by Connie Regan-Blake
We have been looking up to him from the beginning…
the lanky 6′ 7″ man of the mountains, who came down from North Carolina, bearing old-world gifts that have enriched our modern lives beyond measure.
I first met Ray Hicks on October 7, 1973, in Jonesborough, Tennessee. It was an afternoon that changed my life… and the course of storytelling in the United States. The setting was the first National Storytelling Festival.
On that same day, Ray met his first microphone. The mic was perched on a flatbed truck and loomed above him. Ray stared up at it as if the mic was a preying mantis. Ray was ramrod straight, telling his Jack tale like the audience was in the sky and yet he charmed the 35 people sitting on folding chairs in front of him. From that Sunday afternoon, Ray Hicks has welcomed his mission.
By the second festival he was more comfortable behind the microphone. And it did not take long before listeners felt Ray was telling the story directly to them. Ray found a way to be himself on stage even though 1,000 people sat before him. Over the next 3 decades as a special featured teller at the Festival, he has continued to entertain and teach thousands as if they were guests in his cabin on Beech Mountain.
Within a week of hearing and meeting Ray, I made the first of many pilgrimages to Ray and Rosa’s home. Ray lives in the cabin he was born in. It was hand built by his father and grandfather on land that has been in his family since the 1700’s. His wife Rosa still lights the fire in her wood cook stove and fixes green beans, sweet corn and new potatoes freshly picked from the garden. With help from Ted, their youngest son, she carries water from the springhouse while Ray stokes the fire in the front room to keep them all warm.
“To be with the people, I can feel it in my soul; more spirit there than I have ever felt in any church.”
For generations the Hicks have teetered on the edge of a precipice where a dry summer meant possibly starving the following winter. Once when Ray was only 10 years old, an early spring snowstorm roared through the mountains and the wood box was as empty as the cupboard. Ray’s father was off the mountain and it was too much for his mama. She took to bed crying, afraid that all of her hungry children would freeze during the night. It was Ray who had the heart to go out and break off branches and dig under the snow until they had enough firewood to keep them alive.
Over the years Ray has continued to take care of the family.
When he was in his early 20’s, Ray got a job cutting down wood; “lumberin” as he calls it. The little bit of money he earned each day was desperately needed to pay property taxes to keep their land. A man down the road loaned Ray a truck so that he could get back and forth to the job. One night when he was close to home, it broke down. Times were hard for lots of folks, and men were waiting in line for work. Ray knew if he missed a day, he’d lose the job.
Ray also knew that if a mechanic even opened the hood, it might cost $50. So he went to bed, asking, “Help me just a little bit.” In the middle of the night he woke up. And there, spread across the ceiling, was the complete inner workings of a combustion engine; the gas coming into the carburetor, the sparkplugs exploding and the pistons going up and down. Ray saw how it all fit together.
The next morning Ray fixed the truck and drove to work.
Ray’s first storytelling beyond Beech Mountain came in 1951. A teacher at Cove Creek Elementary School invited Ray and he told stories to her class. Word spread that Jennie Love’s students had heard a storyteller and that they were clamoring for him to come tell again. When Ray returned to the school, everybody wanted to hear his stories. That pleased Ray and he spent all day going from room to room. Jennie gave him $3 for gas. (Footnote #1)
When Ray was a boy and the other children were outside playing, he was at the feet of his elders, listening. Ray said his Great Grandma Becky told stories; “and Granddaddy Benjamin too, telling me ’bout Jack and the u-ni-corn, he’d laugh ’til tears come in his eyes. I was with him a lot, helping him work, tannin’ groundhog hides to make shoestrings to tie my shoes with. I told ’em when I was little, tried to tell stories, long about 5 or 7 years old.”
Now Ray is the Elder. August 29, 2002 marked 80 years since he came into this world. He is recognized as a master storyteller and mentor. His reputation reaches around the globe. Here in the United States, he is known as a “National Treasure.” In 1983, he received the prestigious Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ray and Rosa were brought to Washington, DC for the ceremonies. It was quite a trip. Ray rode his first escalator and got lost in the fancy hotel. He remembers with a wink, “that revolving door, took me two days to get out.”
