It is an inexpressible honor to be speaking with you here, an honor doubled by the fact that this is the first American Folklore Society meeting ever to convene in Kentucky and further multiplied by every person in this room who gave me reason to know what to try to talk about. These words are dedicated to Kentucky folklorist Leonard Roberts and to the people whose traditions were the great, loved cause of his life.
The most loved of those people are in this room now: Edith Reynolds Roberts, who married Leonard sixty-nine years ago; their daughters Sue Roberts Atkins, Margaret Roberts Biller, Rita Roberts Kelly, and Lynneda Roberts Denny; and Margarett Jane Muncy Fugate, the first person ever to record a tale for Leonard, and her husband, Bob Fugate. In my idea of a perfect American Folklore Society meeting, the people who are the reason why we talk about folklore in the first place would join us in equal numbers to talk about it with us. We are not there yet, but it is good to get this far.
In twenty years of studying mountain folktales, I have spent at most a year, all told, in the homes of the tellers: not nearly enough time to learn what I need to know. Equally telling for us is the fact that only one of these honored guests has ever previously visited us at our communal home: our annual meeting. (1) It is good to have them all here today. Their presence tells us something about why Leonard Roberts chose to devote his life to a community of tradition embodied in the people and lifeways he had known since birth but which he, like many of the rest of us, began to discover only after having left it behind.
Leonard Ward Roberts was born in 1912 into the world that he would study, in a log cabin in Floyd County, Kentucky. He did not have to go far to hear his first magic tale. His aunt Columbia was the verbal magician of the extended family, and she loved to tell a tale that was to become his favorite--though Leonard didn't hear it until he asked for it as an adult. (2)
It was part of Leonard's tradition to leave his world behind in order to find it. Young men would walk, hitchhike, or ride the rails to discover how far they could go and still get back. Finding work and pay was a major motive; curiosity was another, as was simply being able to say, "I've done it." (3) The military satisfied all of these drives, so in 1930, as soon as he turned eighteen and less than a year into high school, Leonard "hoboed" his way to Huntington, West Virginia, signed up for the army, and within a few months found himself at Pearl Harbor (Roberts  1987:6).
In part because he went so far, his journey home was long. In the army, he learned to play half a dozen instruments, and when he got back to Pike County he turned them to the newest uses, performing in a swing band. He then traveled west to Berea College, a tuition-free school on the fringes of the Cumberlands dedicated in great part to the education of the mountain poor. At age twenty-seven, shortly after marrying Edith, he became the first in his family to graduate from college. In his valedictory essay, he wrote that at school he had become "a terrapin peeping out of his shell" and that now he would set about teaching, "so I can help others to see what I have seen--a terrapin's eyeview of the world" (Roberts  1987:7). So Leonard was coming back, he thought, to open a window to a wider prospect for those he had left behind. But he had not yet stopped wandering. By turns, he chose to change his culture, to celebrate it, and to rejoin it. He taught for a while and then, aspiring briefly to portray his mountains' life in fiction, went to the University of Iowa. There, he churned out a novel manuscript and some short stories, but the call to teach drew him back to his alma mater, Berea, in 1945. He was about thirty-four, nearly halfway through his life, when his career chose him.
He was teaching at Berea's Foundation School, which offered middle- and high-school classes to mountain children who boarded in town. He had decided to make these kids his fellow terrapins and to push them toward the world beyond the mountains by giving them books and writing, the standardizing tools for gaining jobs and mobility. The students had left the mountains physically, but they had not brought their imaginations into the classroom. Seeking a subject that would excite his students, Leonard hit upon Richard Chase's recently published collection, The Jack Tales (1943). Based on narratives that Chase had heard in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, this book sketched a well-known world of woods, hills, and lone houses through which the kids could sense their own, distant homes. (4) Leonard believed that the title character--a mountain boy who, like the students, lived with nearly nothing but his wits and who struggled against outrageous odds in all forms--would be someone that the kids would want to know about. He read the tales aloud, and his listeners' imaginations awakened with their memories of home.
In a July 14, 1980, interview recorded by Joyce Hancock, Leonard remembered:
I never could get the students to write more than about a half a page of some sort of narrative about something like their favorite pet or their vacation time. But then I began to read stories to them, folktales.... By this time the book Jack Tales was out. And I began to read those to the students and noticed an immediate change in attitude, change in attention.... And then ... I would read one of these stories and ask them ..., "Now, can you write that story?" And I was very surprised to find that they could write and recapture that story almost word for word.... And that would make a page or two of writing.... And they hadn't done [that] before, it was so much.... So they learned how to feel, think and handle the language.
And then ... I sampled the students for stories they had heard and realised that many of them, maybe half a class of twenty, had been hearing oral folktales at home. I began to ask them to write for their exercises, write a story they had heard. And again three or four more pages.... And I began to realise that each family in the mountains had some store or stock of stories that they passed along at various times in the seasons--day and night and so forth, holidays and so forth ... [--] and carried on a kind of a cultural pattern that we were not too aware of until we began to find it and ask for it. (Roberts 1980a:11-2)
As the children discovered the patterns of written speech, Roberts was lured into their cultural patterns--ones that were also his own, though they were half-buried under the layers of stimuli that had grown over him on his travels. The center of learning shifted seismically, along with Leonard's course in life. Now his students were his teachers. He had walked them to the threshold of another world, and they had tugged him back into theirs. Leonard began driving them back to their homes to meet and learn from their grandmothers and uncles. Not long before, his ambition had been to write novels about the people of the Cumberlands. Now his drive was to be their scribe.
