One of my favorite memories from childhood is sitting on the floor in front of my Grandpa’s chair while he told me Brer Rabbit stories. Films and the written word are wonderful mediums for telling tales, but I don’t believe that either will ever replace or replicate the experience of oral storytelling.
Author Lars Mytting has a wonderful comparison of a wood-burning fire to the modern ways of heating homes that applies here. “Scientifically speaking,” he writes, “there is no measurable difference between the heat generated by electricity and that produced by combustion, but the body reacts in a different way to the more intense heat from the [wood burning] stove . . . An ordinary electric radiator or heat pump warms only the air in the room, but flames and glowing embers release electromagnetic, infrared radiation that has much the same characteristics as sunlight. Warming occurs in the skin and the body as the radiation arrives, with an immediacy and an intensity that bring a feeling of well-being and security . . . These factors, combined with the smell of wood and a little woodsmoke, and the sight of the ever-changing play of flames, connect us with the primordial magic of the fireplace.”
Oral storytelling is as old as mankind and like a wood-burning fire it brings with it a sense of immediacy found in no other medium. Much in the same way that radiation from a fire causes warming to occur in the skins and body, oral storytelling causes a story to unfold in the mind of the listener, no screen or page is necessary. The ultimate result is the same as a fire, we are connected to a primordial magic.
A lot of American folklore was collected as part of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal. There have been numerous anthologies of these folktales published over the years and having read quite a few of them, I’ve come to realize that not all folktales are created equal, the same principle applies to folklore collectors.
After reading one collection of Appalachian folklore that had stories ranging from spectacular to yawn-inducing, I went through the table of contents and highlighted the best stories for future reference. It was then that I realized that the majority of these high-quality tales had been collected by one man: Raymond Sloan.
Sloan was a folklore collector for the WPA Writer’s Project in Franklin County, Virginia in the late 1930’s. I did some digging and discovered that he had been interviewed in 1976 and recordings of those interviews still exist. Imagine my excitement when I heard the voice of one of my favorite storytellers relating tales from his native hills and hollers. So, even though Mr. Sloan is no longer with us, I’m happy to welcome him as a guest on The Weekly Holler this week. I usually add music and video into these stories, but I’m not going to for this episode. Sit back, close your eyes, imagine you’re sitting at the feet of your grandfather, and get ready to enjoy the tale of Nat Nichols from an authentic Appalachian storyteller:
Well, the old house had stayed abandoned for a number of years. And people shied away from it, wouldn’t go by it because Nat Nichols had deserted from the Confederate army, and had returned to the house, his old homeplace, cabin, and details had been sent out by the Confederacy to bring him back. So one or two men went to the back of the house and some went to the front. And being a little bit trigger happy, because he ran out the front door (he heard them trying to break into the back of the cabin to capture him, he ran out the front door) and one of the details shot him immediately, see, and he fell right in the front yard. They shot him dead without giving him a chance to surrender. So it was quite a tragedy because they could’ve captured him without all that. And years later, relatives of old Nat, I think his grandson probably, had the land, and there’s the cabin. So his grandson gets married, and with his new wife decides to move into the old Nat Nichols house, rather than try to build one for himself. But all of them heard stories of old Nat’s ghost showing up every once in awhile out in the front yard where he’d been shot dead by the Confederate details. So, my father was telling me that as an old lady, young Nat’s… the grandson’s wife, was telling the story. He remembered her telling it just as it had happened to her. They were sitting on the front porch of the old cabin, and she was an old lady when she was telling this story, said: “We were sitting out there and it was dark, awful dark; no moon, no stars, quite a few clouds, pitch black.” And so young Nat, the grandson, said: “It’s a good night to drive black sheep.” And the woman telling the story said “Yeah, I think I see a white’un now.” And said, “Out in the front yard, there had rize up this white thing, just where old Nat had been shot.” And she immediately fainted, dead away. She said that when she came to, her husband was rubbing her with camphor, trying to reassure her that everything was all right. But now, whether she saw something, or her imagination ran away with her, at least here’s a ghost story where she was convinced to the extent that she fainted, dead away. So that was old Nat’s ghost out near the stump in the center of the yard.
- The transcription of this story comes from a recording in the Ferrum Collection of Blue Ridge Institute and is used here for non-commercial, educational purposes.
- Lars Mytting’s quote comes from his book, Norweigian Wood.