Jack Tales

Jack Tales

The roots of mountain storytelling go back across the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles, and across the ages to the distant past. In the 1870s, an American folklorist visited the west coast of Ireland. There, among men and women who only spoke Gaelic and had never left their home counties, he found ancient stories of a lucky boy.


In 1916, an English folklorist came to Madison County in the North Carolina mountains and there heard another group of stories, some almost identical, about the same boy. Jack Tales In the mountains, this boy is called Jack, and the stories are called Jack Tales. They form an often funny and always imaginative epic of the adventures of Jack, the third and youngest son, and his less able older brothers Will and Tom.

Both men and women used to tell Jack Tales. The women would often do it to keep children awake and interested in long evenings of sewing, spinning, or shelling beans. Men would share stories with children, too, but would also tell Jack Tales among themselves, sometimes in "rough" versions with bad language and sexual jokes.

These two discoveries began to show the almost incredible age of the Jack Tales. There was no indication the mountain families - mostly Hicks and their immediate relatives - who told the stories came from Ireland. Rather, their first ancestor apparently came from England sometime in the 1700s. There was no way for the two groups of storytellers to have shared for centuries.

Since the start of this century, folklorists have determined Jack Tales were once a part of the oral tradition of the British Isles. Like "Jack and the Beanstalk" today, they were something almost every child grew up hearing.

And how old are they? There is little question some of them date back, at least in theme, to the days when the Irish and British spoke fairly similar languages, probably before the arrival of the Romans in the first century A.D. Some, indeed, may have once been told in the legendary homeland of the Celts, on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the Russian Steppes.

In the 1930s, an American folklorist named Richard Chase came to Beech Mountain in Watauga County, encountered the Jack Tales, and began to collect them. He published some, usually in a heavily edited form, in his book "Jack Tales."

This is a decent introduction to the stories, but for the real thing try a recording by Ray Hicks or Orville Hicks. You can find some of these at the Appalachian Cultural Museum, or stop by and visit Orville Hicks at the container (green box) site between Boone and Blowing Rock.

These magic stories will transport you from today to a wonderous past of kings, princesses, castles, giants, and the wonderful escapades of that lucky boy, Jack. Curl up by a hearthside, and listen to the old words that start the magic: "I'm fixin' to tell about Jack."

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