Tale Telling in Brocktown
This essay is adapted from the booklet "Being A Joines: A Life in the Brushy Mountains" written by Daniel Patterson, Joyce Joines Newman, Allen E. Tullos, and Tom Davenport, and published in 1981 by the Curriculum in Folklore of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Adapted and revised in 2004.
In the community in which Frail Joines grew up, tales were a principal form of amusement. "We had no electricity," he said, "and didn't even have a record-player--the old hand-winding kind--until I was about grown. So about all the entertainment was to tell tales. . . . They was told at every get-together." In the home, "the old folks would usually start and tell all the local news and then they would tell everything that had happened to themselves or their neighbors and when they run out of that they would start the tall tales and see who could tell the biggest one and sometimes they got pretty wild. When we kids was small we couldn't hardly wait for the old folks to get through telling the local news and start on the tales. . . ."
In classifying the tales, Mr. Joines said, "Some was filthy, and some was funny, and some was ghost stories." Women usually told the ghost and witch tales (cf. Kirby), and stories about "how mean their husbands were to them," but Mr. Joines recalled one midwife, Old Lady Buck, who "knowed ever'body in the county and ever' crazy old thing that'd ever happened." She came to deliver Frail's sister's child and stayed three weeks, "And I was keeping Old Lady Buck in brandy. Boy, she was just drinking brandy and setting there and she never run down on her tales. She never did give out a-telling 'em."
Men generally told tall tales and humorous stories, often in all-male gatherings around fires on the mountain tops while they drank or listened to their dogs trail foxes: "They would drink, get to be eight or ten here drunk on one ridge, have 'em a fire built up on Saturday night. They didn't have nowhere to go and they'd get out and just set and tell lies and fight and drink liquor and see who could tell the biggest lies and old dirty jokes."
Mixed gatherings were also the scene of tale telling. The "men would gather up and tell big tales while the women was a-quilting." A good taleteller was as popular as a fiddler: "if you knew a lot and could tell them and make people laugh you was invited to all the parties." In this world of storytellers, he said, "Just seemed like they set around and tried to study up all the tall tales they could find to tell each other. And that was some people's glory--was to get around and see who could tell the biggest tale. . . . " (Newman 1978: 99-108)
Joyce Newman explored two important kinds of narratives from her father's early stories, which he differentiated as "lies" and "true tales." But these two kinds of stories share a good deal. Both are humorous. Mr. Joines told both in his natural speech, with verbs of action carrying the burden of meaning. Unlike literary imitations of the tall tales, his lies contained no outlandish expletives or "countrified" similes He never exclaimed, as the liar Oliver Stanley does in Harden Taliaferro's account of nineteenth century tale-telling in a county bordering on Wilkes, "Scissorifactions! how mad I were!" or "He piked right off wi' me for all the world like I'd been a tiny bullfrog--no more'n a bug moufful fur him" (127,129). In Mr. Joines's tall tales the fun comes from the ludicrous matter-of-factness with which the liar presents an outrageously impossible event. Mr. Joines also set both his lies and many of his true tales in the local community and told them as personal experiences. The lies usually open with some disarming phrase like, "Did I ever tell you about the coon dog I had a few year ago?" or "I know when I was a kid we had an old cat and wanted to get rid of him." The true tales have similar openings, though they more commonly name relatives or neighbors ("I remember one time I was at Walnut Grove Church, and we had a character they called Rufe Fletcher up in the mountains here, and he'd get drunk . . ." )
But the two kinds of tales have still other parallels. The tall tales describe an encounter of the narrator or someone else with a mystifying violation of natural laws (a dog treeing coon after coon all night long in the same hollow chestnut, or a mill rock a man can't pick up as he always had). The tale leads to an explanation, which is an extravagant lie (the dog has herded so many coons into the tree that its bark splits every time they inhale, or when the man finally hoists the rock, he tears up with it nine acres of topsoil frozen to the bottom). While the purpose in telling the tale is occasionally to gull the gullible, and usually to outdo other liars present, the tall tales also have subtle and important historical implications. They form an important branch of the American tale repertory. Ernest W. Baughman found tall-tale motifs in but 29 tale variants in British collections, as compared with 3,710 in American ones. The tall-tale repertory appears to have begun developing at least by the early eighteenth century, and to have replaced the British immigrants' earlier "idle Tales" of fairies, witches, hobgoblins and bugbears (Lawson: 135, 210-211). It flourished in the nineteenth century, and is still fairly healthy especially in rural America (Fenton, Higgins). The genre appears to be an American comic expression of the contest with nature that Melville probes philosophically and tragically in Moby-Dick. Endemic in Western culture, the confrontation was acute for settlers moving into the wilds of America. Alexis de Tocqueville perceived this in 1828, writing, "The American people see themselves marching through wildernesses, drying up marshes, diverting rivers, peopling the wilds, and subduing nature. It is not just occasionally that their imagination catches a glimpse of this magnificent vision. It is something which plays a real part in the least, as in the most important, actions of every man, and it is always flitting before his mind" (453). The hardship in the frontier and backwoods experience found expression in other tales of narrow escapes from starvation and animals and in spirituals about pilgrims and strangers toiling toward Canaan. But the tall tales voice a response full of gusto and delight. They play with unlimited possibilities.
