As we always do when Halloween rolls around, Folklife Today is gearing up for scary fun! We have a couple of spooky stories in store for you, as well as a surprise in late October. Our first scary tale is Jackie Torrence’s classic version of “The Golden Arm.”
“The Golden Arm” is an old folktale of wide distribution, classified by folklorists as ATU 366. It is known in Europe, and in American tradition was told by both white and black communities. It is one of the most famous ghost stories in American tradition, having been used by Mark Twain as one of the main examples in his essay “How to Tell a Story.” You can read Twain’s version, written in somewhat outrageous African American dialect, at this link.
Born Jacqueline Carson Torrence in 1944, in Chicago, Illinois, Jackie Torrence was raised in North Carolina. She spent her early childhood on Second Creek, where she lived on a farming settlement with her grandparents. Jim Carson, Torrence’s grandfather, told the family traditional tales he had heard from his father, a former slave. Jackie trained as a reference librarian, and became a storyteller by chance in 1972, when the children’s librarian at the High Point Library called in sick and Torrence filled in. Soon, she had a budding career as a storyteller. “When I found storytelling and realized that I could make that extra money, and pay my bills, and feed and clothe my child—I went after that job with a passion,” she told Storytelling Magazine in January, 1999. Torrence became a successful storyteller and a spokesperson for the storytelling movement, appearing frequently on television, with appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and CBS Sunday Morning. She wrote two books, The Importance of Pot Liquor and Jackie Tales: The Magic of Creating Stories and the Art of Telling Them. She produced nine recordings on several labels, several of which won awards from the American Library Association. Her 1992 play, Bluestory, a history of blues music, was performed by Jackie with Piedmont blues musicians John Cephas and Phil Wiggins.
Jackie Torrence died in 2004 at her home in Granite Quarry, North Carolina.
In the player below, hear Torrence’s performance at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, in 1986. It is part of AFC’s International Storytelling Collection (AFC 2001/008). Below the player, find my transcription of Torrence’s tale. The photos are by Tom Raymond, and are part of the same collection.
I would like to tell a story
A very old story that I heard from my grandfather.
He said that, many years ago, there lived a man and his wife.
They were an ordinary couple
and every night the man would seat himself before the fireplace and smoke his pipe and watch the smoke rings curl beneath the chimney.
Now his wife was really not an ordinary person at all.
For after she finished her chores about the house
she too would take her place before the fireplace.
But her left arm and hand were made of solid gold.
And she would polish and shine
and polish and shine
that golden arm.
One night she said to her husband as she polished that golden arm, she said
Would you promise me that
if I should die before you
you will bury me with my golden arm?
Will you promise me that?”
And he said, “Huh?”
And she said, “promise me now
that you will bury me with my golden arm!”
And he said, “Oh, yes, yes, yes,
I will. Uh-huh.
Do not worry.”
Well, many years passed
and they lived together
and they were quite happy.
When one day the old woman died
and I suppose it was from carrying the weight of that golden arm.
And the night before they buried her
her husband thought to himself
“I can’t let them put that gold into the ground.
Why if I had that gold from that golden arm
I could buy myself a brand new house
I could buy myself a brand new suit of clothes
I could buy myself a wagon and ten white horses.”
So he went to the place and he cut off the golden arm.
And the next day his wife was buried without her golden arm.
But that night he stood in front of the fireplace holding the golden arm
and thinking to himself,
I’ve got the gold from the golden arm
I shall buy myself a brand new house [cackling with glee]
I shall buy myself a brand new suit of clothes [cackling with glee]
I shall buy myself a wagon and twenty white horses. [cackling with glee]
And just as he admired the golden arm
he just happened to look up through the window
and the sky that had been so bright with stars was now very dark.
And the wind started to blow about the house.
And the noise of the wind
you could barely hear a thing
but over the sound of the wind he heard:
“Oh,” he said,
“Who is that?
“Somebody wants my golden arm!
I must hide.”
He looked all about the house
and there was only one place.
it was a closet.
And he started toward the closet
But before he opened the closet door
he looked through the window.
And the sky was darker and darker.
And the wind blew harder and harder.
And the voice was just outside the front door.
“Oh,” he said,
“It’s coming in the house!”
So he stepped into the closet
And he slammed the door
And he turned the key
“Oh.” he said,
But inside the closet
it was dark
And all about the house
the wind blew harder
And all at once the door
the locked closet door
started to open
And the candles had burned low, and out.
And the fire had gone out in the fireplace.
And the wind no longer blew outside.
It was quiet.
But there was that voice
standing in front of the closet door
“Who-o-o..YOU’VE GOT MY GOLDEN ARM!”
And the ghost of his wife grabbed that golden arm
ran down through the hallway
leaped through the window
and nobody’s ever seen that ghost or the golden arm again.