Vol. IX, No. 4, 1996


Some Ozark Folktales and Some Comments on their Meaning

By Donald R. Holliday



Unlike the written literatures of Shakespeare and Milton, Dante and Tolstoy, even of Lewis Carroll, folktales are directly accessible to every woman, child, and man in a region to which they are indigenous. This is largely due to another difference between the folktale and great written literature, and most that's not so great; because the folktale is fluid in form and content, it changes to meet new needs the moment they arise. Great literature is frozen in form the moment it is written--frozen in the time in which it is written. Folktales, on the other hand, change rapidly as they are told and retold in infinitely varying form as storytellers adapt them constantly and quickly to new conditions in new and different lands--or times. Different landforms, different trees and plants, different springs and rivers and creeks, different wild and domestic animals, and--what is more important here--different social, political, and economic conditions are the natural settings to which oral literature must adapt in new regions. The result is regional oral literature in which Americans define their own characters in their own regional physical and social milieus. Ozarks folktales provide a treasury of insights into our own regional values. They leave little doubt about the Ozarker's ideas of what family structure was right and necessary in the pre-modern, rural Ozarks. They leave little doubt about the demands of masculine performance; and they leave little doubt about moral standards, especially those pertaining to sex.

Six stories, chosen because they have particularly long histories and because they are well known and documented, serve to illustrate these points. Because they have been known for centuries, they dramatically point up the fluidity of the oral tale as it adapts to new territory. As these tales have been adapted, they have been made to reflect the character of those who relate them, in this case Ozarkers. The first, a story much older than Shakespeare, is a variant of the taming-of-the-shrew story. The second is a variant of the Anglo-Saxon verse epic, Beowulf The third through sixth are Ozarks stories which have been handed down from the same treasury of story adapted by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales--the miller's tale, the nun's priest's tale, the pardoner's tale, and the reeve's tale.

He Counted Up to Three

One time there was a fellow named Creekmore that was part Indian, and he never had much to say. The folks was all surprised when him and Rose Ballard got married. Rose was a good girl, but kind of high headed, and used to having her own way. Everybody said she was the prettiest girl in the whole country, and could have got any man she wanted. Lots of them boys that come to see her was better looking than Creekmore, and had more money. The Ballard family didn't like it much, but Rose went ahead and married Creekmore anyhow.

There was a little pet dog that Rose took along with her, and the first day after they was married the little dog bit Creekmore. "That's one," says Creekmore. Rose acted like she thought her man was to blame because the dog bit him, but he didn't say another word.

About a week after that the little dog bit Creekmore again, and this time he slapped the dog clear across the room. "That's two," says he. Rose raised quite a holler when he slapped her little dog, but she couldn't get another word out of Creekmore.

Everything run along smooth for pretty near a month, and they was eating dinner one day when the little dog bit Creekmore again. "That's three," says Creekmore, and he flipped out his six-shooter. The gun roared like a cannon, and the whole kitchen was full of powder smoke. It all happened so quick Rose couldn't hardly believe her own eyes, but there laid the little dog dead, with the whole top of its head blowed off.

When Rose seen the dog was dead she flew off thlong time, and she was looking mighty thoughtful. When Creekmore come in that night the kitchen was all cleaned up, and she cooked him a good supper, Nobody said a word about the little pet dog. Pretty soon they blowed out the light and went to bed. And that's all there was to it.

The folks figured that them two would never make a go of it, but the fact is they got along pretty good. Rose settled down to canning fruit and having babies, and Creekmore raised more cattle than anybody else in the neighborhood. There was only one pair of britches in the family, and it was Creekmore that wore 'cm. Him and her didn't always see eye to eye, maybe. But they never had no quarrels and squabbling, like lots of married people do nowadays.

[6]

The taming-of-the-shrew in the Ozarks is about a married couple, a husband properly adapted in character to the land he lives in who marries a girl who has not properly adapted to the hard realities of Ozarks farming. Through the events of the story, she adapts. First of all, the story clearly delineates a social difference between bride and groom, one which was creating a particular problem for the married couple, a problem which must be overcome if the couple is to be successful as a farm family in the hard agricultural environment of the Ozarks. Rose, being a Ballard, is presumed better than the Indian Creekmore. Not only do her family and the community think so, but so does Rose, a fact clearly shown by Rose's pride and her apparent belief that anyone as common as Creekmore should not object to her little dog's biting him. The dog itself is the best evidence in the story of Rose's being spoiled and pampered. Commonly referred to, without reference to breed, as a "poodle dog," the dog is worse than useless to Ozarks farmers because it is neither a working stock dog nor a working hunting dog.

