A cycle of long, fictional oral prose narratives focusing on the episodic adventures of a
“youngest-best” teenage trickster-hero named Jack as he negotiates an ultimately
successful quest for maturity and prosperity. A typical Jack tale begins with the unlikely
hero leaving home either to escape mistreatment or “to seek his fortune.” Because he is
either kind to a stranger or simply lucky, Jack acquires a magic object, supernatural ally,
or supranormal skill that, when combined with his persistence, native wit, courage,
creative imagination, ability to deceive, and propensity for attracting good luck, helps
him perform a series (usually three) of seemingly impossible tasks or tests and conquer a
formidable opponent. Having been rewarded with material wealth and, often, a beautiful
wife, Jack returns to his home as an adult with elevated status in the community.
Jack tales originate from an international inventory of traditional narrative types and
motifs, with American texts deriving generally from European stories about an ordinary
young man—named Hans in Germany, Jock or Jake in Scotland, and Jack in England and
Ireland—behaving heroically. In these stories, Jack is usually either a generic name for
the protagonist or a boy characterized as a dependent, immature numskull. But in
America, Jack became a cunning, self-reliant, occasionally amoral trickster, especially as
he was conceptualized in Appalachia.
While early collectors uncovered Jack tales throughout the Eastern United States,
including several from African Americans, the cycle eventually settled in Appalachia
(especially in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and north-western North
Carolina), becoming consistent with that region’s folk-cultural worldview. Stories from
the rich repertoire of the Hicks-Harmon families of Watauga and Avery Counties, North
Carolina, were collected by Isabel Gordon Carter in 1923 and by Richard Chase in the
1930s and 1940s. Chase’s texts, which appeared in The Jack Tales (1943), The
Grandfather Tales (1948), and American Folk Tales and Songs (1956), were actually
composites, however, collated from several different performances and contaminated
with Chase’s editorial changes and creations: words deleted and substituted, episodes
added from other sources, and tides altered. Leonard Roberts, on the other hand, was a
responsible folklorist who began collecting Jack tales in the mid-1940s in his native
Kentucky, many of them from the Couch family in Harlan and Leslie Counties. In the
early 1940s, James Taylor Adams and James M.Hylton recorded twenty Jack tales in
Wise County, Virginia, as part of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Virginia Writers’ Project, including several from Gaines Kilgore, that area’s most active
Chase’s books were quite popular and have clearly influenced the repertoires of such
contemporary narrators as Ray and Stanley Hicks, Maud Long, Marshall Ward, Frank
Proffitt Jr., and Orville Hicks. But, in a sense, this borrowing from printed sources has
always been a part of the folk process. Many orally performed texts are remarkably close
to those in the Grimm brothers’ collection, so it seems reasonable to assume that the
ancestors of Appalachian performers—the Hickses, Harmons, Kilgores, and Couches—
may have been familiar with the popular Nursery and Household Tales, which was first
published in 1812 and went through numerous subsequent editions.
Carter, Isabel Gordon. 1925. Mountain Folk-Lore: Tales from the Southern Blue Ridge. Journal
ofAmerican Folklore 38:340–374.
McCarthy, William B., ed. 1994. Jack in Two Worlds: Contemporary North American Taletellers.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
McGowan, Thomas, ed. 1978. Jack Tales. North Carolina Folklore Journal (Special Issue) 26:49–
Perdue, Charles L., Jr., ed. 1987. Outwitting the Devil: Jack Tales from Wise County, Virginia.
Santa Fe: Ancient City Press.
Roberts, Leonard W., ed. 1955. South from Hell- fer-Sartin: Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.