Kentucky Folktales

Kentucky Folktales: Revealing Stories, Truths, and Outright Lies by Mary Hamilton. University Press of Kentucky, 2012 ISBN-10: 0813136008; ISBN-13: 978-0813136004


The story is told that Bikram subjectively sequestered 26 yoga poses into a sequence which he copyrighted, thereby removing them from the public domain. He resisted strong disapproval from the yoga community which, perforce, resorted to legal measures to restore these ancient poses to the public domain.

Storytelling motifs have an ancient heritage and exist in the public domain. Could they be under siege? Mary Hamilton’s book, Kentucky Folktales: Revealing Stories, Truths, and Outright Lies, describes not only how she crafts her storytelling but also offers a cautionary tale of how folktales can be taken from the public domain.

The art of a storyteller is to adopt, adapt and arrange motifs afresh. Hamilton follows each of the 25 stories with a discursive commentary about collecting and creating that tale. Her commentaries include the need for written permission, detailed research, accurate portrayal, imaginative reconstruction, melding versions and memorisation approaches as well as regaling the reader with personal details reflecting the six degrees of separation.
Entitled ‘Haunts, Frights and Creepy Tales’, the first chapter includes the ‘Stormwalker’, ‘The Gingerbread Boy’ and the ‘Open Grave’. She states that the inclusion in a book of Kentucky folktales of a story set in Indiana which she changed to Kentucky results from her need to have a story so designated. Thus, subjective pragmatism influences her story creation.

The ‘Tall Tales and Outright Lies’ chapter includes ‘Daniel Boone’ and ‘Hunting Alone’.
Surprisingly, in the ‘More Kentucky Folktales’ chapter, Hamilton includes personal variations of traditional tales such as ‘The Farmer’s Smart Daughter’ and ‘The Princess Who Could Not Cry’. In ‘Beyond Kentucky Folktales’, she includes ‘Kate Crackernuts’, ‘The King and his Advisors’ and ‘Rabbit and the Alligators’. She justifies the inclusion of these traditional tales by stating that because they were collected in Kentucky, they are Kentucky folktales, regardless of any innate relationship to Kentucky and their existence elsewhere.

The concluding chapter is ‘Family Tales and Personal Narratives’. By the use of the term family folklore for the recent tales of her family, Hamilton includes these personal stories. Several, however, are not tales but anecdotes recounting the facts of a specific situation with a conspicuous lack of the folktale elements of problem solving and transformation.
Hamilton states her guiding principles are the story, the teller and the audience. These principles, however, favour her subjective interpretation which she uses to be the supreme arbiter. Thus, she designates folktales as Kentucky by virtue of being collected in that state. By using place, she removes folk from defining folktales. She acknowledges that family tales are limited because they are available only to family members and told in response to specific family situations whereas folk tales and their motifs exist in the public domain and are available to all. Again, her subjectivity overrides the accepted understanding that folktales are necessarily defined by the public and by the passing of generations.

As a result, such subjectivity places the story in the private realm of the storyteller and removes it from the public domain. Understanding the public domain was Duncan Williamson, the Scottish storyteller. The story is told that, at Jonesboro Storytelling, he demanded the removal of all signs prohibiting recording stating emphatically that behind every storyteller is another storyteller and so on through ages past.

Through ages past. Through its motifs and tales shared. A recent NSN review stated that Hamilton is complicating the geo-cultural assumptions of folktales. Rather than complicate, I favour folktales and their motifs continuing in the public domain for that is the art and the fraternity of storytelling.

Mary Gavan, Vancouver BC
Review originally appeared in Le Raconteur Vol 17:02 p. 19 Winter 2013

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