"DA Discusses" is a video series where reporters speak with people on campus, in the community or in the state who have influence over decisions that impact students.
Adam Booth is an award-winning storyteller and musician native to West Virginia. His original stories are a blend of traditional mountain folklore, music and an awareness of contemporary Appalachia.
In this interview, video editor Trenton Straight and Adam Booth discuss the role of storytelling and folklore in Appalachian culture. Booth shared one of his favorite stories from North Central West Virginia — The Headless Ghost of Centralia.
Portions of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Athenaeum: Well, for those of you just joining us, my name is Trenton Straight. I'm the video editor at the Daily Athenaeum. I'm joined by Adam Booth today. He's an award-winning storyteller, native to West Virginia, and his stories are typically a blend of traditional mountain folklore, music and an awareness of contemporary Appalachia. As a nationally touring artist and member of the recording academy, Adam has won numerous awards, including four Storytelling World Awards, and he's also a four-time champion of the West Virginia Liars Contest. For those of you that don't know, that is where the state's best storytellers compete annually for the title of "Biggest Liar". He's also working as an adjunct professor for Shepherd University, where he founded the "Speak Story Series", which is now in its eighth season -- I believe.
Adam Booth: Actually, ninth now. Yeah, we have a new season.
DA: Ok, so yeah. Adam, thanks for joining us this evening. Again, I'm sorry for the technical troubles, but we're here.
AB: It was all on my side, so thank you. I am apologizing to you, and thank you for your patience.
DA: Yeah, no problem. That's, you always risk something going live that's out of your control. But just a start, Adam, could you kind of shed light on what's the day in the life of a storyteller like?
AB: Wow, I wish there was an easy answer to this because every day is a little bit different, and it depends on what type of events. Like, for example, you know, I'm going to speak from my experiences. It depends on am I telling stories to someone that day? Am I giving multiple concerts that day? So, if I'm doing that, then I'm preparing for the shows -- whatever that might happen to be. Thinking about the different sets of stories, I might tell, depending on where the event is. If it's in person, then it's packing up my car and getting all my gear together and driving. And sometimes that might be several hours or a day, depending on where in the country the event is. That might include flying, you know, so they might have travel around the country. If I'm not telling stories on a particular day, then I might find myself teaching. And if I'm not doing that, then I'm researching. I do a lot of research of stories and sometimes that's reading. Sometimes that's going to archives and digging through the archives, looking for stories or sitting with other storytellers and listening for them or collecting stories. So for me, like every day could be completely different and very wonderful.
DA: Yeah, and you referenced packing up your gear. For those watching, They might not imagine a storyteller would have gear. You know, what would you be packing on your typical trip?
AB: Well, if I'm not flying, like if I'm driving to a gig, then I have a big sound system. I always have an extension cord there because like a lot of storytelling happens outside and usually, there's not, you know, an outlet right there. I have microphones. I have musical instruments. Depending on who I'm telling to, I might take some musical instruments with me. And I have all my promotional materials, business cards. I have recordings that I take to sell and then of course whatever clothes I'm wearing for the event.
DA: And you occasionally bring instruments as well, depending on what story you're telling?
AB: I do. Yeah, and I'm in my studio right now and I'm looking. So, I have a couple just right around here. I have this fancy set of bells I use with children more than adults. It sounds like this. I have a limberjack, which is a percussion instrument. I've got a few more, but they're behind my lights, so I might pack up my banjo or the dulcimer.
DA: So how is the pandemic kind of shaped your work in the last year? What has changed for you? I'm sure a lot of what you do is in person.
AB: It's changed wildly. So, you know, storytelling as an art form is really about community. It's about people coming together and sharing space and sharing emotions and going into the world of the story together and then coming back together. And when we're doing that over a device, it's a very different experience. It's a very different skill set that the storyteller is employing to try to make that happen. And last year, my calendar was completely devastated. I was supposed to be all over the country telling stories. But of course, one of the biggest dangers of the coronavirus is you can't gather together. So much of my work last year was rescheduled to this year and then it's been rescheduled to next year or future years. But some of it was transformed to virtual storytelling. So I started telling stories online, through Zoom, in teams and platforms like that. And like I said, it's been a very different shift for what this art form is and trying to make it work because I don't get that feedback from people where if I'm in the same space, I can hear them sigh, I can hear them laugh, I can hear them crying depending on the story. And you don't get that this way.