Ray Hicks was honored because he is a tradition bearer. He tells the Southern Appalachian tales about Jack with total authenticity. He says, “I live the stories.”
That wind, where they stayed at, that northwest wind…gah, hit would come through and just burn the house…like I’ve had it here…just burn the house. So Jack said, “Mama, I’m gonna go get you a bunch of wood and I’m gonna go ’till I find that hole and put my cap in it and stop the northwest wind from blowing.” So cold of a wintertime where we live and others…
So Jack got up and took off. Walked and walked…finally came to a log cabin where a man was outside a-cutting wood with a poleaxe.
“Hello, son,” the man said. “Why be on your way?”
Jack said, “Man, that northwest wind has blowed so at home till I’ve decided to go hunt the hole where the wind’s a-coming out at. Gonna put my hat in it…”
“Gosh, son,” said the man.
And Jack said, “Me’n my mom ain’t got nothing to eat much – no vittles, and we’s about to starve, and hit so cold.”
“Well,” said the man. “Don’t go stop up the hole. Just go back home. I’ll give you a tablecloth that all you have to do is spread it out and say, ‘Spread, spread, vittles, spread tablecloth full of vittles.'”
And so Jack went on there, and he was a-feeling so big because he knew how to make the magic tablecloth work. (Footnote #2)
Jack and Ray trust the help that they ask for: A tablecloth that spreads itself out on the ground, covered with food. An engine spread across the ceiling. And Ray reminds us, “You gotta ask for what you need.” And be humble enough to accept the help that is given, in whatever shape it appears.
There is also a kinship between Ray and the old man who puts down his poleaxe to listen to Jack’s plight. Ray and Rosa always stop whatever they are doing and welcome visitors.
A linguist from England comes to study the ancient rhythms and unique dialect of Ray’s speech; a film crew from CBS Evening News; journalists from The Smithsonian and The New Yorker; and hundreds and hundreds of people from all walks of life who have heard about Ray.
They find their way to the Hicks cabin, thirsty for Ray’s stories and to be in his presence. When a car pulls up, Rosa and Ray put down their hoes and stop planting the seed potatoes. Everyone is invited in. Ray pulls back the curtain of time so we can see the Old World and the Old Ways. And with great delight and open-heartedness, Ray begins telling.
I have experienced that generosity many times.
In the mid ’70’s, I traveled full time in a little yellow camper truck with my first cousin and storytelling partner, Barbara Freeman. But in 1978 our ‘home on the road’ had serious (and expensive) troubles: a cracked engine head. We didn’t have the money to get it fixed, so instead we kept watch on the temperature gauge. Whenever it edged up towards hot, we would pull over to let the engine cool, add water to the radiator, and begin again. It made for mighty slow traveling.
On a warm day in early spring, we arrived at Ray and Rosa’s place for a visit. We left our car troubles parked up on the road and walked past a sea of lupines blooming along the path. Ray called out his welcoming “hey-lo” and Rosa’s face lit up as she came to greet us.
We walked around the house to see where she’d be planting her dahlias and she showed us a patch of lady slippers. With all the chores she had to do, she made time for her flowers. Rosa Harmon Hicks knows that beauty is as necessary as cornbread.
When we were all settled on the porch, Ray began an animated telling of Wicked John and the Devil. It was fresh, like the first time I heard Ray tell it back in 1973. Once again Ray was the bridge to another time and place; a world of beggars, devils and wishes.
Early that evening, we reluctantly had to leave. The four of us headed up the hill to our truck. When we got to the road, Ray finished up the story he was telling us. Then he said, “Pop the hood.” I was stunned. Those regular everyday words coming out of Ray’s mouth sounded so strange to me. That was the first time I had ever heard him say anything that wasn’t a story.
I realized in that moment that Ray’s use of words and language is so intimately connected to story, that he doesn’t say the normal everyday things like “I’m hungry,” or “I’m tired.” Hearing him say, “Pop the hood,” was so unexpected.