Creekmore's solution to the dog or bride problem is not a summary solution. He gives Rose two flee chances to curb the dog and her pride. She doesn't. He does. In effect, the storyteller points up Rose's wrong perception of relationships. Once that wrong perception is clarified, then the story can go on with the establishment of right relationships. Thus, once the dog has served to establish the error in Rose's pride, Rose and Creekmore can move on to the relationship necessary in family structure in the pre-modern, rural Ozark settings. (I must emphasize that this is a story from the Ozark past and that the inherent masculine chauvinism does not fit into contemporary Ozark settings, neither rural nor town, as it may have once in the "survivalist" environs of Ozarks agriculture). Rose and Creekmore solved their social and family problems, a necessity if they were to become a successful farm family or even to survive in the hard Ozark environment. As the story teller says, "And that's all there was to it."

Tobe Kills A B'ar

One time there was a fellow named Tobe that lived upon the Cowskin, and he was the stoutest man ever come to this country. He was near seven foot tall, and weighed three hundred pounds. Tobe was a good worker and a terrible fighter, but not very smart. He would do whatever you told him. so long as he didn't get mad, and then he was liable to do most anything. One Sunday he throwed a fiddler pretty near half way across the river. The fiddler would have drowned sure, only some of the boys swum out and got him.

The country was lull of bears in them days, and a great bear got to nosing around the Widow Tarkey's smokehouse. It would bust in the door, and gobble up everything in sight. The widow lived all by herself, and she was scared pretty bad, so she asked Tobe to come over and kill the varmint. He come over all right, but he didn't bring no gun. "The bear ain't got no gun, has he?" says Tobe. "That makes us even, and 1 aim to fight him fair."

Tobe was one of them tellers that goes to sleep whenever he sets down, and that's what happened on the widow's porch. But when the bear busted the smokehouse door it woke him up, and he run out there. Him and the bear fought something terrible, and the Widow Tarkey figured Tobe would get killed sure. But after while he come back up the path. "Did you kill the critter'?" says the Widow. "I reckon not, ma'am," says Tobe, "but he won't bother your smokehouse no more," and with that he throwed about fifty pounds of bear-meat down on the porch. Tobe had tore one of that bear's legs right off, just pulled it out by the roots!

Next day the boys follered the trail down the river bank, and they found the bear in a cave, but he was dead. One of his front legs was gone, all right, tore off right at the shoulder. The varmint had spilled a barrel of blood, and that's what killed him.

Mostly the folks figured it was a lie, because everybody knows there ain't no man stout enough to pull a bear's leg off like it was a June bug. They seen the leg all right, nailed up over the smokehouse door, with claws a-stick-ing out four inches long.

"That don't prove nothing," says Wes Galbraith, "they got elk horns nailed on the tavern at Pea Ridge, but nobody claims they tore 'em off a live elk bare-handed." There was considerable talk about it. Tobe says this is a free country, and folks can believe whatever they want. But if anybody calls him a liar he will pull their arms and legs off one at a time, right in front of the courthouse. Wes Galbraith and them Rutledge boys didn't have no more to say after that.

Nobody ever did find out just what happened, and Tobe's been dead for fifty years. But there's old settlers around here yet that believe Tobe did pull the bear's leg off, just like he told the Widow Tarkey.

[7]

As the taming-of-the-shrew in the Ozarks deals with average or normal Ozarkers, "Tobe Kills a B'ar" is about an Ozarks hero, a character type almost completely alien to Ozarks thought. This story in its adaptation has condensed from "epic" (short-book) length to about six hundred words, yet it retains the essential actions of the Anglo-Saxon story from which it is derived (bold passages indicate key details common both to Beowulf and to this Ozark story).

Although an obvious variant of a story first written down in the fifth or sixth century, after some centuries of oral circulation, this story was told for the truth: "Tobe's been dead for fifty years...old settlers around here yet believe Tobe did pull the bear's leg off...." Although Tobe may not have fought the bear exactly as the story describes, the story certainly presents very real prescriptions of identity in the Ozarks.

