April 30, 2003
You really can’t tell a great story about a great storyteller. Only a great storyteller can do that.
Ray Hicks was a great storyteller. The man who died Easter Sunday of prostate cancer at 80 years of age was probably the only person who could’ve done his story justice.
He was a throwback, an original, the distillation of what it once meant to be a mountain man. Part of that was being modest to the point that even a lot of people in Ray Hicks’ own backyard don’t realize what a treasure we have lost.
What Ray Hicks did was tell stories.
Oh, he knew his way around a harmonica and had a flair for singing, but special stories told in a special way set him apart.
Special enough that Hicks was the only person invited to return to the International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., every single year.
Special enough that he was talked of in The New Yorker, The Smithsonian, National Geographic and was featured in the PBS series “The Story of English.” Special enough that he was honored with National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award of the North Carolina Folklore Society and the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council.
“He could have been just another mountain neighbor,” said AC-T Mountain Folkways columnist Geoff Cantrell, “living up the road in a weatherbeaten house, somebody you’d see in the yard splitting firewood in faded overalls and not give him a second thought. But Ray Hicks was an artist of the highest order – a master storyteller – and Appalachian royalty because of it. Whether the stage was in a big city auditorium or the front porch of his Beech Mountain home, Ray spun tales and wove delight to anyone and everyone who heard him.”
Ray Hicks told “Jack stories,” tales that pit Jack, a poor unschooled youngster who is “up agin it” – “it” being an endless array of foes that can range as far afield as witches and giants.
Jack always prevails in the end through a combination of pluck and often luck. The stories are reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk and other folk tales, and may in fact be from the same origins. Hicks developed a love for Jack stories and a skill for telling them at the feet of his grandfather, John Benjamin Hicks.
The tales can be traced to Council Harmon, born in 1803, and far beyond. When Ray Hicks got rolling, you could get a tale with roots as far back as the 15th century delivered in a dialect that has faded from these hills with his passing – a unique manner of speech born of Scotch-Irish and English of the 1700s simmered by years of isolation into the characteristic lilt that echoed across these ridges for years. Hicks spoke a language that sounded strange to many in recent years, but would have been comfortably recognized by the Founding Fathers.
Hicks knew these tales and spoke that language because he lived the life lived here so long – tied to the land, being self-sufficient and with a marked propensity not to travel far afield.
His home, built in 1912, has weathered some, but that’s about the only change.
The only evidence of change might be the refrigerator and electric lights in two rooms. The water still comes from a spring, the heat from wood. The house, perched in a stunning setting at 4,200 feet, was immortalized in the Bob Timberlake painting “Ray’s Place.” Ray and his wife grew, harvested and preserved much of their own food, a tradition fading rapidly here.
Hicks’ love of the home place cost him quite a bit of traveling; he turned down Johnny Carson, Today, trips to San Francisco, Ireland and the like out of a professed desire to travel no further than he could return home the same day.
Ray’s place skirted modern essentials like telephones, indoor plumbing, radio and television. Such things represent what he missed of the new age. Hicks’ familial storytelling, delivered in intensely personal, communal manner, might well represent what that new age has stolen from us. Hicks was a striking figure, a crooked split rail of a man who stood 6’7” while weighing about 150.
He was a man who knew the mountains – but more importantly, a man who knew the score. One of his memorable quotes put his view of life and world succinctly: “I’ve been offered money and have been offered fame. I turned down trips to England and turned down the Johnny Carson Show. Oh, I told `em they could come here. But I see’d what money done to others.”
Hicks might’ve been 6’7” but he measured about 10 feet in the common sense department.
His voice is silent now.
The mountains will never again echo with the sound of a dialect unique to them with the passing of that voice.
But in his stories, he left us with treasures unmatched.