Bobby McMillon's Tall Tale--Transcription and Commentary

Bobby McMillon's Tall Tale--Transcription and Commentary

By Daniel W. Patterson


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 ballads and songs, tales, beliefs, customs, and regional speech.  To offer a glimpse of this, I proposed that Folkstreams add an example of his performance of a very different kind of lore, this tall tale about hunting.  It has remained vivid in my memory 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, the performance was recorded and that recording is preserved in the Southern Folklife Collection in Wilson Library at UNC.  We add it with the permission of the Collection and Bobby McMillon.

I prepared a transcription of this telling of the hunting story.  Bobby checked it for accuracy, then surprised me.  He said that he often told 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.  So Bobby asked William Ritter, a fellow Appalachian and friend and folklorist, to make a video of his telling of this longer version.  William kindly did this and sent it.  This is a more relaxed performance, perhaps more typical of the conversations in which tall tales are often told. Bobby’s excitement at the event in 1994—with an appreciative audience and skillful fellow tale tellers listening—makes that performance impossible to beat.  But I also share a transcription of the rest the tale from the longer version as he told it in 2020 and then discuss and compare the two.

Transcription of the Tall Tale as Told in 1994

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 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 a’ter dinner.”  Well, so I told her what my plans were, and so she give me the gun, 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 fer down the river as I could get on a paved road, went as fer 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 nice 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 a-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 ‘ere.  And I thought, “Well, it looks like it's—there'd be little better grounds on the fer side of the river 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 fer side, the woods come right down to the beach might’ near.  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 fer side of the river out of the woods stepped the biggest buck deer that I ever seed in my life.  I mean, he had a rack of horns on his head!  I counted sixteen p’ints from where I was at, and the shade of some of the trees was ag’in’ him, and I, I couldn't count them all, but I was just about a-slobbering.  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 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 a-b'low 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 Canady, over in—well, that's maybe where they come from.  Canady. 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 them.  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 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.  Hit’ll just pull at your heartstrings to see them.  But soon as I did, my hair stood straight up [yanking off his cap] and you see what is 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 a-coming out of the woods, yonder, 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 about in sixty seconds from the time I saw that deer to when this happened—and she probably, you know, knew I was a-coming prior to me getting there, and she 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 ‘s about three or four wobbles by the time I looked from swarping my head about halfway across the river. Well folks, I'll tell you'uns 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--  Her nose was about that far 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 ‘splosion 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 come up on a rock and let the water out of my boots and fifty 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.

Bobby McMillon’s telling of this portion of the tale in 2020 was of course not word-by-word the same, but it had the same incidents, dealt with in the same way, and at key spots even had the same wording, as we can see in the opening words of his 2020 telling of the second portion of his tale.

Transcription of the Second Ending of the Tale, from a Telling in Bobby’s Home in 2020, recorded by William Ritter

I crawled out a-gagging and coughing, about to puke.  Clomb up on a rock there and set down.  Went to let the water out of my boots, and fifty trout fell out of each boot.  And there I was just setting, with all that plunder.  And I just didn’t know what to think.  And about that time, my cousin Mike showed up.  He come down there.  He was standing with his jaw dropped wide open, his eyes bugged out, looking at all that stuff.  Them birds up there couldn’t fly, them fish a-laying there, and that deer dead across the river, and that old mammy bear laying there dead.  And I said, “Well, get some string, and we’ll tie them birds up and do something with them cubs, I reckon.”  Might have just let them go, I don’t know.  

But anyway, he started to speak, and about that time out of the woods, out of that same holler that bear’d run out of, a rabbit got started.  It hopped out of there and started running off up the trail that Mike had just come down. And I reckon I was just all het up from the excitement, getting all them varmints, and my hunting emotions was all roused up.  And so I jerked the gun out of Mike’s hands and run up through there trying to get that rabbit.  I figured, I guess, I might as well add one more trophy to my pile.  It got up there ahead of me running.  It stayed on that trail a good long way, and finally it got ahead of me and went around sort of a bend in the mountain there, and I’s so frustrated at that that I looked over at two—I don’t know if they was sassafras trees or what.  Anyway, these two young saplings growed up pretty close together right off the path there.  And I run over there, and I set the gun barrel in between that, and I bent the gun barrel.  Made an arc out of it.  And I got back in the trail, and I shot around the mountain and knocked that rabbit off its feet.  Killed it dead too. 

