Storytelling is a tradition in Appalachia. Down through the decades, many Appalachian children and adults have spent nights on the front porch, gathered around an elder, listening to stories that have seldom found a place in written forklore. Most of the stories have been in oral format only. This is true for the Jack tales though historians and some storytellers are making an effort to capture them in writing. Jack tales are seldom told in the same way twice which makes writing them down difficult. Different storytellers tell them in different ways. Even the same storyteller may change the telling of a Jack tale from telling to telling.
We’ve all heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and the Giant Killer, Jack and Jill, Jack Sprat, Jack Horner. There are many other Jack tales. All are examples of the Jack tales that originally came to America from the British Isles. The first Jack tales can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century in Great Britain. By the next two centuries, the first tellings of the Jack and the Giant Killer story can be found. That’s when the rhyme, “Fi-Fy-Fo-Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” can be found in English literature for the first time, including in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Jack, who was supposedly located in Cornwall, England, trapped the Giant in a pit in order to kill him. Other giants were also present in the tale. By the eighteenth century, the Jack tales were found in the nursery as they had been turned into nursery rhymes.
As the British immigrated to America, along with the Scots and the Irish, each culture brought their own rendition of the Jack tales. The versions of the Jack tales were likely combined to become the Jacks that we know and love today. A book by Richard Chase, published in 1943, is a collection of at least some of the Jack tales. Chase alleged that many of the Jack tales were collected by a group of families in North Carolina and came into Southern Appalachia from that area. Chase did acknowledge that new Jack tales were surfacing in other parts of Appalachia, specifically in Virginia and Kentucky. In Harlan County, KY, Mrs. Sally Middleton of Martin’s Fork, knew versions of two of the Jack tales of North Carolina that she carried on. In all of the Jack tales, Jack is thrown into difficult situations. In the Appalachian versions, the themes reflect the problems of the area such as poverty and farming and the harsh conditions of life.
Jack is probably the first legendary hero in American literature. Counce Harmon was one member of the families in North Carolina that passed the Jack tales down for most of 200 years before they were ever written down. Here is a telling of a Jack tale for your enjoyment by a descendent of Counce Harmon, one of the original tellers of the Jack tales in America:
Chase, Richard. (2015) The Jack Tales. HMH Books for Young Readers.