DA: Yeah, and you kind of speak on that, what role do you think you play as a storyteller and within Appalachian culture, or what do you hope to achieve?
AB: Well, I guess that's ever-evolving throughout my career. So certainly I want to be an ambassador for Appalachia when I'm outside of the region telling stories, letting people know what Appalachia is and dispelling myths about this place, trying to break some of the stereotypes and let people know more about the diversity of people that came to this region and more about the people who were here before immigrants came in and the diversity of belief systems and the diversity of storytelling styles that are here. So that's one thing. I'm always trying to keep certain stories alive -- the traditional stories that I think are good and worth keeping alive. I try to share those with the younger generations of Appalachians so that they know this is part of their history and the cultural life of this region and to get more people telling stories because it's very much a part of who we are in this region.
DA: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, and how did you? Is this something you've always wanted to do, or is it more of something that you kind of stumbled upon? I know you're from here, but, you know, storytelling, is that something you've always wanted to do?
AB: No, it was not. I was actually a very shy child and getting up in front of people to speak was terrifying. And like, whenever I would speak up, I was often shot down or the things that I said were just like awkward. And so, there was a little unsettling for me as a kid. But, I grew up around a lot of storytellers in Cabell county and Wayne county, and my family goes back into Lincoln County as well. And, so, I grew up hearing stories from generations of great storytellers. And it wasn't until I was a student, when I was in college, that I realized that I had inherited this treasury of culture and regional history in the stories that my family had passed to me. And it was while I was at college taking a class in Appalachian culture that I realized this could turn into my life. And, you know, as an adult, I was different than as a kid. So I actually like being in front of an audience now.
DA: I'm sure you've gotten used to performing in front of others. And it's probably just second nature to you by now.
AB: Mostly, but I still like almost every time there's a little bit of nerves, there's a little bit of trepidation. And what I've learned is that storytelling gives me the opportunity to share things with people that maybe wouldn't have otherwise listened to me. And I think that's powerful and that's privilege.
DA: Is there a particular part of your job that you most enjoy -- it could be one feature, maybe even an experience that you've most enjoyed as a storyteller?
AB: Wow, that would change just about every day, but I will tell you that making children laugh is one of the just most amazing feelings. And I tell stories to people of all ages, you know, very old people, very young people and ever in between. But to be with a group of strangers and to connect with them on some level, and in this particular example, to be with children and to tell them a story, just use words and they start laughing. Wow, what an incredible, incredibly validating experience.
DA: What's the farthest destination you've ever made, like where's the farthest place in the United States? You said you travel on a national level. Where the farthest you've gone to share?
AB: Yeah. So so the furthest place I've been is Seattle within the United States. So, I told stories in the SeaTac area, Seattle-Tacoma, and I've actually been to Canada to tell stories. And I had an invitation to go to Asia to tell stories, but I backed out of it for, there were a few things that were happening in my life at the time and it just wasn't the right move. But hopefully, I'll get abroad again to tell stories.
DA: So being, I'm in Morgantown currently, what can you tell us about the north-central area of West Virginia with storytelling? I know, you know, Appalachian storytelling is unique, West Virginia storytelling is unique. Is there anything unique about North Central West Virginia that sticks out to you?
AB: Well, it's, first of all, like not thinking in a unique sense. I'll just say very broadly that it's a region very rich in stories. And it's a place that several important story collectors focused on. And because of the people that immigrated to that area for the industry's, historically in our state. And so there, it's a region that has some really well-documented storytelling traditions, which is pretty fantastic because some places in our state aren't like that. So a number of stories have been collected from the north-central region of West Virginia and published as literature, which is a great resource to go back and to be able to see some of the history of that region. Now, what makes it unique? There are some pretty incredible, haunting stories that come from that region. We have haunting stories all around, ghost stories and witch stories. But I think that there are some from that region that are very special. I'm not exactly sure why it's such a popular genre from that part of our state, but it is.