Beowulf was a story of an Anglo-Saxon hero, one who was adored by his tribesmen for his great exploits, and one who was permitted, even expected, in his time to boast long and loud, even to literarily embroider his adventures. Tobe, too, is a hero of his people. He looks and acts extraordinary. People stand in awe of him---of his size, his strength, his anger, his fighting ability, all components of the heroic warrior. He performs the cultural equivalent of Beowulf's fighting the dragon Grendal barehanded, and the results are the same --the beastly opponent's front leg pulled out by the roots, the leg with its long claws sticking out nailed up over a door, the bear tracked to a watery cave to be found dead from loss of blood. However, while Beowulf was not only permitted but expected to boast and to be imaginative enough to embroider his feats, Tobe is American and Ozarkian. American male standards do not permit boasting. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The popular American masculine hero must be strong and silent, even so modest that he deny anything extraordinary about his feats--witness the characters played by John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Stewart. Not only must the American hero be silent, he must be incapable of literary embroidery, almost incapable of speech itself. Wayne and Bogart in many roles stood completely silent until provoked to violence, and Jimmy Stewart could only stutter incoherently. In short, the popular American hero must appear to be common, just like everyone else, eveus it is that heroics must run to catch and overtake Tobe, the Ozark hero. He must, likewise, not only avoid boasting, but he must turn to understatement to hide his having done anything extraordinary at all---"Did you kill the critter?" asks the widow. "I reckon not, ma'am," says Tobe, "but he won't bother your smokehouse no more."

Neither we nor Tobe, nor Wes Galbraith and them Rutledge boys, can "have [any] more to say after that."

Tote Out The Big Trunk

One time there was a woman had a fellow in bed with her, pretty soon another man come along that she liked better. So she made the first fellow hide in a big trunk, and snapped the lock shut. Then her and the steady man got into the bed, and they was having a fine time.

The woman's house was right next to a blacksmith shop, and the blacksmith was crazy about her, too. So the blacksmith would come over every little while and knock on the window, but it was so dark he couldn't see nothing, and she wouldn't let him in. Finally the blacksmith says, "Just give me a kiss!" The woman made a sign for the man in the bed to keep still, and then she stuck her hind end out of the window. Soon as the blacksmith got that kiss, he knowed it wasn't her face. But he didn't say nothing, and the woman and her man pretty near died laughing.

After while the blacksmith come back, and he says "For God's sake, give me another kiss!" So then the man in the bed got up, and he whispered, "I'll make him kiss my ass this time," and he stuck his hind end out of the window. The blacksmith had a hot iron ready, to get even with the woman for what she done before. He just up with the hot iron and burned whoever's hind end come out of the window.

The man that got burned give a loud yell, and hollered, "Fire! Fire!" The blacksmith run back to his shop by this time, but the fellow that was in the trunk couldn't push me lid up, and he thought the house was a-bum-ing. So he begun to holler, "Tote out the big trunk! Tote out the big trunk!" And pretty soon he says, "Five dollars for anybody that will tote out the big trunk!"

Them two fellows made noise enough to rouse the whole neighborhood. The woman couldn't keep 'em quiet no way. People come a-running to see about it, and there was hell to pay generally. The story don't say what happened after that, but it sure wasn't what you might call a happy ending.

[8]

As the shrew story and "Tobe" fix proper marital and heroic roles, an Ozark variant of Chaucer's four-teenth-century "The Miller's Tale" approaches character and social performance from another perspective. Rather than demonstrating sly character traits of an Ozark hero or the reformation of a shrew to proper housewifery, "Tote Out The Big Trunk" is a comic parable of sexual misconduct. In short, it's a story of fools.

The Ozark version of the Miller's tale begins with "a woman"--not a specific woman, member of neither haughty nor trashy class, but any woman who has what appears to be a very large appetite for raw sex. The story proceeds in a series of scenes so rapid and ridiculous the listener can only half consciously tally them as they unfold. The first several are:

1--Woman and Man A are having a fine time when along comes Man B whom the woman likes better, so she hides Man A. This is not an image of a saintly woman.

2--Man A climbs into a big trunk. Why.'? Why didn't he go out a window, or even the back door? The most direct answer is a comment on his intelligence--not high.

3--Man B climbs into bed with the woman, and they commence a fine time. Apparently he's unaware that the woman has just been with another man, nor that Man A is a few feet away in a trunk. Another comment on intelligence--or sensual discrimination. Neither is high.

4 Along comes the blacksmith, so addled with love--or whatever it was--he trusts her. The blacksmith suffers from a particular kind of blind ignorance; he will not see.

