Appalachia Appalachia Through My Eyes

Appalachia Through My Eyes – Passing The Stories Down

story telling in Appalachia

Appalachia has a great tradition of story-telling. Many of the stories have been passed down through multiple generations and are continuing to be told today. There are more than a few story-tellers who read the Blind Pig and The Acorn. Keith Jones and Granny Sue both come to mind.

A local story-teller named Martha Owen Liden also comes to mind. She’s a fixture in Brasstown. She and her husband made music with Pap every now and again through the years. Martha’s stories are great fun to listen to. If you ever got a chance to watch the movie the girls and I were in you can catch a short glimpse of Martha story-telling.

There are other types of stories told in Appalachia too. The stories of our lives. The stories we pass down to our children about ourselves and their ancestors.

Several months back Ed Karshner left the following comment.

“I wanted to speak to your post yesterday. I wanted to say something, then but I needed to study on it. I’m glad you tell these stories and you should never tire or feel strange about sharing stories about your father. For us, people of Appalachia, stories are how we keep those most important things alive. I read once that humans aren’t born with instincts to survive, instead we are born with the ability to tell stories. In that very old Germanic tradition that, I think, has influenced Appalachian storytelling, we don’t have a future…just a past and a right now. When we tell those stories, that person (or people or event) is brought into the now and lives just as real as if they were physically breathing. They are here now (in the story) to instruct us, love us, and make us smile. This is why I tell my children about my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, friends every chance I get. Not just to make them live again for my kids but also for me. I don’t think it is stretching it to say that storytelling about our ancestors is like spending time with them. I feel that way.”

Ed said he’d been studying on my post, well I’ve been studying on his comment since he left it back in April.

Appalachians are often belittled and maligned for holding on to their past and for always talking about the good ole days in a sentimental fashion.

One of the most common Appalachian traits is being family centered. Everything revolves around family and those family ties run farther than just immediate family. It extends to uncles, aunts, cousins, and in-laws. And oftentimes those family members aren’t even really family members, they’re close friends who feel like family.

Part of our longing to talk about the past is related directly to those tight family ties that hold us together even beyond the grave. As Ed so rightly pointed out, it keeps those who have long gone on alive and near to us.

Another part of our longing to talk about the past is directly related to how our environments are changing at warp speed and we’re left looking around at a world we no longer fit.


Appalachia Through My Eyes – A series of photographs from my life in Southern Appalachia.

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  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    October 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    I think we should keep the past alive for our children. My aunt once said not to tell Janet anything or she’d put it in a book. I think we should write it down. the world is so different today than it was when I was growing up. I want my children to know about their ancestors and what it was like when I was young. My fiction that I write has a lot of fact in it, too. I weave the facts into fiction and keep memories alive. I think I do it more for my sake than anything else. I don’t want to forget. Our minds are like sieves with information and memories flowing through it every day. But more and more is flowing out the older we get and being lost forever. So write it down, lest we forget.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    October 18, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Seems to me, in a sense, everybody was a storyteller. Everybody was a storyteller because that’s what we did … we’d sit on the front porch or out under a tree in the yard and talk. There was a very basic cause for sitting and talking: the house was unbearably hot and television didn’t exist. The hours between supper and bedtime were generally spent sitting outside and, without saying it, we sat outside because it was tolerably cooler there. What was there to talk about? Gossip was some of it but our Christianity taught us not to do that. So we talked about things we had seen or interesting things our parents and aunts and uncles had done; or somebody we knew or heard about had done and those stories were retold into favorite family lore and some of us could tell about those things such that we laughed … or we cried … or we were awestruck … or we found heroes in the stories. Some stories told were just short memories. Some stories were long and intriguing and went all down into the twilight hours and past eight-thirty and we sat and hoped the story would go on and on and we would become completely absorbed in the tale; roll it over and over in our minds, ruminate, get scared. But we all told stories, in a way, back then, because talking was for telling things and storytelling got us through the twilight and into a cooled down house and bed where we hid under the covers because we couldn’t stop thinking about Ol’ Bloody Bones.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 18, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    When I was a child telling a story might get you a whipping.
    “I told not to get in the creek! Did you do it anyway? Now don’t you tell me a story or I’ll whup you twice! Once for not minding and once for telling me a lie!”

  • Reply
    Sherry Whitaker
    October 18, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    I love the way you write. You are able to bring my thoughts into focus. I believe when I meet these kinfolk in Heaven one day, I will know them because I will have heard all the familiar stories about them…about how my aunt lived in a what was known as “dogtrot” house where you had to go outside to get to another room. The kitchen had a woodstove and all the beds had feather tics.

