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FOLKLORE A BIG PART OF APPALACHIAN CULTURE

FOLKLORE A BIG PART OF APPALACHIAN CULTURE
‘Mountain Haints’ Series Runs Through October
By: JENNIFER McDANIELS
Appalachian Journalist
 
(As Published In The Tri-City News)
(This is the introductory story of a series of ‘Mountain Haint’ stories that will be shared through the month of October in The Tri-City News.)
 
October winds blow leaves across Appalachian pathways that bring visitors wrapped in tightly knitted scarves and carrying with them a tale or two, and front porches throughout the mountains become the place where spooky stories are told. We might not see as much front-porch gathering in modern Appalachia as we used to, but the tradition of handing down stories that were told to us by our grandparents and great-grandparents still continues. There are even a few porches to this day filled with family and friends, hanging on every word as the storyteller recants a “Once Upon A Time” in the mysterious hollows of Harlan County, Kentucky.
For generations, telling stories, passing down old wives’ tales, and remembering a spooky “haint” tale has been a favorite past time and common occurrence in the Appalachian Mountains – especially Harlan County. The word “haint” is an alternative pronunciation of the word “haunt” that most Appalachians have used through several generations. While the tradition of folklore and storytelling is mostly pure fun for mountain folk, there are scholars who say that telling tall tales are much more than entertainment. The world of academia maintains it is a viable part of culture that preserves, as well as documents, the context of our history. Grandpa might just be trying to scare the little ones before bedtime, but what he is also doing, though he may not realize it, is engaging in a practice that is thousands of years old and spans across the ocean to the ancestral lands of Appalachia such as Ireland and Scotland. What grandpa is doing is partaking in folklore and storytelling, and the art form is as old as the ages.
 
“Folklore is part of our heritage and culture, and in some ways, it helped shape our area,” said Thomas Marcum of Pathfork, an avid researcher, cryptozoologist, and filmmaker. “Are we big storytellers? Yes! But only because we live in an extraordinary place with extraordinary people in an area that has rich history and is often filled with mysterious events. I’ve always said mountain folk are the salt of the earth and we should all be proud of our area and who we are. If anyone can tell a story, it’s us mountain folk. The people here are truly an untapped resource.”
 
Marcum has spent over 20 years exploring the woodlands of southeast Kentucky in pursuit of all things mysterious. It is because of his persistent staying on the trail of the bizarre that he has many stories to tell. He is a highly sought-after speaker for cryptid conferences throughout the nation, and he has written several books and produced a long list of DVD’s that document the peculiar happenings occurring in the mountains of his home. From mine portal ghosts to Bigfoot, Marcum’s company – Zombie Media – has documented stories coming out of Appalachia that is enthralling audiences from across the world. And in the process, he is preserving the more untold side of Appalachian history.
“I think many would be surprised to learn and see the sheer number of reported Bigfoot sightings from this general area,” Marcum said. “Then we have the little talked about giant bones that’s been found in our area. All these and so much more help make our area a fascinating place to live, explore, and visit. We seem to have a lot of odd things going on here. I don’t think some people actually realize just how vast our forests are. It has all the ingredients to provide all the necessities for numerous cryptid creatures - as well as to make great stories! A big reason why I’m so into cryptid research is that I want to preserve and share our stories. Many of these old stories have been lost over the years. The very oldest stories are hand-me-down stories that aren’t written down anywhere, and when the storyteller passes away, often these tales are gone forever.”
 
That is where the scholastic part of storytelling comes in. According to Theresa Osborne, a Folk Studies adjunct professor with Western Kentucky University, storytelling - or as she also refers to it as oral histories – are important pieces of our past that help set the context of history with personal observations. She said she often tells her students that folklore is a compound word, with “folk” meaning people and “lore” meaning stuff.
 
“Folk - we are all folk. So, it is the study of people - all people,” said Osborne, who has served as a commissioner and past chairwoman of the Kentucky Oral History Commission, as well as once working as Southeast Kentucky Community And Technical College’s Appalachian Program Facilitator. “And it is the lore, for lack of a more formal term, that means our stuff – our stories, dress, food, customs, traditions, beliefs, music, or everything that has to do with people. Folklore is basically the study of the people and their stuff. Folklore surrounds us. It is part of what makes us who we are. One of the main elements of folklore is that it is informally learned. That is, one person or generation teaches another, one-on-one and by word of mouth. For example, as a college teacher I can teach you what folklore is and how to recognize it, categorize it, and even display it, but the traditions and customs, themselves, are learned through one-on-one interactions. Just think of all the things we have learned to do that our parents or grandparents taught us. How important are those skills and history or information to who we are as individuals, a region, and as a culture?”
 
Mark Brown, who has worked over 20 years with the Kentucky Folklife Program and the Kentucky Arts Council, claims that folklore is “essential” to everyone. Brown said folklore is part of everyday life and that it is central to one’s identity. He said everyone belongs to several cultural groups (folklorists call them folk groups such as family, peers, coworkers, recreational friends, racial, religious, and online groups), and that people communicate artistically with other members of these groups through such activities as storytelling, singing, or even telling a joke.
 
