Kentucky has a strong storytelling reputation—you can help carry on that tradition
Tall Tales, True Tales
“Turn off your cell phones. Lay your hand on one of the beams and listen to the echo of the past.” —Storyteller Gaylord Cooper, at the Covered Bridge Festival in South Shore
“Let me tell you a story ...”
With these words—whether uttered in a library, on a front porch, or at a storytelling festival—comes an anticipation that makes the heart beat just a little faster.
Henry Dodd, great-grandfather of South Shore storyteller Georgia “Granny George” Purtee, had a black horse that always won at county fairs. Eventually the prize-winning horse distinguished by three white stockings was banned from entering, to give other horses a chance. But Dodd, a Civil War veteran, needed the prize money to feed his family. He devised a plan and painted a white star on the horse’s forehead. Another year, he painted black stockings on the horse. Dodd and his jockey would change their appearances, too, like growing a mustache. Some people asked, “Isn’t that the same horse that won a few years ago?” But the ruse worked, and the horse won prize money for several years.
Some stories are true (this one is, says Purtee. “Well,” she adds, “the facts are true.”). Some stories are fiction. In its simplest form, storytelling is someone telling someone else’s story to someone else, says Gaylord Cooper, who, along with Purtee, founded the 15-member Eastern Kentucky Storytellers Guild in November 2003.
Storytellers tell the experiences of others, of their own, as well as legends, tales, and myths that go back centuries. It is a way to pass on family history, moral values, and traditions, says Cooper, a storyteller and antiques dealer. It’s a way to spend an enjoyable few minutes—or hours.
Human beings, says Kentucky folklorist Mark Brown, need to be heard and appreciated. Storytelling achieves this.
Stories have a power, says Frankfort storyteller Mary Hamilton, a power greater than the combination of words, the sound of the words, the eye contact, facial expressions, and body language.
Stories give hope and solutions, says Betsy Fleischer of Harrodsburg, who has taught storytelling to her gifted grade-school students in the Mercer County School System.
Picture a storyteller and an audience of 10. There are really 11 stories in the room, Mary Hamilton says. Each audience member, hearing the same words, will ponder and imagine the story in their own way.
Storytelling stimulates the imagination in a way no other art form does, says Kathy Crawford, children’s and youth services librarian at the LaRue County Public Library.
She says, “If I read you a book about Jack and the Beanstalk, the images you see are the ones from the illustrator’s mind. But if I tell you the story, you must use your imagination to create the giant and Jack, and your giant will look nothing like my giant.”
In March this year, Japanese storyteller Hiroko Fujita walked before an assembly at Garth Elementary School to face 300 children all sitting shoulder to shoulder. With lively gestures and facial expressions, Fujita began to tell her stories in the Japanese Fukushima dialect. The children sat, enthralled. “It’s a magic that happens,” says Earlene Arnett, director of the Scott County Public Library.
Afterward, one child was asked by a parent, “How did you understand the story?”
“You just know,” the child replied.
Body language, tone of voice, puppets, and props were some of the cues.
“Storytelling can bridge all languages and cultures,” says Arnett, who is trying to bring more professional storytelling opportunities to the community.
Storytellers, observes Robert Valentine, tend to fall in one of several groups: performance tellers, “spirit story” tellers, and personal tellers.
Spirit tellers consider the story to be sacred and downplay the element of performance. Personal tellers believe you should only tell stories you intimately know. For instance, a non-native American should not tell Indian stories. Performance tellers seek to tell the best possible stories—regardless of the origin.
Today storytellers have the advantage of how-to books, workshops, and festivals to help refine their skills. Years ago storytelling evolved more naturally.
Kentucky has been blessed with people interested in storytelling, says Mary Hamilton. When she worked as a children’s librarian in Michigan more than 20 years ago and would mention her Kentucky roots, people would say, “No wonder you’re a storyteller.”
How Kentucky earned its reputation for storytelling is largely conjecture. One story about Kentucky storytelling contends that during and after the Great Depression, Kentuckians traveled north to get jobs in factories and took their stories and storytelling abilities with them. Many then came back to Kentucky in the 1960s. One thing is certain, says Kentucky Humanities Council speaker William Lynwood Montell, “Storytelling has been with us all along, beginning with the immigrants who came with their stories to America.”
As a professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University for 30 years, Montell has listened to, recorded, and preserved people’s stories “and what local life was and is about.”
When the Monroe County native visits a town to do interviews and says what he plans to do, usually someone will just point, or say, “There’s the man (or woman) who you need to talk to.” In communities, people know who the best storyteller is.
Montell’s 16 books share the stories he has collected through some 2,500 interviews, begun in 1959 and continuing today.
There is no one Kentucky style or way to tell stories. You might hear more coal-mining stories in eastern Kentucky and more horse-related stories in the Bluegrass region, but ultimately it comes down to each individual storyteller.
“Storytelling is just a small part of what we call folk narrative,” says Kentucky Folklife Program folklife specialist Mark Brown. Folk narratives include personal experiences, folk tales, fairy tales, legends, urban legends, myths, war stories, and ghost stories. Overall, storytelling provides “a deeper understanding of human interactions, everyday art forms, and traditions.”
