Regarding Richard Chase: Two Memorable Meetings

By Sandy Schuckett, California School Library Association

This article originally appeared in California Libraries, August 2004. It is reprinted here with permission.

In 1968 when I was a new (2 years) school librarian in Los Angeles Unified School district I attended a Saturday Book Fair event at an elementary school in Gardena. The keynote speaker was noted folklorist Richard Chase, and it was a joy to hear this national treasure as he regaled us with many of his Appalachian "Jack Tales" in his own lilting accent and voice.
Richard Chase in Virginia in the late 1970s

Mr. Chase was in California primarily for the Claremont Young People's Reading Conference, which, at that time was held at Claremont College every year, and it was a real coup for the school district folks to get him for our event. When our Book Fair was over, around 3:00 p. m., Mr. Chase needed a ride back to his hotel in Claremont. Claremont is quite a distance from Gardena. It appeared that none of the "big shots" at the Book Fair had the time or the inclination to drive him back to Claremont, so, since I had nothing better to do, I volunteered to be his chauffeur. We had all that time – almost an hour – in my little 1964 MGB convertible just riding and talking and talking and riding.

Photo at right: Richard Chase advising the Jack Tale Players in Virginia in the late 1970s

He talked about the mountains, and where he lived, and how he grew up, and how important the stories had been throughout his life. Even when he was "just chatting" he sounded like a storyteller. His voice was musical, and at times it was all I could do to just concentrate on my driving. He spoke of the oral tradition of the mountains and his research into the origins of many of the "Jack Tales." He was only 64 years old at the time (born in 1904), but he seemed older and he seemed to have the wisdom of the ages. It was a very memorable experience, and it was so exciting for a new school librarian like me to actually be in the same car with someone of his stature, humble though he was. We arrived in Claremont, parted ways, and I headed back to the freeway marveling over this unique experience and wondering if I would ever have such an opportunity again.

Fast-forward ten years. In 1978 a cousin and I planned a vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. I found a place called Chataloochee Ranch, which was a group of rustic log cabin buildings up in the hills off the main drag of a little town in North Carolina called Maggie Valley. We drove up the hill on a dirt road that looked like it had gotten stuck in the 1930s – grazing goats, trashed automobiles, wooden shacks. When we reached Chataloochee Ranch we settled in, had a great country-style dinner in the main lodge, and then began reading various flyers and pamphlets describing what was going on in the area.

What luck! There was a Smoky Mountain Folk Festival happening that very week. The festival consisted of myriad events spread throughout many little mountain towns and communities – country music and gospel concerts, clog dancing demonstrations, crafts exhibits, food contests, and. . . storytelling. When I read through the storytelling events, I was amazed to find Richard Chase! Of course we had to go.

Chase was appearing the very next day in one of the little towns in the mountains – a drive of about an hour. According to the flyer, his storytelling session would begin at 2:00 p.m. We left in plenty of time, and followed the directions the Chataloochee manager had given us – driving along narrow mountain roads and passing through one small town after another. When we finally got to the proper town (whose name I do not remember) we spent another fifteen minutes looking for a place to park. It was getting very close to 2:00 p.m.

We finally parked the car and walked toward the town square where a multitude of people were gathered – clapping, laughing, etc. As I tried to push through the crowd to the front to see what was happening, I suddenly heard a familiar voice – it was Richard Chase telling a story. They had set up what looked like a large boxing ring, raised about five feet above the ground, and he was sitting in one corner on a three-legged stool. Seated cross-legged in front of him, practically on top of each other, were maybe a hundred children looking at him in awe as he wove and almost sang his tales. The time on the schedule we had seen had been misprinted – we thought he was starting at 2:00 p.m.; he had started at 1:00 p.m. He was telling his last story of the day.

I decided I had to at least greet him, and I pushed my way over to the staircase that led down from this boxing ring contraption. When he finished his story there was loud applause and louder cheering – for what seemed like ten minutes. Richard Chase was obviously a local hero. He finally turned from the crowd and began to descend the stairs. I was standing at the bottom, and I got his attention and was starting to say something like, "Hi – you probably don't remember me, but . . . " when he looked at me and said, "Oh... you're the young lady who gave me a ride when I was in Claremont. Isn't your name Sally?" I was totally floored, and I probably said, "uh, duh, buh, buh..." (or something.) What a memory – ten years later! It was a moment I would not soon forget. But – time passes and important moments DO slip from memory. The article about the found copy of Chase's Jack Tales in the July 2004 California Libraries brought it all back.

