Introduction to An Appalachian Mother Goose by James Still and Paul Brett Johnson

by Tina L. Hanlon

See also James Still's Books for and about Children: Bibliography and Study Guide.

James Still (1906-2001) wrote poetry and prose for children and adults. Spending most of his life in eastern Kentucky's Cumberland Plateau, he served as a librarian at Hindman Settlement School in the 1930s, and always strove to improve the lives of children by providing good books to read. He served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997. He was a regional writer nationally acclaimed for his eloquent poetry and realistic fiction about ordinary Appalachian people, especially River of Earth (1940). His strong interest in children, folklore and dialect is evident in many other works, including Jack and the Wonder Beans (the Appalachian "Jack and the Beanstalk") and An Appalachian Mother Goose (1998). His short Preface to the nursery rhymes describes children in one-room school houses reciting their lessons in unison. They learned "'by heart' the Mother Goose rhymes and often changed them to match their time and place and understanding. And sometimes they created their own."

Novelist Lee Smith, while visiting Still during an illness when he was over ninety years old, convinced him to show her the little verses he said he had been writing for fun.  He was later persuaded to publish the nursery rhymes. "I think that this is very serious writing to me," Smith says. "These little poems are about very important things. I mean, Mother Goose poems always are. They address all sorts of things that children fear or hope for, and they're very magical....What he adds is the real element of poetry" (qtd. in Breed).

Comparing the nursery rhymes Still collected and older versions published by the English folklorists Peter and Iona Opie shows how oral traditions evolve, as new silly rhymes build on and parody the old nonsense rhymes. Many Scots-Irish, English and German immigrants brought their folk culture to Appalachia, where tales, poems, and songs developed interesting blends of Old World and New World language and images. In some cases a familiar line introduces an entirely different subject, as in the rhyme beginning, "Diddle, diddle dumpling, my son John / Caught a catfish forty feet long." Although that old rhyme about socks and shoes turned into a miniature tall tale, some of the fantasy disappeared from other rhymes, replaced by down-to-earth humor about Jack be Nimble scorching his pants and the dog laughing at the musical cow and cat in "Hey Diddle, Diddle," where "the cow sang ballads to the moon" instead of jumping over it (p. 32). One "baked bird" in "Sing a song of sixpence" wonders pragmatically, "Why didn't we up and fly?" (p. 5).

The King's men are gone from "Humpty Dumpty," which is no longer a riddle as the speaker explicitly longs for the lost egg for breakfast (see another Appalachian version in Carter article, below). There are riddles in the book, though, such as "Why did Ole Jerb Bowen take a bale of hay to bed with him? To feed his nightmares" (p. 42). The old woman in a shoe is more resourceful and humane than her European ancestor, since she does know "what to do" with young'uns: wash them, give them a treat, and put them to bed (p. 36). "Old Miss Buxom Hubbard," however, is cruel compared to Old Mother Hubbard, since her cupboard is full of delicacies but "Her flea-bitten dog got none" (p. 1). Hazard (a Kentucky town) replaces Norwich, England in "The man in the moon came down too soon," a funny rhyme about a blizzard. Other rhymes feature regional "victuals" such as stack cakes (see article by Farr, below), turnip greens, and gooseberry pie. Jack Sprat and his wife get to eat something specific together in their Appalachian rhyme: "If baked opossum was on the table / They both ate as long as able" (p. 31).

Paul Brett Johnson, a native of the Kentucky mountains, studied with Still when Johnson was a high school student at Hindman. His black and white drawings in this book enhance the rhymes' blend of homey charm and silly humor. Johnson's cow posed daintily on two back legs singing ballads is more amusing than most of her predecessors as they have been depicted jumping over moons by generations of nursery rhyme illustrators. Most striking is the double-page spread of Old Bony Face, who "loved his ease" and on hot nights "slept entirely in raw" (pp. 16-17). Johnson added to the short rhyme the image of two prim ladies, one shocked and one bemused, peering in the window at the long horizontal figure of the nude man.

Excerpts from An Appalachian Mother Goose, with two illustrations, are reprinted in Crosscurrents of Children's Literature: An Anthology of Texts and Criticism (edited by J. D. Stahl, Tina L. Hanlon and Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. New York: Oxford UP, Oct. 2006), in Part 3 on Oral and Written Literary Traditions. This introduction is an expanded and revised version of the headnote in Crosscurrents. It is also based on research done for the essay "'Read my tales, spin my rhymes': James Still’s Books for Children." Forthcoming in James Still, Appalachian Writer: Critical Essays and Memoirs. Ed. Ted Olson and Kathy H. Olson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.


Still, James. An Appalachian Mother Goose. Illus. Paul Bret Johnson. KY:  Kentucky UP, 1998.

Breed, Allen G. “Celebrated Author Gives New Sauce to Mother Goose.” The Shawnee News-Star [Shawnee, OK]. Web posted 2 Oct. 1998. This article quotes Lee Smith's views of the rhymes and tells how she convinced Still to publish them.

Carter, Isobel Gordon. "Mountain White Riddles." Journal of American Folklore, vol. 47, No. 183 (Jan. - Mar. 1934): pp. 76-80. Contains examples of riddles, many of which were from Jane Hicks Gentry in 1923. Available online through library services such as JSTOR. This article includes the following riddle:

Humpy Bumpy on a wall
Humpy Bumpy got a fall
Ten men, ten more
Can't fix Humpy Bumpy
The way she was before.

Farr, Sidney Saylor. "Dried Apple Stack Cake." Appalachian Heritage, vol. 32:4 (Fall 2004): pp. 65-67.

Hanlon, Tina L. “‘Read my tales, spin my rhymes’: The Books for Children.” James Still, Appalachian Writer: Critical Essays on the Dean of Appalachian Literature. Ed. Ted Olson and Kathy H. Olson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. pp. 174-89.

Opie, Iona and Peter. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952.

See AppLit's Author Links for other references on Still and Johnson.

Some of Johnson's other picture books are described in AppLit's Folktale Picture Book Bibliography.

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