Appalachian Wonder Tales
17 November 2016
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