Jane Gentry — piano teacher, Appalachian folk-music historian, weaver — was an inspiration for the movie Songcatcher.
She was born Jane Hicks in 1863, the first child of Ransom and Emily Hicks, in Watauga County, NC. “My pappy were a minister, name of Ransom Hicks. Mammy were always peckin’ me over the head with a stick. She were turrible ill and cross, pore woman! I were that foundered with the peckin’ that I declar’d that I would never whup ef God sent me childern. You’ll whup as much into `em as you whup out o’ em.”
And later, Jane said of her life growing up, “Twere like a three-legged cat’s. They didn’t show me till I were nine yur old. I used to walk miles and miles bar’foot in the snow.” She was twelve years old when the family moved to the Meadow Fork section of Spring Creek in Madison County. At sixteen, Hicks married Jasper Newton Gentry, though her parents were against the marriage because of her age. Around 1912, the Gentry family bought ‘Sunnybank’ in the town of Hot Springs, moving there so that their nine children could attend Dorland Institute, a Presbyterian mission school.
Irving Bacheller, New York newspaper editor and author of books, short stories and magazine articles, (his novel Eben Holden, published in 1900, outsold The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, To Have and To Hold, and other popular books of that year) met Jane Gentry in April 1914 when he came to Hot Springs on vacation.
“I could hear voices as I came near the house,” he recounted in his novel, The Tower of a Hundred Bells (1916), “and chiefly those of young children laughing as if at play. Then I heard the kindly voice of Mrs. Gentry. She sat on her little verandah sewing with a number of small children grouped around her. She was amusing them as she worked.”
“Go on with your story telling,” I pleaded. “I am a child myself as young as any of these.”
“I were tellin’ some mount’n stories,” she answered. “It mout be they’d tickle ye. So if you’ll be one o’ the young uns, set down thar an’ I’ll scratch around an’ see what I kin fetch out o’ my ol’ brains.”
I took the chair she offered and sat down with a girl of four on my lap while Mrs. Gentry opened a mine of old mountain folk lore which delighted me.
“Well here comes:
Eight humly, bumly bees,
Seven humpity, crumpity no horn cows,
Six hicketty, ficketty, custards,
Five bob-tail, bald-face, skewball nags,
Four colly birds,
Two ducks and an ol’ fat rooster.”
Cecil Sharp, founder of The English Folk Dance and Song Society in England, and its American counterpart, the Country Dance Society in the United States, sought Jane out. Sharp visited her home on at least eight separate occasions and was clearly welcome there. He collected more songs from Jane (70) than from any other singer in the ‘Laurel Country.’ Many of the songs were those she sang for children, such as “Sing Said the Mother,” “Froggie He Would A-Wooing Go,” “The Farm Yard,” and “There’s Nothing to be Gained by Roving.” He included forty of her songs in English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1932).
Jane Gentry’s stories received as much attention as her songs. Mrs. Isabel Gordon Carter visited her in 1923 and did the first collecting of Jack Tales, as told to Jane by her grandfather, Council Harmon (“Old Counce”), in which Jack is the third son, left behind when his brothers seek adventure. Fifteen of these tales, which Jane called “old Jack, Will and Tom tales,” were published as “Mountain White Folk-Lore: Tales from the Southern Blue Ridge,” in the March 1925 Journal of American Folk-Lore. Jane Gentry died two months later, on May 29.
Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers, by Betty N. Smith, Univ Press of Kentucky, 1998