About the Story
"Wiley and the Hairy Man" is an African-American folktale written down only in 1932. Here is the background of how it came to be recorded.
The 1920’s was a time of hope for the world: World War I was over, and people thought of it as “the war to end all wars.” Manufacturing boomed as cars and assembly-line machinery of all sorts poured from factories and were bought by the public, especially in the United States. Because of the improvement in farm machinery, farmers could grow much larger crops. They bought more land, more machines and planted more acres. Stock prices rose higher and higher as businesses grew and people’s faith in business grew. Banks lent money to businesses, farmers and individuals so they could buy supplies, stocks, houses and materials. People began to live more and more on credit, borrowing to pay for everything they bought.
In October 1929, the stockmarket crashed. Prices fell by 40%, setting off the Great Depression around the world. The price of farm goods fell because there was now way too much food and no one to sell it to. In 1930 a bushel of wheat sold for the lowest actual price in 400 years. Banks began to fail because too many customers were unable to repay their loans. People who had their saving in banks panicked and ran to withdraw their money, but the money wasn’t there. The banks had lent it all out. Banks around the world went bankrupt and their customers lost all their savings. Between 1929 and 1932, five thousand banks closed, and the average value of 50 industrial stocks on the New York Stock Exchange fell from 252 to 61. Thousands of businesses closed because they did not have the money to operate, and millions of people lost their jobs.
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. He decided that the only way out of the Depression was for the government to invent jobs. The money to pay for the jobs came from government savings bonds, which were to be repaid with interest after a number of years. Some came from taxes and some was borrowed from abroad.
Jobs were invented to build dams to provide electricity, as in the Tennessee Valley, or to build schools, roads, canals, bridges and government buildings. Under this program, called the New Deal, the US economy began to recover.
One of the very smallest of the government projects created under the New Deal was the Federal Writers' Project. This project paid people in each of the 49 states to go out and collect local history, songs, games, legends, riddles and folktales. "Wiley and the Hairy Man" was one of the many folktales recorded then, as part of the collection from the state of Alabama. It was written down by Donnell van De Voort, a white man, who had heard it as a child from the family gardener. I read it in A Treasury of American Folklore, a book edited by the head of the Federal Writers Project, William Botkin.
To illustrate it, I took a bus down to Montgomery, Alabama, where I stayed for two weeks. I rented a motorcycle, and every day I would ride out onto the back roads with my sketchbook and talk to people on the farms, telling them the story of Wiley and asking them what sorts of things I should include in the pictures so they would show life on an Alabama farm in the 1920’s. Everyone I met was friendly and helpful. All the pictures I drew are from real life—though many are of people who posed for me once I got back home to Massachusetts. The pictures are in pencil and black and white paint on grey paper, which was cut out and pasted onto a white background sheet.