Appalachia

Appalachia’s Storytelling Culture

story telling in Appalachia

Storytelling is a huge component of Appalachian culture, you might even say its the cornerstone of the entire cultural foundation.

We tell stories to explain the way we live, we tell stories to instruct others, we tell stories to remind us of those who came before us.

I watched an episode of The Waltons with Granny the other day. John Boy said the stories of the Walton family had been told so many times they all knew them by heart. I was reminded of John Prine’s song “Paradise.” My favorite line from the song is: “There’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered So many times that my memories are worn.”

Both John Prine and John Boy are right. Family stories get told over and over until each member can recite them verbatim, yet we continue to tell them.

Blind Pig reader Ed Karshner left this comment several years ago.

“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.”

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 real 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. But our storytelling nature is also used to influence our future.

The stories we tell, some of which are generations old, offer a road map to our children, grandchildren, and community.

Tipper

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    September 16, 2021 at 4:49 pm

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this, too. Maybe it’s the fall weather or just that my kids are getting older and want to know more. But, I’ve been thinking about my grandpa Ralph. He died when my mom was only 13. Obviously, I never knew him. But, I’ve been raised on stories about him to where I can say “Well one time Grandpa Ralph” or “Grandpa Ralph said.” Everything I know about him comes from stories. And, I can go to those stories just as sure as if they are him to get advice or comfort.

    But, there is something to sitting down with my kids and telling them about their great-granddad, and to an extent, introduce them to each other.

    I read somewhere that in Appalachia, stories are events we participate in rather than possessions. I think they are both. Stories do bring the past into the present. But, they are some of my most prized possessions. And judging by the comments, that certainly seems to be the case with Blind Pig readers as well. Stories are a wonderful thing to share.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 16, 2021 at 4:27 pm

    When I was growing up we were not allowed to tell a lie, of course. But, calling someone else a liar or saying they told a lie was a greater sin. Instead of using the word lie we said “told a story”. Instead of saying “liar” we said “story teller”. We were told that the Bible says it is a greater sin to accuse someone of telling a lie or calling them a liar than to tell a lie. I have had my butt beat for committing the sin and the “greater sin”.
    Whenever I hear or read the words “storyteller” I am reminded of those times.

    • Reply
      Tipper
      September 16, 2021 at 6:39 pm

      Ed-we used story like that too 🙂

  • Reply
    Mary Anne Johnson
    September 16, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    I love any of John Ptine’s renditions but Paradise I love the best. It goes straight to the heart. I find myself singing it to myself from time to time.

  • Reply
    Kat Swanson
    September 16, 2021 at 11:46 am

    Storytelling is something our family in Wise Co. VA. knows very well. My people are the sources of most Appalachian collections. We keep the tales…those that came from across the water…those of our elders and the lives they lived. We are the rememberers.. ..we rock babies to sleep to the singing of old ballads , hoping the children grow up and remember the lessons in the songs.
    I sat and listened to Alex Haley at our National Storytelling Conference many years ago tell how he wrote the book ROOTS by remembering what the women had said…as he listened by hiding under the kitchen tablecloth. Stories are the ties that bind.
    I heard a long time ago that we should lead lives so people will tell stories about us when we are gone. I hope I have done that…cause I also know that no one is truly gone as long as someone is telling a story about them.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    September 16, 2021 at 10:33 am

    Oh how I clung to the stories about bygone days. I was a child who liked to eavesdrop, and this came in handy when later I learned to love studying the history of our family. Those tidbits and stories would be recalled as I combed through old records.
    Mom’s earlier warnings that her great grandmother had died in a fire. Imagine finding the old newspaper article giving all the details about the elderly lady turning over a kerosene lamp. Many stories have been told about Great Grandma Mariah who died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic leaving a houseful of young children including an infant. I search the census for the placement of these small children. I already know the person whose name is on the tombstone when I trek through the old family cemeteries. Many died before I ever entered this world, but I know them well from the stories and even better from old documents. Roots run deep in our Appalachia! We raised money to purchase markers for many who had only a fieldstone to mark their final resting place.

