I’ll not be here much longer. I won’t reach 80. One of ‘em need to take my place, keeping it a-goin’ in the generations, ‘cause I’s soon goin’ be gone.
-- Ray Hicks to Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1997
Ray Hicks, named a national treasure by the National Endowment for the Arts because of his uncanny ability to tell stories rooted in medieval folklore in hillbilly-honed Elizabethan English with Chaucerian flourishes, has died. He was 80.
Hicks, who rarely ventured from the unpainted hemlock house his Appalachian forebears built in 1912 on Beech Mountain near Banner Elk, N.C., died there April 20 of prostate cancer.
Although the ancient tradition of oral storytelling has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few decades, with perhaps 200 storytelling festivals staged annually around the United States, Hicks was unquestionably a rarity and among the last of his breed.
Often called “the voice of Appalachia,” he was the featured bard at almost all annual National Storytelling Festivals staged by the International Story Telling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn., since Jimmy Neil Smith organized it in 1973.
That festival -- a mere 65 miles west of Hicks’ 4,200-foot-high aerie in the Blue Ridge Mountains -- was one of the few places Hicks was willing to travel to tell his stories. He turned down invitations to appear on NBC’s “Tonight Show” and “Today” at either end of the country, and for the most part let the folklorists, linguists, documentary makers and journalists come to his mountain to hear him “tell.”
Hicks, who received his $5,000 National Endowment for the Arts award in 1983, appeared in the PBS series “The Story of English” and was featured in National Geographic.
He was adept at the cantefable, a story form rare among white Americans in which a storyteller may suddenly burst into song. He might even add a riff on his harmonica.
But Hicks was best known for his “Jack stories,” and he was said to be the last traditional Jack tale teller in North America. Such stories -- think “Jack and the Beanstalk” -- all feature a poor, naive youth named Jack who overcomes unrelenting adversity with adaptive pluck and luck. Adversity can include lions, giants and witches.
“Jack was one that didn’t keep no money or nothing up ahead,” Hicks told The Times in 1997. “He just lived for the day, not for tomorrow. I’m Jack, really.”
In “Jack and the Beantree,” as Hicks inherited it from about eight generations of family storytellers, Jack succeeds by stealing a sleeping giant’s bell-covered quilt and hiding the giant’s boots to forestall pursuit.
Hicks regularly told about 18 Jack tales rooted in Europe, including those rounded up and printed in 1812 by the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.
“I’ll bet I can tell stories all day and all night and never tell the same one twice,” Hicks told the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record in 2000. To the consternation of his wife, Rosa, he would always rather “tell” than eat.
Hicks could discourse on mountain herbs or, say, the three kinds of moonshine whiskey: “the huggin’ kind, the kind with songs in it and the kind that gives ya 14 fights to the pint.”
Something of a scarecrow in overalls, the 6-foot, 7-inch, 150-pound Hicks learned most of the stories from his grandfather, John Benjamin Hicks, and great-grandfather, Samuel Hicks. They were merely passing along the family tales preserved through the 19th century by his great-great-grandfather, Council Harmon (1803-1896), from whom both his parents were descended.
The family had come from northern England along the border of Scotland in the mid-1700s and isolated itself in the American Indian territory of the Appalachian Mountains. The lack of roads and communication helped preserve -- albeit with hillbilly additions -- features of the English language now lost even in England.
Mesmerizing as the storyteller was, with his animated eyebrows, hands and facial expressions and languorous, musically cadenced voice, Hicks was difficult to understand -- both for modern Southerners and even for the English his speech purportedly resembled.
“If Ray does speak with a lilt that comes from the Scottish borders or Northumberland ... then it passed me by. His speech is Southern and hard to follow....” wrote Briton Martin Kettle for London’s Guardian newspaper after visiting “the last mountain man” to check reports of his speech patterns in 1998. “But he will say things that make you stop short. When he says ‘wait on’ for ‘stop’ or that something is ‘right good’ or ‘right bad,’ then he is using language I have not heard since my childhood in Yorkshire.”
Hicks, though conceding that he knew little about England, was well aware of his family origins.
“My people wu from Englan’, Scotlan’ maybe,” he told The Guardian, “there across the water, before they come to the U-ni-ted States.”
Like the “Jack” of his best stories, Hicks grew up poor, one of 11 children in the two-story, ramshackle house his great-grandfather, grandfather and father built. His father, a peddler, hanged himself when times were particularly hard during the Depression. Hicks could recall hungry winters when he “got so thin at times a puff o’ wind a-throwed me down.”
Hicks and his wife raised their five children -- Leonard, Dorothy, Ted, Kathy and Nita, who gave them four grandchildren -- living off the land by growing potatoes and cabbage and selling evergreen galax to florists.
He occasionally earned a little cash by telling stories to school classes. But mostly he spun tales -- and cured warts -- for free, believing that stories, just like the Bible, were meant for joy and teaching people how to live. His sons, he said, learned his stories but probably could not maintain the family storytelling tradition because “they shy.”
For staples like flour, sugar and taxes on the 49-acre home he inherited, Hicks worked a few months a year as a carpenter, mechanic or sawmill operator.
He chopped wood and kindling for the wood stove, carried water from a spring, hunted small animals for meat and grew most of the vegetables his wife canned.
He avoided radio, television, newspapers, telephones, plumbing and central heating, allowing only limited “electric” to illuminate two rooms and to power a refrigerator.
He rolled his own cigarettes from tins of Prince Albert tobacco.
And when his throat grew sore from telling those stories that could stretch from 15 minutes to three hours, depending on how many tangents caught his imagination, the mountain man, the voice of Appalachia, knew just what to do. He would strip some bark off a cherry tree, crumple it into a wad and chew.