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    October 18, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    I absolutely LOVE today’s commentary, yours and Eds. I cant add anything to this!
    Just want to say that one of my big regrets is that I didnt audio (or video) my Grannys (grandparents and aunts) stories and history. I am now the oldest cousin on both sides and the only one who remembers many many things and the only one, except one, who cares. And I’m the only one left with many of photos and knows who they are. What will happen to them when I’m gone? I know what.
    Its heartbreaking but I’m thankful for what I know and the wonderful life I’ve had. Every generation has tried to make a better life and they made mine full of sweet memories. Not perfect but sweet.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    October 18, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Tipper, your blog has got to be the biggest front porch in Appalachia. I enjoy stopping by, listening to other people and, of course, I enjoying talking some, too. I always leave feeling smarter than when I got here.
    Just because some of the world has moved on doesn’t mean it got somewhere I want to be. Like you said, our stories give us the knowledge and the means to maintain the dignity our ancestors so bravely displayed.
    As always, you keep talking and I’ll keep listening.

  • Reply
    Gina Lee
    October 18, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    That last paragraph really tells it. Wonderful article.

  • Reply
    Joe Penland
    October 18, 2017 at 11:44 am

    I wish I had heard more stories from my relatives. i became close to an aunt a few years prior to her death. In conversations with her occasionally she would get a certain look and say “I shall never forget……” . A wonderful story of a happening in her life would follow. How I wish those stories were still available.

  • Reply
    October 18, 2017 at 11:15 am

    . . . one more thought . . . stories keep cultures and religions alive. Without the storytellers like Mark, Luke, and Paul, sharing their stories with the common people where would Christianity be today? Even if we don’t speak the stories as often as we used to, we still sing them: “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus”, “I Love to Tell the Story” . . . .

  • Reply
    October 18, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Well said, all.
    Even so, I was puzzled by Ed’s comment about the Germanic tradition of “we don’t have a future…just a past and a right now.” Most of my family branches are German and farmers. Farmers who plant seeds and trees for tomorrow, who instruct their children so they may be prepared for and have a better tomorrow, whose frugalness is part of planning for tomorrow. Today becomes tomorrow’s yesterday and tomorrow becomes today, but there is there is still hope in tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come.

  • Reply
    Janis Sullivan (Jan)
    October 18, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Mr. Ed was right on for the reason for story telling. The people are right there with you to instruct us, love us, and make us smile. I could not do without those memories, and wonderful times. Now all the people turn to the phones. I would much rather turn to the stories. Thank you again for this most impactful post.

  • Reply
    Keith Jones
    October 18, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Blatant plug here…thanks for mentioning me as a storyteller! And one of my favorite storytellers is Rosanne Kent from the University of North Georgia’s Appalachian Studies department. She will be telling stories tomorrow night (November 19th) at the Blue Ridge Community Theater, a benefit for their children’s theater project and our new local campus for North Georgia University. Those of you who are interested in seed-saving and Appalachian folkways need to get to know that program! They are teaching students to not only save seed and old foodways, but the stories that go with them.
    By the way, if anyone’s interested in hearing me tell stories, I’ll be at Vogel State Park on the Saturday before Halloween, and at Mercier’s Orchards the first Saturday in November. And I’m trying to do a written version of another of my “shivery tales” to go with the “Momma Jones’ Rocking Chair” and “The Demon Driver of Dawson County” that you’ve published in previous years! (Thanks, thanks, thanks!)

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 18, 2017 at 9:50 am

    I lived a large part of my childhood away from here but we always cane back. We were always back here on summer vacations and holidays so I know the stories. The family stories always kept me spellbound. Some were funny and some were heartbreaking but they were all family, whether blood related or not. When I married, it was into a family with stories. I’ve always loved the stories. Didn’t matter how many times I heard them, they were mine, a part of me.
    Tip, did you know that people going to 12 step recovery groups tell their stories. It’s a big part of how they heal. They all share their stories with each other and it helps them get well.
    Out stories are important. I’ve tried to share my family stories with Chitter and Chatter as I can but the mind set today is so locked into their electronic devices so there is not much room left for stories. I really admire how you and the Deer Hunter have raised your girls. They are, for sure, a part of the electronic age but they also know the woods, the garden and their families and the stories! You’ve done a great job of bring the two worlds together!

