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In many parts of Appalachia, poverty is very pervasive in everyday society from family life to finding jobs. This inescapable theme of life in Appalachia has led to poverty and social justice being intertwined into various folk tales and aspects of folk life.
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In the past, folklore had typically been used to describe a culture that is not modern and stuck in the Old World. Some people believed that modernization tainted traditional folklore and actively eschewed it . As time grew on however, this mode of thinking changed to folklore representing the experiences of normal, everyday people in the New World and modernization was legitimized as having a rightful place in the study of folklor. It is able to give voice to underrepresented cultural groups to enact change seen in ballads created by miners who voiced their disdain against being replaced by machinery in the coal mines.
Jack Tales are one of the main folk tales that are told throughout Appalachia. These tails typically involve a young hero named Jack who must overcome many obstacles using his wits and occasionally trickery. Jack also had an uncanny streak of good luck that has been featured in various tales . The obstacles that he faces usually deal with the harsh realities that many people faced in Appalachia, such as poverty. Jack tales do not resemble the traditional American fairytale in the sense that honesty and hard work are not main features of Jack tales .
In the video “Searching for My Appalachia: A Modern Jack Tale”, speaker Kevin Cordi discusses the perception of people who were struck by poverty in his section of Appalachia, West Virginia. He talks about how his family could not afford the best clothing and how one kid named Nathan noticed Kevin Cordi’s holey jeans and called him a “dirty hillbilly” . Not knowing what that meant, he went to ask him mom and she told him that sometimes, it was easier to assume how someone was than to actually take the time to get to know them . He describes another situation when his younger sister asked their mother to pick them up from the back of the school because she did not want the other children to see the 1977 yellow Ford Station Wagon out of fear of being mistaken as a no good “red neck” . Kevin Cordi later discovered while talking to a supposed “red neck” where the term originated from. In West Virginia in the 1930’s, miners would wear red scarves to show their solidarity against the mine owners and how sharecroppers in the 1800’s would get a red neck from all of their hard wor. The man then proposed to Kevin Cordi “Since when did dirt get to be a bad name” These examples illustrate how the stereotype of Appalachian people being backwards, uneducated, or unclean stems from simple ignorance and a lack of willingness to actually get to know these people for who they truly are.
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The story “Jack goes Hunting” describes the lengths that Jack had to go through to have food to eat. In the story, Jack lived in a small house in the mountain with his parents and did not do much to help them. Jack’s family did not have much money and therefore had to hunt for animals if they wanted to eat . One day, Jack’s father became tired of Jack not helping out at all and decided to do something about it . In the morning when Jack and his father were outside looking at rabbit tracks, his father told him “At the end of that trail, is your breakfast,” meaning Jack would finally have to work get what he needed to survive, instead of it being handed to him by his family. Jack began to follow the rabbit tracks, gun in tow, when he noticed a bunch of wild turkeys above him . He shot at the branch which caused it to crack and the turkeys began beating one another with their wings in attempt to hold on. Jack was able to capture all of the turkeys with minimal effort. Next, he went down a hill where he saw a wild boar and a grizzly bear fighting.
The two animals began rolling down the hill and Jack put his hands out in preparation to defend himself when the bear rolled right into Jack and his hand when straight through the bear Then Jack grabbed a hold of the bear’s tail and pulled him inside out. Jack then hid behind a tree to defend himself from the wild boar, grabbed a rock, and hit the boar on the head which immediately killed it . As he moved along, he saw five wild geese and five wild ducks. Just as he was about to shoot at them, he noticed a snake on the ground . He decided to take a shot at the snake, when he misses and the bullet goes ricocheting from rock to rock, and his gun explodes, making Jack fall into the water . The barrel of the gun flies into the air, and kills all five of the wild geese while the stock of the rifle flew downstream and killed the five wild ducks. When he stands up, he noticed his overalls were full of fish. The weight of the fish caused a button to snap off of his overalls and hit the rabbit he had been following right in the head . The bullet finally stopped ricocheting when it hit the snake in the head . With the two bullets that Jack brought with him to go hunting, he got nine wild turkeys, a bear, a wild boar, five wild geese, five wild ducks, a snake, a rabbit, and overalls full of fish . Jack took all of his game back home and his father was pleased that Jack had finally contributed to the work of the household. This story illustrates the importance that was put on hard work in Appalachia especially when facing financial hardship.
Songs of Appalachia also feature the theme of poverty and hardship which can be seen in the song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” originally written by Darrel Scott . This song is of the blue-grass genre which has a strong identification with places in Appalachia. The songs discusses Harlan County in Kentucky where many were stuck with poverty. Many people worked and died in Harlan because they were not able to leave due to poverty and the limited economic opportunities that were available to them as Harlan was mainly a coal mining town .
Poverty was able to work its way into the many different folklore stories because it was what so many people had experienced. The relatability of these stories and songs is what made them so popular, as the people listening to these stories were often facing the same obstacles in their lives.
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