5--The woman demonstrates her trustworthiness for men, especially ones as naive as the blacksmith--be-yond what she has already done by hiding Man A in the trunk. She offers her rear end for a kiss.

6--The blacksmith gets his kiss, and sees--his sight aided no doubt by other senses.

The story unwinds as it has been wound. Level after level of utter fool is revealed, not only to each other but to the whole town. The storyteller anticlimactically moralizes:

Them two fellows made noise enough to rouse the whole neighborhood. The woman couldn't keep 'em quiet no way. People came a-running to see about it, and there was hell to pay generally. The story don't say what happened after that, but it sure wasn't what you might call a happy ending.

Neither hero nor reformed shrew justify this story. Four fools are revealed to "the whole neighborhood," who "came a-running to see about it." About to be revealed as promiscuous, the woman "couldn't keep 'em quiet no way." The blacksmith presses his lips to what we must presume are unsavory nether lips. The second lover attempts to fool the blacksmith with a trick not even the blacksmith will fall for twice, gets his behind burned for his pains, and sets off a commotion that brings down the whole neighborhood. The man in the trunk--fool for agreeing to get into the trunk--becomes greater fool in his continuation of the havoc begun by the second lover. No hero and no reformation of errant character grace this farce. It does, however, by presenting a cast of utter fools teach social morality, if not abstinence at least discretion, both common standards.

It Served the Bastards Right

One time there was two smart bastards lived right here in town. and it is better not to call their names on account of the kinfolks But everybody knowed them all right, and one of 'em was a horse doctor. Well. these two fellows figured out a way to rob the bank, so that nobody couldn't prove nothing. The way they worked it don't sound reasonable, but they got more than five thousand dollars in gold. Not only that. but all the time the posse was riding up and down the road a-hunting robbers, them two bastards just set around the livery barn same as always.

They had the gold hid in a safe place, and made up their mind to leave it lay for six months anyhow, so as not to take no chances. But pretty soon the horse doctor got to figuring, and it come in his head to kill the other fellow, so he would get all the money instead of only twenty-five hundred dollars. Great minds always run in the same channels, and the other bastard was thinking how nice it would be if something happened to the horse doctor.

Well. the horse doctor got a pint of whiskey and doped it with poison. And his pardner didn't have but one sock on. because the left sock was full of sand in his pants pocket. The horse doctor says let's you and me go fishing, and the other bastard says all right. Soon as they come to a place where nobody couldn't see them. he took the sock full of sand and knocked the horse doctor senseless, but it didn't leave no mark. Then he held the horse doctor under water a long time. He knowed that when Doc Summers examined the corpse he'd find the lungs full of water, and everybody would think the horse doctor got drownded accidental.

Soon as the horse doctor was dead. the other bastard went through his pockets. He left the wallet and the watch and the jackknife just tike they was. But it don't look natural for a horse doctor to have a full bottle of whiskey, especially on a fishing trip. So the other fellow says to himself"I had better drink about half of this stuff, because I need a bracer anyhow, and then put the bottle back." He took a big swig, all right, but he didn't put the bottle back m the horse doctor's pocket. He never even got the cork back in the bottle. The whiskey was laced with prussic acid. what they call potassium cyanide nowadays. Two fingers of that stuff will kill a man quick as a bullet through his heart.

[9]

When some boys come down the river a couple of days after that, they found both of them fellows dead. They seen the horse doctor under water, and the other bastard was laying. The bank never did get none of their money back, but there was a girl around town that used to show up with a twenty-dollar gold piece every so often. Lots of people knowed she used to run around with one of them smart bastards, and some folks figured he must have told her where the stuff was hid. They couldn't prove nothing, of course, and nobody ever done anything about it.

"It Served The Bastards Right" also presents a cast of fools, but in this case a pair whose foolishness is violation of one of the most basic of Ozarks values--honest work. To start with, the idlers are "smart bastards,'' a term which has nothing to do with their parentage, but labels them as double-dealing, perverse, antisocial types. One is even a horse doctor--one who applies severe, but temporary, remedies to a horse to cover up its infirmities in order to improve its sale value. The other is his "pardner."

The two are "always" sitting around the livery stable. Such idleness, in traditional Ozarks values, leads to only one end, utter ruin. It does so in two steps: since idleness itself is evil, merely by permitting oneself to become idle, one is already perilously close to the second step, deliberate commitment to evils such as robbery and murder. These "two bastards" sit around the livery stable and then move imperceptibly to bank robbery and, because "great minds always move in the same channels,'' to murder of each other. Such is the relationship of idleness and evil in the Ozarkers' mind.