Well, I’s fixing to walk up ‘ere and pick up the rabbit, and I heared sump’n up in the woods.  And that got my curiosity up, and I couldn’t figure out what it could be, and I clomb up the bank there and got to some bushes and looked up ‘ere, and it ’as a wild hog in the woods.  And hit was just there, and hit seed me.  And it started—it just went to snorting and grunting and running right down there, with them tushes—look like they’re sharp as razor points!  And I ’as a-backing up and a-backing up and just about the time it got to me, my feet slid out from under me, and I went down the bank, back down ‘ere in the path again.  There ’as a tree right there, and the hog, hit didn’t have time to stop or turn.  It run right into that tree and drove its tushes clean up into that tree four or five inches.  And there it was, caught! 

So I was beginning to wonder how we was ever going to get all that truck out of there.  And I went back down there where Mike was at, and I said, “Well, we got a pile here to deal with.”  I said, “You start on that deer.  If you can get it across the river,” I said, “I’ll get these birds out of this tree here.”  I had me some string, and I went to hooking it around their legs.  Made me about six different loops and tied it to the main leader piece, and then I pulled back on the limb and got it separated till they could get out.  And soon as they come out of that, they wanted to fly.  Well, they got to tugging ag'in' me, and I was pulling ag'in' them.  And they was pretty stout.  They was pretty big birds, and they was pulling a little harder than I was, I reckon, for the next thing that I knowed I looked down, and the water of the river was lapping under my feet, and they was a-bearing me up.  Them birds, they was a-gaining on me.  They was a-getting up higher and higher.  And pretty soon I was getting up over the river.  And they was a-flying across the river, and by the time we got across they was above the trees.  And they was a-going up the mountain, a-flying up towards there.  And I was a-getting scareder and scareder, ‘cause they was getting further up above the trees.  And pretty soon we got to the ridge top.  And when we got up there I knowed that I had to do something or I’d be a gone gander myself, because there wouldn’t be nothing but for me to fall hundreds of feet, if something didn’t happen.  And I looked down, and I seed a big—looked like spruce (that’s what we call a hemlock).  Looked like it had pretty weighty branches, and I let go, and them birds got away.  And I fell down in that spruce, and turned out that it was rotten down the middle of it, and I went right in the durn hole.  And I landed kerplop in sump’n wet as all get-out.  And it was wet and sticky.  I got to feeling around.  It smelled pretty good.  I licked my finger, and it turned out it was honey.  It was a bee tree.  Well, I knocked a knot out of the tree there.  And I come out of there all covered up in that honey, and I thought, “Lord have mercy!”  They must have been 200 gallons in that tree. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it much because I heared a roar, and I looked up, and coming up the ridge was the biggest black bear that I ever seed in my life.  And he smelled that honey on me, and he got to chasing me.  Well, I didn’t have a gun or nothing.  And I took off a-flying.  That was one time when my feet did take the rest of me where it wanted to go.  I was running down the holler just as quick as I could run.  That bear he was a-gaining on me.  And I got down there until I hit a snag—dead root or a log or something laying in the trail there—and I tripped over it, and I fell.  And I knowed right then that I was a goner.  And I just laid there all drawed up in a ball and waited for him to get me.  And nothing happened.  It got just still and quiet.  And I wondered what in the world was going on.  I rared up and looked back up ‘ere just a little piece above me.  And that bear had come up on a big rock there, and it was sort of like it was laying down on its knees, with its forepaws up, and its head laying in its paws.  And I seen that, and I guess I had got the big head or something, and I said out loud, said, “What are you doing, saying your prayers?”  And ‘bout that time one of his eyes opened up, and he looked down ‘ere at me and said, “No, I’m a-saying grace.”


