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.