it would take to get back the same day. He was so dedicated to his place in the world that he said no to these requests. Instead he often spoke to schools in the surrounding area. He also didn't go around talking about his ability. He had a humility about him that made it to where even some of his neighbors on the mountain and around the area didn't know the treasure they had living so close to home.
His home was important to him. It had been built in 1912 by his grandpa and with help from the extended family. He lived in it his whole life. Ray felt weird and odd when he went further afield.
Hicks died of prostate cancer at the age of 80 in 2003 and his wife followed him into the silent clearing of the woods in 2014.
There are many other great videos of Ray on youtube, including an hour long documentary called "Last of the Old Time Storytellers".
The biography of him by Lynn Salsi “The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: Keeper of the Jack Tales” is a great book for those who went to dig further. In a way it is really his autobiography. It’s his words that she recorded and collected over many years and then edited into cohesive life story. Reading it you feel like you are sitting with him and his family for a spell on his cabin porch underneath the hex sign painted there by his mother to keep out the ghosties, privileged to be listening to him tell his tale. It’s a true bardic transmission.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.