Ray’s long body bent all the way down and hovered over our little truck. He was quiet. Rosa whispered to me, “Listen to him. He stopped talking.” He rested his hands on the engine and the radiator. Then he said, “Now we got it,” and closed the hood.
We waved goodbye and Barbara and I drove away. When we climbed the first mountain out of the valley, the most astonishing thing happened – the temperature gauge stayed right in the middle! And for the next 75,000 miles we cruised along. We never did have to get that engine fixed.
Twenty years later, I had the enormous pleasure of telling a modern day version of Wicked John accompanied by original chamber music for piano, violin, and cello. When our tour was coming to Boone, NC, the closest big city to the Hicks, I wrote to Ray and Rosa and asked if they could come for that performance.
The Trio and I walked out on stage and we took our opening bows in tuxedos and finery. And there in the 2nd row was Ray, dressed the same as always in overalls and flannel shirt, with Rosa sitting next to him. He leaned forward and listened to this unconventional rendition of his traditional tale. His face lived the story as it unfolded. Ray’s whole body was laughing; relishing Wicked John’s antics set to the rhythm of classical music.
After the performance, Ray said to me, “Connie, you have to keep telling the stories and tell about me when I am gone. Tell on. Tell on.”
In April of 2001, Ray was diagnosed with advanced cancer. After two weeks of tests in the hospital, Rosa took Ray home. Their daughter, Dorothy Jean, was waiting for her daddy. She had thought he never would see the homeplace again. The ambulance arrived and the attendants carried Ray down the path. As soon as Dorothy Jean caught sight of her father, she began laughing. She said, “…not a regular laugh but a holy laugh.” A laugh she had learned from her mother. Rosa continues her loving care for Ray with patience and humor. She says, “I know people are thinking about us during these hard times. I can feel every prayer.”
The nurses and volunteers from Hospice have grown to love Ray and Rosa and to depend on Ray’s wisdom and herbal knowledge. Ray showed a nurse how to cure an ingrown toenail. Another had scratched her eye with a contact lens, and only got relief when Ray told her how to use the pith of the sassafras branch to heal it.
The healing power in Ray’s stories is not only for the listeners, but also for the teller, himself. Last winter Tim Tingle, a Choctaw storyteller, traveled up from Texas to visit Ray and Rosa. I was catching up with Rosa in the kitchen when I heard Ray call, “Connie, Tim wants to hear Wicked John, but I’m not up to it. I told Tim how I taught it to you. Come tell it.” I said, “I’d love to Ray. Why don’t you start it off and I’ll help when you get tired.”
Thirty minutes later, Ray was finishing up the story. “The Devil was a’yelling, ‘Bar the doors, boys! Yonder comes John.’ Devil took the tongs and reached ’em a coal of fire and handed it to John. Devil said, ‘You can’t come in here. Go build you a hell of your own.'”
Then Ray chuckled, glanced out the window, and added, “The Brown Mountain lights is where I think he built it at.”
Even in his sick bed, if Ray has an eager listener, he starts into a story and his strength miraculously returns to him. And for those moments, Ray and his stories are full of life.
When Ray is gone, it will be the end of an era. But for generations to come we can see through Ray’s window; the Old World and the Old Ways will spread out like a feast before our eyes. We can laugh a holy laugh; for Ray Hicks has given us a look into another time and he has also gifted us with a legacy for living in this modern world.
Connie Regan-Blake always finds herself heading back to Ray’s front porch. When she met Ray and Rosa, she was telling stories full time in Chattanooga, TN. Since then, Connie has traveled as a storyteller, teacher and mentor, bringing her artistic vision and passion for oral tradition to communities around the world.
For reprint permission or to contact:
#1) Recently Ray told me, “Jennie Love come by to see me. She’s a’living now – in her 90’s.”
#2) Ray Hicks: Master Storyteller of the Blue Ridge by Robert Isbell, University of North Carolina Press, 1996.