by Tom McGowan
The death of Ted Hicks last Friday deprives our community and the community of scholars and storytelling artists of an extraordinary bearer of family and local traditions. Born in 1954 in Avery County, the son of Ray and Rosa Hicks, Ted stayed at home in their iconic weathered house on the lower slopes of Beech Mountain, tended his family’s herb gathering and gardening, listened to the continuation of the Jack Tales tradition, and helped his parents until his own illness removed him to a nursing facility in Banner Elk.
In his book The Keepers, Robert Isbell devotes a chapter to Ted, whom he calls the “Herb Gatherer.” Isbell describes the role of Ted and his brother Leonard in continuing the wild crafting of their father in the woods around their home. Isbell notes that as age and illness “began to curtail father Ray’s trips into the forests, Leonard and Ted took up the slack.”
The early years of this family folk occupation are beautifully represented in scenes in the Tom Burton-Jack Schrader short documentary A Film about Ray Hicks, which is now available in a DVD with other clips of Beech Mountain people through the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University. The filmed work scenes occur under a series of alternating light conditions that the exposure range of 16 mm film contrasts starkly, provoking symbolic interpretation. Moss gathering occurs in bright patches of landscape, but also in darker forest. Ray works, and sons Leonard and Ted assist, even though the father’s voice-over commentary reminds the viewer that the best moss is gone.
Returning to the homeplace with bundles of moss carried on their shoulders, father and sons form a strikingly expressive group. The camera positioned at a low angle looks up to a ridgeline, and they and their burdens appear in dark dramatic silhouette against a blue sky. In their single file, the sons follow in their father’s footsteps.
Ted followed in his notable father’s footsteps in gardening, herb gathering, and the tasks of consciously self-sufficient living around their home, which has been celebrated in the paintings of Robert Timberlake and a series of films on his family, most notably Ray and Rosa Hicks: The Last of the Old-Time Storytellers, shown often on UNC-TV.
In the films he is often a figure in the background or helpful supporter of his parents, but the death of his father and his own decline in health forced him to leave off much of his outdoor work and move into more storytelling. Ted had heard family stories in the particularly rich context of his home with his dad and cousin, Orville Hicks, and his love of the boy Jack had led him to reading in Richard Chase’s The Jack Tales.
He began telling stories to the drivers of the AppalCart van taking him to dialysis treatments in town, to visiting students from the Appalachian Studies program at ASU, and at the Ray Hicks Festival on Glenn and Lula Bolick’s farm in Blowing Rock and once even in the large main tent of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. In her excellent MA thesis at Appalachian State University, Lisa Baldwin rightly noted that Ted told Jack and Grandfather Tales and personal narratives “with the special detail, conviction, and sincerity” of his father Ray Hicks, with a special remembered love of his father, and with a generous grace despite his increasing debilitating illnesses in his last years.
Ted Hicks was a gifted bearer of his family’s work and story traditions even in tough times. His friends and scholars will miss his special knowledge of herbs and old ways, his notable story repertory, and his kind and gentle spirit and ways.
Memorial contribution information for Ted Hicks, March 2, 1954 – January 17, 2014
Ray Hicks and Other Beech Mountain Folks trailer on YouTube
Tom McGowan is a folklorist who was the longtime editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal. He is a retired professor of English at Appalachian State University, where he taught for 39 years.