Saturday, December 1, 2018

Story - Music - Words

When I Was One And Twenty
The Things a Storyteller Can Unlock by Chasing a Great Piece of Music

I’m one of those guys who came to a storytelling career from a songwriting career. I still bring a lot of my life as a songwriter to my work as a storyteller. And when I was invited to write this article (an invitation by which I felt very much honored), I gathered my Dylan quotes and my Stephen Foster tunes and my Tom Waits lyrics, and set out to write an article about all of the doors that a great piece of music can unlock for a storyteller.

And then something happened: a great piece of music unlocked some doors for me. And I decided to ditch everything else and tell you about it:

In the run-up to Veteran’s Day, I got to produce a recording session for radio. The session featured pianist Scott Holden and baritone Robert Brandt, performing pieces by composers from the era of World War I. The music included a handful of George Butterworth settings of A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” poems – heartbreaking pieces about the golden generation that went to fight in The Great War (the poems were written, actually, almost two decades before the war, but together with the Butterworth musical settings they’re often associated with World War I. Butterworth himself was killed in the war, though Housman survived).

Scott and Robert ripped through “With Rue My Heart is Laden” and “Is my Team Ploughing,” and the lovely, melancholy “The Lads In Their Hundreds” (…The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair/There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold/The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there/And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old…).

The session filled my heart, right from the first few notes. And about midway through, we recorded Butterworth’s “When I Was One and Twenty,” that little piece in the voice of the young man who, warned against falling in love, falls in love anyway:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

It’s just a little love-sorrow poem set to music, and some would say there’s not much there – that it was the least of the pieces we recorded that day. But not me. I was arrested. That song had done what songs do: It had chased up a memory, and I began to follow it.

In the memory, I’m fifteen. I’m a brand-new high school student, and I’m spending a lot of time hanging out at the house of my pal, Dave. Living at Dave’s house, in addition to his folks and his siblings, is a cadaverous old great-uncle – Ralph Badley. Ralph is in the very last chapter of his life, and much of him is gone already. His ancient voice sounds like Dick Van Dyke’s bank president from Mary Poppins.

What’s more, every chat with Ralph winds up featuring, at some point, a recitation of “When I Was One and Twenty,” forced out through his whining old larynx.  Ralph thinks that a couple of high school guys like Dave and me – both teetering on the edge of falling in love with a different person every other week – should perceive the poem as especially wise. And of course it’s totally lost on us. We’re listening to Depeche Mode and Talking Heads records, and for us, Ralph is…

Well, to us, he’s hilarious. We’d as soon listen to Ralph recite Housman as go downstairs and watch Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, and for the same reasons. In the high school cafeteria, one or the other of us will sometimes wheeze out “But I was one and twenty, no use to talk to me!” just to make the other one choke on his milk.

In the memory given to me by the song in the recording session, I can see it. To us, at fifteen, Ralph is a laugh riot. He is, in fact, something like the family joke.

Ralph has been gone now for about thirty years. I hadn’t thought about him in nearly that long. But when Robert Brandt, in the recording studio, sang, “But I was one and twenty, no use to talk to me…” I saw Ralph again. I saw him like I’ve never seen him: Ralph was a child in a time that saw the beautiful hope of the world – its shining young men – used up in the machinery of a war that changed everything forever. Though I only ever knew him in a kind of baffled dotage, Ralph was, in another time, part of that radiant generation. The Great War left sixteen million dead, and then, in the very brief years that followed, more than 50 million more, killed by regional genocides and flu. The world would never be young again. And those Housman poems at which Dave and I tittered in high school were an enormously beautiful, melancholy expression of that time. Ralph’s heart was so full of them that they spilled out of his mouth every time he opened it.

A great piece of music had kicked in the door to a memory, and I had followed the memory through to a change in the things I thought and believed. And that might have been enough. But there was more to do (and I’ve come to feel strongly about this): I needed to talk to the other people in my memory.  

