ONE TIME away back years ago there was a boy named Jack. He and his folks lived off in the mountains somewhere and they were awful poor, just didn’t have a thing. Jack had two brothers, Will and Tom, and they are in some of the Jack Tales, but this one I’m fixin’ to tell you now, there’s mostly just Jack in it.
Jack was awful lazy sometimes, just wouldn’t do ary lick of work. His mother and his daddy kept tryin’ to get him to help, but they couldn’t do a thing with him when he took a lazy spell.
Well, Jack decided one time he’d pull out from there and try his luck in some other section of the country. So his mother fixed him up a little snack of dinner, and he put on his old raggedy coat and lit out. …
–from Jack in the Giants’ New Ground!
Remember “Jack and the Beanstalk”? There’s more where that came from! Jack Tales are part of a cycle of folk stories that revolve around a central character named —wait for it!— Jack. The tales originated in Europe, with American Jack Tales being most closely related to those of the British Isles. Richard Chase first documented the existence of the Jack Tale cycle in America (to non-Appalachian folk!) when he published ‘The Jack Tales’ in 1943. Chase compiled his collection of stories from oral interviews taken from members of the Council Harmon family of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, and also from three families in Wise County, Virginia.
Jack is a kind of trickster-hero, one who is successful through his cleverness. Certainly he is not the admirable prince of fairy tales, but rather a quick witted and not always too scrupulous farm boy. In these tales as told in Appalachia Jack is an ordinary poor boy who achieves success in only one of two ways: either by his wits, or by sheer luck — and the latter predominates. Quite a contradiction to the “American fairy tale” mythos that honesty and hard work are the means to success!
“In April 1939, while I was recording folklore for the Library of Congress, I was fortunate enough to get a number of these Jack Tales from Sam Harmon in Tennessee,” says Herbert Halpert, who wrote the appendix to ‘The Jack Tales.’ “Just the previous month I had been collecting folksongs in Wise County, Virginia, and nearby Letcher County, Kentucky, and never thought to ask for tales.”
“About a year later, Mr. Chase worked in the same area and with some of the same informants from whom I had recorded songs – and got tales from them. Mr. Chase deserves considerable credit for tracing the folktales in one family tradition. The discovery of the interrelationship of the Ward-Harmon-Gentry families is a fine achievement.”