BOBBY McMILLON’S TALL TALE FROM A “STORY TELLING… | Folkstreams

BOBBY McMILLON’S TALL TALE FROM A “STORY TELLING CONCERT"

BOBBY McMILLON’S TALL TALE FROM A “STORY TELLING CONCERT"

By Daniel W. Patterson

 Introduction

Looking back in 2020 at the contextual material prepared nearly two decades ago to accompany The Ballad of Frankie Silver video, I find it conveys well the depth and engagement that Bobby McMillon has with the history and lore of Frankie Silver.  But it fails to show the breadth and passion of his interest in Appalachian balladry or religious song, tales, beliefs, customs, and regional speech.  To give the visitor a glimpse of this, Folkstreams adds an example of his performance of a very different kind of lore, this tall tale about hunting.  It has stuck in my mind ever since an afternoon in March, 1994.  Frank Proffitt, Jr., Orville Hicks, and Bobby McMillon were giving a “Story Telling Concert” on the campus in Chapel Hill.  All three men were in top form, but Bobby’s hunting tale especially delighted the audience—and also Orville, whose frequent audible chuckles showed his appreciation of imaginative touches Bobby brought to this familiar material.  Happily, it was recorded and that recording is preserved in the Southern Folklife Collection of the UNC Special Collections Library.  We offer it with the permission of the Collection and Bobby McMillon.

 

 

Transcription of the Recording of Bobby McMillon’s Hunting Tale

I'm going to tell you’uns, though, right this minute about a hunting trip, that me and my first cousin started to go on a couple of years ago.  My cousin Mike Hopson lives over in the Green Mountain community of Yancey County on Toe River.  And the Toe River Gorge where it becomes Nolichucky [River] is a real wild, scenic place and a good place to go hunting at the right time of year.  And Mike had got hold of a hog rifle that he wanted to take the week that the season was in that you could hunt with.  That's of course a muzzle-loader rifle that fires either on the flintlock on a flint or the cap.  The percussion type has a cap.  Well, he got hold of one, and we were going to take it and go deer hunting one weekend.  And the day that we'd planned to go I'd got up early.

I lived with my grandparents near Lenoir.  And so it's about an hour and a half ride over to Green Mountain.  And I was on my way up there.  And during that time, my cousin Mike had been called in to work, to work a half a day. So when I got to his house, his wife Peggy come out and she said, “Here's the gun.”  Said, “Mike said to give it to you.” Said, “Just tell me sort of which way you go. and he said he'd catch up with you after dinner.”  Well, so I told her what my plans were, and so she give me the gun.  And she give it to me, but she failed to tell me something that I wish I’d a knowed. Mike wasn't real sure how familiar I was with the use of that gun, so he had gone ahead and loaded it that morning.  And Mike's an awful thrifty type person.  He never overdoes nothing.  He usually talks softly and goes about life softly.  And, you know, stuff like that.  And maybe he doesn't make so awful many mistakes.  On the other hand I might do something completely wrong, but I won't ever half do it.  It's root, hog, or die.  So as it turned out, she didn't tell me that he had loaded the gun.  And he'd put a neat little charge in there, and I was all exuberant, wanting to go deer hunting. 

 So got as far down the river as I could get on a paved road, went as far as I could get on a dirt road, and come to the end of it, and knowed I had to get out.  So I got out, and I thought, “Well I better load up right here.”  So I did.  Whereas Mike’s sort of thrifty, I poured the powder to it, packed that bullet down in there. I'm telling you now, she was tight as Dick's hatband, but I didn't know it.  There I was, had two shoots in my rifle.  And I had me on some boots in case I needed to cross over the river— ‘cause you get down in them gorges and you know, the scenery’ll change a lot.  You take a little nigh cut across a little spur of the ridge and come out way down the river, maybe a mile or two, if you don't want to walk all the way around and meander through there.  Lots of times it's like a big old wind tunnel when you get in the gorge, and you can't hardly hear yourself think for the wind whizzing through.  And of course, as it is in a lot of places in Appalachia, the terrain is different from place to place.  And I was over on the Yancey County side of the river, and I was having awful luck finding deer sign.  And I got down in there, and it got awful blustery, and a big old rock cliff is up there.  And I thought, “Well, it looks like it's—there'd be little better grounds over on the far side of the river over on the Mitchell County side.  And so anyway, where I was at, it was kind of a broad place in the river, and on the far side, the woods come right down to the beach.  And there was big old cove over there.  And I thought, “Well, I'll go over there and look around for a while, see what I can come up on.” 

