Tales and Folklore from the NC Coast
Storytelling has been essential to mankind since cavemen first scratched pictures on the wall, some 35,000 years ago. In every culture in every country, storytelling is an essential and prized aspect of everyday life.
In North Carolina, where folks are no strangers to tall tales and longwinded stories over a pitcher of sweet tea, storytelling has left its own legacy. Now used as a means to recount legends, myths and folklore from long ago, the Carolina coast is steeped in storytelling.
With a rich and speckled past and ghosts around every corner of historical coastal villages, it is no wonder that some of the old myths and legends have been around the beaches for hundreds of years. As modern day storytellers share these tall tales with new listeners, one has to scratch their head and wonder if, after generations of being told, there may be a good chance that an old legend or myth might just be true?
History of Storytelling
Though the caveman drawings are the first indication of storytelling, every culture throughout the centuries has their own personal history on the roots of their storytelling. It is ingrained in some Native American cultures, where nearly every question is answered with a story; and many Asian cultures pride themselves on stories that have been circulating for thousands of years.
The first short stories were written in Egypt over 4,000 years ago, but storytelling existed well before it was transferred to the written word. The Greeks and Romans have proven that unwritten stories can last for centuries, as they honored their ancient stories of Gods and reflected on the tales that encompassed their past.
Religion always played a key role in storytelling, as the earliest cultures spread and cultivated their religion through stories. Storytelling in conjunction with archeology also helped us discover and preserve the small facts we know about ancient civilization.
Besides being helpful for teaching, religion and relaying current events, storytelling was also always a means of entertainment. For generations, families have gathered together and have shared stories about their family past, or simply about their day's activities. Children crave stories, after all, and if none are available they have no trouble making one up on the spot for their own amusement.
Today, the stories and legends that can be hundreds of years old survive because of storytellers. Whether the stories are collected in a book, explained by a historical interpreter or simply relayed in conversation on a back porch, the art of storytelling lives on and it thrives on the North Carolina Coast.
Styles of Storytelling
One of the unique aspects of North Carolina's storytelling culture is that it is not limited to just one style of storytelling. In fact, a number of different methods and means of celebrating the storytelling traditions exist from one county to another. Though there are folks who have the gift of gab, each one has their own unique take on sharing their tall tales.
Capt. Jim Willis of Salter Path has been telling Down East stories for years. He fancies himself a "Banksologist" because he specialized in Bouge Banks and Outer Banks stories, and notes that true stories of North Carolina's barrier islands don't have names for the "Banks."
When telling his stories, which often have something to do with alcohol (a trait of a Carteret County story), he uses a Banks brogue. One of the most popular is his "Unquenchable Thirst" story which is about, naturally, a man who couldn't get enough whiskey.
Rodney Kemp doesn't live too far away, but he has a Southern Style of storytelling, which he says is similar to the late comedian Jerry Clower and the late newspaper columnist Lewis Grizzard. Kemp also calls Carteret County home, and has been passing along stories from the back of his fish house for years. He's part of a group of about eight men who started telling tall tales in 1991 and were dubbed fish house liars by master storyteller Josiah Bailey.
One of his favorites is the story of the Cedar Island Fire Department. According to the story, a lightning bolt struck the state's only menhaden plant and the Beaufort Fisheries were desperate to put it out. They offered a $10,000 reward, but the fire was so hot and deadly, all the county and town fire departments could do was stand 100 feet away.
"Suddenly, they heard a great commotion and turned just in time to see full bore, coming down Front Street, none other than the Cedar Island Fire Department," says Kemp. "Now the Cedar Island Fire Department was driving a 1952 double pumper." According to Kemp, "with just two buckets of sand, two ladders and three buckets of water they put out the blaze."
Kemp and the other fish house liars might be most comfortable on a rocking chair at the back of a fish house, but they make regular appearances at different festivals, like the annual storytelling festival in Morehead City, Cave Run Storytelling Festival, which attracts storytellers from around the world.
Kemp and his colleagues certainly aren't the only designated group of North Carolina storytellers. In Powellsville near Ahoskie, a small community, the 20 retired members of the Scrub Club share tales every weekday at a closed gasoline station on N.C. Highway 42.
"Everybody tries to top somebody else," says Buck Carter, the club's treasurer. "You tell the biggest lie you can think of. Others are supposed to tell a lie bigger than yours so people will believe it."
Scrub Club members have to follow a few rules in order to keep the group together. "We don't allow anyone who works," says Carter. "It is a bad influence. We don't talk politics or religions. We don't want to have a falling out."
Although storytelling gives local folks an affordable way to pass the time, it also keeps them connected with their past, even if the facts and figures of an event can wind up distorted after many generations and many ears.