But how could he make a profession of listening to other people's stories--not rewriting them, but simply retelling them as heard? He did not want to rewrite them because, in his students' words, they were the "real stories." At Indiana University, Roberts found an unlikely answer from Professor Stith Thompson, another native Kentuckian, who then knew as much about folktale scholarship as any living soul. But Thompson had not heard such tales in his childhood, had rarely heard them since, and did not seek to hear them; rather, he read them, often merely summarized, in archives, manuscripts, and books. (5)
At Indiana University, Roberts shared his students' written tales with Thompson, William Hugh Jansen, and W. Edson Richmond. In an August 24, 1980, interview, Leonard recalled the folklorists' powerfully positive reaction: "They read my manuscript and said, [']This is in the very heart of what we think is oral tradition.[']" (Roberts 1980b:9). Leonard's teachers equipped him for his journey back to the stories' source: "they ... lent me a novel[,] big old tape recorder. And, you know, I hadn't seen one and could not operate one really and [they gave me] twenty reels of tape" (Roberts 1980b:9). The machine would perfect his scribal purpose, enshrining the tellers' voices along with their words. Three years before his death, Roberts was still marveling over the machine that could capture the teller's voice: "It is ... such a beautiful invention that we should be thankful because you can hear the very sense of the expression ... the very rise and fall and the cadence of ... language" (Roberts 1980a:33).
Leonard Roberts was now in equal submission to two opposed visions of the magic tale. In the world he had known since birth, the tales and the people were part of a patterned whole that he was striving to rediscover. In the academy, the tales were ripped from the lips of the tellers and set into slots, sorted by plot, and compared to structurally similar stories from diverse cultures worldwide. If Roberts did not love his work for the same reason that Thompson assigned it, he was, nevertheless, utterly faithful both to Thompson's vision and his own. Thompson had invested an importance in these stories that others had not, and Thompson had given him the tool to capture them. Leonard was gratefully loyal.
The two Kentucky families gathered in this room today came together at the exact moment that Leonard Roberts carried Stith Thompson's vision into the mountains. His first stop was a schoolhouse in Hyden, Leslie County, Kentucky, a place well suited for the remoteness that Thompson and Roberts sought, for they assumed that in such locales the tales and the pattern would be the strongest. Thirty-one years earlier, when Cecil Sharp had traveled by horse-drawn wagon seeking folksongs in the Cumberlands, he had pronounced Hyden the "most primitive county town I have ever struck" (Sharp quoted in Karpeles 1967:163). Roberts, like Sharp, was seeking those least touched by the outside world. And, having learned his tales in Berea's Foundation School classroom, he sought out local teacher Lige Gay, who summoned his students, ages eleven to eighteen, to stand before the mic and tell their stories. The first child to the front of the room was the youngest, eleven-year-old Janie Muncy. The tale she told was her favorite, "Merrywise." In a way that we were not to understand for another half century, her one-sentence introduction told her listeners what was so special about this narrative: "The name of my story is Merrywise, told by my grandmother" (Fugate 1949).
Janie told more tales than any other child that day, and her performances outshone the others to a degree that astonished me when I first heard the recordings at Berea College in 1997. (6) I immediately resolved to find out more about this child who, though very much a little girl in voice, seemed to be vocalizing a maturity and wisdom beyond her years. In 2000, I finally met her, and she explained to me the source of the depth of the magic in her voice. When Leonard Roberts first found her, Jane had been unknowingly rehearsing for him for more than seven years, coached by her grandmother in a nightly ritual that began with a war. These are among the first words she shared with me when I recorded her on June 3, 2000:
First time that I remember meeting her, I was about four, and my father and mother had lived in Pennsylvania. World War II had just started--the bombing of Pearl Harbor--and my father and mother were getting a divorce. And my father won custody and he wrote her a telegram. I saw the telegram when I was just a child, and the telegram said, "MOM, COME AND GET JANE I'M GOING IN / STOP" And so that she did. She got on a train and she rode on a train from Frankfurt, Kentucky, all the way to Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--to pick up little Jane.
And, she was a stranger to me, and I was basically a stranger to her. She was sixty-seven and, as far as she knew, I was going to be her charge for a long time, because the war had started, my dad was going in the Marines, and he was going to be far away, and she was going to have me on her own.
And she, she did just that. She told me many times that I was her salvation, that I kept her young. She slept with me. She cuddled me. She said I was terribly, terribly thin and small, and that she must revive me. She was surprised that I was living, as thin and small as I was, and she could carry me on one arm.
We made the train trip, and she took me into an apartment where she had been living with my Aunt Hope and said to the apartment lady (it was an adult apartment), "I must bring this child in, because she's practically an orphan." And whatever she said, she convinced the apartment owner that I could come there and I could live, as long as I was quiet. And ... she saw to it that I kept busy with quiet activities like drawing and writing and listening to stories and listening to the radio with her, and mapping where her sons were as they traveled around the world in the various armed services....