All the more than thirty lies that Mr. Joines told are traditional; each uses one or more motifs common in the American repertory. Some of his "true" tales are also traditional. Joyce Newman found variants of four of them in published collections, and another that Mr. Joines tells about Wilkes County has a motif that Daniel Patterson heard as a tale about his own great-grandfather in central North Carolina. Other tales in Mr. Joines's repertory are now or were once in the repertory of other storytellers in Wilkes. Out of a sampling of thirty of Mr. Joines's "true tales," Joyce Newman found twelve that he had either heard as stories or heard about as events. Eighteen of the stories in the sample are ones he made up himself after witnessing the incidents. A young storyteller in the neighborhood, Jim Jennings, knew and told five of the thirty stories--two of them ones that Joines made up and three that Joines heard others tell. (Newman 1978: 14-15)
The happenings on which the true tales in her sample are based--and presumably then the stories themselves--date from between 1921 and 1936, that is, from between Frail Joines's seventh and twenty-second years, and most of them from his mid-teens. While he had a natural gift of talking, two things may have encouraged his development of the repertory and his skill as a narrator. He in some ways felt like an outsider. "I was a freak," he said , "for I loved animals and loved to hunt." (Newman 1978: 104) Other boys his age were crazy about automobiles and wanted to get to town. After leaving home at the age of twelve, Frail also traveled a good deal through Wilkes and adjacent counties, particularly in the years when he broke horses and mules for a living. By his account, in a new community the outsider always had to have a fight with local boys bent on testing their manhood, and he himself learned to find and beat the local bully so other boys would leave him alone. It "saved a lot of skin and clothes." But story telling was a more sociable way of contesting. Being able to amuse people with funny stories gave him a way to gain popularity both with his peers and with strangers. His travels and sense of being an outsider probably also made him more observant of human behavior (cf. Dégh: 79).
That Mr. Joines was able to create highly effective "true tales" is probably also owing to the sense of form he had developed from hearing and telling tall tales. Both the true tales and the tall tales have a relatively stable linear sequence of incidents constituting the story line, which Mr. Joines fills out with what Joyce Newman calls "field development" (1978: 30-71). These passages contrast a stated or understood norm with the deviant qualities of the chief character, action, or event. In tall tales the norms are the laws of nature and the chief characters generally animals. In the true tale the norm is customary or rational human behavior and the character an eccentric individualist or numbskull. In both kinds of stories Mr. Joines sometimes expanded and sometimes contracted his presentation of this opposition, depending upon the knowledge and responsiveness of the audience. Both kinds of stories build to a climactic act or event and punch line. In the tall tale the narrator solves the mystery with an explanation that constitutes the lie. In the true tale the punch line is generally a ludicrous exclamation of the chief character, followed sometimes by a comment from the narrator. In his own comments Mr. Joines was never judgmental and never acidly satirical in his descriptions. But he relished absurdity and had a keen perception of it -- especially the irrationality of the drunk, the hypocrisy of the pious, the pomposity of the genteel, and the ignorance of the backwoods numbskull. Like the tall tales, then, these comic anecdotes have their serious underside.
Baughman, Ernest W. 1966. Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America. Indiana University Folklore Series, No. 20. The Hague: Mouton Co.
Dégh, Linda. 1969. Folktales and Society: Story-Telling in a Hungarian Peasant Community. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Joines, Jerry D. 1972. "Twelve Tall Tales from Wilkes County." North Carolina Folklore, 20: 3-10.
Lawson, John. 1967. A New Voyage to Carolina. ed. Hugh Talmadge Lefler. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Taliaferro, Harden E. 1859. Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters. New York: Harper and Bros.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1966. Democracy in America. ed. J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner. New York: Harper and Row.
Fenton, Joan. 1981. "Howard Cotton: A Black Teller of Tall Tales." M.A. thesis, Folklore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 118 pp.
Higgins, Michael. "The Tall Tale: A Historical Perspective and a Contemporary Context." M.A. thesis, Folklore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 95 pp.
Kirby, Sabrina. 1981. "'Lord, Honey, What a Time I've Had': A Portrait of a Wilkes County Woman." Graduate term paper, 25 pp. (The Southern Folklife Collection, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Newman, Joyce Joines. 1974. "Invoking and Subduing the Irrational: Narrator, Repertory, Style, and Social Context of Tales from Western North Carolina." Graduate term paper, 42 pp. (The Southern Folklife Collection, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) ------. 1978. "Humorous Local Character Stories from Wilkes County, North Carolina: An Individual Storytelling Tradition." M. A. thesis, Folklore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 138 pp.