Ray Hicks, born this day in 1922, was best known for his traditional storytelling and for preserving the original Beech Mountain ‘Jack Tales’ brought to western North Carolina by his ancestors. Ray, his grandfather Benjamin and his great-great grandfather Counce (Council) Harmon all carefully passed down these tall tales to the next generation.
It seems Ray knew everything there was to know about living off the land and about his family’s history. A lot of what he knew– songs, jokes, and customs of the mountain people– is in a new book by Lynn Salsi, seven years in the making: “The Life and Times of Ray Hicks-Keeper of the Jack Tales.”
Salsi is also the author of “The Jack Tales” and “Young Ray Hicks Learns the Jack Tales.” She has received the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, six Willie Parker Peace History Book Awards for her non-fiction books about North Carolina, and was named the North Carolina Historian of the Year in 2001.
We caught up with Lynn this week to get a sneak peek at what to expect from this new book.
Appalachian History: How conscious was Ray Hicks of his role in preserving oral storytelling?
Lynn Salsi: He was well aware that he was saving stories. That was the magical part of many conversations. Jimmy Neil Smith told Ray more than once he [Ray] was saving the art of storytelling. That was a point of pride with Ray. His appearances at the National Storytelling Festival further convinced him that what he was doing was important, and it was. So many scholars studied Ray’s speech that he became aware that his accent, coupled with the old mountain way of speaking, was special. Many people traveled to his home just to hear him talk. He once commented that he wished his granddaddy Ben could have lived long enough to know that he [Ray] was making a little pay goin’ off the mountain to talk.
AH: In today’s hyper-media culture, oral tales seem to be from another time altogether. Was Ray Hicks the last of his kind?
LS: There are scholars (meaning Ph.Ds in folklore) who have commented that it is a cliche to refer to Ray as such. In a way Ray was the future of storytelling because he was certainly a bridge to future storytellers like his son, Ted, and his cousins, Jerry Harmon (from Franklin, NC) who travels internationally telling Jack tales, and Orville Hicks, who is well-known around Boone. They are all fine storytellers and they tell about Jack. However, since storytelling’s an individual art, there’ll not be another Ray.
AH: As a transcriber of oral tales, how do you know which version to ‘lock down’ in print?
LS: Storytellers are unique performers who bring forth stories in their own way. I attempted to write down Ray’s stories as often as possible. However, he never told the same story exactly the same way twice. That means that when I combine three versions and then take out redundancies and smooth out some transitions, the stories become my version even though they have the
same plot structure.
AH: You’ve written two books previously dealing with Ray Hicks and the Jack Tale material. How’s this new book different?
LS: There are no stories in the book. There are references to many stories, however it seemed appropriate that the book should celebrate Ray’s life as the most important story.
AH: Many people comment that the old Jack Tales are nothing but a re-hashing of the Brothers Grimm tales.
LS: I have thought alot about old stories and the way Ray told them. Most of them I have studied and compared to old European versions. However the people in the mountains were telling tales about Jack PRIOR to the Grimm tales (after two hundred years they could not be exactly the same as the early Hicks, Harmon, and Ward family members told them). It is amazing that the families were in the area of Valle Crucis intermarrying decades before the Grimms put together their book.
AH: How did Ray interact with audiences?
LS: Once I had my North Carolina Youth Touring Theater members at his house on a cold March day prior to traveling to England and Scotland where the youngsters (ages 9 to 16) performed in schools and with other play groups. After listening to Ray for at least two hours, one of the kids said, “Ray, we want to tell you a story.” They jumped up in front of him and told him a Jack tale. He got the biggest kick out of them and later said, “Now, I hain’t never heared that tale. Why don’t ya’ teach ‘em one of mine.”
After we returned from Europe, those same students performed with Ray. He sat in a chair and started the story and the students would pick up a line when a certain character came up. Some of those students are now grown. When I run into them, they usually mention the times they performed with Ray Hicks.
LS: After I won an American Library Association Notable Book Award for “The Jack Tales”, I had people calling from AZ, NM, CA, CT, MI, IN, and KY asking questions. That got me thinking that there should be a biography about Ray Hicks. One day I started sorting my notes and since I am the type of person who sometimes has to doodle on the church program when the preacher is preaching, I’m good at writing long hand. Most people know that when Ray spoke he often digressed to make a point, to correct a thought, and/or to explain how the action related to something he had experienced. I wrote everything down.
AH: How’d you settle on the idea of writing the biography in the first-person voice?
LS: One day I thought I should get started, but the first three or four pages seemed to be pedantic. I set it aside to think about how to make the prose have some flow. I thought back to a book I wrote about the people who lived on the North Carolina coast and how, after interviewing my subjects, I was able to put the information into an essay form but in first person as though the people I had interviewed were talking.
I enjoy listening to how people speak and envisioning how their paragraphs might be coming together on paper. I think about their colloquialisms and work not to delete the tone and flavor of their voices. A couple of weeks after my first attempt I went back to my hand-written document and threw it away. I pretended that I was Ray Hicks telling a story. After two pages I knew I could do an essay in his voice, but a book was a different matter. I stopped 100,000 words later and I had a book.
I have a lot of things that could be added to the book, but no one had ever done a pure biography of Ray Hicks–just Ray in a book. His life was the Appalachian version of “Angela’s Ashes.” It begged to be written in first person. Since I have a master’s degree in writing, I have ten or twelve writer friends I e-mail often. I told one of them that I was doing something really crazy and she said, “Certainly, you can do that. Don’t you know that people are writing non-fiction in novel form and it’s called creative non-fiction? At least you’re writing non-fiction as non-fiction. It’s just in a different form.”
That’s how I ended up writing a biography in the form of a memoir. I’m sure I’m not the first person to do something like that, but now that I look back on the experience, I wonder how I was able to sustain that first person train of thought for so many chapters.
AH: Did you have any trouble writing the book through a male perspective?
LS: Writing in a man’s voice in this book gave me the courage to write a young adult novel about young men serving on a boat in Vietnam. It is a work of fiction, but I wrote it in first person in a male voice. I guess if Nicholas Sparks can write women’s fiction, I can write a few books in a
male voice. Needless to say, after taking five years to write the book and two years for the University of Tennessee Press to go through all the publishing processes, I am eager to get some feedback. By writing in Ray’s voice, I could more easily preserve mountain language.
AH: Did your publisher ‘rein in’ your use of dialect in order to sell the book better?
LS: If I had my way every word would be in dialect. However, it would be difficult to read. The editors at the University of Tennessee Press were outstanding in the way they helped me analyze the dialect that was essential versus words that needed to be written in standard English. The University of Tennessee Press was the perfect publisher for this material, because every one of the people working on the book, including Tom Post, the marketing director, understood the importance of the language, the history, and the man. The actual essence of the work shows that Ray Hicks, the famous storyteller, lived within the boundaries of his stories. I hope that readers will be awed about Ray’s life and times.
AH: Thank you so much for joining us today!