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, told, however, not for humor but as a report of a strange thing in the New World.  Exactly a century and a half later it was set down as a comic tale current in Surry County, illustrated with a depiction of the fearsome serpent, in Hardin E. Taliaferro’s Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters by “Skitt,” “Who was Raised Thar.”  References to this tradition of humor appear a good deal earlier, as when, for example, a 23-year-old chap named Paul Harpool was killed in battle in Missouri during the War of 1812 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 marvelous encounters between man and beast.  Soon newspapers and theaters were exploiting the “humor of the Old Southwest.”  Writers as powerful as Mark Twain and William Faulkner eventually drew on the tradition, and many folklorists have collected and studied these 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 not in the film.  And in the film Appalachian Journey, Stanley and Ray Hicks each tell a tall tale.  Ray’s is in fact a variant of this tale that Bobby tells.

Bobby McMillon says he first heard the tale in 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.” Bobby said he himself usually just called it just ‘A Hunting Tale.’”

Bobby has an amazingly keen memory for details in variants of songs and tales he has heard, 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. 

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.”  Bobby seems even to want hearers to experience the sound of the older people—their phrasing, their pronunciations—from whom he learned the tales.  As he gets well into a story he begins—consciously or unconsciously—to slip in more of the vocabulary and grammar and pronunciations used by the people from whom he learned it.  When he reviewed my transcription of his tale, he showed his keen interest in such details.  Where he had said he had come out of the water and climbed up on rock, I spelled his pronunciation as “clumb.”  Bobby asked me to change that to “clomb,” which was always how he would pronounce it.  And he added that over near Cosby in east Tennessee his kinfolks would pronounce the word as “clim” and people in the Beach Creek section of Avery and Watauga Counties would say “cloomb.”  This was only one of many spots in the transcription where he wanted me to adjust how I set down a pronunciation or wording.

But Bobby surprised me when he said that he often told a longer version of the story.  In that part, he said, he described tying the ringed-neck pheasants together with a strong cord 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 the other man’s story, “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, so he shortened the account of how he got to safety—and on 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 seems unusual among Appalachian men telling tall tales.  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 North Carolina 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 weight of the two different phrases—saying your prayers (“Now I lay me down to sleep./ I pray the Lord my soul to keep/ If I should die before I wake,/ I pray the Lord my soul to take.”) and “saying grace,” which is “returning thanks” to the Lord “for that which I’m about to receive” in a meal.  Bobby found this ending irresistible, and for me too, this zany ending is funny enough to cap and justify the entire second half of this longer version of his tall tale.

The ending of the shorter tale—“I did, I guess, a fair little bit of hunting that day, but might could have done better”—fits that version better, rounding it off with tongue-in cheek modesty.  But it would not fit the termination of the second version, which is the impending termination of the hunter/tale teller.  Bobby, however, set a different tone for the tale when he recorded the longer version in 2020.  William Ritter had suggested that Bobby open the recording session with an old British hunting song, an unusual item in his repertory.  So Bobby started by singing 

“Bold Reynard”

Oh, the first I saw was a pretty fair miss
Combing down her locks.
She said she saw bold Renyard
‘Mong the geese and ducks.
          With a hoot toot toot and a hollo
          Along the narrow trail
          Come a ran ran ran
          Come a hippy tippy tan
          And mew rang row
          And the bugle sound,
          And through the woods he run very wild, sir
          Through the woods he run, sir.

Oh, the next I saw was the teamster
A-plowing with his team.
He said he saw bold Renyard,
Running up the dreen,
          With a hoot toot toot and a hollo, etc.

Oh, the next I saw was the hunter
A-hunting with his sons.
He said he saw bold Renyard
And shot him as he run.
          With a hoot toot toot and a hollo, etc.

This song evokes a pleasant rural landscape in England and an English hunt with dogs and horn to rid the countryside of a disturber of farmyard geese and ducks.  Following this, Bobby casually establishes an Appalachian setting for the American hunt.  “I learned that from Rolf Ellison.  I guess he learned it from his dad, William Thomas Ellison, up near the Meat Camp Community, in Watauga County, North Carolina.”  William Ritter plays into Bobby’s hand by asking a question about this Appalachian family, “Was that over on Long Hope that they lived, or was that kind of up above them?”  Bobby answers, “They lived right where you start up Long Hope Mountain.  Best I can figure, Long Hope runs—starts in Watauga County and runs over into Ashe somehow.”  Then, without his hearer grasping his strategy, Bobby begins describing that world and establishing the tone for his tale.  It’s a lonely and serious place.  “Bill Ellison said that he used to go coon hunting up on top of Long Hope Mountain.  I guess up on the—it’s real close to Riddle’s Knob up there.  And he said he’d have him a campfire.  He’d be by himself a lot of times.  He’d let the dogs loose to running.  He’d set by the campfire, and he’d stay out about all night, and he’d sing them old love songs.  One of ‘em which he done—I’ll just do a verse or so of it—‘cause I could imagine him setting up on that mountain and looking at the wide starry sky and him singing this—‘cause it wasn’t nobody around for miles up there, and it started out
(Bobby sings these words that follow to the old tune of “Wayfaring Stranger”),

