May, 1964. I was sitting on my front porch on Clarkes Creek Road in Valle Crucis, playing my guitar, backing up my then wife Sally, one of the world’s finest old time banjo pickers. We finished “Shady Grove” and Johnny Byrd, son of our landlords Claude and Edna Byrd stopped by to listen and chat.
“You ever hear one of those ‘Jack
Tales,’ Johnny asked.
“No,” I said.
He told us “Jack and the Varmints,” and he told it well. “Of course,” he added, “I can’t tell it as well as Ray Hicks. You ever hear Ray tell stories?”
I shook my head.
“Shoot,” Johnny said. “We’ll go up there on the Beech tomorrow.”
It was a beautiful day, small white clouds scudding across the sky, the view sharp and clear, tiers of mountains fading into Tennessee and Virginia. Ray and Rosa took us in. Rosa bustled in and out of the living room, busy as always.
Ted and Leonard, Jean and Juanita, little children sitting on the couch, their feet hanging halfway down to the floor, listened as their father rolled a cigarette, shut his eyes and started an afternoon and evening of talk, stories, reminiscences, reflections on the practicalities of life and the mysteries of existence, jokes, ghosts and outrageous lies.
Two years later I was teaching at Lees-McRae College, and started “The Beech Mountain Program of Folk Arts,” a spring festival of songs, stories and crafts put on for the benefit of the Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department. Ray would come down and tell stories to my classes and he was a featured performer at the festival.
Early in my first year at LMC, I bought land up on the Beech, just around the corner from Ray and Rosa. We were neighbors and saw much of each other. Ray became my mentor as I worked at building a house there, learning stories and discovering the secrets of the land.
By 1970, as a result of changing times, I ended up at in cultural exile at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. I maintained my contacts with Ray and Rosa. A favorite memory is of a trip my current wife Diane and I made to the land in the mid-Seventies. We were camping there and Ray came over, laughing at our ineptness. He spent the day improving our skills, took us back to the house for dinner and told stories until three the following morning, patiently letting me video tape them on the primitive reel to reel black and white set the college had provided me. I still have the tapes, poor images, great sound.
Since then I have returned to see Ray, Rosa and their family as often as possible. The house is different with Ray gone, but his legacy lives on in the storytelling talents both Ted and Leonard possess. I hope everyone will encourage them to explore, expand and share those skills.
And Rosa is still there, as positive and wonderful as ever. May she live many many many more years.
Wil Roberts, Greenfield, MA