“I think it’s compelling how essential folklore is to every single one of us,” said Brown. “Sometimes you hear folklore get dismissed as something that’s not really true or important - ‘that’s just folklore’ - or something that belongs to some other group of people. It’s really the opposite…By studying these everyday forms of artistic communication, we learn so much about the values shared within the group and what is most important to its members.”
 
No matter the scholastic perspective concerning folklore, most will eagerly say that handing down more obscure stories about their family and community is simply fun - and in Appalachia, most everyone are big storytellers. A lot of Appalachia’s propensity for “spinning the yarn” (colloquialism for storytelling) comes from living in such a remote area and having nothing better to do when work was done. Sitting on front porches and sharing the daily news was the way information was once spread. Sharing “haint tales” was also a favorite pastime because Appalachians have long been known for their curiosity and keen connection to the land. Because of living in such a remote and rugged area, mountaineers were observers, and there are reportedly mysterious things seen by folks in the dark forestlands that have become the makings for some of the spookiest handed-down Appalachian ghost stories.
 
“The Appalachian region has a deeply-rooted tradition of storytelling,” said Osborn, who also once co-hosted a radio talk show called “History Alive” that shared thousands of oral histories to the masses. “Our region’s music is known for its ballads which are just stories set to music. We have Jack Tales, ghost stories, and family stories. We are noted for our quilt making. As a young girl I have often set in a room of women quilting, and to pass the time they would tell stories. You hear a lot about people who would gather on their porches and sing and tell stories. So the story telling tradition runs as deep as the coal seams in Appalachia.”
 
Brown said telling ghost stories was a big part of folklore, and that it was also reflective of a culture’s colorful storytelling style, not to mention their beliefs.
 
“’Haint’ tales are wonderful because they have so many layers of meaning,” Brown said. “There’s a sense of exploring the possibility of the supernatural, and warnings of dangers that may exist around us. There are also many details of everyday life that get shared through ghost stories that don’t make it to the history books and other records. Next time you read or hear a ghost story, be on the lookout for some small detail about daily life within a time period, how people used certain tools or the architectural details and functions of their homes, worship centers and barns.”
 
Marcum said folklore and storytelling were not only a way to share and preserve local history, but it was a way for people to bond, as well. 
 
“And living where we do, in these beautiful but vast mountains - more specifically the Pine Mountain and Black Mountain ranges - there has always been an air of mystery here and odd occurrences that is associated with the area, so there is plenty of material for good storytelling. From Bigfoot to big cats - and there are a lot of reports of both – there’s enough stories coming out of these mountains that definitely make you wonder. I’ve especially seen activity and gotten reports from the Pine Mountain Range. It has long been an area with many mysterious reports of odd lights, shadowy figures, panthers, and more.” 
 
Perhaps Harlan County’s most notable folklore stories stem from being dubbed “Bloody Harlan.” Harlan was given this nefarious name back in the turbulent 1930s when mine wars that exploded from intense union strikes erupted across the land. There was plenty of bloody fights, shootings, bombings, and killings. Even the National Guard was eventually called in to quell the lawlessness. An untold number of stories came from this time in history that was rife with rage and disorder. The name “Bloody Harlan” remains because of the folklore surrounding it, and Marcum believes that title was meant to be because of Harlan County’s many mysterious happenings through the years.
 
“The name has stuck because Harlan, even after the 1930s coal war, continued to be an area that saw a lot of violence,” Marcum said. “It was known as a tough area and a place where bad things happened often. Some areas of Harlan County still have that stigma.”
 
Osborne said she believed the name “Bloody Harlan” has become a badge of honor for its residents.
“It shows that Harlan County was not to be messed with,” Osborne said. “We would stand up and be willing to shed blood for our rights if need be. For others it was a source of shame that labeled us as a place to be feared, in a lot of ways like when we label an old house ‘haunted.’ The label just sticks. Lately shows like Justified have helped keep the label alive and well.”
 
Brown said the time period of the 1930’s when “Bloody Harlan” got its name was an important time in southeast Kentucky’s folklore history. He said there were folk songs, stories, and other expressions used during Harlan County’s chaotic labor movements that were part of older traditions which changed and continued as living traditions into the present.
 
“And that’s a key characteristic of folklore - it’s dynamic. And there’s always a balance between continuity and change over time.
 
Even though folklore and storytelling interests scholars and researchers, we also know it is purely enjoyable, as well - especially this time of year when the days are ticking down to Halloween. For the next following weeks, the Tri-City News will be publishing a series of “Mountain Haint” stories with the help of Marcum, Osborne, and Brown. Some of the area’s most legendary “haint” tales will be retold with comments regarding the folklore surrounding these tales shared by the three. Historical context will come into play, along with some scientific and legal explanations. However, as Marcum, Osborne, and Brown will all three agree, some of these handed-down “haint” stories will have no explanation. Look for the first “Mountain Haint” story of Pine Mountain Settlement School’s murdered teacher Laura Parsons in next week’s edition of The Tri-City News.


~JM~


This is a guest post by Jennifer McDaniels. Jennifer is journalist, marketing and public relations specialist. She is also a News Correspondent & Marketing Manager for WFXY Foxy Radio and currently holds several degrees in communications and journalism.



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