Tag Archives: Appalachian

Wild Honey for the Empty House of the Stare

Appalachian Wonder Tales

Loughborough University

17 November 2016


Professor Joseph Sobol performs Jack and the Least Girl, Loughborough University, November 2016, by Kevan Manwaring

In these bleak, mean-spirited times it is good to be reminded of our common humanity, and of the great, bubbling cauldron of tradition which we can all draw nourishment from – that heady gumbo of story, song, poetry, joke and riddle.

Let the stranger be welcome by the hearth, gather round and hear their story. They might not be so different from you after all.

I travelled to Loughborough Uni for the first time to see a visiting American professor, Joseph Sobol, from East Tennessee State University, who was performing his Appalachian Wonder Tales show, Jack and the Least Girl. This was an impressive medley of songs and Jack Tales. I was impressed by how much musicality he wove into the show, using singing and cittern playing to animate, engage and punctuate. He used call-and-response to encourage audience participation. He used a lot of topical reference about benefit ‘checks’, social security numbers, IRS and so on. He began with a movingly resonant rendition of WB Yeats poem set to music, a cri-de-coeur expressing the current zeitgeist in the States. Then he offered a ‘warm up tale’ about Jack trying to find gainful employment in hard times. Jack had no specific skills so could ‘turn his hands to anything’. He’s our classic Everyman. Then Joseph did this tour-de-force medley of Jack nursery rhymes, songs and references, all woven into the same meta-song, which he got us to join in with. Then, after these epistemological preliminaries, we got down to the stories proper – three fully realised tales: one of Jack the fool; one of Jack the giant-killer; and one of the Least Girl – Jack’s counterpart and more-than-match. He wove these narratives together in lively, unexpected ways, in the spirit of Sondheim’s Into the Woods – fairy tale characters bumping into one another in the story forest and having ‘unofficial’ conversations, commenting upon one another’s story or performance (number of giants’ heads being a good indicator!) in a meta-narrative way. The professor used sing-song refrains, in different registers (or keys) throughout. At one point he shook my hand as ‘Mr King’. Throughout his performance he worked the audience, making sure they were on board. He did exceptionally well, despite the aisle breaking the ‘energy field’ of the audience down the middle, and the frequent interruptions (late comers; a Shakespearean ‘rude mechanical’ janitor coming in to ask when he would be finished so he could lock up; my early exit).None of these noises off derailed him as he responded in a spontaneous way. Overall, the performance was funny, kinetic and acoustic, resonant and timeless.

I had to dash early but got to ask him a question about the musicality and topicality – I was interested to know if it was his ‘USP’ was endemic to the culture of the region (eg there’s a well-established Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro). He answered that there are 2 traditions: the traditional tradition, where tellers tell ‘em straight; and the contemporary personal anecdote tradition. Professor Sobol does them both and also changes his style according to the audience, as any good storyteller does, eg telling them in a traditional manner for school-kids, and making the style more complex, multi-layered and politically aware (NB not ‘correct’) to adult audiences. I felt I was given a fascinating insight into the Appalachian storytelling tradition; and made some useful connections, especially the research cluster of Arts in the Public Sphere at the Uni, which includes storytelling, poetry, and other forms of live lit, as well sculpture, murals, etc. I asked to be kept in the loop. Professor Sobol will return in the early Spring, and I look forward to hearing the second half of the show after hearing ‘the trailer’, as he jokingly described his adventures in long-form storytelling.

Storyteller, music-maker, folklorist, and author Joseph Daniel Sobol is an artist and scholar of wide-ranging accomplishments.  An artist-in-residence for many years in North and South Carolina, he received a Masters in Folklore from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. In 2000, he was appointed coordinator of the graduate program in storytelling at East Tennessee State University, where he is a tenured professor in the Department of Communication and Performance. He tours internationally as a storyteller, lecturer, teacher, composer, and virtuoso musician on cittern, guitar, and various fretted instruments (visit http://www.josephsobol.com).

