Oral Literary Traditions: Storytelling

I love my books. Words on a page yellowed with age, the smell of old books, the way they look on my bookshelf all neat and orderly… I just love books. I’ve been known to download and enjoy an ebook or ten, but it’s no secret to those who know me that I favour a good ol’ physical book. However, I come from a long line of storytellers. My people—the Appalachians—were known for their oral stories.

(The area in white is considered Appalachia, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission.)

There were always a few people in each community known for their wordsmith capabilities, who could pull words out of thin air and stick them with other words to form even better sentences that could make you laugh, cry, or just plain think. When I was a kid, a few family members, friends, and neighbours would gather on the front porch at twilight during the warmest time of the year with a glass of sweet iced tea in hand to cool us from the oppressive heat of the summer’s day. The lightning bugs would be blinking and the frogs would be ribbitting, and it was at that moment, when the sky was burning into darkness, that stories would be told. Inevitably, the topic at hand would remind someone of a story, passed down to them by a long-deceased relative or friend. The first few sentences were punctuated by long sips of iced tea, keeping the audience rapt attention (or perhaps creating impatience for the person to get on with the story), then the storyteller smoothly began to weave a tale, playing to our reactions and expectations. And even though I love my books, these front porch gatherings have remained some of my fondest memories from childhood. I maintain this early and consistent exposure to storytelling helped me become a reading superstar at school and fostered a love for writing my own stories.

In the Western world, we tend to favour the written word over the oral one, but there is something about storytelling that is innately personal and interactive. Whether at an intimate gathering or in a large group, it feels like the storyteller is telling you—and only you—a personal story. The storyteller works to keep the audience’s attention and is able to tailor and tweak the story by “feeling” the mood of audience. For years and years before the advent of movies, television, and radio, my people—and people around the world—told stories for entertainment. People gathered together to deliver tales they had inherited from an older generation. Some of the most popular stories to tell, the “Jack” and the “Grandfather” tales and the “Br’er Rabbit” stories, had been brought to the mountains of Appalachia from the British Isles, Germany, and places in the west, central, and south of Africa. Carried by immigrants to their new mountain homes and by people who were forced to migrate due to the slave trade, these stories remained relatively intact as they travelled from place to place and home to home. They were passed down from generation to generation and were favourites at family and community gatherings. Beginning in the late 1800s, Appalachian culture was “discovered” by folks residing outside the region when they came to the area looking to reap the plenteous coal and timber there. Its ballads, arts and crafts, and the oral stories and traditions were becoming more of an interest to folklorists; it was during this time that these stories began to be written down. One such folklorist, Richard Chase, travelled to North Carolina and interviewed scores of folks, writing down the stories that had been passed to them by their elders.

Storytelling was important for literacy in Appalachia. There weren’t many people who could read or write (there were schools in the region, but the challenging mountainous terrain made it difficult to get there, especially if the school was quite far from home; also, reliance on farming as a way of life made any kind of consistent schooling difficult because families relied on everyone for labour) and books were very expensive to buy. For a culture that made their living farming and whose economic system was based on bartering, oral storytelling was the most important literacy tool available. Knowledge, history, ancestry, religion, values, and morals were passed down, incorporated into fantastic tales designed to keep you on the edge of your seat and subtly teach you and thing or two about life. Appalachians weren’t the only folks who created stories and passed them down. Storytelling can be found in cultures around the world. How is storytelling just as important in building literacy skills as reading a printed book?

“Understanding and creating narratives is a fundamental literacy skill—it is also a universal human activity. When students work with written texts, recite or listen to stories, or present narratives through non-verbal means, such as art or dance, they are learning to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate their world. Teachers can build rewarding experiences for students that activate their natural love for and interest in stories. They can do this in a way that expands children’s fluency and confidence with language, as well as their respect for the rich diversity of narrative approaches and language use across cultures. As students experience narratives from different cultures, they gain perspectives on people and stories in worlds that may be unfamiliar. This will be valuable to students in many ways, for example by helping them bring a sense of perspective to their own culture and stories” (PBS Learning Media).

If you’re not familiar with oral stories, I urge you to try attending a storytelling event or, if that’s not possible, listening to or watching storytellers online. World Storytelling Day is March 20th and is an international celebration of the oral art of storytelling. Storytellers of Canada / Conteurs du Canada has an events page of storytelling events happening in each province and online. Storytelling isn’t just for children, but for adults, too. And don’t be afraid of making up your own story! The more you do it, the better you’ll be.

For further information on how oral storytelling can improve literacy, please visit The Power of Story: Using Storytelling to Improve Literacy Learning. For examples of the art of storytelling or to simply enjoy a story or several, please see:

Telling Tales

Storytelling Sampler

Ghost Stories by Jackie Torrence–Part 1

Ghost Stories by Jackie Torrence–Part 2

Richard Chase Tells Three Jack Tales From Southern Appalachia

Ray Hicks Telling Four Traditional Jack Tales

Appalachian Storyteller Ray Hicks Tells “Jack and the Giant”

If you would like more information about prominent storytellers or oral literature in general, please feel free to contact me at catherine.bellamy@surrey.ca.

-Catherine Bellamy, Youth Services Librarian – Community Outreach, Guildford Branch, Surrey Libraries.

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