Tag Archives: Appalachia

Never close a knife y’a didn’t open


The informant is my papaw, KB, who is 68 years old and lives in Huntsville, TN, where I grew up. He was raised in the backwoods of an Appalachian region of Kentucky. He had lots of odd sayings and beliefs, but there is one superstition that I vividly remember throughout my childhood.

Main Piece:

When I was young, I would often help my papaw work on stuff around the house or outside, which of course required tools, including the classic pocket knife.

KB-I remember when you couldn’t figure out how to close the knife, but I just couldn’t help you. I had to explain why I couldn’t, so I told you what I had always been taught. It’s bad luck to close a knife you didn’t open.

Interviewer- What would happen if you did?

KB- I don’t know and I don’t wanna find out. I just know it brings bad luck, especially with that knife, some say you end up accidentally stabbing yourself with it.


This superstition is one that my grandpa holds as a concrete rule of life, and for some reason, I do too. I do not necessarily believe I will have bad luck, but it’s a belief that’s been embedded in me. The power of folk belief is so strong that even though there is no evidence to support it, a multitude of people believe it. Though I could not find the origin of this folk belief, I did read about it on Appalachian Folklore pages, suggesting it was most commonly known in that region. There is an overarching theme of importance that Southern men assign to their tools, specifically their pocket knives. In my town, it’s a guarantee that if you look in a man’s pocket, you’ll find one, even in schools is extremely common. Therefore, it makes sense that folk beliefs would arise regarding the sacred tool. There could have been an ownership aspect to the beginning of the superstition. Perhaps the only person allowed to open and close the knife would be its rightful owner, promising if someone borrowed it, they would have to give it back or face a stroke of bad luck.

Can you get me a glass of water?


The informant, JB, is my older brother who is twenty-four and currently lives in New York City. We both grew up in a small town in Tennessee surrounded by our close family. The story I interviewed him about is very well known throughout our family and is centered around our grandfather and his supernatural experience in rural Kentucky.

Main Piece:

JB’s summary of the story- Papaw was at a little store/restaurant in Kentucky, and he sat on a stool and ordered a Pepsi at the counter. While the lady was opening his drink an old, straggly looking man with long white hair and a long white beard sat down beside him. He asked papaw to order him a class of water, which he did. The man drank the water and then got up and walked towards the door. As he reached for the door, he looked back at papaw and said something he couldn’t understand. He got to go after the man and see what he said but the mysterious man had disappeared, and no one outside seen him. Three or four years later, in the middle of the night, Papaw was woken up by someone pulling him out of his bed, and I think the first few times he assumed it was Mamaw or mom messing with him. The last time was really aggressive, so he was wide awake and at the foot of his bed was man from that little restaurant with a long white beard and hair. He looked at papaw and said, “I’ll come back one more time, just one more time” then he disappeared; at the time, Mamaw was wake in the living room and didn’t hear or see anything.

Interviewer- Who told you this story for the first time?

JB- Papaw told me when I was younger, but Mamaw and mom referenced the story all the time. Mamaw always that she believed it was true because of how scared papaw was after it happened. She always said it was some kind of angel.

Interviewer- So what was your interpretation of it?

JB- It sounds like some kind of omen, but the time difference is weird since the man came back just a few years later but it’s been at least forty years since it happened. Maybe the 3rd time will be before he dies.


My grandpa’s supernatural encounter can be categorized as a folk legend since he, and the rest of our family considers it to be true. This is my family’s most passed around piece of folklore, so we all develop different interpretations of what this meant.  The way that I interpreted the legend was that of warning, and moral upkeep. Although the story is unique to my grandpa, it contains common motifs of folklore like a figure with a long white beard, the significant group of 3s, and proverbial warnings. Folklorists have consistently found that supernatural legends often develop during times of stress or change as a way to cope. Given my grandfather’s religious background, the man could have represented a pure figure, like an angel, coming to check on the state of his soul. Along with that, the threat of the man coming back at random could act as a deterrent of immoral acts. Although I don’t know if my grandpa was engaging in bad behaviors, it is common for spirits to function as a way to externalize negative feelings, perhaps guilt in this case.

Redneck Joke


Q: Do you have any jokes you remember from back home.

R: “How to tell if you are a redneck”, people always said those

Q: So do you remember any redneck jokes in particular.

R: I think one went, how do you know if you are a Redneck? 

Q: How?

R: When your your wife has less teeth than your Jack O lantern

Q: Oh my God I can hear J*** J**** telling that one. That was good thanks

Context: THis was a joke told in the early teen years in Southwest Pennsylvania. Many of these jokes were around at the time. The informant was 14 or so at the time and heard it from one of his peers. 

Analysis: This joke was actually told by my brother so I have a good insight into the culture it came out of myself. We lived on a small collective in Southwest Pennsylvania about ten miles from West Virginia in the heart of Appalachia. These jokes were very funny because they were so relatable. We lived among Rednecks but were not Rednecks so it was easy to make jokes about. This is to me a clear example of Blason Populaire, jokes or belief about a specific group. 

The Tradition Surrounding Mary Draper Ingles in Virginia

Main piece:

“There’s this story from my hometown of Bradford, Virginia about this woman named Mary Draper Ingles who, during the 1750s, was kidnapped by a group of Native Americans. She might have had a child at the time, but she was kidnapped by these Natives and then eventually escaped and then followed the rivers from Ohio back to Virginia where she lived in Bradford for a while until she died but there’s several parts of the town that remember her including an annual theater production.” 


The informant for this piece is a man in his early 50s who was raised in a small town called Bradford in southwest Virginia in the New River Valley. This area had broader ties to Appalachian culture as a whole and he lived there throughout his childhood and teens. This story is a local story about a real woman but whose kidnapping and return is sometimes doubted. Regardless, the town uses the story to establish a local identity, especially in the form of an annual theater production.


This story was shared with me during an encounter with my informant wherein I asked if he had any examples of local Appalachian folk culture. The conversation occurred in his backyard alongside family and friends.


I find this story fascinating as the figure of the piece is entirely real. Mary Draper Ingles was a real woman who was kidnapped by Native Americas in the 1750s. However, the story of her return has become crucial for the identity of Bradford, Virginia. She is a proud figurehead for the community, which ties the community to their specific place and argues their right to exist. What is even more interesting is how the town still romanticizes the story. As mentioned above, the town hosts an annual theater production about her. While this might veer outside of folklore because it features authored literature, the traditions done around the piece are more folkloric in nature. This places the story in a strange level of liminality. It is both real and fiction, authored and folklore. This binary is interesting and is used by the natives of Bradford to establish identity.