Many students in this class had never heard a storyteller before. The ballads was also new to most of those in the audience, although there were some who remembered their grandparents singing to them, and others had stories passed down in their families.
What is it about our Appalachian culture that makes our stories unique? I believe it is our sense of place, our connection to where we are from. Our mountains and waters are how we define ourselves; we know our roots and hold on to them even if life moves us to a different geographic area. The mountains themselves provide the backdrop and underpinning to our tales and quite often provide the material too. When we speak of nature, we do so with familiarity. We watch the rivers for flooding and icing, the mountains for slips and slides, for the greening of spring, the richness of gardens and the changes of fall. We know wildlife and its ways; we watch weather and predict it based on what nature shows us.
Another defining facet of mountain life is its people. Independent, or at least preferring independence in how we live our lives is predominant. We prefer to make our own choices and aren't too happy with government interference. Providing for ourselves through gardens, cutting firewood for heat, and finding income from a variety of sources (what my husband calls "jake-legging around") is part of life for a large percentage of people.
We are spiritual people. Not religious only although religion is a basic of life for most. By spiritual I refer to the acceptance of a divine presence that abides in our world, and the belief that we can readily communicate with that divine through prayer, thought and action. Sometimes this spills over into superstition, a conviction that doing or saying certain things at certain times might impact future events, health or relationships.
Our sense of place, independence, and spiritualism underlie the stories we tell: hunting stories and Jack tales usually have the hero triumphing through prowess or "smarts." Ghost stories tap into the connection with nature and spirituality and belief in the ability to feel or see what others may not. The old mountain ballads,sometimes called love songs by older generations, tell stories in musical form, sometimes telling historical tales or stories based in long-ago legends from the British Isles.
The class listened intently. I could see by the eyes watching me that there were stories behind the intentness of their gazes. I only wish there had been time to listen to them. After class several stopped me to tell me a quick story or to reiterate how much they enjoyed the session.
But I am sure that no one enjoyed it as much as I did. There is no match for the joy of telling a story and seeing the story come alive in the eyes of the listeneres.