    • Reply
      Melinda
      September 18, 2021 at 5:44 pm

      Wonderful truths about the importance of storytelling & searching for info about ancestors.

      My dad recorded many stories & memories on cassettes (most transferred years later on cd’s). Priceless!

  • Reply
    Brad Byers
    September 16, 2021 at 10:27 am

    I had the privilege of growing up with an extended family. Everyone told stories, legends, folktales, personal experience narratives and jokes. I’ve often said that my two granddads had the best ones. One told wonderful stories; the other told stories wonderfully.

  • Reply
    everett clausen
    September 16, 2021 at 9:48 am

    I like your take on local storytelling and I think it’s universal.
    I grew up in a small Quebec town and my father often told an amusing story that happened to him.
    He was out trying to get commitments for the church and visited a house that was well known for poor housekeeping and maintenance. As he was ushered in he noticed two or three small kids and a dirty yellow kitten over near a big chair.
    As my father talked to the folks he saw one of the kids drive the kitten a mighty kick with a slippered foot. As it came rolling to my father he saw that rather than a kitten it was an old turnip covered in yellow fur mould . A story that keeps getting repeated .

  • Reply
    Catherine Spence
    September 16, 2021 at 9:40 am

    I’m so thankful that my mother made a point of telling us the stories of our family roots. Now I need to get busy and get them written down for my children.

  • Reply
    Randy
    September 16, 2021 at 9:37 am

    I love to tell stories about things I did in the past with my family and friends. I also love listening to others tell stories
    about their life especially the older people of my childhood. I am also a full blooded and registered country boy and remember the old country stores with the bench out front and the big woodstove inside and the men sitting around it on the turned up wooden coke cola crates. One fond memory of my childhood is going to the small town of Honea Path, SC on Saturday afternoons and going with my Daddy to the Western Auto store and the men sitting in the back of store either on an old church pew or the crates drinking Cokes from small 6oz glass bottles watching a ball game on a TV that had been repaired while their wife shopped. One other thing I remember is the respect that the men showed for women and children back then, any fowl language or story being told was stopped if a lady or child was around. Many times I wish I could go back to those days.

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    September 16, 2021 at 9:28 am

    Is the photo an old spring box? If not, what is it?

    • Reply
      Tipper
      September 16, 2021 at 6:41 pm

      Rooney-it is an old spring box. Way up on Junaluska here in Cherokee County 🙂

  • Reply
    Shirl
    September 16, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Storytelling was a relaxing time on our front porch in warmer months or as we gathered around the coal stove during the winter. Most of the stories were ‘true’ ghost, witch and boogerman tales we had heard over and over. That was a common form of entertainment in households without a TV. If I tell my daughter a story more than once, she quickly reminds me I have already told that one. My grandkids are not as impatient and will listen with interest no matter how many times I tell it.

  • Reply
    dee
    September 16, 2021 at 9:20 am

    Growing up in the 50’s, I was amazed at how my Mother could gather children around her and mesmerize them with a story of her and her 10 siblings growing up years. We sat in awe, like we were transported back in time. Even if she was telling an old western story from a book she had read, she had the ability to make it exciting like you both were right there in the middle of it. She was a fantastic Storyteller.
    I love, love those old family stories – comical, heartwarming, inspirational and full of love. By the way, I still so enjoy watching The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.

  • Reply
    Gail
    September 16, 2021 at 9:18 am

    Great memories I have of growing up in the Nantahala Community is storytelling. All our family sat around the old wood stove at night and talked about the day, farming, the weather, told ghost stories, talked about family heritage and about families and how they ranged in age, etc. I still have a precious Aunt who will soon turn 94 years old. Love talking to her and hearing about their “courting” days and how she raised her family. I am actually making a little journal of her life and stories. I still stay in touch with cousins and have tried to keep family memories alive in our children. Still love my heritage and very much in touch with my roots!

