Jordan here. Last week I shared with you a simple way to break down folklore, which is made up of all of us — the folk! — and what we say, make, do and believe — the lore! — as we interact and share in our small groups.
This week, I want to zoom into one general category of folklore: verbal lore. Verbal lore is what we use words for, and you’ll find it in the form of jokes, songs and especially stories.
We Appalachians are no strangers to jokes, especially at our expense. You’re all probably familiar with the redneck jokes popularized by comedian Jeff Foxworthy in the 1990s: You might be a redneck if . . . someone has ever told a joke in this style about you, your culture or your place. If you’re from West Virginia like me, you’ve probably heard the joke: The best part of Virginia went West in 1863, which is often told in the context of sticking up for the state or jokingly battling it out with our neighbors in Virginia. Like most folklore, the performance and meaning of the joke are tied to its context, the social situation, the teller and the audience: You can tell jokes about Appalachians — as long as you are one!
Songs are another common type of verbal lore in Appalachian culture. Our region is bursting with folk songs, and many are about labor, protest, or a complex love for our mountainous topography. From Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” to contemporary artists who employ traditional styles in their musical storytelling like Rhiannon Giddens, songs about our histories, values, hopes, fears and perseverance are always popping up.
One of our most prominent Appalachian folk figures John Henry has numerous songs and stories told about him, and I urge you all to revisit Bianca X’s newsletter from this summer, “The Problem with John Henry,” where she critiques the tale and imagines its powerful alternatives. All these John Henry songs, stories and imaginings are a great example of folklore. We share this traditional tale in a variety of ways, and we are constantly reshaping those traditions as we create the future.
Now that it’s October and our days are getting shorter, we might be thinking a lot more about another time-honored Appalachian oral tradition: storytelling, particularly scary stories! From the mysterious fog hovering over the mountains and the eerie sounds of movement in the woods to the violent histories of forced indigenous removal and industrial disasters deep below the earth, our Appalachian hills and hollers are full of ghostlore and stories about the people and memories that haunt us and our places.
While there are many reasons we tell these scary stories (to warn, to protect, to honor), one reason we tell stories is to make sense of and reflect on what we’re experiencing in the world. When I was growing up in the woods of southern West Virginia, my dad would tell the story of Jake and Sheba. According to my dad, Jake and Sheba lived up a nearby holler by a cemetery. One night, Jake murdered his wife Sheba by cutting off her head, and then he carried her head around the holler, pulling out locks of hair and sticking them in tree stumps. The holler is still haunted by Sheba, and if you see locks of hair out in the woods, her ghost or her murderer are probably nearby!
When my dad was a teenager, he would ride his headlight-less dirt bike to work up the holler where Jake and Sheba supposedly lived, and his boss, Mr. Miller, would tell him this story before he headed home alone through the dark woods at night, no doubt more carefully and quickly because of the Jake and Sheba tale. I like to think my dad also told his little holler kids this story to warn us away from dilly-dallying in the woods around our house at night, which we could easily get lost in.
No matter what reason a teller has for sharing a story with a particular audience in any given social situation, there’s one thing I like to take away from such experiences: Our stories can protect us. And as we live through such trying times, we might especially find comfort, safety, or even joy in passing along our traditional tales.
As we move throughout the month, I invite you to think about all the Appalachian stories — scary or not — you’ve been told throughout your life and maybe share them with others around a socially-distanced campfire or over a video chat. In doing so, we might just keep both our stories and ourselves alive and well during the spookiest time of the year and perhaps throughout the scariest period many of us will ever face.
Take care, my friends, and I’ll see y’all next week!