Once upon a time there was a boy named Jack, whose tales traveled from Europe to the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and are still common today
When immigrants came to the New World, they brought with them their language, religion, culture, and folklore. Many settled in the Appalachian Mountains, with some making their way through Pound and Cumberland gaps, settling in the isolated hills and hollows of southeastern Kentucky.
Over generations their language, culture, and religion changed little due to their isolation.
What used to be ridiculed as “hillbilly” or “mountain” talk is actually the remnants of 16th- and 17th-century England. Their stories and folk tales, though, did begin to change to reflect their new life and the realities of that life.
Jack and the Bean Stalk and other stories about Jack were part of the larger collection of folklore that the first settlers brought with them from Europe, called “Jack tales” and named after the main character, Jack.
Over the centuries, the name Jack became synonymous with the common man. In fact, the name Jack appears roughly three times that of any other name used in folk tales and nursery rhymes.
These Jack tales were told for centuries across Europe before reaching the Appalachians. Here Jack and the Bean Stalk became Jack and the Bean Tree and began to reflect local conditions and characters. The two tales are closely related, but over time they changed in ways that made them better known as part of the Appalachian Mountains oral storytelling tradition.
Jack and the Bean Tree differs from its European counterpart in several ways that make it distinctly American. Besides the articles that Jack steals being different in the two versions, it also explores his relationship with his mother more fully than the English version. In the Appalachian Mountains, family was and still is important. Often in these isolated hollows and hills, family members were the only ones you could rely on in hard times. Everyone looked out for his or her kin. And kin was expected to help kin. This can be seen in the Hatfield and McCoy feud. If the extended families of both clans had declined to participate, there would have been no prolonged feud. But, as they say, the rest is history.
In Jack and the Bean Stalk, Jack steals gold. He steals a bag of gold, a hen that lays golden eggs, and a golden harp. Gold would have been important to a poor Englishman. With enough gold, one could live a very good life and perhaps even buy a royal title. In Jack and the Bean Tree, Jack steals things that are important to an isolated family in the Appalachians. A gun, a knife, and a coverlet or quilt—all useful things in the wilderness of Appalachia. Gold would buy you anything you wanted in England. In the isolated mountains, tools for survival were more important than gold.
In both versions, Jack is from a poor family. Often his mother is a widow. In Appalachian versions his mother is sometimes widowed, but it is just as likely that Jack’s father and brothers, Will and Tom, are working away or have gone off to war. Jack is often depicted as the youngest, laziest, or the dullest of the family. Not much seems to be expected from him. It is only out of great need that Jack is encouraged to go out on his own to look for work and encounter his adventures.
In English versions, Jack is often tested by a magical dwarf or an old, white-haired man. Jack shares his last bits of food. In other stories he rescues a trapped, magical animal. Afterward, because of his generosity, he is rewarded with some sort of magic, be it weapon or power or some kind of magical information that helps him in his adventures.
English Jack would prevail through magical weapons, powers, or information. The American Jack is expected to make do with his wits, trickery, and cunning.
In Jack and the Giant’s New Ground, Jack uses tricks to kill the multi-headed sons of the giant family and then again uses his trickery and cunning to get the old father giant to leave the country, thus then earning enough money to have his two brothers do the land clearing for him. Again, this reflects life in the mountains. In England, there was no new ground to clear. In America, clearing new ground was a necessary and hard task if one wanted to plant a crop. So the tale of Jack and the Giant’s New Ground reflects this new way of life.
Although Jack tales have been written down over the years, they are still primarily an oral tradition. In the Appalachians, even when paper and ink were available and writing was known, they were used only for important items such as deeds and other legal documents. Jack tales were passed down from generation to generation without ever being written down. Each generation and each area added its own colorful language and style.
Never expect a Jack tale to be told twice the same way, even by the same person. Jack tales are flexible enough to insert local characters and to relate to the listener’s lifestyle. I grew up in eastern Kentucky listening to grownups tell stories on the porch after darkness fell. Some were told as true, some to scare us kids, and some for the simple pleasure of telling a tall tale. We could never have related to a golden harp. We had no need for one, but a knife or gun or a warm quilt on a winter’s night were things we certainly could appreciate and deem worthy of Jack taking.
Over time, Jack tales became as acclimated to the hills and hollows of Kentucky and the mountains of Appalachia just as much as the people who changed and became acclimated to the new land. Jack tales have changed to the point today where they are now regarded as part of the Appalachian storytelling tradition.
TO READ MORE ABOUT JACK TALES
Go on the Web to: www.ferrum.edu/applit/bibs/tales/index.htm#Jack. AppLit contains resources for readers and teachers of Appalachian literature for children and young adults.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: WATCH A JACK TALE, AND WRITE YOUR OWN
See and hear a Jack tale and get some tips on making up your own.