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

 The bees build in the crevices
 Of loosening masonry, and there
 The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
 My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We are closed in, and the key is turned
 On our uncertainty; somewhere
 A man is killed, or a house burned.
 Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 A barricade of stone or of wood;
 Some fourteen days of civil war:
 Last night they trundled down the road
 That dead young soldier in his blood:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We had fed the heart on fantasies,
 The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
 More substance in our enmities
 Than in our love; O honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

— William Butler Yeats

FFI: http://www.josephsobol.com/http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/aed/


Rick Ward – Bard of Beech Mountain

Rick Ward, banjo-player; and Kevan Manwaring, writer, meet in Boone, NC, August 2015

Rick Ward, banjo-player (left); and Kevan Manwaring, writer, meet in Boone, NC, August 2015

In August 2015 I travelled to North Carolina, following the song-trail left by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpales a 100 years ago when they travelled around the Southern Appalachians collecting songs and dances (throughout 1916-1918, though Sharp’s initial sorties in the area began in 1915, widening the trail blazed by Olive Dame Campbell). I was keen to hear some authentic bluegrass in situ, but I didn’t expect to meet a genuine tradition-bearer.

I was introduced to the remarkable Rick Ward, banjo-player and maker, balladeer and storyteller (and many things besides) by Mark Freed at the Jones House, Boone – a centre for Appalachian music a stone’s throw from App. State University. I left a message, hoping to have a chat while I was in town, passing south to Asheville. On my very last day there, realising it was looking unlikely that I’d be able to arrange a time to meet-up, he kindly suggested I picked up a copy of his CD from the Jones House. I went along but the sole member of staff couldn’t lay hands on one, so it looked like I was going to leave empty-handed. I explained this to Rick on the phone as I headed back to rendezvous with my hosts at a Main St coffeehouse. I would be leaving in thirty minutes, and who knows when I would be next passing through?

On a whim, Rick offered to swing by and drop off a CD.

We met in the parking lot, instantly recognising each other, despite having no description to go on. I guess we both look the ‘part’ – Rick, a genuine Beech Mountain musician with a true grit glint in his eye, and myself, an English writer and academic. We hit it off straight away, and Rick generously opened up and shared some of his backstory.

Descended from long-hunters – the early mountain men, like the town’s namesake, Daniel Boone, who ranged the Appalachians for months at a time – his folks have been in the Beech Mountain area for over three hundred years. He said the Wards were originally from the Nottingham area of England. I grew up just down the road (in American terms) in Northampton. Uncannily, I recalled an old schoolfriend who shares the same surname – and there is a physical resemblance! Could these two Ward families be descended from the same source? It was a thrilling thought, one that momentarily made the worlds knock against one another. Perhaps that is why I felt an affinity, and maybe Rick felt the same – something like common ground. A stranger who was not so strange after all.  I imagine Rick appreciated my sincere interest in his culture. I was deeply impressed by his sense of history, of identity, of belonging to a bona fide tradition. He learnt ‘banjer’, as he puts it, from his grandfather, the well-known Tab Ward (recorded by the Smithsonian) and his father – a distinctive ‘double knock’ style; as well as the art of making the instruments (fretless variety) themselves. His mother, sister and grandmother (Grandma Bradie) all sang and played to, but it was Granpa Tab (passed away when Rick was 16) who would be his major musical mentor: ‘I still think of grandpa as the master and me as the apprentice because when I play, I hear certain sounds and techniques that others can’t hear.’ (Keeping the Tradition, 2010, sleeve notes). He grew up surrounded by musicians, each with their individual styles, such as his cousin Stanley Hicks (of the famous Hicks family – Ray Hicks, the great teller of Jack Tales), Willard Watson, Ran Shook,  Lonnie Ward (uncle), and Frank Proffitt Jr. In 1998 he won first place in the ‘old time banjo’ category at the Appalachian Fiddlers Convention – the same year I became Bard of Bath after winning the local eisteddfod in the Somerset city.

Rick’s interests don’t stop with the music – he’s a fine storyteller, farmer, herbalist, carpenter, quilt-maker, Civil War re-enactor and Martial Arts grandmaster. It was a genuine pleasure and a privilege to meet him. Suddenly, the long, weary trip down from Rhode Island felt worthwhile.

Our conversation, in a corner of the coffee-house, was all too short, but before we parted, to my delight, Rick offered to relate one of his tales, which I recorded on my phone. Here it is:

Rick Ward tells a comic mountain story, recorded by Kevan Manwaring August 2015

Listening to Rick’s blistering CD, ‘Keeping the Tradition’, on the way south in the car, confirmed my impressions: he’s the real deal. An accomplished Bluegrass banjo-player and singer from a longline of talented souls. He felt like I had shook hands with history – albeit a living and breathing one. The music of the people is very much alive in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Rick is a fine ambassador of his tradition.