Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Approximately this time last year we made one of our regular trips to the USA. Guided by good friends we visited hither and yon but were much taken with Beech Mountain North Carolina. This is as far from the America of the tourist books you can get. The cabin is home to some of the most hospitable folks you could wish to meet. No mains water or electricity - just a well and a 'sometime' generator and the glow of oil lamps. Theirs is a tough life of farming, factory work and making do in conditions most of us would find intolerable. We met the family around the kitchen table on a dark rainy day; the cabin was warm and we could have been back in the nineteenth century. The mother, a diminutive woman up in her eighties with sharp attractive features and her nephew in his fifties, skinny, tall and wearing dungarees. Our friend led the conversation around to the telling of stories, for we were with one of several families from whom his parents had collected traditional songs and tales throughout the 30s. 40s and 50s...amongst which was the song 'Tom Dooley' (Frank Proffitt) made world famous by The Kingston Trio. The conversation about kith and kin ranged back and forth when eventually the nephew asked if we'd like to hear one of his 'Jack Tales' - would we! He commenced the story in a most dignified manner with an accent that at times was almost impenetrable; the story is of 'Jack' of Jack and the Beanstalk fame and the different tales are of his many adventures. For a quarter of an our we were transfixed and transported back to a time when this sort of thing was the norm, where the only entertainment was that which you made yourself and the skill of the singer or storyteller was your only theatre. As the story progressed the teller became more and more animated, gesturing to better describe the antics of Jack and the talking animals and laughing at the jokes he had heard a thousand times before. We were helpless with the infectious laughter and felt at one with the tale, the teller and the homespun magic. It was as natural as could be. We had been given a short glimpse back into the time of our ancestors. Even the accent...it was familiar, it was a kind of East Anglian! overlaid with a mountain drawl and added 'thee's' and 'thou's' which were pure Elizabethan English, but it was unmistakable. After the tale was finished the teller was at pains to let us know that the stories "come from England you know, come over with our kin long times ago, even afore they settled on th' mountain". And all those Hicks' and Proffitts' and all, they have something really precious. Something we've lost in our relentless search for the new, the gaudy and the temporary. Something everlasting, an anchor in their own culture that still works just like it always did.