Jerry Harmon's great-great-great-grandfather Council Harmon, born in 1803 and deceased in 1896, brought the Jack Tales to the United States from England. "Jack and the Beanstalk" is the only one of these most of us know. Some others were collected in old books, and you might have heard about the enterprising, sometimes gullible, but quick-thinking Jack from other storytellers or from family members who have kept the art of the tale alive.
But it's a fair bet you haven't heard the Jack Tales from anyone like Jerry Harmon. Even in the rural South, where the ridgelines receding into the haze may each conceal a chronologically more distant layer of culture in the "settlements" below (to use the word Harmon uses in his stories), it's uncommon to hear speech like his, the mountain speech of a hundred years ago. It comes at you rapid fire, almost in a monotone, and you have to pay attention to follow it. The listener focus that results only intensifies the effect of Harmon's magical stories and of his spooky Jack tale of a house haunted by mysteriously aggressive cats.
Jack Tales are not the only stories Harmon tells. There are tall tales that serve as a framework for wild flights of imagination and verbal manipulation. And there are occasional jokes of the cornball country sort (he grew up, he says, so far out in the country that he thought everybody had to pack a lunch to go to the mailbox). But for the most part his verbal art comes from before the age of stage humor. And it provides a glimpse of the power good storytelling had in isolated communities little touched by mass media.
Harmon comes from Taylorsville, in the western North Carolina Smokies. He is approaching his material from a distance — but not much of one. He didn't somehow avoid modernity altogether; when he was young he started a construction business, and he later lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He had a few wild years, but then, like Amish young people who are given the chance to sample life in the world outside, he returned to carry forward the tradition that had come down to him through several generations.
Lately he's started writing traditional country songs, and these too are small revelations. They are cast in the forms of songs by Hank Williams and his honky-tonk successors. "Low River Bottom and Blue" takes off from "I'll Never Get out of This World Alive":
| I went down to the river for to save my soul.
I was ready, but the river was low.
I said, "Lordy, lordy, lordy, what's a poor boy to do —
Keep a dirty soul and the low river bottom blues?"
It's almost as if Harmon is approaching these forms for the first time (which of course he isn't). He treats them with wide-eyed seriousness, creating long chains of stanzas with rough-hewn but deep images.
In short, the small-town newspapers in Harmon's part of the world that have called him an authentic mountain man pretty much have it right. Jerry Harmon and his band, the Smoky Mountain Gypsies, come to the Ark on Tuesday, May 16.
[Review published May 2006]