Press Play to hear Octavia Sexton talk about Jack Story and how this traditional tale belongs to everyone on the Art of Storytelling with Brother Wolf Show.
Octavia Sexton writes…
I think most people probably know that a Jack Tale is a trickster story and Jack. They’ve been around for over 800 years – originating in the British Isles. The stories came to North America via European settlers. The stories told in the Appalachian Mountains began to change through the years to reflect the environment and cultural traditions that emerged among the mountain people.
I grew up in a storytelling tradition and stories were a part of life. I heard a variety of stories not only through kinfolk but also at school. I went to a one-room school and the only thing to do at recess was sing songs, tell stories and play games that did not require ‘stuff.’ We didn’t have any ‘stuff’ to play with because we were all just a bunch of poor country kids. I think I established myself very early as a storyteller. I remember being 5 years old and standing on a big rock in the yard of one of my uncles’ houses and telling tales to my cousins, aunts and uncles who gathered on the big front porch. We had all kinds of stories, but I never knew what a Jack Tale was until I went to college.
After eighth grade, Mommy asked me if I wanted to get married or go on to high school. I went on to high school! Five months after graduating high school, I was married, pregnant and working for minimum wage in a factory. We lived in a two-room house, got water from a spring and used an outhouse. Poverty is like a great black hole that keeps sucking you in deeper – almost impossible to get out. Hoping to break the grip of poverty for my family, I went to college full time. While in college the professors discovered I was a storyteller. I was asked if I knew any Jack Tales and I said no. Then I found out what they were and I realized I had heard Jack Tales all my life but the character wasn’t always called Jack. He could be named after anybody or just be called ‘a feller.’ Anyway, it was college that put me on the track to becoming a professional storyteller. I took a storytelling class in college and right off knew I couldn’t tell one like the professor said we should. I kept my mouth shut through that class and that is hard for me to do. Then on the last day, each student had to stand up and tell a story. I thought to myself, “Oh Lord, now everybody will know I can’t tell stories the right way.” I got up there and just told one like Grandpa because I couldn’t do it any different. When I finished everybody was real quiet and staring at me. Then the professor said I was the best storyteller he had ever heard. Talk about getting the ‘big head’ – you couldn’t shut my mouth after that. I started telling in other classes, at faculty meetings and just everywhere.
I think Jack Tales are great stories for anyone to tell and create because he is just like you and me wherever we are. You don’t have to be in Appalachia to tell a Jack Tale any more than we had to stay in England to tell them. You just have to put Jack where you are and he will soon be off on an adventure reflecting your environment and cultural values.
More on the Artist:
Octavia grew up in the Appalachian tradition of storytelling and her stories are rooted in the fascinating history of her family. Her English/Irish ancestors migrated to Kentucky from Europe – bringing their stories with them. Her maternal and paternal great grandmothers were Cherokee storytellers from North Carolina. Octavia’s stories reflect the melding of these culturally different oral traditions. She shares the legends, tales and superstitions from her distinctive oral heritage in a delightfully exuberant performance. Her natural dialect transports the listener into the mountains of eastern Kentucky where haints ‘ghosts’ chill your blood, Jack tickles your funny bone, and the hills and hollers are full of surprises.
With a degree in history and English education and years of teaching and writing experience, Octavia has the tools to present and teach an appreciation for Kentucky heritage as well as for individual stories. She has performed across the nation and presented educational art programs to thousands of learners. Her performance venues include hundreds of schools and festivals – as well as television and radio programs.