Ray Hicks, North Carolina's celebrated storyteller, lived atop Beech Mountain in Watauga County. Though his homeplace was very near Boone, it was culturally distant from the fast-developing college town down the road. He and his wife Rosa lived in a manner more common to the pioneer than the modern mountaineer. A visitor to the Hickses' striking two-story frame house was likely to find Rosa busy drying apples and "putting up" produce from the garden, while Ray entertained a group of friends and neighbors in the front room.
One was struck first by Mr. Hicks' physical appearance--his lanky frame approaching seven feet. But the true marvel of the man was his verbal presence. He spoke a dialect of English that retained much of the vocabulary, phrasing, expression, and accent of earlier English and Scotch-Irish immigrants to the region. So much so that he was featured on Robert McNeil's PBS series The Story of English.
Mr. Hicks relished the spoken word and was a natural storyteller. Folklorist and former director of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, Bess Lomax Hawes, 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."
Mr. Hicks was particularly fond of telling a group of stories known as Jack tales, which are kin to the well-known stories "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Jack and the Giant Killer." The tales have ancient antecedents in Celtic and European folklore. In Ray's interpretations, which might have taken the better part of an hour to complete, there was a wonderful weave of fairy tale elements with realistic trappings of Southern Appalachian culture.
Less well known were Mr. Hicks' musical abilities. He was a powerful singer of traditional British and American ballads and a soulful harmonica player.
The North Carolina Arts Council was not the first organization to honor Ray Hicks. In 1983, he received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Though his distaste for traveling limited his public exposure, Ray appeared in a number of film documentaries and was profiled in The New Yorker magazine.
Mr. Hicks regularly performed at the annual National Storytellers Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee, which was a good place to experience first-hand the extraordinary qualities of the man. The event attracts large crowds each year to hear the country's best storytellers, and Mr. Hicks was the star of the festival. He remained at the forefront of a national revitalization of a venerable art form until his death in 2003 at the age of 80.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council, www.ncarts.org. More information about Ray Hicks is available online at http://www.rayhicks.com/In 1983, Ray Hicks was presented with the National Heritage Fellowship of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment of the Arts.http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/fellow.php?id=1983_03
Full Name: Ray Hicks
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