Schuckett's article was inspired by the earlier article reprinted below.

About a Book

By Michael McGrorty

This article appeared in the What Are You Reading? section in California Libraries, July 2004. It is reprinted with permission.

I am one of those folks who visits junk stores on a regular basis. This is not so much for the purchase of merchandise but for the display; unlike the ordinary retail outlet, your average thrift shop has a fantastic array of items, from the practically new to the ancient, and no two of them are alike. You get a sense of history from the stuff on the shelves, you see what people find useless and what they wear out from use. Eventually everything ends up in the thrift store; it is the mortuary of our material culture, the last step before the graveyard of the landfill. I tell my friends that I can find them anything here, if they can wait a little while for it to show up.

One of the best reasons to haunt thrift stores is books. This is also where books go for the viewing before their final rest—novel and non-fiction, best-seller and flop: anything and everything, most of it in a riotous jumble that is nothing at all like the orderly arrangement at the library.

It is a rare day when I do not find something for myself or a friend. Today I was scanning the spines along the long shelves when I came across a copy of The Jack Tales, subtitled "Folk tales from the southern Appalachians collected and retold by Richard Chase." This of course is Chase's justly-famed compilation of stories, a great milestone and reference in the world of folklore, not to mention being one of the few books which has been as popular among children as adults.

Chase has a good ear for the lilt and resonance of the Appalachian tongue. The language of the book is as entertaining as anything Mark Twain ever put in the mouth of his characters. The words simply ring true and the stories read very well despite being more or less transcribed from oral versions Chase encountered on his travels as a worker on the Depression-era Federal Writer's Project. The stories are deceptively simple yet possess the depth of Aesop's stories, though without the implied lesson which made those tales part of the approved canon for centuries. Jack is nobody's fool, but he really isn't anybody's hero, either; he is simply himself, and in that the living embodiment of an American pluck and cleverness that overcomes, though seldom in a sweet Mother-Goose method. The Jack stories have much in common with the unvarnished versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, where the wicked end up in the oven rather than their intended victims and somebody, be it a witch or just an ordinary giant, is taught a lesson at his own game and expense.

I hadn't seen a copy of Chase's tales since I left junior high, but the book was as familiar as if I'd never had it out of my grasp: the same wonderful illustrations by Berkeley Williams, the pleasant buff-brown cover. But there was something else: inside, on the title page was the author's signature and on the next page an inscription:

"To XXXX Library:
Have Delight Uncle Dick
28 Aug — 1976"

Chase would have been about 72 years old then; he would live another dozen years and leave behind a singular body of work. And at least one book, signed and dedicated to a California library from an author who liked its patrons well enough to be known by them as "Uncle Dick."

To a person outside the library world, the discovery of this book among the useless almanacs and torn dictionaries of the thrift store might provoke sadness or even anger. But there was a clue to the book's presence in that store, left behind in a plain library hand, just above the stamp of the branch name on the title page: the annotation 'c.52.' Which means to those of us who work in libraries that there were at least half a hundred other extant copies of the same book circulating in that system, and you are already saying to yourself: 'That was a children's book as well as an adult selection; they must have kept many copies over the years.' And of course you would be correct in that assumption, as well as in your next guess, which was that, like any offering in the library, this book enjoyed its span of life and then had to make way for something else, something just as beloved but newer, on that scarce shelf space. Because, as you understand, the library is an archive as well as a repository of the new. Like people, books have their day: some few are immortal, most pass away.

And so it was that I made another tour of the southern Appalachian mountains with Richard Chase's boy Jack. I recommend you do the same; in fact, I've got a nice copy here I can send off any time you ask.

California Library Association
717 20th Street, Suite 200, Sacramento, CA 95811
916.447.8541 tel | 916.447.8394 fax |

AppLit note: Chase's The Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales have remained in print for more than sixty years. They were republished in 2003 by Houghton Mifflin, with the same illustrations by Berkeley Williams, Jr. and with new covers. See AppLit's Bibliography of Works by and about Richard Chase.

This page created 8/25/08
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