Nonfiction | September 01, 1998

In summer, 1952, I was having the normal nervous breakdown of a confused young actor who didn’t see commercial stardom in his future and didn’t know what the purpose of his life could possibly be besides summer stock. I went to Appalachia to spend the summer like Hans Castorp, on a magic mountain. The town was Boone, North Carolina, a popular place now, in the fashion of Woodstock, but then still the small town that had been even more remote a generation before. I had lived there between the ages of one and four, in a large, white house on a hill in the center of the town, with my father’s relations all gathered together to escape the ravages of the Depression. Now, twenty years later, I had come back.

As I said, I was having a nervous breakdown, but it didn’t last long. Shortly after I arrived, I was told by my favorite cousin, Margaret Coffey, who ran the house, to stop sitting on the porch brooding and do something. There was a college in Boone; why not take a course? I did, and my blundering about in folklore began, launching me directly into the life I have since led.

I saw in the catalogue a course marked Old English and Scottish Ballads. I registered and showed up. A small, quiet, impish man in middle age was the professor. His name was Cratis Williams, and he had come from the even more remote mountains of Kentucky when he was very young, gotten through high school, then worked his way through a college, then through graduate school at NYU by teaching courses like this one. In time he became one of the most respected scholars of Appalachia, conceivably in part because the administration building in which he had been storing notes for his magnum opus burned down, thus preserving his reputation from the tarnishing many such academic life works inevitably receive. He is known today as the father of Appalachian studies.

We began this course in a scholarly manner, with the Child Collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (a descendant of Percy’s Relics) and a description of how the serious study of folklore proceeds, such as Stith Thompson’s folk motifs in many volumes. But soon Cratis Williams was doing something else. He was illustrating what folklore was, not with academic analysis or showy erudition but with the Aeolian harp he could magically become. Because he knew, had heard sung in childhood, the ballads of England, Scotland, Scandinavia and elsewhere, in Kentucky and North Carolina, and he knew where they were still being sung, in what versions. He could tell us not only how old a Child ballad was in the United States, but where and in what version he had heard it, and how he himself dealt with it. And tell us quietly but with authority. He was an artist, disguised as a professor, but a happy one, who loved teaching and students.

Ballads, this little man told us, were stories before songs, starkly delivered, unvarnished by minstrelsy. This was news to me: I was at that time (and still am) a lover of Burl Ives and Richard Dyer Bennet. But Cratis Williams said that while their interpretations were all very well, the art of the minstrel clouded the deeper drama of a great ballad. Real ballad singers not only didn’t sing beautifully, but purposely never trained their voices. They sternly avoided anything that sounded like music, beauty, or, God save us, culture. A ballad was the stripped-down essence of life, sung over and over for thousands of years, in country after country, changing, but not much, as the different balladeers performed it. This was my first taste of the vast world of illiterate magnificence.

He sang to us what he considered to be the best of the ballads, “Edward,” to a tune that was simple but elusive:

How come that blood on your coat my son,
O my son tell me,
It is the blood of my good gray hound,
That led the chase for me, me, me,
That led the chase for me.

The blood of a hound was never so red,
O my son tell me,
It is the blood of my fine roan horse,
That led the race for me, me, me,
That led the race for me.

The blood of a horse was never so thick,
O my son tell me,
It is the blood of my own father dear,
Who shared his life with thee, thee, thee,
Who shared his life with thee.

What did you fall out about,
O my son tell me,
He cut down my little apple bush,
That would have made a tree, tree, tree,
That would have made a tree.

What will you do now,
O my son tell me,
I’ll set my foot in a bottomless boat,
And roam far over the sea, sea, sea,
And roam far over the sea.

What will you leave to your wife and child,
O my son tell me,
Sorrow and strife all of their life,
Is what they get from me, me, me,
Is what they get from me.

What will you leave to your mother so dear,
O my son tell me,
A fire of coals to burn out your tongue,
And the curses of hell from me, me, me,
And the curses of hell from me.

When will you ever come back here again,
O my son tell me,
When the sun and moon set in the sycamore tree,
And that will never be, be, be,
And that will never be.

When he finished, we sat back in our chairs, awed. “Wait a minute,” we said. “What was that?”

He told us that even balladeers shrank from this original version, making the victim a sweetheart or a sibling, not a father. But “Edward” was, in fact, an Oedipus ballad.

All right, we said, he didn’t kill an animal, it was his father, but what was that stuff about the bottomless boat and the sycamore tree, and why, for God’s sake, was he mad at his mother?

Cratis Williams said, This is what you might call ancient finesse. You can’t see the sun and the moon at once in a sycamore tree. A bottomless boat will sink. The man’s life is over, and he knows he will commit suicide. And he also knows the mother egged him on to kill the father. “Wormed him and wormed him until he done it,” in Appalachian. But that is never directly said. It is inside a dramatic performance and left to you to perceive, according to your experience of the basics of family dynamics—or “dysfunction,” as we euphemistically call it today. Love and death, the essential substance of life, stark and simple, in eight stanzas, off key. An oppressive father, a manipulative mother and a patricidal, suicidal son. Moreover, it begins at the last possible structural moment, doing what it does with not one excess word and ending with nothing possible left to relate.

