Author Archives: William Hiller

Tom Dooley

My informant for this folklore is my friend’s mother.  She grew up in North Carolina and always heard the unfortunate story of Tom Dooley and she passed it down to us as we grew up.  Tom Dooley grew up in the mountains of Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  Tom was in love with his girlfriend and found out that she was cheating on him.  Tom devolved into a jealous rage and killed his girlfriend.  Tom was eventually caught and they hung him for the murder he committed.  Tom’s life was later described in the song, “Hang Your Head Tom Dooley.”

This piece of folklore doesn’t necessarily have to do with tradition, as it is not encouraged to kill someone in a jealous rage.  However, as my informant relayed, the moral of this piece of folklore is important.  It is told to children, generation after generation, so that they remember to not “lose their heads” like Tom Dooley.  I remember hearing this story as a child and wondering why on earth my friend’s mother would remember, much less retell this tale.  As I got older and recalled her telling us this tale, I remember that it served as a type of warning or a bit of advice to always remain calm and don’t overreact.  This story had more of an impact because it occurred fairly close to where I grew up.  The proximity of this tale had a lot to do with how often it was retold and how it is still passed down through generations.  If Tom Dooley had lived somewhere far off, it probably wouldn’t have been as important to North Carolinians.


Love Potion

On the plantations of North Carolina, slaves were used to do the hard labor in the fields and tend to the crops.  According to my informant, my friend’s grandfather, they were treated poorly and lived very hard lives.  He told us the tale of a particular slave that got revenge on his master.  As my informant relayed the story, the master killed the slave’s wife.  The husband, knowing he couldn’t seek outright revenge on his master, decided to go to a conjure woman who cooked up a spell for him.  The spell was put on the grapevine so that when the master drank the wine, he became very ill.

The master suffered greatly and eventually died from the illness.  Unlike Tom Dooley, for example, the slave was patient and got his vengeance.  He knew that he couldn’t be blamed for his master taking ill, but if he killed his master, he would be hunted and hung for the murder.  This piece of folklore goes hand in hand with the old saying, “revenge is a dish best served cold.”  There is no historical reference or facts to bolster this story, but it could have been created to serve as a tale of justice for the slaves–a tale they told for hope or motivation to continue enduring such hardships.

Pirate Bay

The informant for this piece of folklore was my friend’s grandfather.  As a boy, he would tell me stories and I would listen intently as they were like adventures I could later relive as I played with my friends in the backyard.  One story I remember in particular was how a North Carolina beach came to be called Nag’s Head.  My friend’s grandfather would go into great detail about how pirates would tie a lantern to a horse’s neck and walk it up and down the beach.  Boats and ships out at sea would think there was a harbor there because of the light.  Ships would then try to dock, only to find that it was a trick and the pirates would rob them clean.

When I asked my informant about the story, he said that the town was named Nag’s Head because “Nag” was a name for a horse.  It could also be that wild horses still roam the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina so they were probably there when the town was founded as well.  My informant also said that the term “Nag” could have to do with how the pirates tricked the people at sea to come to them and then they snagged their goods and gold.  As I child, I appreciated the fun story and enjoyed hearing it over and over again.  As an adult, I’m intrigued in the piece of local history and folklore.

Collards & Cabbage

My friend’s grandfather would come over to our house every New Year’s Day for a celebration dinner.  Every year, he would always bring collards and cabbage to dinner and everyone would eat more than their fair share.  I remember thinking this was strange because I wasn’t the only one who didn’t particularly care for them, yet everyone ate a large helping at dinner.  I finally asked my friend’s grandfather why he only brought collards and cabbage to dinner on New Years Day and he explained to me that if you eat collards and cabbage on New Years Day, it would bring you money throughout the year.

Of course, I was skeptical at first.  However, one year I decided to give it a try and eat some collards and cabbage at New Years dinner.  I didn’t come into a large sum of money, but I did have fairly good financial success throughout the year.  I’ve eaten them every New Years Day since then and I haven’t had any dire financial trouble yet.  I never asked my informant where she heard this piece of folklore from, but my entire family still makes collards and cabbage on New Years Day in hopes of good fortune in the upcoming year.

Be Careful How You Garden

My informant for this story was my friend’s grandfather.  My friend’s grandfather grew up in a rural area where they did a lot of farming.  He continued to have a large garden into her later years and always helped my mother plant and tend to ours every year.  My friend’s grandfather always insisted that you could not plant potatoes and okra together.  Again, as with most pieces of folklore, their importance and weight is from the traditions and history that they represent rather than a scientific reasoning to explain their existence.

Later in my life, I heard that there actually may be a reason for not planting potatoes and okra near each other.  The reason had something to do with  how legumes give off nitrogen in the ground and other plants take up.  This could possibly result in too much nitrogen for either the potatoes or the okra.   I don’t recall the details of the explanation, but my mother still doesn’t plant potatoes and okra next to each other.  I think it is a way she pays homage to her father and grandfather.


