The stories in this collection were taken down from the lips of over sixty negro story-tellers in the remote country districts of Jamaica during two visits to the island, one of six weeks in the summer of 1919, the other of five weeks in the winter of 1921. The music was all recorded during the second visit by Miss Helen Roberts, either directly from the story-teller or from a phonographic record which I had made. In this way the original style of the story-telling, which in some instances mingles story, song and dance, is as nearly as possible preserved, although much is necessarily lost in the slow process of dictation. The lively and dramatic action, the change in voice, even the rapid and elliptical vernacular, can not appear on the printed page. But the stories are set down without polish or adornment, as nearly as possible as they were told to me, and hence represent, so far as they go, a true folk art.
Although some story-tellers claimed to know "more than a hundred" stories, no one narrator gave me mote than thirty, and usually not more than four or five at one interview.
To all such story-telling, as to riddling and song, the name of "Anansi story" is applied,--an appellation at least as old as 1816, when Monk Lewis in his journal describes the classes of "Nancy stories" popular in his day among the negroes as the tragical witch story and the farcical "neger-trick." The "neger-trick" harks back to slave times and is rarely heard to-day; tales of sorcery, too, are heard best from the lips of older narrators. Modern European fairy tales and animal stories (evidently unknown to Lewis) have taken their place. Two influences have dominated story-telling in Jamaica, the first an absorbing interest in the magical effect of song which, at least in the old witch tales, far surpasses that in the action of the story; the second, the conception of the spider Anansi as the trickster hero among a group of animal figures. Anansi is the culture hero of the Gold Coast,--a kind of god--, just as Turtle is of the Slave coast and Hare (our own Brer Rabbit) of the Bantu people "Anansi stories" regularly form the entertainment during wake-nights, and it is difficult not to believe that the vividness with which these animal actors take part in the story springs from the idea that they really represent the dead in the underworld whose spirits have the power, according to the native belief, of taking animal form. The head-man on a Westmoreland cattle-pen even assured me that Anansi, once a man, was now leader of the dead in this land of shades. However this may be, the development of Jamaican obeah or witchcraft has been along the same two lines of interest. Magic songs are used in communicating with the dead, and the obeah-man who sets a ghost upon an enemy often sends it in the form of some animal; hence there are animals which must be carefully handled lest they be something other than they appear.