Had my boots on already, and was just fixing to step down in the water, and over on the far side of the river out of the woods stepped the biggest buck deer that I ever seen in my life.  I mean, he had a rack of horns on his head!  I counted sixteen points from where I was at, and the shade of some of the tree was against him, and I, I couldn't count them all, but I was just about a-slobbering I was so excited there. For a minute I couldn't hardly wait. And I pulled my gun up there and drawed my bead on him.  I'm left handed, so I had it on this shoulder and I had my bead just about drawed on him when—they's a sycamore, and they’s a lot of sycamores grows along waterways—and a big old sycamore right down below me, a-growing up on the bank and a broad limb out on the upper end of it, and up there was six or eight of them there birds that come from over on the other side of China, over in—well, that's maybe where they come from.  China. I think they do.  Anyway, they're foreign to us, but they were them ringed-neck pheasants.  That's what it was. Ringed-neck pheasants sitting on there.  Now I had seen one one time at home.  It flew up in the tree when I was just a kid, but that was something that I hadn't ever seen many of.  I seen them up there, and it just addled me a little bit. I thought, “Gee whiz, it'd be nice to have them birds and that deer over there too.”  But I wasn't able to tarry long enough to think about it much.  A rock rolled over my boots, and I turned around and looked to see where it was coming from, and back there in the bluff they was two of the purtiest little old black bear cubs you ever seen in your life a-playing.  And oh, they was just that size--sorta like kittens or puppy dogs, you know, when they’re a certain size that, you know, they're just frisky and play and everything.  It’ll just pulled at your heartstrings to see them.  But soon as I did, my hair stood straight up [yanking off his cap] and you see what, what was left.  You ain't gonna find nothing like that out in the wild woods, but what there ain't somebody or something to protect it, and usually that's going to be the old mammy.  And, like I said, it was windy down through there.  But ‘bout that time I heared the awfullest roar.  Then I looked back behind me, and coming out of the woods, yander, out of a holler, was old mother bear and she—it took me a minute or two to tell you to this point, but all this happened, like maybe in sixty seconds from the time I saw that deer to this happened—and she probably, you know, knew I was a-coming prior to me getting there, and she's a-coming out.  And what they'll do, they'll come at you on their all fours and they'll rear up on their hind legs, and they'll wobble over and take care of business.  And she is about three or four wobbles by the time I looked from swarping my head about halfway across the river. Well folks, I'll tell youse now.  I've always said—well, throughout my life it's been a practice of mine--that when I get frightened enough that I can run fast, and, and I usually just burn the wind up. Well, she was right there, and I didn't have time to turn around hardly to get aim, and I didn't see no way to escape.  And I, I wanted to run, but it seemed like my feet just wouldn't take me where the rest of me wanted to go.  And so I just didn't seem to have no choice.  But the—well the thought come to my head, into my mind to fire the gun, fire the gun.  I mean, I couldn't take aim and just shoot the gun.  So I didn't know about them two shoots in the gun.  I slung that gun barrel over my shoulder about the time she's up close.  Her nose was about that fer from me—and all I knowed to do is pull the trigger.  I pulled it.  BAM!  

Had to go somewhere.  All that shot and bullet and everything had to move.  And so it didn't do nothing but blow the barrel up.  The barrel blowed up in that bear's face and killed her where she was at.  She took all of it.  And the hammer of that gun shot up in the air, split the tree that them pheasants was sitting on—snap shut on [their spurs]—couldn't fly.   The stock of that gun, it was blowed into a hundred pieces. It flew over the river and splintered that deer to death.  The explosion throwed me down there in the river.  Of course, there was a big old hole there. You'd think it'd been the channel I could've got in, but no, it was a big old hole.  And I crawled out a-gagging and coughing, and about to puke and clomb up on a rock and let the water out of my boots and 50 trout fell out of each boot.  So when my cousin caught up with me later on, he was mildly surprised, and I did, I guess, a fair little bit of hunting that day—but might could have done better.

Commentary

In this tale Bobby McMillon is tapping into a tradition of Tall Tales or Lies that stretches very far back in the history of the American backwoods.  One of its recurrent motifs—the snake with a venomous sting in its tail that strikes at a man but hits a tree, which dies within a day—got recorded in John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina, published in 1709. A century later a 23-year-old chap named Paul Harpool died in battle in Missouri and got memorialized as having been “possessed of much backwoods wit and humor.” (“Shaw’s Narrative,” Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. 2 [1855], p. 221). He probably had a good stock of such lies about strange encounters between man and nature.  Soon newspapers and theaters were exploiting the “humor of the Old Southwest.”  Writers like Mark Twain and William Faulkner drew on the tradition, and folklorists have collected the oral tales.  But tall tales have rarely surfaced in published recordings or films.  On Folkstreams, however, in the film Being a Joines: A Life in the Brushy Mountains, Frail Joines does tell several and describes how young men used to compete in telling lies around campfires as they listened to their dogs run foxes at night.  “Some people's glory,” Frail said, “was to get around and see who could tell the biggest tale.”  In a radio program embedded on that Being a Joines web page he himself tells many more.  And in the film Appalachian Journey, Stanley and Ray Hicks each tell a tall taleRay’s is even a variant of this tale that Bobby tells.

