When I was planning the Sunday afternoon session of the first National Storytelling Festival in 1973, I was on a quest to find storytellers to tell their stories at this inaugural event. Any storytellers. But one of my goals was to find an Appalachian storyteller—just the “perfect” storyteller from the rich oral tradition of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

I began my search with Dr. Tom Burton, a professor at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. He was one of my professors. I turned to Dr. Burton because I was aware that he and Dr. Ambrose Manning, his colleague at ETSU and also one of my professors, roamed the Southern Appalachians collecting ballads. Surely, I thought, the two of them had discovered great Appalachian storytellers. I was right.

Dr. Burton was quick to respond. “Ray Hicks”, he said. “Ray is who you are looking for.” But Ray didn’t have a telephone. So, Dr. Burton suggested I call Ray’s neighbor, a well-known North Carolina craftsman, and I did. The neighbor told me, “If you will call me at two o’clock on Sunday, I will have Ray here to answer your call.” Well, I called, just as I was instructed, and I invited Ray to be a storyteller at the first National Storytelling Festival. Without hesitation, Ray accepted my invitation.

My neighbors and I rolled an old farm wagon into Courthouse Square in downtown Jonesborough and around that wagon, we told stories. Ray was among the half-dozen storytellers—a cobbled together assortment of politicians and after-dinner jokesters. There were only sixty listeners in the audience at that first festival.

Ray was a tall, lanky mountain man who lived in the same unpainted frame house on the slopes of Beech Mountain, in western North Carolina, where he was born.  Ray climbed aboard the old farm wagon that day and told “The Heifer Hide” with a curled up smile, flashing eyes, and language that dated back to Elizabethan times.

Throughout his lifetime, Ray earned a reputation for telling stories. Perched on his grandfather’s lap, Ray heard these old folktales of the Southern Appalachians—stories handed down generation to generation—and even as a child, he began sharing these old mountain stories. His friends, Ray remembered, would beseech him, “Git the blues off, Ray. Tell us a story.”

Throughout his life of 80 years, Ray lived the history, traditions, and culture of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and he personified the storytelling of the Southern Appalachians. But even more, he became the heart and soul of the National Storytelling Festival, and for many storytellers and listeners, he became the heart and soul of America’s storytelling revival.

After Ray told “The Heifer Hide” on that wagon in Courthouse Square, I slipped to the opposite side of the courthouse and there, sitting on the steps of the side entrance, I saw Ray telling stories to a half-dozen listeners standing around him. I listened too, and that experience struck me powerfully. It would change my life. I saw the power of storytelling at work. At that moment, I knew that the National Storytelling Festival had been successful, and we were celebrating our oral tradition. It became clear to me that we would do it again and again. And so we have—almost 50 years of festivals. That small gathering in 1973 launched a national, even international, renaissance of storytelling.

Ray told stories until he died on Easter Sunday in 1993—sharing his tales with audiences at the National Storytelling Festival and with anyone who would travel the narrow road that snaked up Beech Mountain to his mountain home. His legacy still lives—thanks to the inspiration and leadership of Storyteller Connie Regan-Blake. Connie, then a children’s storyteller for the Chattanooga Public Library, told a story at that first National Storytelling Festival, and she’s the only person who has been a featured teller or emcee at every one of the Festivals since. At that first festival, Connie was joined by Barbara Freeman, Connie’s cousin and library colleague, who also told a story and, a few years later, would team up with Connie to form the nationally recognized storytelling duo known as the Folktellers.

Jimmy Neil Smith
Founder of the National Storytelling Festival
Founder and President Emeritus of the International Storytelling Center