The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: The Keeper of the Jack Tales

Salsi, Lynn. The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: Keeper of the Jack Tales. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2008. $34.95.  Print.

Daniel Allar
Indiana University

Lynn Salsi’s The Life and Times of Ray Hicks: The Keeper of the Jack Tales is a biography of Ray Hicks, a master storyteller from Banner Elk, North Carolina. Hicks farmed in the Appalachian Mountains his entire life, and the “Jack Tales” referred to in the title of this book were passed down through his family in that area. He had very little money his entire life, worked from sunup to sundown just to keep his family fed, and spent most of his free time telling the stories he had learned from his grandfather or playing the French harp (harmonica). Although the book is basically a rundown of some of the most important aspects and events in Hicks’s life, some reoccurring themes emerge. For example, Hicks was very proud of the fact that he stayed home, cared for his mother, and was not bound by material items. Hicks was also proud… that he was the “true” holder of the “Jack Tales,” which were stories featuring a poor character from the mountains—Jack—who behaved much the way Hicks did. In fact Hicks repeatedly claimed that he and Jack were the same person.

The way Salsi approached this biography was very interesting for two reasons. First of all, she wrote using eye dialect, which gives an uncommon voice to the book. She also included what she called “Hicksisms,” which are unique or archaic words that Hicks was known to use. To explain some of the more confusing dialectical terms and “Hicksisms,” Salsi added footnotes to the book. Even more importantly, though, she wrote the entire book from Hicks’s first-person viewpoint. Her justification for doing this was that she could not make her writing flow as well any other way, and that she had spent enough time with Hicks during the eight years studying, traveling, and singing with him to accurately tell his life story through his words and dialect. Since Hicks was a natural storyteller anyway and talking was his way of passing time, Salsi most likely did compile enough of Hicks’s stories and tales to make a coherent book explaining the important moments of his life in a story-like fashion. It appears that Salsi accomplished her goal of accurately reflecting Hicks’s tone because the dialect was easy to follow and it was easy to forget that there was a medium between Hicks and the reader. Still, the amount of personal agency that Salsi could have enacted by trying to adopt Hicks’s exact tone and storytelling frames should be carefully considered when reading this book.

The general purpose of the biography appears to celebrate the humble and talented man that was Ray Hicks. That he could survive and feed a large family¾often with little help, money, or electricity¾highlights his extensive practical knowledge and is, in many ways, more impressive than the work someone puts into earning a seven-figure salary. The book contains a large amount of intrigue simply because Hicks lived a lifestyle that most people in his own country were not familiar with. Ray Hicks was essentially a curiosity because he lived in a time far removed from the past lifestyle that he indexed. After he became popular at storytelling festivals, professors and tourists from all over the country would make a sort of pilgrimage to his house to listen to him sing, play music, and tell stories.

Since Hicks was a gifted storyteller and this book is an attempt to reconstruct his life through his own words, the book must be read for entertainment value rather than factual information, since undoubtedly, some aspects of his storytelling technique seeped into the retelling of his life’s events. Elements of hyperbole and stream-of-consciousness are apparent in the book, although there are also times when Salsi, again, through Hicks’s words, is describing farming or hunting in which the depictions seem to be focused and accurate.

Although the aspects of Hicks’s folklore that this book focuses the most on—storytelling and music—have been seen as entertainment at the festivals to which he is invited, they had other uses in his life. Some of the tales Hicks heard growing up had important practical uses. One tale warned of snakes in the woods. This tale stuck with Hicks and functioned to keep him from wandering into the wilderness alone until he was old enough to defend himself. Other tales preached modesty or other values, essentially educating Hicks through this particular genre. Another benefit Hicks enjoyed from the tales and songs was that it brought his extended family together; growing up, he would enjoy when his Granddaddy Ben would tell stories because all the cousins, aunts, and uncles would come to his porch and spend the day together. Finally, these stories and songs were used to break the monotony of boring farm work or food preparation. If someone in the Hicks family was doing a repetitive chore, he might pass the time by sharing a story with those around them.

The book is almost chronological but sometimes differs from that format because it is primarily topic-based, which was an effective way to piece together Hicks’s life. Each successive chapter generally focuses on something Hicks encounters later in his life than the previous chapter, but sometimes there is overlap. Some of the chapter topics include a bear hunt, surviving hard winters, experiences at a two-room school, religion, courting women, and finally, the time period in which he actually received money for his storytelling. All of these topics are interesting in this context because of the way Hicks lived. The process he went through to court women, for instance, was completely different than that of modern American society, simply because he had to hike miles through the mountains just to socialize with others his own age. Also, since the Hickses were a large family in the area, he had to carefully select someone who was not too closely related (he still ended up marrying a distant cousin).

Anecdotes about Hicks’s retaining of an old way of life add a lot of humor to the book. When Hicks and his kin finally received attention from people outside of Appalachia and they interacted with each other, humorous stories resulted. For example, Hicks’s cousin, who went with Hicks to a storytelling festival, claimed to get caught in a revolving door and kept walking around and around inside of it until someone finally helped him get out.

It can be assumed that Salsi was trying to celebrate Hick’s life by writing this book. Based on the stories she included and the way she organized the book, she wanted Hicks to be remembered as a colorful and talented character, whose nostalgia for his land overrode his need for money, and who was fiercely loyal to his family. The book is definitely worth reading to anyone who is interested in an alternative, anti-modern lifestyle. It gives interesting insight into a way of life long-forgotten and also serves to educate its readers on some folklore that is right in front of us, in our own country.


1 Comment

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