I said to myself, “Jesus Christ Almighty God,” not as an oath but as the only reaction that seemed to me strong enough. It turned out to be prophetic.

I skip now to the summer of 1964, and another looming nervous breakdown, this time the back porch at Yaddo, the art colony at Saratoga Springs. I had published a first novel, set in Appalachia but not about folklore. A literary life begun, I proceeded to make the life mistakes that sometimes follow realized goals, in this case marriage and divorce and a wonderful baby I was separated from. (In time that worked out, and the baby became a remarkable woman I respect as well as love. Her name is Laura Linney; she’s a successful actress; you can go to the movies and see her in The Truman Show. But that’s folklore of a different kind.)

“Edward” was not the only kind of ballad Cratis Williams had taught us. Many were comic. “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife,” in its mountain version, where the devil seduces a woman who makes him and his little devils crazy, and so on. The fun was as down-to-earth as the tragedy in “Edward.” In folklore, even laughter concerned the cruelty of men, the treachery of women and the rage of children. I was very interested in how this could be, since the comic and the tragic, I’d been taught in college, were irreconcilable. You had one, then the other, not both at the same time. But folk ballads, I thought, were about real, not literary, life. As it comes.

There were still a lot of books on the back porch of Yaddo, from the personal collection of Spencer and Katrina Trask, its founders. I idly picked one up, called Italian Popular Tales, published in 1885 in Boston. It was a collection of southern Italian folklore, gathered by the American author Thomas Crane from the work of a Professor Pitri, who had grown up in Sardinia—as Cratis Williams had in Kentucky. Like many written transcriptions of raw folklore it was repetitious, tedious and fragile, losing in the translation to writing its verbal life. Ho hum, I was bored. Why was I doing this? But then, sudden as the sun coming out, I was enchanted by something both ancient and, to me, brand new. My Jesus-Christ-Almighty-God reaction years before had reflected a Southerner’s close, if sometimes difficult, relationship with the Bible. Here before me were folklore stories about Jesus and Saint Peter that had never, believe me, appeared in anything blessed by the fathers of the Church. They presented variations on the same idea, clearly recognizable in their raw state as comic inventions. The Lord performs a miracle. Saint Peter then tries, a faithful and loving but slightly envious chief apostle, to duplicate it and, of course, fouls it up. Aside from timeless bureaucratic truths and insight into the nature of ardent believers, the tales restored to the life of Jesus what I have always found crucially missing: a sense of humor. Life as I know it is intolerable without laughter, and here laughter definitely was, busting out of me, as I read slightly weird fragments about a sorcerer and his blundering apprentice.

Example: Jesus, Saint Peter and the apostles are going down the road one day when a man runs up, all out of breath, to Jesus, saying he’s in terrible shape because his beloved father is dying; what should he do? Jesus thinks a minute and says, Put him in your bread oven and cook him. Saint Peter gasps, but the man goes and does that and, sure enough, the dying father jumps out, fresh as a loaf of bread. The man runs back to Jesus, praising his holy name. Saint Peter thinks, Well now. Another man then comes running up, all out of breath. He has to see Jesus. Saint Peter says, Jesus is busy. You can talk to me. What’s the trouble? The mans mother is dying. What should he do? Into the oven and cook her. The man soon comes running back with a meat cleaver in his hand. Of course, his beloved mother was reduced to a burnt cinder, and he’s going to anatomize Saint Peter, who jumps behind the Lord, and Jesus, smiling, fixes everything.

Jesus Christ Almighty God and folklore, too. It was more than I had ever hoped for, and I filed it away, as writers do. Eight more years go by.

In 1972 the breakdown was left lobar pneumonia, Lennox Hill Hospital for a touch-and-go eighteen days. For several months thereafter I sat weakly on the number 5 Broadway bus and went to the New York Public Library. I had the staff bring up all the folklore journals in English, beginning with the earliest, which got started in the middle of the nineteenth century. I was looking for those buried stories about Jesus and Saint Peter.

Of course, I found many other marvels, unrelated to anything, so it seemed, but in that keeping-the-faith manner that writers can never quite explain to skeptics, I knew I would use everything somehow when all this came together one fine day. Never mind when. I knew I would use Prince Unexpected, King Sleep, Immortal Bony, and the Boy Who Could Not Shudder. I spent days pondering sayings like, “Kill the snake, but don’t break your stick,” “No nose, and a bad cold,” “When the horse falls in love with the grass, he dies of hunger,” and “Life to the lamb is death to the wolf.” I explored the story of The Counterfeit Dream, that of The Ghost Doomed to Do Impossible Things, When All He Wanted Was the Ordinary.