 Bobby McMillon says he learned it in about 1975 or ’76 from a fellow named Noah Robbins. “We worked together at a Broyhill Furniture Industry plant. Noah was born in 1916 in Caldwell County.  Then his family moved to Norton, in the southwestern part of Virginia, near Kentucky.  I don’t know where he learned the story.  We was a-talking one day, and he said, “There was a fellow went hunting with a hog rifle. . . ” and it ended when the fish come out of his boots.  He just started telling it.  It didn’t have a title, and I usually call it “A Hunting Tale.” 

 Bobby has a sharp memory for details in variants of songs and tales, and he says, “I tell it pretty much the way Noah told it—and then add other things to it that I’ve heard.  I’ve heard a lot of people tell elements of it.  But he told it in the third person.  I made it in the first person.  I thought it would make the tale more interesting to tell it like it happened to me.”  This is in fact how most people tell these tales.  They speak casually and intimately, with a deadpan expression, as if relating an actual experience, and then startle and delight the listener with an outrageous lie.  So Bobby adapts a lie like this to his listeners.  “The part about living with my grandparents and my first cousin living at Green Mountain was true, and about his wife.  But I just didn’t tell about the railroad track coming down through the valley.  I wanted it to sound like wilderness.  If I tell it around up here, I don’t even mention the Toe River, because they’d know about the railroad.  I just say it happened in a river gorge back in the mountains.”  I do the same thing when I tell the scary story about “Who’s got my big toe?”  I introduce things about how people lived in the old times.  A lot of times I’m telling the story to school children, and this makes the story informative as well as interesting.” 

 And then Bobby surprised me.  He said that he had concocted a longer version of the story but cut it in half that day in 1994 because he did not want to steal time from the friends appearing with him on the program.  In his longer version, he said, he described tying the ringed-neck pheasants together with a strong rope and was holding it when they suddenly tried to fly away.  He had heard this from another story teller.  “In my version I don’t use the hunter hanging on to the rope until he got his shirt tail stuck on a limb of a tree just as they were getting high in the air and letting go and falling into a tree full of honey.” In that version, “The side burst off of the tree, and he went sliding on it and gallons of honey down the mountain to where all the other truck was at.”  Bobby thought that was excessive and simply presented himself as getting his clothes snagged on a tree limb and getting down to safety—and to more adventures, such as getting chased by a wild hog.

 Bobby says, “I never heard all the elements in my longer version of the hunting tale told as one story.  I heard other people tell them, and they just sort of worked themselves  together.”  This is unusual.  Most of the lies were short tales, as Orville Hicks points out in his 1998 CD Orville Hicks: Mule Egg Seller & Appalachian Storyteller.  Bobby, though, says, “I can stretch a story out.  I learned how to do that when I was in the Arts Council’s ‘Folklorist-in-the-Schools’ program, teaching at St. Pauls down in Robeson County in 1978.  They didn’t have any experience in how to program somebody like me, so they’d put me in a classroom for an hour.  I had to fill that time up with songs and stories.  I’d tell the kids Jack Tales and all kinds of things to use up the time.  And I really learned to stretch out a story!

 His ending for this longer version came, he says, from a joke he heard.  “The joke was just a short one about a hunter going a-bear-hunting, and the bear got the drop on him when he missed it on taking a shot at it.  The bear ran him down the mountain until the hunter tripped on a log and fell.  Thinking he was got, he closed his eyes for a few minutes.  When nothing happened, he opened them and spied the bear up above him leaning across an old stump on his knees, his eyes closed and his forepaws bracing his chin.  The hunter got the big head and said, “What’re you doing?  Saying your prayers?” Opening one eye the bear replied: “No.  I’m a-saying grace!”  Any Southerner knows the implied concluding words, “for that food which I’m about to receive.”

 

Additional Material

As a teenager Bobby McMillon began seeking out strong traditional bearers among family members and neighbors, tape-recording them and filling notebooks with texts of songs they sang him.  He became a major collector of Appalachian lore. Those interested in exploring his documentation of songs and tales can find protection copies Bobby’s own field recordings in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Its on-line inventory of The Bobby McMillon Collection includes audio files of thirty-two of his field tapes and twelve more of songs performed by Bobby himself.  After a bit of experimentation you should be able to hear them.  In the SFC website The Daniel W. Patterson and Beverly B. Patterson Collection holds audio files of eleven more tapes recorded by Beverly Patterson in which Bobby sang the tune for each text in his notebooks.  This collection has also audio files of a dozen interviews with Bobby.