When nationally acclaimed local storyteller Connie Regan-Blake sat down with legendary seventh-generation raconteur Ray Hicks for the first time, she was impressed by his storytelling prowess and the hundreds of stories he could recount; some of which went back hundreds of years.
After a while, Connie realized Ray’s stories were meaningful not only because he was a great performer, but also because he lived the life of someone connected to the land, connected to his community and connected to the long chain of history that had nurtured these stories for generations of mountaineers.
When people came to visit the Hicks family, they’d find Ray and Rosa out in the field with their hoes and shovels. They grew almost everything they put on the table and the rest they gathered in the woods, like ginseng and honey.
Connie remembers Ray’s great generosity of spirit, that no matter how engaged he was in farming, he would always take a break and sit with visitors on his front porch or by the wood stove in his little cabin and tell them a story.
Connie recalls how meaningful it was to hear Ray discuss his devotion to the land and his concern for its stewardship. He’d talk about collecting honey, which was the main source of sweetness in his life, besides stories.
Anytime he found a downed tree with a hive, he would always leave what he called the “bee bread.”
“You’d always leave that honey for the hive so that they could exist through the winter. No matter how hungry you were, no matter how much you wanted every drip of that honey to bring it back to the house for all the kids that were waiting for it, you always left the bee bread,” he said.
That simple philosophy of generosity for sharing his culture and sharing his land with nature permeated his life and was reflected in his stories.
Connie Regan-Blake began her storytelling career in Tennessee, doing storytelling for pre-schoolers in a Head Start program. In 1973, she heard about a new storytelling festival launching in Jonesboro, Tenn. That’s where she met Ray, and that’s where she first learned about the Jack Tales and the tradition of grandfather tales and storytelling in the mountains.
Some may ask: What’s the value of storytelling in the digital age? We have enough to occupy our time and our mind, so why should we care about some old stories?
According to Connie, storytelling reminds us about who we really are. With all the technology we have access to today, we’ve stopped talking to each other. Although we’re in a community, we tend to be more focused on texting and social media than the human intimacy we receive from “knee to knee” communication. So storytelling reminds us that we really are a community.
By listening to stories or telling stories, there’s a wonderful reward we get. We’re often reminded of an uncle or grandmother while we were growing up.
There’s something about hearing stories that makes us want to tell our own. So often after a storytelling performance, people leave not only being entertained but also feeling the urge to pass on their own slice of history through stories. That’s how storytelling shifts back to ourselves.
Ray Hicks passed away nearly two decades ago, but his stories live on with his protégé, Connie, who will be coming to Hendersonville this Thursday, armed with Ray’s Jack Tales and other stories born in the British Isles, yet transformed as they reached Appalachian soil, maintaining their eternal ability to touch our hearts today.
You, too, can be touched by the laughter and spirit of our community’s foremothers and forefathers.
Through live streaming, ticketed audience members can access the event live or archivally over the next several days. Only ticketed audience members will be able to watch this program.
Tickets to this event can be purchased online at SaveCulture.org or by calling the Center for Cultural Preservation at 8280-692-8062. I hope you’ll join us to be transported back in history to a simpler time.
David Weintraub is a cultural preservationist and environmental troublemaker who runs the Center for Cultural Preservation. He is reachable at 828-692-8062 or saveculture.org.