I followed the sixteen stations of the folk hero. He is an infant, born out of wedlock. Mother a princess, at home. Father a god, traveling. Tokens of future greatness, which lead to his banishment from his home. Suckled by wild beasts. Brought up by them, or by a childless shepherd. Grows up passionate and violent in disposition. Seeks service in foreign lands. Attacks and slays monsters. Attains supernatural knowledge by eating a magic fish. Returns home, leaves, returns again. Overcomes his enemies, frees his mother from slavery, and takes the throne of his dead father. Founds cities. Accused of incest. Kills his younger brother. Injures an inferior, who takes revenge upon him or his children. Dies young, in some extraordinary manner. A novel in every step.

Suddenly alert, I found myself closer to the Jesus stories, in the whole wacky world of New Testament Apocrypha, with its outlandish tales of far-off journeys of Jesus—justly cast out by the fathers of the Church—but also with the comic life and heart-rending death stories of Joseph, the earthly father and his impossible son.

Simon Peter appears, in a deadly contest with Simon Magus, the sinister magician and first Faust, Peter’s other self, who would become a disciple if Simon Peter just would let him in on the magic tricks Jesus used in raising the dead, walking on water, and changing loaves into fishes. Thrown out by the indignant Simon Peter, Simon Magus goes to Rome, becomes beloved by Nero, and finally, at high noon, faces the aged captive Saint Peter in a battle of magic ordered by Nero on the steps of the capitol in Rome to see which magician has the greater powers. Simon Magus creates instant palaces that engulf Saint Peter with luxuries never dreamed of, including a beautiful girl whose head falls off when Peter, in spite of himself, says hello. Saint Peter calls this magic, and all magic, he says, is trivial nonsense.

In folklore Saint Peter has a lame daughter. Her name is Petronella, and Saint Peter wonders why Jesus never cures her, when he could do so easily. On the steps of Rome, before Nero, Simon Magus wraps himself in a blue cloak and vanishes, then appears flying over the city. A better magician than Jesus, says Nero. Saint Peter, infuriated, loses his temper and by the magic he possesses calls for Simon Magus to fall. He does, smashing his body to pieces on the steps of Rome, seeming to be under the blue cloak, which is removed, disclosing the broken body of Saint Peter’s lame daughter, whom Jesus would never cure. Before Nero awards the prize to Simon Magus, he asks Saint Peter what was the real magic of Jesus, and Saint Peter says simply, how he walked and how he talked and how he stood up and sat, and how everybody loved him. Nero doesn’t understand this at all, and has Saint Peter crucified upside down.

By this time, your blundering folklorist was dizzy with the extent of it all. It was like a huge, centuries-wide folklore web, so wide that I couldn’t absorb it all. I did, however, keep a notebook, in which I wrote down the tales of Immortal Bony and The Boy Who Could Not Shudder, along with the whole enchanting Bible of Folk, as it is called by those who know it. It is the lore, mostly comic, of people who couldn’t read and who led hard lives. What priests told them about God had to make sense, like the stern lives they knew. Joseph was eighty-nine when he met Mary, who was fourteen, and that’s the way that happened, since virgins just don’t have babies, not when they have virile husbands, anyway. And in many stories, especially in southern Italy, Saint Peter and Jesus are bound together not as the fount and founder of Christianity, but as a mysterious god of a young man, given to laughter and jokes, with his loving, eternally uncomprehending, faithful servant.

Behind every truth that Saint Peter arrives at about his Lord—sent down the centuries to us—there is some terrific misunderstanding.

Eight more years go by, during which I slowly put together a sort of novel, using the folklore. It was very hard to do, because if you expound on folklore it tends to get bloated with bogus profundity, and yet if you try to keep it very simple, it is so fragile it falls apart and lacks human reality. So I labored, and with good advice from Jack Shoemaker at North Point Press and my friend Reynolds Price, who understood what I was trying to do, the novel Jesus Tales came out in 1980. It was well received, with Jesus not being diminished and the book sticking to the elements of basic folklore Cratis Williams had taught me in 1952. I like my three novels and respect the writing of them, but I am really a playwright, and I have since dramatized each of those books. In doing so to Jesus Tales, I sent Jesus and Saint Peter on a walk around the world, passing through Appalachia and Cratis Williams country. What the Lord was looking for, who and what he and Saint Peter found in the Smoky Mountains, makes up a short play, Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain.

Not long ago a friend in North Carolina told me that Cratis Williams had once written something about my first book. She sent it to me, a long-ago review in a small journal. I treasure it above all others.

Mr. Williams died before I was able to tell him how much I owe him. Because it wasn’t just folklore this gentle and wise man gave me. It was a foundation for my own sensibility that I had not yet discovered. It took me a long time to know what he was really showing me. But later, when working from very different places, whether the Bible of Folk, or plays about Lord Byron, Frederick the Great or Hermann Goering, around whom awesome, sometimes terrible folklore abounds, or in utterly different Appalachian works, in plays taken from my family life, love life, life in the army, life in New York, and so on, I have—since that man’s singing of that ballad—always known what my bearings were. I have not always been able to find them, but thanks to this good teacher, I have always known they were there.

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