Deep Down in the Delta: Folktales and Poems, by Greg Alan Brownderville with paintings by Billy Moore. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2011. $19.95.
I had heard of a book by the Arkansas poet Greg Brownderville – a collection of folk tales from his hometown of Pumpkin Bend and the surrounding Woodruff County (right next door to my own, native Cross County) Arkansas, published by the now defunt Doodlum Brother Press, but it eluded me like the Fouke Monster (the Arkansan version of Bigfoot popularized in the Legend of Boggy Creek movies you may have seen on MST3K). Now, the Butler Center in Little Rock has put out a beautiful revised edition including artwork from folk artist Billy Moore. Brownderville credits not only the residents who shared these stories with him but also folklorists such as the legendary Vance Randolph (author of many collections of folk tales and songs, as well as being a central character in Donald Harington’s Butterfly Weed) and Richard Mercer Dorson for inspiration.
Most of the folk tales are brief. Many are humorous. Several fit in the genre of “rural legend” (as opposed to urban legend) though a handful also come from much older traditions that could be traced back to slavery, for example the “Big John” stories, which are essentially re-imaginings of “trickster” tales like the Anansi the Spider stories with the spider morphed into Big John, a slave who battles wits against Master. Another version of these stories would be the Br’er Rabbit stories from the Uncle Remus collection by Joel Chandler Harris and others. One example of this would be “Why Old Master’s Favorite Slave Was Killed,” which is a dark story about Old Master’s greed. “I don’t want nobody to fool with my treasure. I’m on bury it right here. And you got to be the one to see nobody bothers it,” Master says to John (pg. 75). The way he accomplishes this is by murdering the slave and burying him with the money in order to ‘curse it.” This is a telling commentary on the fruits of slavery and their karmic ramifications.
Many of the rural legend stories involve hauntings or encounters with magical creatures. “A Slip of Paper” tells the story of two girls who go to a fortune teller named Miss Mamie. Mamie tells one girl her future and writes the other’s down on a piece of paper with instructions “not to open it till she got to her destination.” On the way home, they have a wreck and the one girl dies. On the slip of paper was written “No Future” (pg. 20). “Shamefaced” gives hints on how to deal with a “midnight-colored panther: all you got to do is look him dead in his green eyes. He’ll put his paw up over them like they was stolen emeralds.” (pg. 7).
There’s a kind of poetry to many of these stories, and Brownderville has included a few examples of his own poetry inspired by folk tales as well. Brownderville has done a real service, here, chronicling these stories. Not only do they make for simply interesting reading, but they give us a real insight into the culture of rural, Southeast Arkansas. These storytellers are clever and funny, creative and unwilling to let themselves be restrained into a boring, 3-dimensional world. Perhaps there’s no such thing as ghosts. Okay. But isn’t it so much more interesting to, for even a moment, entertain the possibility? These stories entertain the possibility of not only ghosts, but all sorts of other supernatural and even commonplace things that our current overly-advertised world lacks. Also, living in the information age means that we all are inundated by the same information. Brownderville has given us a glimpse into a community that has managed to hold on to some of their own stories. He’s given us hope that things like folktales can survive without being internet memes. For that, we owe him a debt of thanks.