The Test of Sharing and Teaching a Dying Tradition

In my time of practicing these ways and testifying on the hills, I’ve often had a nagging feeling in regards to those who wish to take and take and take from Appalachia in order to profit on it elsewhere. Our music, food, dress, economics, way of life (and now our magic) have all been exploited for profit by namely outsiders trying to tell our story or “join” our region. Well, darling, sorry to disappoint but we’re not a pit stop for your greedy-occult hands nor are we some sort of social experiment that should be prodded and studied by those who never lived these ways. So let me tell ya about it all.

Growing up in Appalachia wasn’t all shits and giggles. We didn’t hoop and holler with the pigs and horses having fun. More often than not, a beloved pig was slaughtered so the family’d have money to eat on. The mountains weren’t hiked for fun, it was a hard task, especially for those old folks who did so well into their golden years, searching for ginseng, bloodroot, and moss to sell till the next monthly check came in.

I guess you could say I had somewhat of a privilege growing up in the city and the country alike. On one hand I knew hard work and on the other I knew the comforts of a shopping mall and hospital near by. The housing we lived in growing up was by far not the best. You forget that the landlords here are dirt poor too sometimes. Leaking roofs and moldy bathroom tile wasn’t as bothersome as you’d imagine. We simply got use to it. We had to.

No job will just hire you on the spot, nor will they just hire any willing person anymore. My mother worked numerous jobs, often simultaneously, to keep food on the table and a roof above our heads. She still managed Christmas presents for me and my sister, what little there was. But we were taught at a very young age, “You can’t take all this with you when you go.”

We got evicted once, due to an error in the office that was later admitted, and we lived in hotels on and off. Spent thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years in the Fox Inn. All the while, my mother was exhausted still trying to provide enough for us to be okay and still enjoy the holidays. We had no car then. Didn’t for a long while actually. She’d walk five miles to her job, in the snow and cold, and walk back later that night.

With no car and the motel being far out of the schools range, I walked further everyday for school in cold and snow. But I didn’t mind. I had assumed man of the house a long time ago and I knew me staying out of school would have worried her more. All of this she did, all the while rampant with slipped disks in her back, fibromyalgia, and a blood clotting disease. To me, my mama is the embodiment of Appalachian womanhood. She went through hell in her life, was in a gang, dealt with an abusive husband (which sadly isn’t rare in Appalachia), and raised two kids all by her self, sometimes with nothing but two cribs in the apartment, where she lived on Raman noodles for months.

From her struggle and rearing us up right, I’m proud to be the man I am. She made me up to have access to possibilities she never had. I graduated high school, I’ve traveled the country making a grand a week, and found real love. Cause her situation showed me what Love wasn’t supposed to be. She played the role of mother and father, and by the clay beneath these hills she did it. Went I reach the top, Mama, I promise you’ll have everything you deserve and more.

Now to see these outsider folks come into these hills trying to school us on how we can better ourselves under a system that has been broken from the get-go is blood boiling. Nana calls ‘em a bunch of three-legged bastards (if you’re Appalachian, you’ll get it).

Then we see novels and stories and movies that sadly do not portray the poverty, drug addiction, daily trials or culture in these hills accurately. Poor Susan can’t pay her mortgage because of buying Christmas presents for her kids. Ha! More like there’s only a turkey, it’s a fake tree with little ornamentation, the electric got cut off that morning, and there’s a 1 inch crack under the door where the winter comes in, perfect when the heat won’t work.

And God forbid anyone speak on the drug problem we have. Meth, crack, morphine, and prescription pills addiction makes for poor man here. I’m rambling now, but I recommend you get educated on this region’s issues. This culture has grown from all sorts of oppression, from race to religion to status. Now to see this medico-magic tradition blooming forth again and being harvested, picked apart, and turned into bullshit for money is… well, it’s an abomination to my blood and yours.

In writing Backwoods Witchcraft, I am cautious and aware of just how many people claim this in their family or sell it off for money. Now I do run Little Chicago Conjure, which supplies the roots of this work for folks, but it’s all handmade, heart-charmed, and blood-blessed. I never plan on making special labels for my items nor do I plan on racking my prices up out the ass to $200 like some folks. It is all priced on the ratio of supplies, time, work, and small profit. My classes and teachings will always be as cheap as I can have them. Because the folk that matter in the re-birthing of this work don’t have $50 to chuck out at every chance to learn these Hill-roots their mamaws did.

These other folks, however, are skimming websites that are ill-informed and selling the information in classes and courses that is, to put it kindly, bullshit. Nothing but snake oil salesmen. You just can’t trust folks like you used to. So I’ve been picking my writing in pieces, saving back those things too special to be known from paper and ink, saved to be taught by hand and word, sanctified under the sweat and blood of our Ancestors.