So after the session, I shot a text message off to Dave. Our conversation looked like this:

Me: “Can you talk?”
Dave: “I’m in a meeting. But it’s boring. I can text.”
Me: “Okay. I just recorded ‘When I was One and Twenty.’”
Dave: “What’s…oh, wait! That! Ralph Badley’s poem? You’re kidding.”
Me: “Nope. Not kidding. And I’ve been lost in thoughts of our own naiveté – yours and mine – in those days when Ralph was, for us, mostly comic relief.”
Dave: “He was pretty funny.”

And then, in a long text message, I tell him what happened in the recording session – about Ralph coming back to me on the wings of that Butterworth song, and giving me a new way to see him. It takes a long time.

Dave: “I’m sorry to make you text all that.”
Me: “No problem. I’ve been thinking about Ralph, and how lightly I took him, and about the weight of beauty and longing and sorrow and loss that his generation carried with it. You and I, in our time, have never seen its like.”

Long pause.

Dave: “Most of us took him lightly.”

The screen was still for a long time. Then, from Dave:

“I hope there’s a heaven. I can’t wait to meet the real Ralph Badley.”

I guess a storyteller always hopes that one’s process might lead to such a place. I get there, when I do, through a process that often includes a great piece of music opening me up to a memory, and then handing me off to explore what’s there (with the other people in the memory, if I can find them). In this case, the process led to two old friends, caught together in a moment of…well…“repentance” is the word that comes first to mind; we were caught in a moment of mutual reflection and greater awareness – an admission of folly and a resolve to be better men. It was a moment of greater and more meaningful communion with someone we had lost.

That’s how it works sometimes – a great piece of music can open doors for storytellers, to places worth going. I’m happy Ralph and Dave and Scott and Robert came to me to help me tell you about it. It’s what I would have said with Dylan quotes and Stephen Foster tunes and Tom Waits lyrics. Ask me about those, too. They’re cool.

Sam Payne, a 2019 Florida Storytelling Festival featured teller, has brought his stories and songs to halls in Canada, Bulgaria, Tokyo, and from coast to coast in the United States.

His workshop, That's What the Music's For, will be offered during the festival.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Food Stories

One day I noticed the majority of the tales I was telling had something to do with food. Some are about a character with a prodigious appetite who devours everything in sight. Others feature an unlikely hero who uses cleverness to keep from being eaten by a bully. Then there are the trickster tales, where a greedy character uses trickery to get food. There are stories where magical objects produce an unending flow of salt, rice, porridge or pasta. Some stories emphasized the mouth-watering look and smell of food, while others contained lessons about sharing. The following are some of my favorites for telling - solo or tandem, many times using puppets, songs and audience participation. Tis the season! Enjoy all the great favors-and stories-of the season!

Prodigious Appetites

“The Very Fat Cat”

It would be hard to find a culture that doesn’t have a story of creature so hungry that it consumes everything until it pops like a balloon or gets cut open. I’m particularly fond of the version from India about a parrot who invites his friend, a cat, to dinner. Unfortunately, the cat is so hungry that it swallows up everything on the table, eats its friend the parrot, goes down the street and eats everyone it meets, until it eats a little crab. When the crab uses its claws to cut a hole inside the cat, everyone escapes, but the cat is hungry again. One source is Fat Cat: A Danish Folktale, by Margaret Read MacDonald.


An Appalachian tale of a bear who swallows up a whole family that is intent on getting “sody” (baking soda) to make biscuits for breakfast. A quick-thinking pet squirrel defeats the bear and rescues the family. Half the fun is describing how the biscuits smell while cooking, look with butter melting down their sides, and taste when you take a great big bite of one! One source is “Sody Sallyraytus” in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase. 

How to Keep From Being Eaten

“How the Turtle Cracked His Shell” 

Wolf steals persimmons from Turtle and in turn is tricked into almost dying from choking on an extra big persimmon. When his life is saved by the other wolves, Wolf seeks vengeance on Turtle. Faced with being boiled for supper in a clay pot, Turtle outsmarts Wolf and ends up safe in the river, although his shell gets cracked in his escape. A Cherokee story adapted by Robin Moore, in Ready-to-Tell Tales, edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney.

