Storyteller Anndrena Belcher tells the story of two sisters, one kind and compassionate, the other lazy and greedy, and their separate adventures in a land they discover at the bottom of their well. In telling the story, Belcher invites young people in the audience to assume roles and participate.
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“The Two Gals” is a story collected by folklorist Leonard Roberts and published in his collection of southeastern Kentucky tales entitled Old Greasybeard: Tales from the Cumberland Gap (Detroit: Folklore Association of Gale Research, 1969). The traditional version of the story has the greedy woman and her lazy girl eaten by snakes. This adaptation softens the punishment.
Appalachian stories performed by regional storytellers are told in a language that differs, often widely, from standard English. The archaic words, non-standard grammar, and regional accents used help create the atmosphere. The European settlers who came into the Southern mountains in the 18th and early 19th centuries were country people, largely from lowland Scotland (often by way of northern Ireland; hence, “Scotch-Irish”). The physical and cultural isolation of the mountains sheltered innumerable songs and stories and allowed the language spoken by these immigrants to hold on to many words and usages that fell into disuse elsewhere.
Mountain speech has often been ridiculed; it is a prominent part of the “hillbilly” stereotype. But linguists recognize Southern mountain speech as a dialect of English. Many of its usages, sometimes called “ignorant” or incorrect, are actually of great antiquity. “You was” neatly distinguishes you-singular from the plural “you were,” a nicety modern English has lost. “Hisn” and “ourn” are part of a set of possessive pronouns of which standard English keeps only “mine.” In this story, when Ashy Lou “redds up” the old woman’s hair, she uses a word Chaucer used; when the Devil hands Wicked John a chunk of “far,” he says “fire” the way Shakespeare did. This speech is a vivid, colorful, robust language. It is also the “native tongue” of many storytellers.
Storytelling is a spoken art form; it depends on sound, rhythm, imagery, and timing, as well as the literary tools of plot, character, and theme. Bringing a story to life requires a storyteller to use his or her own voice—in whatever language comes naturally.
Storyteller Anndrena Belcher uses a lot of Appalachian speech in her storytelling because it fits with the stories and with the way she was raised.
Belcher was born in Pike County, Kentucky, but migrated with her family to uptown Chicago when she was very young. It was in Chicago that Anndrena learned what it meant to be a “hillbilly.” “We always thought of the mountains as our real home,” she says. “Indeed, we went home every chance we had. The summer and holidays spent with my grandparents were magical. Their stories and songs of everyday life strengthened my identity as a child of the mountains.” In 1976, Anndrena returned to the mountains, first to a job in post-secondary education and then to a life as a storyteller, singer, dancer, and actress.
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