Despite the prevalence of informal storytelling in eastern Kentucky, “it’s an educational process here” to help people see it as an art form, Gaylord Cooper of South Shore believes. To some, the thought of being paid to tell stories sounds as preposterous as a fish tale. But some Kentuckians earn all or part of their living by telling stories. A storyteller might charge $50 an hour plus mileage for a school appearance, or up to $350 for a corporate presentation that might call for a story-based performance to help introduce a new product or build employee morale. Earnings can range to more than $60,000 a year, especially if those earnings include the sale of the storyteller’s books, tapes, and stories set to song.
Mary Hamilton notes that payment for a storyteller covers far more work than just the hour or two in front of an audience. What the public doesn’t see is the vast amount of time a storyteller spends on research, developing a repertoire, and preparing for performances.
“Daydreaming is a form of work for the storyteller,” says Hamilton. Without that, the story might not evolve as fully.
Carolyn Franzini, host of Morehead State Public Radio’s A Time for Tales, became hooked on storytelling when she attended the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee about 18 years ago. Now with a grant from the National Storytelling Network, she collects and records stories, some of which she uses on her weekly radio show.
If we don’t pay attention to the stories, says Scottish storyteller Robert Valentine, we are “divested of a sense of place and belonging.”
He notes that on Thanksgiving, Uncle Harry might be recounting, for the 18th time, his World War II experiences on Omaha Beach. The children will race off to get back to their computer games.
“They don’t hear those stories,” says Valentine. “The human telling of these stories is the important part of those stories.”
When Lynwood Montell’s five grandsons were growing up, they would do an annual overnight get-together. Montell would share family stories that had fascinated him as a child who grew up with a grandfather in the household. Today his grandsons know stories that go back as far as a great-great-great-great-grandfather.
And stories aren’t just for children. Go to a wedding and you hear stories being told. Turn on the TV and you’ll see 30-second “stories” being used to sell products. Serve on a jury and you’ll hear attorneys telling well-crafted stories about the defendant.
Think of the people outside your family you most enjoy listening to. Chances are they are storytellers, but not known by that name or occupation. George Burns, Bill Cosby, and Garrison Keillor are a few examples, says Valentine.
Hamilton says she has seen stories change lives. The Italian folk tale The Princess and the Dove tells of a prince and woman who each demand that the other make concessions that greatly compromise the other person’s life. The woman must sit in a hut for “a year and a month and a day.” The prince must build a platform from the balcony of his palace to the balcony of her palace and cover it with two inches of rose petals. Unappreciative of the other’s efforts, they spit at each other at various times in the story, but in the end, the prince apologizes to the woman and asks to start over.
A patient at a hospital performance approached Hamilton and asked, “Was that story about how you can do everything for people and they don’t notice?” Another listener began reconciling with an estranged daughter after hearing the story.
“The listener who needs a message will hear a message,” Hamilton says.
For some storytellers, a costume is one way to get the first several seconds of the audience’s attention, but attention to the outfit fades as the focus turns to the story.
“You never memorize a story; you have to know it,” says Gaylord Cooper, just as if you have observed it firsthand. When the story is ingrained in memory, you know that story. He practices his storytelling in front of a mirror and in his pickup truck with a tape recorder on the passenger seat.
Watching your audience is the best way to know how much or how little detail is needed. “Proper length is long enough,” quips Robert Valentine, a historian by training, a wordsmith at Murray Life magazine, and theater lecturer at Murray State University.
Most stories run from five to 45 minutes. One of Mary Hamilton’s stories, Children of Richard, Rhoda, and God, lasts 80 minutes. This story went through 10 years of reshaping and revising, which is still going on. Only in the last three years did Hamilton begin to feel that this story was ready to tell.
The storyteller’s mindset and performance affect the listener’s enjoyment of the story. “You’re giving someone a gift when you tell a story,” says Cooper. “You have to forget yourself.”
“Granny George,” who taught middle-school science for 30 years, keeps a Basic Bones file of stories and a file of which stories she has told where, so if she speaks to a group a second time, she will not repeat the same stories.
“‘Tell us the Grandpap story’ my students used to say, because they had heard about the story from a parent or older sibling. When I would oblige and retell the story, a child in the audience might say, ‘You left out that part.’”
She chuckles. “A story evolves each time it’s told.” The magic is that the story will never come out that way again.
In essence, we are all bearers of tradition. We are all storytellers. Tell a story or your story today to someone who matters in your life, a former Kentucky storytelling troupe used to tell listeners at the end of each performance.
Stories can bring about peace or war. It is difficult to hate someone when you know that person’s stories. On the other hand, stories can be used to create a sense of division. Those “other people” are not like us, a story can also say. Think, before you tell a story. It might just last many generations.
HOW TO LEARN ABOUT, AND SEE, STORYTELLERS
Corn Island Storytelling Festival
September 16-19, 2004
Cave Run Storytelling Festival
On the shore of Cave Run Lake
Sept. 24-25, 2004
32nd National Storytelling Festival
October 1-3, 2004
Kentucky Folklife Festival
Location to be announced
Sept. 15-17, 2005
Kentucky Storytelling Association
Currently being organized
P.O. Box 4148
Frankfort, Kentucky 40604-4148
Host of A Time for Tales
Looking for storytellers willing to tell their stories
Morehead Public Radio/90.3 FM
International Storytelling Center
Live Daily Storytelling Events
116 W. Main St.
Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659
From Memory to History: Using Oral
Sources in Local Historical Research
by Barbara Allen and William Lynwood Montell, 1981
American Association for State and Local History
For a list of techniques of good storytellers, click here: storytellers