Sunday Sewing

The informant for this folklore was my friend’s mother.  She was close to her mother and her grandmother as she grew up.  As the informant relayed this story, she mentioned how her mother and grandmother would teach her how to cook and sew.  This is how she heard the tale of if you sew something on a Sunday, you will have to pull out the stitches with your teeth if you miss a stitch.  This is why the informant never sewed on a Sunday.  Even as a child, when my friend needed a shirt mended or a boy scout patch sewed on, if he asked for it on a Sunday, it had to wait.  Of course, as a boy, he thought that it was certainly strange that his mother refused to sew a little patch on a Sunday.  She would usually rest on Sundays and wasn’t busy with her usual errands or housework, so he was confused as to why she didn’t want to spend a few minutes sewing a button or a patch.

When I asked my informant to explain why she doesn’t sew anything on Sundays, she said it was because that was what her mother and her grandmother had always done.  She did mention that she remembered her grandmother saying something about how if you did sew something on a Sunday, that it would break a commandment.  My informant said that she had never really questioned her grandmother or wondered exactly which commandment one would be breaking by sewing on a Sunday.  It is clear that my informant put her trust in this piece of folklore because it came from a trusted relative that she was very close to.  The reasoning behind the folklore didn’t matter as much as respecting her grandmother’s wishes and continuing the tradition she had learned as a girl.

Devil’s Tramping Ground

My informant for this piece of folklore is my friend’s mother.  She relayed a story about how in the “olden days,” farmers in the mountains of North Carolina would wake up in the morning to find that their crops had been trampled during the night.  She described the patterns as circles that looked like people had been dancing around in the fields all night, stomping down the crops.  They couldn’t figure out what was doing it even put out cameras and watchmen at night to try and catch someone in the act.  The perpetrator was never found and it was assumed that it was the devil trampling the crops during the night.

My informant explained that this was not the “crop circles” that most people refer to. It was never a consideration or possibility that aliens were making designs in the crops.  It very well may have been a prank by some foolish kids, but everyone believed it was the devil because they never found any clues as to who could have done such a thing.

Daniel Boone’s Ghost

The informant for this story was my friend’s mother.  She used to tell us the ghost story of Daniel Boone, a famous North Carolinian.  As she told the piece of folklore, Daniel Boone was fire hunting one night which involves using the light from fire to spot deer’s eyes in the dark night.  As the tale goes, Daniel Boone saw a glimpse of eyes in the night and began to aim his rifle, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoot because he had never seen a blue eyed deer before.  He followed the deer into the moonlight only to find out it was a young lady, not a deer.  Daniel Boone was smitten and they were later married.

Daniel Boone is quite famous in North Carolina and a popular mountain town is named after him.  My friend’s mother told us this story as young men as a way of teaching us about love and chivalry.  I suppose she thought of it as a guide about how to treat women, as Daniel Boone had to woo the young woman.

A Burning Ring of Fire

In the mountains of North Carolina, there is still a presence and reverence for Native Americans.  Pieces of folklore are still retold today including the tale of fire.  My informant for this story was my friend’s mother who told it to us on the way to school one day.  The tale starts at the beginning of the world when the bear owned fire.  He used it to warm his people through the cold nights.  One day, bear set part of a forest on fire to roast some acorns for his people.  The fire soared for a while, but then began to die down and called out to Bear to feed it so it could go on burning.  Bear didn’t hear the fire’s cries, but someone else did and he fed it all kinds of sticks and wood.  Bear came back to get fire, but fire was mad that bear had left him to die and he was now owned by man.

My informant recalls hearing this story from her relatives as a child.  She thinks it may serve as a form of remembrance as to how we treat the Earth and how we came to “own” nature and everything it entails.  This Native American tale is certainly unique among the others I’ve heard as it doesn’t appeal to someone’s logic as much as other pieces of folklore.

Whistle When Passing a Cemetery

My informant for this story is my friend’s grandfather.

He was a Methodist minister and used to preach at churches across North and South Carolina.  At each church, there was, of course, a cemetery.  He would tell his children, when they were young, to whistle every time they passed the cemetery.  He said that whistling while you passed a cemetery kept the devil away and prevented him from stealing your soul.  This was interesting to me from the first time I heard it, mainly because of the idea on which it centers–that the devil or an evil force resides within a cemetery.  I find this interesting because I have always seen cemeteries a little differently, as peaceful and solemn places in which our loved ones could find eternal peace, though I know many people see cemeteries as a little scary because of the simple fact that there are a number of dead bodies buried in them.

Interestingly enough, since he told me about this concept many years ago, I have heard other people tell similar stories, with slightly different variations.  For example, the most prominent variation suggests holding one’s breath while passing the cemetery rather than whistling.  This is the only difference in the story.  This is fascinating, in my opinion, as it suggests some credence to the superstition and its prevalence.  In other words, it is not simply a strange tale made up by one family or in one local town.  The variations of it suggest that there is some historical significance to it and that many different people have heard about it.