Oral traditions in Southern Appalachia are the result of generations of storytelling across cultures and socioeconomic spheres. The traditions are a learned method of coping with hardship, sharing wisdom, preserving history, providing entertainment, and understanding the world. William Faulkner famously said of the Southern disposition, “We need to talk, to tell, since oratory is our heritage.”
Folklorist Richard M. Dorson considered Southern Appalachia to be “folklore’s natural habitat,” so a history of oral storytelling in the region could take up a whole book (and has, many times). But since the art is so alive and well in our little part of WNC, we’re going to give it a quick look.
Back in time
The rich oral traditions of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have been in the region for thousands of years — in fact, a written version of the Cherokee language was only invented by Cherokee scholar Sequoyah in 1821 to preserve the oral language and cultural traditions and help unify the people as Europeans encroached on their territory.
Of the Europeans, the descendants of pre-written-history Celts tended to be the ones settling in the mountains, and oral storytelling in the region is often traced back to these Scotch Irish settlers of the 18th century. The mythic oral arts already present in the Celtic culture stayed in the communities that they began to build in Appalachia.
However, many of the folktales of our region come from Cherokee and African American people. Especially during these early years, oral storytelling gave a voice to the voiceless and was a way for historical documentation to be passed down even if a group’s history was subject to erasure by dominating powers.
Into the 1930s and beyond, Appalachian writers — like Asheville’s very own Thomas Wolfe — kept many of these oral elements in their work and brought folklore into literature. The writings tend to be lyrical and open-ended, chronicling the (sometimes autobiographical) lives of ordinary people.
Storytelling tradition wasn’t just the Moth-style spoken word you might be thinking of, though. These stories often took the form of folk ballads. According to “Foxfire Story,” back in England and Scotland, the folk ballads were a way for the peasantry to share news and emphasize community values, and these songs kept this purpose when the settlers arrived in North America.
Work songs and chants, in a similar way, were brought by both European settlers and enslaved people from West Africa. According to scholar Cecelia Conway in “The Companion to Southern Literature,” the African-American banjo joined forces with the Scotch-Irish fiddle to create the string band, which would eventually lead to the bluegrass genre we all know and love.
In the 1930s through 1960s, folk songs became a tool for labor organizing, and after WWII, mountain music began to express civil rights concerns. In the 1960s, folk revivalists turned to the Appalachians to more closely understand the music style and content.
There are still plenty of consummate chroniclers, porch swing poets, and long-winded raconteurs occupying seats around kitchen tables. In Asheville, we’ve got groups like the nonprofit Asheville Storytelling Circle that has monthly meetings and tellers of all levels. Venues like Story Parlor are devoted to the narrative arts, with oral storytelling, music, and even improv.
And you’ll find no shortage of events from professional tellers and chances for amateurs to get on stage and be a part of preserving that Appalachian heritage. The stories still live a vibrant modern life in our community, and you can join in the telling or just partake.