Folk tales are a strange cultural inheritance. They endure over the years mostly in sanitized, glammed out and high-tech versions, and the originals are mostly unknown. But long before Snow White and Red Riding Hood kicked major butt in CG-enhanced epics or Beauty and the Beast sang Disney duets, these stories were tales told by human voices, in everyday language.
Handed Down: Tales from Southern Appalachia, a new two-CD audio book produced in Chattanooga, draws deep from that cultural well, bringing traditional Jack tales and other Appalachian folk tales vividly to life.
It was created by Kate Forbes, an actress who has appeared on Broadway, Off-Broadway, at major regional theaters around the country, and at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England. After an 18-year career in New York, she and her husband, actor Stevie Ray Dallimore, returned to Chattanooga to raise their children. She continues to act nationally and record audio books from Sound Resources in Chattanooga, where Handed Down was produced, with funding from a MakeWork grant. She has narrated over 150 audio books and received two Audie awards and three Golden Earphone awards from Audiophile magazine.
Rather than taking an “anthropologically correct” approach, perhaps having these Appalachian tales told by an elderly white gentleman, Forbes used a variety of voices, including herself, two other award-winning actors from New York, Myra Lucretia Taylor and Tom Schteschulte, as well as actors and musicians from Chattanooga: Becki Jordan, Jim Palmour, Clark “deacon bluz” White and professional storyteller Jim Pfitzer. The stories are bumpered by traditional music played by Kate’s father Walter Forbes (banjo and guitar) and Fletcher Bright (fiddle).
Forbes grew up hearing Jack tales from her father, grandfather and uncles. She describes Jack as “an unlikely hero, clever, often naive but always successful.” In “Jack and the Bull,” Jack is saved from starvation by a mysterious black bull whose horns provide bread and milk.
“The thing about Jack is that he exists in every culture,” she said. In Germany he is Hans, in France he is Jacques. “He’s existed from the 14th century. Jack became the name for ‘everyman.’ When the Jack Tales migrated from Europe to North America, Jack became a farm-boy hero, and his stories were passed down through generations and altered to reflect Appalachian folk culture.”
Other stories in Handed Down feature female protagonists, in a mixture of the familiar and the strange. There’s a version of Cinderella called “Ashpet.” Instead of dancing with the prince at the royal ball, the heroine caught the eye of the King’s son at Sundy meetin’. After he fits her foot into the pretty red shoe she lost, they only live happily ever after for a while, until the old woman and her two girls who treated Ashpet mean throw her into the lake where “an ole hairy man” tries to keep her.
“Whitebear Whittington” tells of a woman who had to marry a great white bear because of her father’s rash promises, with echoes of Beauty and the Beast.
There’s even a version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which was itself based on folk sources. In “Like Meat Loves Salt” an old king goes to town, brings back new dresses for his three daughters, and then asks how much they love him. Rather than flatter him insincerely like her sisters do, his youngest girl says she loves him “like meat loves salt.” As in Shakespeare’s play, the foolish king banishes her and then goes mad.
“King Lear is how many hours long? And this is the shortest tale, and it’s so poignant. It’s so beautiful,” said Forbes.
“One of my big interests in this project is the way the language is used,” she added. “I love the use of words in these stories. It’s not uneducated. It’s not these cliche things we think about country. It’s beautifully poetic in an unusual way.”
The language captures the rhythms of the Appalachians, where they were collected by folklorist Richard Chase in the 1940s. The speech patterns seem to come from a South as remote now as “once upon a time,” and Forbes’ actors beautifully capture the rhythms of country people telling tales.
Handed Down will soon be available locally. Sample tales can be heard at handeddown.org.