Egg Seller & Appalachian Storyteller
Thomas McGowan, folklorist and professor of English at Appalachian State University jokes, "I received my doctorate from the University of Virginia, so that I could drive Orville to his readings." McGowan introduces Orville Hicks, an Appalachian teller of folk stories and "Jack Tales," as if he is already a cultural artifact, and perhaps Hicks is.
Storytellers, at least in the U.S., are a dying breed and because of the lessening cultural isolation of the rural mountain communities of Appalachia due to tourism, new vacation homes for city-goers and growing business, Hicks, who comes from a long line of storytellers is perhaps the last in his family to carry on the folk tradition. Orville Hicks was born in 1951 on Beech Mountain in Wautaga County, NC, the youngest of eleven children, and he jokes "he was the best-lookin' one." His family did not have plumbing or running water until the mid-1960s. Hicks's father was an unlicensed Baptist preacher and, for a short time, worked for the Works Projects Administration. The large family made their living off the land, and it was while the siblings were farming or while shelling peas with Mama (Sarah Harmon Hicks) on the porch, or perhaps gathering galax and other herbs in the forest, that the family stories and "Jack" tales of four generations were passed down.
"Storytellin' was part of our growin' up," says Hicks. Orville learned most of the stories from his mother, which made the work seem to go by faster. Orville chuckles as he retells some of her favorite joke riddles: "If you can guess how many little pigs are in the sack, I'll give you both of them," and "Can you tell me what color old Joe's yellow turkey is?"
Orville describes his father Gold Hicks as a strict but kind man. His favorite story to tell about Gold is the "hardest whippin' I ever got in my life." Orville describes a day that the children worked all day in the fields after which his older brother drives up in his '42 Chevy so that Gold can take the kids "down to the store" for a sodey pop. When Gold asks, "What kind of drink do you want Orville?" and his son replies "I'd like a Mountain Dew, Daddy" his father takes a switch off a nearby tree. After the whipping, he leans down and says, "Son, don't you never, never mention moonshine around your Daddy again."
Orville's specialty is, of course, the Jack Tales, whose title character (from "Jack and the Beanstalk") is usually "a lazy rascal," but a goodhearted hero whose family is always trying to take advantage of him. Jack, of course, always outsmarts them like in the stories "Jack and the Varmints" and "Jack and the Heifer Hide," tales that have noticeably English and German folktale roots blended with Appalachian mountain customs.
Orville Hicks, like Dr. McGowan, has traveled across the country on his stories, to universities, to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. On continuing the folk-telling tradition in the family, Orville says, "I think old tales ought'ta keep going so this younger generation can learn and know about what some of us went through growin' up in the mountains, how life really changed. I hope one of these days one of my young'ins will keep the tradition going."
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