Preserving the Appalachian Way

Posted by | November 28, 2012

The following article by Adam Booth appears in the fall/winter 2012 issue of ‘think,’ the alumni magazine of Case Western Reserve University. Booth is a multiple award winning West Virginian storyteller, musician and Champion Liar. He travels the country weaving tall tales and spreading this traditional Appalachian art to new audiences. Reprinted with permission.

 

From my youngest years, I watched, listened and absorbed the stories and life around me. I fondly remember the hours spent listening to stories from my grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives way out in the mountains of West Virginia.

Original caption on this undated photo reads "Society in 'Them Days,' Huntington, W. Va."

Original caption on this undated photo reads “Society in ‘Them Days,’ Huntington, W. Va.”

I know for certain that this is where my love of stories originated, and when my personality began to plume around the eleventh grade, my inheritance was beginning to become clear: I had a natural ability to talk to people. At parties, my friends would put me on the spot to imitate movie stars or improvise dialogues. I did, and they listened, as happy to be entertained as they were to be among the audience and not in my place.

I also had a love for music, another trait that ran in the family, and although I enjoyed the spotlight of performance, I simply wasn’t very good at it. My love for music quickly took me behind the scenes to theory, composition and ultimately the discipline of musicology. Some time later, I found myself at Case Western Reserve with a passion for Americanism, and I devoted many years questioning what makes American composers American.

Because of my Appalachian upbringing, I had always felt a close connection to the mountains, the creeks, the people and the life of Appalachia. But there in the big city of Cleveland (understanding that the biggest city in my home state is just about 50,000 people) it became apparent that those artists I was devoting my life to—the somewhat elitist New England and New York circles—had little to do with me, other than nationality.

And so the study of musical and historical preservation in my life shifted from the nationally famous to the locally imperative: What makes Appalachian life Appalachian?

By the time I completed my studies I had already won my home state’s biggest storytelling competition twice. The tradition of telling tall tales was strong in my home state—that of taking true events and slowing spinning in the yarns of exaggerated untruth. This was a common practice in the storytelling that entertained people for generations before technology filled the home; tall tales were easily spun from the fantastic stories of the timbering industry, coal mining and general survival within the mountains.

My home state has a special place for recognizing and preserving folklife. As I frequented festivals, I saw many young people interested in learning to play traditional music and instruments, like the fiddle, banjo and dulcimer, and dance in traditional styles—square, contra, flatfoot and so on. But there was an absence of storytelling.

Much of my life then became about storytelling—not just as a hobby and not just telling original tall tales and lies, but also about the preservation, continuation and adaptation of storytelling and balladry from these hills.

Good storytelling isn’t just about telling a good story. Storytelling is a preservation of community, heritage, history and folklife. I began to see the traditional Appalachian as an endangered species—particularly now with the rapid industrial destruction of those natural features that compose the habitat of so many things Appalachian. So upon my return to West Virginia, I began to walk the path of the professional storyteller, sharing humorous original tales peppered with poignant lessons found within the traditional story and song of oral culture. This path has led me to tell to audiences at schools, universities, conferences, folklife events and corporate events—and I’m sure it has many more destinations.

Last year I stood on the Exchange Place Stage at the National Storytelling Festival—my first invitation to tell at this prestigious and paramount gathering on the stage that touted a preview of the best new tellers from around the nation. I had chosen to tell an original story with traditional and familial influences, one that is in a way a retelling of the Garden of Eden with a bit of Johnny Appleseed.

What a position—to stand in front of a group with all eyes peering on me, all ears awaiting the next word, and all attendees joining together into a new community.

Throughout the telling, the group laughed, smiled and anticipated through a heavy hush, and a wave of realization visibly swept over the audience as they began to realize this story was simply another version of one that has been told and retold around the world so many times. As the teller I was not just an entertainer, like so many storytellers before me, but also a historian like so many storytellers before me, and a cultural representation like so many storytellers before me, and a sign of hope that these things we have kept alive for so many generations—the collected wisdom and knowledge of humankind—would indeed carry on, like so many had done before me.

 

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