Cold mountains they are here around us
And waters trinkling down the stream.
All on my bed I thought I ‘as with her
But when I woke, it was all a dream.
When I awoke and could not find her,
All on my bed did weep and mourn.
Tears from my eyes fell without number
To think that I was left alone.

And talking about hunting, that made me think of one time—I was living with my grandparents not far out of Lenoir, and my first cousin, Mike Hopson, he lived over at Green Mountain in Yancey County.  He got hold of a hog rifle.  And that’s an old-time percussion gun like they used to hunt with a lot.  They had flint-locks, and then they had the ones that would fire off the cap too.  And anyway he had got a-hold of one and had called me and wanted to know if I wanted to go hunting.  It was deer season when you could go with a muzzle-loader, and he said we’d go on Saturday.  And so I told him, ‘Yeah, I’d be glad to go’ and I’d meet him at his house on Saturday morning.”—And off Bobby sails into the tale.

Comments he made to William Ritter show Bobby’s intentions as a story teller.  “The first time I ever heared that, old man Noah Robbins told it to me.  He was born in 1916, and I think he was born in Caldwell County but he grew up in Norton, Virginia.  He said he learned to play the banjo watching Dock Boggs.  He could play like him too.  He was pretty good.  He knew lots of songs and little jokes and stuff like that.  He told me that hunting tale.  But he told it like it just happened to some hunter.  Didn’t tell it on himself.  And I just put that in there—that it happened to me.  I don’t know how many times I’ve told it to groups that said they believed it up till about the time the mammy bear come out of the holler.  They was right with me there for a while.”  William asked, “You have that whole back story about your cousin.  Do you even have a cousin Mike?”  Bobby laughed and said, “Yeah.”  William persisted, “You talking about he had to work, and you’re going hunting.  He sounds very normal.”  Bobby’s reply was, “That was true.  He worked for the state back in the ‘70s over there on Baker’s Creek close to the prison camp, where the state had their works over there.  That’s where he worked at.  Yeah, all that was true.  His wife’s name was Peggy at the time.  It always seems to help out if you throw truth in with it.” 

After a beginning like the one Bobby used in 1994 a hunter’s tongue-in-cheek modesty does make a more compatible closing: “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.”  Bobby also used the phrase “a fair bit of hunting” in his chat with William Ritter, and its appropriateness seems to have influenced William.  He labeled the video file “A Fair Day’s Hunt.”  But I’ve come to wonder whether Bobby’s second ending—the bear opening one eye and answering, “No, I’m a-saying grace”—as funny as it is, whether the finality of the implied menace in the words is not also an appropriate echo of the tone Bobby sounded when he opened this long version of his tale: the hunter by his campfire—beneath a wide starry sky, nobody around for miles, only cold mountains—singing one of the dark old lonesome tunes.  This could have been the setting for one of the grim backwoods tales of danger.  Bobby knows those too.  He has spoken of one about a man and his wife traveling through the wilderness in the winter and at nightfall finding an abandoned log house where they built a fire and spent the night—but awakened to find the fire had roused a den of hibernating rattlesnakes.  The man got struck by rattlers and died.  His wife’s screams summoned help from men who broke a hole in the roof and pulled her out with a rope. But dire threats can also lead to laughter—whether in a wilderness, a war, or even, as we ourselves know, a pandemic.  We have an old common phrase for this, “gallows humor.”

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 of 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 McMillon.  The SFC also has in The Joan Fenton Collection many tapes of Howard Cotton, a black teller of long improvisational tall tales—but that’s a different story.