“The Lion and the Rabbit”

An evil lion is tricked by a very clever rabbit into attacking his own reflection in a well. This fable from India, as adapted by Heather Forest, can be found in Joining In, compiled by Teresa Miller. There are a number of variants (some featuring an evil tiger) from Africa and the United States.

Just Like Magic

“Sweet Porridge”

A good little girl receives a magic pot, along with special words to make it start (and stop!) cooking sweet porridge. One day the little girl is away when her mother wants porridge and says the magic start-cooking words to the pot, but forgets the words to make it stop. By the time the girl returns, the whole village is covered with porridge. A Grimm’s fairy tale adapted in Storytelling Activities by Norma Livo and Sandra Rietz. Probably its best known version is Tomie de Paola’s Strega Nona, where the magic pot cooks pasta. You can also find tales of a grinder that makes salt, a wooden mortar and pestle that produces rice, and a kettle that duplicates anything put in it. 

“The Gingerbread Man”

This runaway cookie gets away from everyone until he meets a cunning fox. There are many versions of this classic tale, including a poem by Rowena Bennett, in her The Day Is Dancing and in Sing a Song of Popcorn by de Regniers. For a kinder ending, try Jan Brett’s Gingerbread Baby (with a boy’s help, he escapes) and Gingerbread Girl (she out-foxes the fox). Runaway food stories can be found all over the world, including ones about bannocks, pancakes, buns and rice cakes.

Greedy tricksters

“Spider and Turtle”

Turtle visits Spider just at dinnertime. Spider invites him to eat, but insists that Turtle first wash his paws in the stream downhill. When Turtle returns, much of the food is gone, but Spider says his paws are still dirty. After a couple of trips, Turtle’s paws are clean enough, but all of the food is gone. Politely, Turtle thanks Spider for the “fine dinner” and invites him to a meal at Turtle’s house. When Spider visits Turtle, he hears that dinner’s ready, on the table at the bottom of the river. “Hurry on down, Spider.” Spider jumps into the river, but is too light to go under -- diving, splashing, nothing works. Then he stuffs rocks in his jacket pockets, jumps in the river, sinks right down to the table, and reaches for the food. “Stop!” Turtle says, “it’s bad manners to wear a jacket to dinner. Take it off!” Spider does and pops back to the surface, without eating anything. One source: Anansi and Turtle Go to Dinner, by Bobby and Sherry Norfolk.

The African trickster spider (sometimes known as Anansi) loves food, is notorious for not wanting to share and often resorts to stealing food. Two other fun stories are “Anansi and the Hat-Shaking Dance” and “Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock”.

“Stone Soup”

(A tale about a good trickster.) A ragged stranger comes to a town where everyone is poor and hides any bits of food they have. The stranger says he needs is a fire, a pot and some water, because he has a special stone that makes soup. When the stranger tastes the soup he laments that it would be better with just a bit of… And as he mentions each item (salt, pepper, meat, vegetables, bread), someone remembers a little something that they can add to make the soup better. Finally everyone has contributed, the soup is done, and it is delicious. Stone Soup, a version by Heather Forest, gives special emphasis to to the lesson learned about sharing and helping each other

Contributed by Susi Shaeffer
Ormond Beach, FL.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Looking Ahead - Down Memory Lane

Check your planner!  It’s almost here. In just a few short weeks, the 34th Annual Florida Storytelling Festival will make its mark in the wonderful world of story. Of course, we have all marked our calendars to be there. Lakeside Inn room reservations have hopefully been made, and map directions to Mt. Dora have been printed out or put into our cell phones.

With the count-down to opening day, activity is picking up with the board members, volunteers, and attendees.  We just received word that the winners of the Youthful Voices Virginia Rivers Scholarship have been announced. So, there are some happy youth tellers and families making their plans.

Along with some outstanding invited tellers, the festival abounds with many opportunities for tellers of all ages to tell their stories. We still have time to finish brushing up one of our stories to be ready for one of those opportunities.  Yes, this year will be one hoppin’ and tellin’ place! Truly something for everyone, so please nail down those plans to join us.