  • Reply
    Christine
    September 16, 2021 at 8:47 am

    I miss my mom telling stories about her family while she grew up in the mountains and hollers. I try to pass the ones I remember on to my granddaughter, but now that she’s almost a teenager she doesn’t want to hear them anymore. I guess that’s why I enjoy hearing your stories so much, they remind me of stories my mom told or things that were similar in my own life as a child. I may not have my granddaughter’s full attention right now, but I’ll keep telling her the stories of my mom and of my childhood. Maybe one day she will remember some of them too, simply because I told them so much. She might actually one day wished she paid better attention to them.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    September 16, 2021 at 8:12 am

    Ah the stories of Appalachian people and their lives is a very rich heritage indeed! I thought for sure you were going to share one, Tipper! There’s always a story or tale to be told. I’m getting along in years now and the older I get, the less I have to say strangely enough. If I did have a lot to say, like I used to, no one is listening anyway so there’s that. Have a good day, all, while I sit in the cool fog this morning here in Nature’s Air Conditioned City Bluefield, WV. (The crows have lots to say today.)

  • Reply
    Wanda
    September 16, 2021 at 8:08 am

    My daddy was a great storyteller. He was uneducated, but probably taught me more than all my college professors combined. Thankful.

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    September 16, 2021 at 8:02 am

    Storytelling keeps our families and their stories alive. When I wrote “Where the Stars Grant Wishes,” although it is fiction, I loosely based it on my grandparents and the stories I heard about them. In the back of the book I had a FYI page where I listed the true tidbits I incorporated into the book. The book was my way of keeping them alive in my mind for me and my children who never knew them.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 16, 2021 at 7:44 am

    Oh Tipper, you touch my heart today. This is my roots but not my experience. As a child I lived in several different southern states in cities where we knew no one. I missed being able to make this family and home connection and it has haunted me all my life. It is Gods great gift to me to be living here in the mountains that I have come to love with my family…my wonderful family!

  • Reply
    Rita F Speers
    September 16, 2021 at 7:44 am

    One of my most favorite things as a child was when my Mother and her Aunt would get to visit one another. I would revel in just listening to them reminisce and recount stories from their childhood. I learned so much as I was transported back in time to another place where they were children and best friends (my Mother’s aunt was 2 years younger than she was). In my mother’s later years, as I realized her memory was failing, I would take notes when I visited her and go home and write her stories down. I will never regret doing this!

  • Reply
    AWGRIFF
    September 16, 2021 at 7:10 am

    I can think of so many it’s hard to pick one to write about. I chose this one and realizing that Papaw was not at this time a church going man. He became a Christian later in life.
    Papaw had some homing pigeons and they were flying to a neighbor’s barn and some were not making it back to his barn. Word came to Papaw that the young man up the road was killing them. Well, one day the young man was visiting at Papaw’s house and Papaw told him that he heard he was killing his pigeons. Morton said that’s right Norman and what are you going to do about it! Papaw pulled out his knife and Morton took off out the door and through the bottom with Papaw on his heels. Morton got away and as I’ve heard the story there were no more missing pigeons.

  • Reply
    JimK
    September 16, 2021 at 6:30 am

    Tipper,
    There is so much to be learned without knowing it via a good story. I grew up in a country store in the mountains of East TN back in the early 60s. Storytelling was a common thing on the bench out front or by the woodstove in the winter. That’s anything that’s fading from our culture. Recently I’ve been watching old YouTube’s of the late Jeanne Robertson, she was a great storyteller.

    • Reply
      Cynthia
      September 16, 2021 at 12:42 pm

      I just love Jeanne Robertson’s videos. She is so funny. I remember one comment that when someone dies, if you bring the family something not homemade and put it on your grandmother’s fancy dish, they’ll still know it’s not homemade. When my Daddy was dying from cancer over 40 years ago, church friends brought food so Mama didn’t have to worry about cooking. Well, one night I took a big spoonful of what I thought was mashed potatoes and it turned out to be mashed turnips. I do not like cooked turnips in any way, shape, or form. Needless to say, I don’t take turnips to anyone who is sick or has a death in the family.

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