One might add that such, also, is the relationship of idleness, evil, and justice in the Ozarker's mind. The "smart bastards" get what bastards deserve. Sometimes, it seems to the Ozarker, fate arranges things between humans and the river, or the prairie, or the sky, or the night--especially in cases like Asa Baker's.

Asa Baker's Dream

One time there was a fellow named Asa Baker, and he had a terrible nightmare. The other people couldn't get no sleep because Asa hollered so loud, so they give him some whiskey with medicine in it. Next morning Asa says his brother George showed up in the dream, and he was all covered with blood. "Listen, Asa," says George, "I am dead now because a man named Grover has bushwhacked me with a shotgun. It's a Wesley Richards ten-gauge. The ham-hers is a little different, because the left one got broke and the gunsmith put on a hammer he got somewhere else. And I want you to kill the son-of-a-bitch," he says.

The folks all told Asa that dreams don't mean nothing, and they always go by contraries anyhow, so it is better not to pay no attention. But he says my brother George lives in a tough neighborhood west of Fort Smith, and I have got to go see about it. Maybe a little trip will do me good, says he, because I am getting kind of nervous here lately.

When Asa got to Fort Smith he found out that George was dead, and they showed him the grave that still had flowers on it. George had been shot in the back with buckshot, on the same Saturday night that Asa seen him in the dream. Nobody could tell who done it, but the marshal says it must be them tough characters from Sallisaw that are always roaming around like a bug on a hot night. Asa didn't take no stock in this, because the marshal's name was Grover. Also it looked like Grover has been carrying on with George's wife behind his back, and maybe they wanted to get rid of George.

It was several days after that when Asa borrowed the marshal's shotgun, as they was going to shoot prairie chickens. It was a Wesley Richards ten-gauge, and the hammers was a little different, as the left one didn't quite match. There wasn't many Wesley Richards guns in the Territory, and everybody knowed who this one belonged to. So then Asa give him both barrels right in the belly, and left Marshal Grover a-laying dead on the prairie.

There was considerable talk about it at the time, with George Baker's widow a-hollering for the law to arrest Asa, but nobody ever done anything. Lots of people around Fort Smith didn't like Grover much, so there wasn't no telling which one killed him. The folks figured it must be some of them tough characters from Sallisaw that are always roaming around like a bug on a hot night.

[10]

As it was when Chaucer retold this very old story in "The Nun's Priest's Tale," "Asa Baker's Dream" is a story of justice. On the surface, it appears to be a simple story of vengeance--an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, and therefore read against any legalistic system of justice by statute, a story of murder for murder In the artistic detail of this "dream" story, however, lies a complexity which delineates the very underpinnings of law itself, bases older than written law, yet felt anew each time [aw and justice appear to be two different things.

The storyteller of Asa Baker's dream speaks, himself, as il' in a dream vision. The delivery is flat, unemotional, a court reporting of what one sees beyond the night, across spaces where time is no dimension, through the unshuttered irises of death watches. The storyteller's message--both in thirteenth-century England and in twentieth-century Ozarks--comes from the same realm as the delivery. Wherever the arm of human law and its enforcement does not reach, sure and inviolate justice will reach. To make and reinforce his point, the storyteller even creates a double-double entendre in the trope of the bug on a hot night. In its first use, it draws an analogy between the restlessness of certain humans and of bugs, both seeming at times to have no purpose or intent. When the story teller repeats the trope at the end, its meaning then washes back across the first use and suggests that, but for the arrangements of fate itself (or Herself or Himself, if you will), all human endeavor, forever, has no more meaning or volition than the bugs which for eons have swept over the earth.

Such is part of our oral literary heritage. Us, it does entertain. Us, it does edify. Sometimes it humbles us. Always, it is something we should know, and be proud of, because it is part of the world's great literatures.

Bio-Bibliographical note: All stories contained within this paper are found in two of Vance Randolph's now out-of-print collections of Ozark folktales, Who Blowed Up The Church House and Other Ozark Folktales (Columbia University Press, 1952) and Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Folktales (Columbia University Press, 1958). Vance Randolph lived and collected folk materials in large parts of the Ozarks during much of his life, for which he is regarded as America's premier collector. He was long connected to the University of Arkansas, where many of his papers are archived, and where his biography was penned by Dr. Robert Cochran.

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