DA: Yeah, it seems like it is that way. So what stories you have for us today? I assume you've brought some from the north-central area.
AB: Yeah, like central to North Central West Virginia, so you'll have to tell me since we got started about 15 minutes late. Are we going to continue with that or do we need to truncate?
DA: So we'll just we've moved up about 10 to 15 minutes, so you can work with what you had originally.
AB: Great. I'm checking my time. OK, super. I have never told stories to my phone before, and my setup here is very much for my computer. So, I'm seeing that it looks like I'm kind of in the dark at night, which is perfect for the stories that I'm going to start to share with you. So I wanted to tell you a story. This is the furthest away from where you are. This story comes from the furthest away within that region. It's actually from a story that was collected down in Braxton County, so a little bit south down on the 79 Corridor. And I love spooky stories. And this is a story that I have never come across another story that shares the motifs in this story. And so it's one of the reasons I wanted to share it with you, because to me it is a little more unique like you're asking about. So it's a story from Braxton County and it comes from the 19th century. And can you hear me OK? Like, is it clipping any do I need to turn it down?
DA: Yeah, you're perfectly fine.
AB: Okay, it was in the time when the railroad was being laid across the mountains of West Virginia, and in those days when the rail would come so would a whole group of traveling people that would come and help lay the rails -- people working as "Gandy dancers," that is laying the rails and hammering them down and folks that would come and fix food for the workers and so on. It was a ragtag bunch that would follow the rail to help lay it down.
AB: And every now and then, individual strangers would show up. And there was a man who came to this part. And the area I'm talking about was the town that isn't much more than a wide spot in the road these days. But back then it was a little more and it was called Centralia. And there is a man that showed up by the name of Jacob Beamer. And the folks in this rail camp loved Jacob Beamer, for a few reasons. First, he was a great storyteller, so, you know, I loved him as well, but second, his stories were the most fantastical, unusual tales. He told stories about all kinds of wild things that had happened to him. But the most unbelievable and fantastic of all of his stories was his personal story. He swore to everyone there and everyone that he met that he and his parents came from the moon.
AB: And the story went something like this, he'd say, "Now, you all might not realize this, but a long time ago the moon was much closer to the earth than it is today." And when it was closer to the earth will it shared a similar type of atmosphere. And there were plants that grew on it. There was all different types of beings and creatures, including a race of beings very much like humans -- moon beings. And that's where my parents and I came from. In fact, back in those days, you could travel back and forth from the moon to the earth effortlessly. On a certain time during the month, right there on those moonbeams, just traveling to be down at the earth and spend some time there. Then go back. Well, once there came flashing across the sky, a great big meteor so big that it lit up the entire sky, a shield of red flame and light was cast from the front of it all behind as it came screeching across the sky. It hit that moon with such force that threw it out into the sky to where it is today. And the impact was so hard that it immediately killed everything that was there, striking it, barren to look like that big rock face that you see today. And all of those moon beings died. With the exception of Jacob Beamer's parents and him. Of course, he was telling the story, but as he would have said, "We were down on the earth when it happened and we were the last three of our kind, and after my parents died, I was the last one."
AB: Now, you have to imagine him telling the story at a coal or a rail camp, and when he was done, it was evening, maybe a bottle was being passed around and they'd say, "Yeah, right, Jacob, that's a good one. You really pulled our legs there." But as I mentioned, he was a curious, strange fellow. Not only did he tell stories like this, but he would go out walking. And you got to remember, this was in the 19th century, no street lights, just the light of the moon to light up that area was very dangerous to go walking at night like that. And he would walk along and some folks said that if they watched him when he got to a certain point, all of a sudden, the second figure would show up next to him -- a great big figure that you could kind of see right through. And they would walk along the rail together. Folks said it was his moon spirit come down to keep him company and keep him safe here on the earth. Well, one time, Jacob Beamer and his moon spirit were walking along the rail must have been deep in conversation, went so deep in conversation, they didn't notice that coming around, coming around, coming around that railroad track in that big bend that was cut through the gap, coming around, coming around, coming around here came a train coming around, coming around.