I’ve thought of everything from selling the book only in Appalachia to even questioning whether I should write it to begin with. But both ideals have crumbled under logic and further thinking. In today’s age, you hear “I respect this tradition,” but their actions speak louder than words when they say the charms your grandparents used to, but in a Wiccan circle under the guise of a god foreign to this magic. Folks today don’t like labels. But I don’t mind them much. They keep things from being in chaos. It’s the removal of labels and barriers that create modern people who can’t define their practice because they follow so many things, so they say eclectic, which is one frog hair away from appropriation.

Now I have no problem with New age folks, nor those who are eclectic. But this eclecticism has become a major problem in paganism and the magical community today. It’s apparent in Vodou rituals ran solely by white people, by folks honoring spirits outside of initiation in that path, and by folks with little to no native ancestry following the paths of animal guides and sweat lodges.

My goal is to preserve this tradition the best I can, along with the help of other workers who feel the same here. My fear is that by teaching this tradition that I may also be giving away its lifeline and endangering it by allowing outsiders to get their hands on it. Because not everyone can be trusting, respectful, or humble even though they’ll say a million times they are.

The work I teach is the culmination of studies and time on the works and tricks practiced here. Every family here has those little superstitions, but not every family had a worker who aided the larger community. Every family used herbs for healing and such, but it’s the deeper teachings that were reserved for the worker. Rarely were these teachings taught or shared outside of the worker’s own practice or family for fear of losing power (in the formulas) when it is passed on to someone else.

Many people do not like me and the work I do. I’ve dreamed-true of those snakes in the grass and the eyes behind the lamp shape. So, I killed the snakes on fishing hooks and set the shade afire. People do not like me because I am authentic in what I teach and tell people. I don’t bullshit around like some do. If I don’t know something, I’m not going to “wing it”. I will refer you to someone who does. People don’t like me for the fact I am teaching the actual ways, keeping the Christianity in it and not mixing in paganism or new age philosophy. If Mamaw didn’t follow it or do it, I ain’t talking about it.

I’ve always been rebellious in all I do, especially in my beliefs and practices. It runs in the family. My great grandmother Myra got kicked out of the Baptist church… for wearing a hat. Back in those days women couldn’t wear hats, only bonnets. She’d leave the church walking home and when she got far enough away she’d take off the bonnet and replace it with the hat she had hid under her dress. Her daddy and the preacher saw her do it one time and they told her she couldn’t come back unless she begged God for forgiveness in front of the church and apologized to them as well. Needless to say, she became a Methodist.

Driving home tonight, I was singing the hymn Down To The River To Pray, wondering if my grandfather would approve of where I am now in this work and where I’m going with it. It was then I saw him in the rear view mirror for a split second. Scared the hell out of me at first, but it let me know that he is there.

So here I am, at the crossroads: to either keep the tradition alive to myself and let the faux folk magic of these hills continue through the Internet, or set the record straight and teach the livelihood of these hills and the medico-magic that inhabits it. It may be mixed with other things by people later on, but time will mark down my book and teachings as the point when the flower bloomed and Appalachian Folk Magic was remembered, this time for what it truly was and is with no pagan influence from today’s age.

Of course no good doctor gives all his secrets out, but I will help and aid and guide. So I plan to do just that, through all the trials I come into, to rebel against the advice of other workers, and let fate take its course. I plan to educate folks on the magic of these hills and if this last try be it’s official dying breath, then I will remember it as it is and was, and so will my family. It may be picked apart and traded by many people, but it will remain in my blood and soul and bones until I go Home.

It’s time that the magic of our grandmothers’ aprons and the magic of our granddaddies’ medicine returned to the blood and life of their descendants, to where it belongs… in Appalachia. For Appalachia.

Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below:

3 thoughts on “The Test of Sharing and Teaching a Dying Tradition”

  1. I do so enjoy reading your blog and I love the tribute to your mother in this post – quite the woman!
    Although I’m originally from South Africa, I discovered a rootwork and granny magic in a Facebook group and find it resonates with me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jake,
    I wanted to share how appreciative I am to find you and your blog. I grew up in the Appalachian Hills in Ohio and can relate to many of the things you post. I found my way to you and “granny magic” via Wicca and paganism. I studied and couldn’t find anything that really hit home until I stumbled upon a granny magic book where it all seemed to sink in and take me back to my own roots where I thought my family was just crazy. As I keep learning, I realize that all I needed to do was look back in the hills of home. I appreciate how you keep the old traditions true. If it weren’t for you, I’m sure the old traditions would’ve been lost to me since my old folks are gone and not around to learn from. I look forward to your book-even if I have to travel back home to buy it!

    Liked by 1 person

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