Memories of Storyteller Live On
By Casey Blake
BEECH MOUNTAIN, NC
There's a home video of me, age 4 or 5, being asked by my Aunt Connie to explain what "culture" is.
I respond, very self-assured (as I typically was at that age), that culture was something they had in Africa where people danced and wore beads and played drums. She asked if we had culture here in the mountains, and I rolled my eyes with an exasperated, "No, silly."
This exchange has stuck with me into adulthood, because I think two decades later I've figured out the real answer.
Mountain culture, I believe, has a physical address, and it lives in the home of Rosa Hicks and her late husband, the legendary Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks.
My Aunt Connie, better known as Connie Regan-Blake — a world-renowned storyteller in her own right — has always spoken about Ray Hicks as a sort-of messiah.
Ray was a godfather of folklore and a master storyteller by any account. But beyond his contributions to his art, Ray, who died in 2003 at age 80, was a precious piece of Appalachian history, and a man whose simple mountain wisdom has long outlasted his days on the front porch of his cabin in Beech Mountain.
Ray and Rosa's youngest son, Ted, who's in his 50s, has been in a nursing home in Banner Elk for 18 months with complications from diabetes and kidney failure. He's in a wheelchair and can't visit their home, since it is down a steep hill with no driveway, and Rosa, who's 81, is also struggling to get up the hill.
So, taking a cue from the legendary Ray Hicks' generosity of spirit, a group of what I can only describe as all-star storytellers has come together to raise funds to build a driveway for the Hicks home, so Ted can finally come home.
"Fixing to Tell About Jack," a celebration and benefit for Ray and Rosa Hicks Fund, will feature storytellers Gwenda Ledbetter, Vixi Jil Glen, David Novak, Connie Regan-Blake and Ted Hicks himself on Saturday.
The Hicks at home
I made the pilgrimage to the Hicks house last week to visit Rosa and their oldest son, Lenard. It was the first time I'd been there since I was a teenager, and the place was just as I remembered: really, really hard to forget.
Time has stood still in the Hicks home, and not simply for lack of modern amenities.
The more than 40 acres of mountain land surrounding the Hicks cabin is untouched and lush in a way that looks foreign and almost dream-like to even the most wilderness-loving Asheville city slickers.
The winding road to their home passes more mailboxes with the last name "Hicks" on the side than not because, as Leonard puts it, "just about everybody on this mountain is kin."
Though years have passed since I last saw Rosa, she welcomed me with literally open arms and a hug into the living room where she and Ray slept until the day he died nine years ago.
In the center of the "sitting room," as Rosa calls it, there is a wood stove that I can only imagine was installed by Benjamin Franklin himself. (My Aunt Connie dates it at about 60 years old.)
The walls are covered in family photos that span the existence of photography itself, and the layers and piles of knickknacks that line the shelves and floors range from seashells Ray brought to Rosa in their courting days to modern, abstract portraits of Ray given to the family by a hot young artist who wanted to capture Ray's singularly expressive face.
In the kitchen, Rosa is usually perched next to the antique wood burning stove she still prefers over the electric range installed for her a few years back. At 81, her hands still feed wood into the fire under the burners as deftly as ever.
But the magic that is the Hicks home is all in Rosa and the five children she raised there, and the palpable memory of Ray they carry is thicker than the wood smoke wafting from that ancient stove.
The mere mention of the Jack tales — the traditional Appalachian stories Ray popularized and emulated — spurs Lenard into a trance of storytelling around the kitchen table that, given a captive audience of one or two, would probably last for days.
"Of course there's nothing like religion, and we're god-loving people," Lenard said. "But Jack tales are a lot like a religion. You can live your life and die by 'em. They teach you everything you need to know."
The story of Ray
When I ask the Hicks to give me a definition of storytelling, they are perplexed — almost shaken — by this startlingly simple question.
"Oh, you can't ask me a question like that, honey," Rosa said with an exhaustive wave. "There's just no way to talk about something like that."
And there isn't. Storytelling is in the Hicks family in the way that oxygen and water are in the rest of us — and to ask them to explain it in words is like asking a person to explain breathing.
But Ray — his legacy and his person — that is something they can talk about for hours.
Ray was a lanky giant of a man, standing at 6-feet-7-inches tall and weighing in at about 150 pounds. He, his father and grandfather built the house I visited and set up a farm that supplied his family everything they could need, from the beans and veggies they would eat to the wood they would burn to cook it.
The stories Ray told — Jack tales — are reminiscent of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and similar folk tales and may in fact be from the same origins. Hicks developed a love for tales and a skill for telling them at the feet of his grandfather, John Benjamin Hicks.
He told his first tale beyond that front porch on Beech Mountain in an elementary school in 1951, and eventually helped to found the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.
"Ray could create this feeling of intimacy," Aunt Connie said. "He was just incredibly comfortable in his skin, and in his bib overalls."
Bess Lomax Hawes, folklorist and former director of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, once said, "There isn't any other Ray and never has been another Ray, except, maybe, back in the Middle Ages. He moves into a story and is totally engrossed. He talks about the characters as if they'd just stepped 'round back of his house, or gone up the road a piece."
Ray quickly garnered national attention from linguists, talk-show hosts, historians, performers like Connie and everyone in between who wanted to witness the uniquely preserved mountain man, a tall drink of distilled Appalachian heritage.
"Ray had this gift that was easy to see," Aunt Connie said. "It was as if he was able to open a window onto what 1800s and early 1900s were like, and it felt as if he was really living that."
'Generosity of spirit'
In 1983 Ray was named a heritage fellow through the National Endowment for the Arts, and the list of lifetime honors he would collect over the next 20 years goes on.
But Ray didn't like to travel much. His home was where he belonged, and his family had his heart more than any audience ever could.
Aunt Connie remembers the time Johnny Carson wanted Ray on the show, so much so that he sent producers out on the long journey through Beech Mountain (the Hicks home didn't have a phone until 2001, when Ray's hospice nurses requested it). They offered to fly him to the big city for the shoot.
Unimpressed but always polite, Ray replied, "You tell Johnny he can come visit me."
My Aunt Connie eloquently refers to the Hicks family's "generosity of spirit," more than any other trait when she describes them in many of her performances.
I asked Rosa and Lenard about this spirit — the one that they refer to as "the way of real mountain people" — and as they do with so many things, they explained it beautifully.
"The thing that sets mountain people apart from foreigners," Lenard said, "is that if you're passing a man putting hay on his roof and you're a mountain person, you climb up there and help him lay it down. If you're a foreigner, you just keep on walking."
Lenard stays with Rosa five days a week now, leaving his family in Tennessee behind to care for her, chop her wood and keep her company.
It visibly pains Rosa to think about Ted laid up in a bed, trapped by four plaster walls without his hands in the dirt where they belong or sitting on the front porch that will always be his home.
Rosa doesn't say much at all — she's used to leaving that to Ray — but at the mention of Ted she quickly piped up.
"If I could take his pain from him and keep it in me, I would," she said. "I would do it every day. I just wish I could have him here at home, where he belongs."
Too often I think we all fall into the category of those proverbial "foreigners," and not because of geography.
But on behalf of the Hicks family and the delicate heritage they are guarding safely for all of us, I hope many of us can find a moment to be mountain people on Saturday, and help our neighbors lay down their hay.
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