If you want to get even more excited about the upcoming celebration of story there in Mt. Dora, just go back and revisit some of the pages in our electronic newsletter “InSide Story.” Looking back through some of the articles we are reminded of the wonderful moments we all experienced together as we listened and told our stories over the years.

So many from which to choose:

“Her delivery was a wordless commentary on the content.”

Read Mary Lou Williams’ take (here) on Janice Del Negro’s talent wherein she “…excavates and decorates the bones of traditional folk and fairy tales…” - sounds delectable, doesn’t it!

“…of all the props that I use as a storyteller the most beneficial to my audiences are the puppets that I use.”
Windell Campbell (a featured teller at our 33rd festival) takes us through the “ins and outs” with his analogy of baseball (here). He keeps it real as he discusses the “strikes” that are against him when he goes to tell at a school, and then shows us ways that he still scores for a big win by using puppets. Windell was a huge hit at the festival and always scores a homerun as he connects with his listeners, young and old.
“Practice only on the days you eat.” - Shinichi Suzuki

 With important points like the one he quoted from Shinichi Suzuki, Ward Rubrect gives us a valuable 101 course on the genre of story slams (here). If you have ever wanted to dive into that world, this article is the place to get your feet wet from a true Olympic story slam star. After you read the article, join us at the festival this year to hear from Ward as he is one of our featured tellers this year.

Many more articles are found online at the FSA webpage. Take a few minutes to explore and enjoy. Then you will be even more eager to join us at the 34th Annual Florida Storytelling Festival this April 12th. Join us, and then we will have stories to tell.

Until then,
Wanda Violet

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Stories Connect Us All

If you have been around the storytelling world for any time at all, you have heard the expression, “Stories connect us all.” The longer you are around this world, you will find more and more proofs of that.  Many times, the connection is through the message or the theme of the stories wherein we hear notes of life from someone’s story that resonate with the songs inside us.

Sometimes, the connection is the actual bringing people together who would never have a chance to meet had it not been for a story event.

About five years ago, I “stepped through the looking glass” and entered into the magical and wonderful world of storytelling. Because of that, I have had some incredible experiences that have encouraged me, validated me, and, as we say down South, have blessed my heart.

The latest confirmation was just before Christmas. My husband and I have lived in small-town America, Madison, Florida for about nine years now, and we love it. During the past four years I began working with the local schools to see if their students could start telling stories with us. Each year, more schools get on board and more students are writing and telling stories.

Students are selected to tell their stories at our Madison County Florida Storytelling Tellabration!TM each year, and trust me, they are the stars of our stage. The townspeople love this part of our event and enthusiastically support and encourage all the student tellers.

Some of our students have even won a Virginia Rivers Youth Storytelling Scholarship which allows them to tell their story on the main stage at the FSA Festival. What a thrill for all of us involved in this small-town effort to promote storytelling!

This past Tellabration!TM (held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year) we had more student tellers than ever, and they were remarkable. I have the privilege of working with them at their schools, coaching them and helping them get ready for the big day. Many of them, some as young as ten years old, have never told a story on a stage like that to hundreds of people, and they were brave and determined, and they were a success.

Now, for the connecting part -- fast forward to December of last year when our little town had its Mayberry-type Christmas event (Light Up Madison) in downtown Madison. It is one of the biggest events of the year with families coming from all over the region to participate in the events. I was there volunteering at a booth, when suddenly, I felt two little arms wrap around me. I turned to see the smiling face of one of our younger tellers. Now you and I both know that being loved by a child is a joy, and in my book, an honor. This precious girl was so excited to see me. Please trust me, it wasn’t because it was me. It was because she and I connected through her telling. Were it not for this storytelling movement in Madison, I doubt that I would have ever had the opportunity and the privilege of meeting her and her family.  

What a thrill for me that stories, storytelling, did literally connect me to this precious child and her family. So, perhaps you too would want to find some connections in your storytelling world by helping some young people tell stories. I promise you, the connection will be priceless.

To learn more about opportunities for young tellers, see the FSA website. YOUTHFUL VOICES

Wanda Violet