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A Sad Passing

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Ray Hicks, the last of a long line of Appalachian story tellers has died, of prostate cancer.

Hicks could spin a yarn in the vernacular of the original Appalachian settlers, a vernacular that was heavily influenced by Elizabethan English, coming as it did from 17th century English kept alive in isolated mountain settlements:

He was adept at the “cantefable,” a story form rare among white Americans in which a story teller suddenly might burst into song. He might even add a riff on his harmonica.

But Hicks was best known for his “Jack stories,” and he was said to be the last traditional Jack tale teller in North America. Such stories feature a poor, naive youth named Jack who overcomes unrelenting adversity with adaptive pluck and luck. Adversity can include lions, giants and witches…

…The family had come from northern England in the mid-1700s and isolated itself in the American Indian territory of the Appalachian Mountains. The lack of roads and communication helped preserve — albeit with hillbilly additions — features of the English language now lost even in England…

…He occasionally earned a little cash by telling stories to school classes. But mostly he spun tales — and cured warts — for free, believing that stories, just like the Bible, were meant for joy and teaching people how to live.

We’ve lost more than a little bit of history with his passing.

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