  • Reply
    eva m. wike
    October 18, 2017 at 9:43 am

    SHUCKS! I was getting ready to tell you
    YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD! But that Fancy Beth done beat me to it! ANYWAY I read your post to Jim as we shared some Oatmeal and a BIG Muffin! Eva Nell
    p.s. Our fires are OUT in the Smokies! But it would make you sad to see the blackened mountain slopes! We came through from Waynesville – where Jim had attended his CLASS REUNION! Such a wonderful group of classmates and the mountains around Waynesville were at their best!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    October 18, 2017 at 9:04 am

    Story Tellers are the most amazing people, not everyone can tell a story it takes talent. Nothing better than sitting around a campfire and listening even to a story you have known for years.

  • Reply
    Sue Wallen
    October 18, 2017 at 9:04 am

    Clyde, I love the verbal history reflected in your stories. You take us back to another time to enable us to live in the past for a few moments in time. You weave words to make pictures in our minds that delight us.
    You are Kendall are so creative it makes me smile and cry. Thank you!

  • Reply
    October 18, 2017 at 9:02 am

    When I think of a great storyteller, I think about Charles Fletcher. I have never met Charles, but I feel like I have known him for years. In his books, he took us back to a time that very few folks lived to talk about. Every story comes from the man telling it, not passed down hearsay that is written in so many of our history books. My parents never wrote a book, but the stories they told will never be forgotten as long as I live. The older generation has so many stories to tell if we will just take the time to listen.

  • Reply
    Brian P. Blake
    October 18, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Families are the templates from which we invent ourselves: the manners and customs children experience as they are growing up shape each new generation as finally as a sculptor molds his clay. Our surest guide to a better future is the past, the wisdom of experience, for looking back helps us model the present to create conditions which improve our lives. Ignorance of past mistakes risks repeating them, and knowledge of past successes builds upon our strengths.
    Family history is our personal past, and serves the same purpose. Many think of genealogy as only a dry compilation of ‘begats’, and so it can be, but it is far more than “the study of dead people.” History lives, and particularly family history, for those of us alive today are the ancestors of tomorrow, merging our never-ending stories. Forefathers have fascinated mankind since the dawn of consciousness, when we first realized that through our descendants we become immortal. It has been said that everyone dies twice, first when they stop breathing and second when the bell tolls the last person for whom they lived in memory. Things are lost; friends fail; success flees; honors are forgotten. We too will vanish like smoke. But families rise above the stream, islands in the river of time, and packing our record in Grandmother’s Trunk books passage on the Wilderness Road that each generation travels anew.
    To know one’s heritage is to become an agent of destiny, striding forth in moral armor at the head of a glorious, invisible army. Family chronicles frame our portrait, telling us who we are, adding continuity and perspective and expanding our community. As modern life grows ever more dynamic, the belonging and companionship we experience around the campfire become daily more important to emotional balance, even psychological health. Souls deprived of this blanket of trust and love feel angry, cheated, incomplete, a repressed but aching void. Relatives are the advance guard in our fight against rootless anonymity. While we have family, we are not alone.
    Our memoirs may sit on a shelf for decades. Then someday a hand undreamed of will reach up, and someone will discover that he has inherited a golden key, not to the twilight attic of a mildewed mansion but to the rainbow of memories which live forever in his family’s heart. Parents are guardians of a vast treasure, lodged in a bottomless chest, and only if we unlock its mysteries can our sons and daughters man their own battle stations as the wagon train of time rolls on. Pressing forward across the frontiers of the future, so marvelous to us, comes naturally to them. Yet for all the wonders of the new, “that which we are, we are.” Reversing the telescope to glimpse Yesterday People within the compass of their life and times is to view the present through a marvelous lens. In the stern faces of distant patriarchs we shall come to recognize: ourselves.
    “Those who ignore history forget that they are making it.” Winston Churchill.

  • Reply
    Beth Durham
    October 18, 2017 at 6:20 am

    Once again you’ve hit the nail on the head! I love our stories. I love sharing them and I can’t imagine a people without stories.
    I’ve heard the stories of my ancestors for so many years – and heard the same stories repeated until they are as familiar to me as any aspect of home – that I feel like when I walk along the old roads I can practically hear their voices. I sometimes have to remind myself that I never knew this one or that one passed on before I was even born – because I know them through the stories.
    I’m writing my stories down so my own children and their children long after I’m gone will still have them – will still have their roots and their heritage. After all, we just don’t sit around the table or out on the porch and listen to old folks like we used to and that’s how the stories got passed on.
    I’m profoundly saddened by cousins who grew up away from the mountain (because parents had to leave to find work) and they’ve lost the stories. So I write them that they may recapture their history and share it with their coming generations as well.

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