Why fairies?

Don't look in the hole

Sadieville final coverOne of the most basic questions I get about the Tufa series, which concludes in April with The Fairies of Sadieville, is also one of the hardest to quantifiably answer:

Why fairies?

It certainly wasn’t an obvious interest. I grew up in a tiny Southern town, surrounded by friends and family who had no time for matters of imagination. And even my tastes ran more toward the science fiction of Star Trek and Star Wars than, say, the fantasies of Middle Earth. The classic “fairy tales” held no interest for me, and thanks to my interest in Sherlock Holmes, the only bit of fairy folklore I knew was that the “Cottingley Fairy” hoax fooled Arthur Conan Doyle.

But it seems the fairies, as befits those also known as “Longaevi,” were content to wait for me to complete my long and circuitous route to find them.

Twenty years ago, I first attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN (you can read my friend Magda’s account of that visit here). Jonesborough looms large in the Bledsoe family; my father’s people all came from the area, and when I visited, I discovered Bledsoes everywhere, including alderman and future mayor Tobie Bledsoe. More, many of them (like artist Bill Bledsoe) worked in creative fields, something none of my father’s immediate family ever did (or had much patience with).

Jonesborough main streetAfter a long day of hearing a wide variety of stories, I, Magda and the rest of our group found ourselves in a downtown pub, listening to some of the storytellers jam (many of them are also musicians). At about two in the morning, the musicians, led by Jennifer Armstrong*, led us into the deserted main street for some contra dancing. The exhaustion, elation, sweat and sense of community fell into place in my head (and heart), and I felt a genuine, organic sense of magic that I knew I wanted to somehow capture and share.

Songcatcher-images-8780915b-0c24-4893-bae5-8674b4dc14aShortly after this, I first saw Maggie Greenwald’s film Songcatcher, about a musicologist traveling the Appalachian mountains in 1907 in search of songs brought over from Europe. Although the character of Lily Penric is fictional, she’s inspired by a real woman, Olive Dame Campbell. In another coincidence, Aidan Quinn plays mountaineer Tom Bledsoe, possibly the only time a potential relative of mine has been portrayed in a film. (I should note this film is not related to the Sharyn McCrumb novel The Songcatcher, which I did not read until many years later. It’s also excellent.)

The last piece of the puzzle were the stories I heard growing up about a group of people known as the Melungeons. The stories themselves were, unfortunately, typical (and fairly racist) boogeyman tales similar to the ones I also heard about black people and Native Americans, but one detail stuck with me: the claim that the Melungeons were there when the first European settlers arrived, and that no one—perhaps not even them—knew where they came from.

There was no overt connection to fairy lore in any of these sources. But when I researched the music of the region, it led me back to the Celtic ballads that had also emigrated to America. In researching those, I discovered how much the rich background of fairy lore informed both the music and the culture of the people who, ultimately, settled the Appalachians. 

And so, when I needed a central conceit to pull together all those disparate elements–history, music, landscape–I found the Other Crowd. Or did they find me?

What led to your interest in fairies?

*Bliss Overbay’s snake tattoo is inspired by Jennifer’s.

3 Comments on “Why fairies?”

  1. I like this, it makes sense to me. Also a fan of Sharyn, whose husband is from Point Pleasant WV, 4 miles from me… ye ole MothMan festival is something to behold!

    Thank you for sharing Tufa with us (me). They have helped me embrace my Appalachian roots.

  2. I grew up in a Tribal (Shawnee) community in Ozarkian Oklahoma. My ancestors, lived in southern Ohio, before the arrival of Europeans and the Shawnees eventual move to Kansas, then Oklahoma.

    As far back as my memory goes, I heard stories about “Little People”. As someone who was raised to be a storyteller, as a an older child, I was taught the background to the LP stories:

    That this planet is the home to “humans”, Sparks having a physical experience, and some of these Sparks take turns guiding the humans in learning from this physical experience. Those are the Little People. It is what I believe about fairies…

  3. I attended a one room school house from grades 1 through 5 (and then moved to a much larger school) where the number of students in all eight grades added up to a grand total of 13 children. In our library, which consisted of five wooden shelves of hardback books, I found & read a book about the Canadian First Nations and their legends. In it I found a reference to the Pukwudgie or ‘little people of the forest’. From then on I have been hooked on the stories of similar folk, whether kind natured or not. I attached a link to a page about the Pukwudgie. Thanks to them and their ilk, I am never bored.
    http://www.native-languages.org/pukwudgie.htm

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