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The Jack Tales

Chase, Richard, The Jack Tales,Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971.

Butt-Head the Baldy Bull

Courtesy of Ole Carolina General Store

Sweet Potatoes

Courtesy of Ole Carolina General Store

The Chicken Thumb

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Jack's first Hunt

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Arts in Earnest

Arts in Earnest: North Carolina Folklife. Edited by Daniel W. Patterson and Charles C. Zug III.

The Narrative Style of a Jack Tale Teller

The story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" is widly known throughout the United States and England; Jack's exploits in the land at the top of the magical vine are preserved in oral tradition, children's books, and popular cartoons. However, few people outside the southern Appalachias realize that the Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" is also the hero of dozens of other wonderful stories. These stories, called "Jack tales" by the folk, are especially numerous and well formed in the Beech Mountain area of Watauga and Avery counties in northwestern North Carolina, where they have been kept alive by such skilled tellers as Jane Gentry, Ray Hicks, R.M. Ward, his brother Miles Ward, and Miles's son, Marshall Ward.

Various elements of the Old World Marchen or "wonder tales" traveled with the early settlers from many parts of Europe to the southern highlands, where they fused into a cohesive cycle that centers on the thoroughly Americanized farmboy-hero, Jack. The Beech Mountain Jack, unlike the heros of the European wonder tales, assumes a well-founded personal identity; he is a recognizable individual wjo moves with equal ease through clever stories and magical stories. Although the Beech Mountain Jack tales share common defining characteristics, the tales nevertheless are subject to the manipulation and modifications of each narrator. Marshall Ward was one of the most active and innovative contemporary tellers of Jack tales in the Beech Mountain Tradition. Furthermore, Ward is an apt subject for intensive study because unlike other tellers, his entire Jack-tale repertoire his autobiography, and supplementary biographical information from interviews are all available.

Marshall Ward was born on 10 December 1906 in Beech Creek, North Carolina; he dies in nearby Banner Elk on 12 December 1981 at the age of seventy-four. He grew up in a log cabin on a farm and attended a one-teacher school at the age of eight. He began helping with farming chores before he entered school and continued to farm all his life. Marshall had two older sisters and five younger brothers. When Marshall was thirteen, his mother, who was sickly, died of pneumonia. When he was sixteen, he left home to work for a lumber company, but, not unlike Jack, he returned to his father's farm.

As a direct descendant of Council Harmon and a lifelong resident of northwestern North Carolina, Marshall Ward was a recipient of the Beech Mountain Jack-tale-telling tradition.(1 footnote to be added) Ward claimed that he learned his entire repertoire of Jack Tales by the age of five.

Marshall Ward telling 'Sop Doll!' on the front porch of his house in Avery County, NC. 1978. Photo courtesy of Arts in Earnest and Thomas McGowan. He did not remember being encouraged to memorize them: "They just come natural to me. I'd hear 'em a time or two, and I could tell anyone."Ward was born into a family in which Jack-tale-telling is a particularly strong tradition, yet none of Ward's brothers and sisters told tales.
"Had nephew that would tell 'em in school - charm the children and they's miss the bell - when he was little. But now he won't tell 'em. Says he forgot." Marshall Ward also told the tales when he was a child: "When my classmates would spend the night, I'd tell 'em till they were snorin'. Then I'd quit." But, unlike his nephew, Marshall Ward did not quit telling the tales when he grew up. Since Jack tales are usually told to children by adults, it is necessary that some adults do not quit telling tales if the tradition is to survive.

What factors influence a person to learn tales and continue to tell them for a lifetime? Ward said, "I like telling 'em. That's the trouble. It's kinda a part of me. It's kinda a habit you get into. But I like it because other people like it. I have never turned anybody down that wants a story, if they come see me."

Richard Chase may also have had an effect on the development of Ward's narrative skills. Marshall Ward was the person who first told Richard Chase that Jack tales existed. {2} Ward was also present when Chase collected the tales from older members of the Ward family. He accompanied Chase on subsequentfolklore-collecting trips in the Beech Mountain area, serving as a liaison between Cahse and the folk. Thus Ward became aware of the value of his tradition from the folklorist's point of view. It must have been flattering to have an outsider write a book about one's family; Ward's pride would show in his face and voice when he referred to Chase's The Jack Tales. In recent years Ward actively contributed to the preservation of the Jack-tale tradition by performing for local primary and secondary schools, colleges, folk festivals, and interested individuals.

The publication of Jack tales by Chase and others has probably had a further effect on the modernization of these tales. One example of this effect is Richard Chase's editing of the tales. Chase changed the phrase "Old Stiff Dick, killed fifty-six with one lick" to "Strong Man Jack, killed seven at a whack" in order to make "Jack and the Varmints" palatable to the average American reader. More important, the very fact that the Jack tales are in print makes them a part of middle-class culture. Although the oral tale-telling tradition may survive in some areas for a while longer, we can predict that in the future, if not in the present, more Jack tales will be read than heard. Just as old-time fiddling has reached the middle class mainly as amplified bluegrass, we can expect the Jack tale to reach the middle class in a form acceptable to its new listeners. Marshall Ward was, in fact, one teller who significantly contributed to this process.

Footnotes: 1. For his genealogy and kinship with other Jack-tale-tellers, see James W. Thompson, "The Origins of the Hicks Family Tradition," North Carolina Folklore Journal 34 (Winter-Spring 1987): 21. 2.Richard Chase, The Jack Tales (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), vii.

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