AB: And they were so deep in conversation, Jacob, we didn't even hear it. He didn't feel the earth shaking like this. And it came around and it hit him so hard, it threw him from that railroad track down into the brush. And the impact was so great. That it decapitated him right there. Now, of course, nobody knew this because they were all asleep back at the camp. It was the next day that when they went to walk along the railroad to do some more work, that they found his body. But they didn't find his head. And from that time forward, whenever the moon was in a certain place and in the month, they said that that moon spirit of Jacob Beamer's would show up and next to it was a ghostly-looking figure, about the same size and cut in the same shape as Jacob Beamer, but the only thing was he didn't have a head. And those two would search back and forth along the railroad tracks, as if they were looking for something that he was missing.
AB: And these sightings continue, the continued, continued until the early part of the 20th century. With the last time that Jacob Beamer's headless ghost was ever seen, there was a man that had gone over to those parts. He was setting up a deer stand to do some hunting, and the moon was visible in the sky and the moonbeams were shining down on that railroad track and into the gap cut through the bin where the railroad went around like that. And he was settin' things up and noticed. That sound behind him that caused him to turn was those two figures. Only when he told the story later, there was the moon spirit and next to it, Jacob Beamer's headless ghost, but, tucked under his arm was a white, round skull. Just as white as the face of the moon itself. And this hunter said that he saw them floating along the tracks when they got to the cut in the mountainside instead of going through, it looked like they just stepped right onto the moonbeam and lifted right up into the sky, never to be seen again.
DA: So how, just kind of for historical reference, how old is that story?
AB: I believe it goes back to the second half of the 19th century. I haven't looked into the records to see when the railroad actually came through that part. But in my mind, I want to say it's like the eighteen-eighties or eighteen-nineties. It goes back to at least that time.
DA: And our most stories in Appalachia passed down through, you said records as and writing, there's documentation of everything?
AB: Yeah, well, we're we're a culture that loves to talk. And so, of course, there's plenty of generational passing down need to need storytelling. But like I mentioned, there were some collectors. There was this big push in the 20th century, the middle of the 20th century, to collect stories, traditional stories for fear that things like the radio and the television would displace traditional storytelling. So while there is still the oral tradition happening, a number of stories have been written down and printed. So, for example, that story is printed. I brought some resources here. It's printed in a book called "Appalachian Ghost Stories" collected by James Gay Jones. I don't know if you can see his name there, but he did some work at Glenville State College.
DA: Ok, so before we get off here, do you have anything big on your horizon for the summer?
AB: Yeah, so each summer I work at the West Virginia Governor's Honors Academy. And so I'll be returning this summer and I'm teaching a course on "Cinderella" variants of Cinderella, including some Appalachian Cinderella and "Little Red Riding Hood" and from around the world. And then I'm teaching a course on West Virginia ghost stories and monsters. So we'll cover some famous ghost stories like the "Greenbrier Ghost" and "Wizard Clip." And we're going to talk about some of the famous cryptids from West Virginia, like The Mothman and the Braxton County monster and some of the lesser known, like the Snallygaster. So, I will still be doing that. And then we're hoping that in-person storytelling resumes at the end of the summer. And if that happens, then I'm going to be in Utah and Tennessee and Texas, all around the country telling stories in person.
DA: Now, as the governor's honors academy, is it a hybrid course? Are they doing it online and in-person? Are you guys primarily in person by then?
AB: So they're actually two, they're happening this summer because last summer's couldn't happen. So the 2020 academy is going to be in person and 2021 is partially in person and partially virtual in the opposite order.
DA: Well, Adam, thanks for joining us. Thank you to everyone else and for your patience. Remember, you can follow Adam on Instagram @wvteller or visit his website at www.adam-booth.com. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter @dailyathenaeum or catch up on the latest news at thedaonline.com. Adam, thanks so much for joining us today. It was great speaking with you.
AB: I appreciate it.
DA: Yeah, of course. Thank you.