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Whispers from the Past: A Collection of Folklore by North Carolina Students. North Carolina Heritage Week 1990: “The Arts: From the Past into the Future.” North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Raleigh, 1990.
It’s funny that the quaintest and most dated part of this collection is the “future” part. One major conceit of the introduction is the idea that the students were collecting stories about the past and recording/submitting them on the media of the future – namely, floppy disks.
The mission statement reads:
As a part of the 1990 Heritage Week Celebration, all North Carolina schools were invited to participate in an innovative project known as “Tales and Technology.” Students were asked to talk with relatives and friends and to gather folk tales about traditions, family stories, names of places or tall tales that had been passed from one person to another.
One unique aspect of this project involved submission of the tales to the Department of Public Instruction through telecommunications or as text files on a computer diskette. This process gave students an opportunity to inform others about the PAST through the technology of the FUTURE. The invitation drew a response from 600 students, representing 77 schools and 43 school systems.
The project was a splendid example of integrated learning. Students gathered folktales (arts) on their past (history), wrote out the stories (communication skills), and relayed the information through technology (computer skills).
I try to remind myself that this was 1990, after all (our tech will look equally quaint three decades from now), and that I can hardly talk when I lived through that period and was already an adult in 1990. But reading this mission statement, my very first thought was Oh, that’s adorable! Which I’m pretty sure was not the intended effect. The “future tech” angle now feels like opening a time capsule. In a bad way.
There is, however, something timeless about kids from one generation interviewing their elders about the Way Things Were Way Back When. This isn’t the only such collection I’ve run across for this year’s folklore run and I hope to find more. There appear to be things that older people in a community are willing, even eager, to share with their cultural heirs that they would never tell an outside adult. At first, I wasn’t sure these collections would have much folkloric value, but I have definitely changed my mind.
The book is broken down into five sections: Horror Stories, Legends, Tall Tales, Place Names, and Personal Experiences (easily the longest at over half the book, with plenty of thematic overlap with the others). There’s a county index, but no table of contents for some reason. These stories were collected from all over North Carolina. There are even a few from my area. Some are familiar and well-known. Some are a little odd. Some you may not see anywhere else.
Some of these stories seem a tad advanced for the child writing them down, even allowing for the interviewing process. In one case from Morganton, it’s outright admitted that the child’s father, a Son of the Confederacy member, dictated it. That said, I’m here for the themes and the hints of new stuff.
And there is some new stuff. Yes, there are multiple versions of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Headless Railroad Conductor, and the Devil’s Tramping Ground, along with various lynchings and Civil War tales. But there are also several about otherwise-forgotten local colorful personalities, family ghosts (usually Grandma), an entire section on place names, and the odd creepy story.
For example, it’s an open secret in Edgecombe and Halifax counties that Seven Bridges Road (Edgecombe) and Thirteen Bridges Road (Halifax) are seriously haunted, including a roadside revenant or two, and a serial killer who may or may not have been caught a few years back. But details are generally lacking, aside from the often-repeated story of how you see seven bridges going one way and only six bridges coming back on Seven Bridges Road.
Fortunately, we get two from Halifax in this collection about Thirteen Bridges Road. One is about a homicidal roadside revenant of an accident victim and the other is a headless horse (which may derive from Scottish fairy folklore). The headless horse story harks back to very old versions of phantom revenants in which a ghost weighs down the traveler’s transportation until the traveler reaches a certain point in the road. In the old days, it was a horse or mule. In this version, it’s a car.
There’s even a witch story (one of only two from Nash County). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this tale related in another local folklore book about Nash County. She must have left quite an impression.
The other story is about the ghost of a woman haunting Rocky Mount Mills, spotted by the storyteller’s grandfather at 3:30am (the Witching Hour) in 1965. The storyteller appears to mean the old cotton gin on Tar River (what local people generally call Rocky Mount Mills) rather than the old tobacco factory (now the Imperial Centre) on Church St. Both buildings are said to be very haunted.
There are also several ghost lights (usually, but not always, related the Headless Conductor legend). But not all of the more dramatic stories involve the supernatural. One girl claims to have survived a near-miss with a waterspout while her family was at the beach. There is also a section about old-time folkways in which the kids interviewed an elder in their family. There’s even a cute story about a frog in a church that ended a revival meeting early and one about an elastic-eating cat (folks, don’t let your fur-kids do this at home). In another story reminiscent of an urban legend supposedly from pioneer days, a blind grandmother is saved from a homicidal burglar by her watchdog, but no one realizes it until her daughter visits the next day.
In addition to the perennial state favorite, the Civil War, some stories talk about the Great Depression, World War II and more local events such as a 1916 flood of Clear Creek in McDowell County. Some of these stories see the past through rose-colored glasses. Others, however, have a grimmer, more hardscrabble view, especially of the Depression. Life in North Carolina back in the day could be very hard if you were an orphan, poor, black, or all three.
Curiously, the book does not discuss race at all. Nor does it discuss Segregration, which had only officially ended 16 years before the book came out. There are occasional accounts (such as one by a child whose great-something grandmother used to tell stories about being sold as a slave) that indicate the child is African-American, but no actual discussion of what it was like to grow up African-American in North Carolina back in the day.
I suppose that this was perceived to be too controversial a topic for a folklore book by children, but it’s still major blind spot. African-Americans are still the second-largest racial demographic in North Carolina, with nearly twice the national average at 21.48%. In some counties, the African-American population is over 50%. I’m not sure who ultimately decided to whitewash the book’s subject matter, but I think that was a mistake.
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