July 10, 2020

Southern Appalachian Storytellers

Saundra Gerrell Kelley

What gives a writer the urge to create new work? In the case of Southern Appalachian Storytellers: Interviews with Sixteen Keepers of the Oral Tradition, published by McFarland, it was one person - Dot Jackson.

At the time I met Dot, a former investigative reporter, and editor from South Carolina, I was working on my master’s degree at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. I had met Billee Moore earlier, and it was she who decided Dot and I needed to make acquaintance. At her invitation, I drove to her cabin in North Carolina. Waiting at Billee’s for Dot (she was in Galax. VA giving a talk), I took a nap. I awakened later that afternoon to something storytellers love more than anything - the human voice telling stories.

Following the scent of fresh coffee, I went to the kitchen and fell in love at first sight. In her late seventies at that time, Dot was barely 4’11”. Wearing her wispy gray hair back in a bun with absolutely no makeup, her voice commanded the room. Stories spilled from her mouth like spring water pouring over smooth boulders. She and Billee communicated via stories for hours one after the other. The next morning, they were already at it when I wandered into the kitchen thinking, did they sleep at all? From that meeting, my first book evolved. Though the notion of writing about Dot bit like a tick and refused to let go, there were others in her circle she mentioned frequently like singer Betty Smith, and the Legend Lady, Charlotte Ross. From there, the idea grew to include the incredibly close friendship of Three Remarkable Appalachian Women and became the Capstone of my performance degree at ETSU.

When I queried McFarland Publishers based in East Jefferson, North Carolina about publishing the project, they responded with the suggestion it might fit with their Appalachian Studies line as an academic resource. That, however, is when the real work began - the publisher wanted me to interview numerous Appalachian storytellers about their lives as storytellers and I was happy to oblige. Thus, began an intimate journey into the lives of a group of people unique to that place. Starting with Dot and her contacts, the process was organic; each storyteller referred me to the next and this gave the project its unique flavor. Authentic to their roots in Appalachia, each shared place-based memories of growing up in the Southern Highland Mountains. For my part, I recorded every word of their interviews and transcribed them faithfully, including pronunciation and sayings. My subjects then undertook the review of what to keep and what to delete. In the end, their thoughts and ideas were encapsulated in one volume which covers the gamut of what it means to be from Appalachia.

Many months later, after tooting every whistle, dotting each “i” and crossing every “t” Southern Appalachian Storytellers: Sixteen Keepers of the Oral Tradition came out in 2011 and continues to be taught in Appalachian Study courses to this day. Now that several of the people have died, their oral histories are a record of that period in Appalachia. I have since written other books, but that first volume remains my favorite. 

Saundra Gerrell Kelley's first stint at storytelling was in third grade. Her teacher noticed her daydreaming in the back and asked if she could see the board. On impulse, she answered "no, ma'am." That led her to try and convince everyone she was losing her sight. She got caught in the lie at the school picnic. Her beautiful mother was furious and sent her straight home to purgatory. From this she learned to be truthful, but this did not stop her from telling stories.

She is the author of Danger in Black Water Swamp,
The Day The Mirror Cried and Southern Appalachian Storytellers.


  1. Saundra, that must have been a wonderful experience, talking with the people, hearing the stories. What a wonderful legacy. Thank you for sharing, can't wait to read the book.

  2. I would have loved to been with you! Way back, probably 30 or 40 years ago, PBS had a special on the people of Appalachia. I taped it on VHS--that's how long ago it was-- and now I don't have any way to watch it. lol. I can't wait to read your book--gonna ask for it for my birthday!

    As I read the preview, it reminded me of my husband's family. How they would tell stories about the people they knew, and you're right, they never said they were going to tell a story, they would just start talking about old times.