Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden (May 2017)
As social beings we require—we crave—actual association with others. The art of modern storytelling is simply an updated version of a centuries-old tradition.
“Stories are where you go to look for the truth of your own life.”
― Frank Delaney, The Last Storyteller
Once, in my very early days as an advertising copywriter, I slaved over a particular magazine ad for days. I brought to bear everything I had learned about buyer demographics, product features, and unique selling propositions, as well as my own sizzling prose, and I impressed myself with the result. I sent the draft copy up the line, sat back, and waited to be told I was on this year’s list of Addy nominations.
But the creative director sent for me and handed back my draft with a big “X” drawn through it. Noticing my chagrin, he placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder, looked at me with blazing intensity, and whispered, “Tell them a story! Everybody loves a story!”
I’ll come back to that. This is the part where I point out that storytelling is as old as human interaction. As a communication priority, it ranks just behind reaction to environment (cold, heat, rain, darkness) and the expression of need or desire (food, clothing, shelter, sex). And it differs from those in that it moves beyond self-centeredness to the desire to report something to somebody else, to involve another person. It’s a specialized form of communication, a contract between the teller and the listener. The listener agrees to listen; the teller agrees to instruct, to inspire, or to entertain. (The story is continued below after the events listing.)
SAY IT LOUD!
A Selective Guide to Upcoming Storytelling Events in Western North Carolina
For a comprehensive list of events held around the state, visit the North Carolina Storytelling Guild website at www.ncstoryguild.org/events.html as well as David Joe Miller’s Storytelling Calendar at www.storytellingcalendar.com. In addition, if you know of additional events taking place in the WNC area, please email them at least 6 weeks in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Teller-in-Residence series comprises weekly events at the International Storytelling Center, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, with a lineup of 26 nationally-known storytellers for matinee and evening performances, as well as special ones for children and the holidays.
North Carolina Storytelling Guild Spring Retreat
A storytelling workshop will be presented at Wildacres Conference Center, in Little Switzerland, by storyteller Alan Hoal. For more information contact: Dianne Hackworth at email@example.com or 865.457.3392.
May 11 & 17
David Joe Miller Presents
Popular storyteller Miller, in addition to directing workshops on Storytelling in Business, Storytelling for Adults, and Storytelling for Children, hosts his Word! events and Open Mic! shows (anyone age 16 and older can sign up for 10 minutes of stage time; in April it was at the McKinney Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, with Lee Lindsey) throughout the year, at different locations. On May 11 at 7PM, Word! featuring John Thomas Fowler will be held at the Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville, admission is free; on May 17 at 7PM, Word! featuring Doug Elliot and Pete Koschnick takes place at Buffalo Nickel in West Asheville, admission is $15.
May 18 & June 15
The Moth: True Stories Told Live
NYC-based The Moth presents curated events featuring five storytellers (Moth Mainstage), open-mic storytelling open to anyone with a five-minute story (StorySLAM), championship event featuring ten StorySLAM winners (GrandSLAM), plus benefit shows The Moth Ball and the Moth Members’ Show. Asheville is among several other cities around the country that hosts monthly StorySLAMS. Events start at 7PM. The May 18 event’s theme is Karma (“Whether you’re fated for success or doomed for failure, what goes around comes around.”); June 15, Cheating (“Stepping out, crib sheets, tax evasion, or stacked decks. Tricks, swindles, cons, and frauds. Philanders and chiselers and flimflammers, tramps and thieves.”) Held at The Mothlight in West Asheville.
Storytelling Workshop / Made From Scratch
At the Tryon Fine Arts Center, in addition to the 1-4PM afternoon workshop, at 7PM Connie Regan-Blake (an internationally celebrated storyteller) and Tryon’s Dottie Jean Kirk (who has her own popular one-woman show) will team up for Made From Scratch: Serving Up Delicious Southern Stories. Register online (adv. tickets $17).
May 26-October 28
Drawing from a rich oral tradition dating back millennia, the Cherokee Bonfire series runs throughout the tourism season and is described as “an enchanting way to interact with the rich details of the Cherokee people and their stories.” In addition to the bonfire itself, the stories are typically accented and punctuated by the sound of the storyteller’s traditional hand drum. The series is held at 7PM-9PM every Friday and Saturday night, at the Oconaluftee Islands Park, Tsali Blvd., Cherokee. To get more details contact the Cherokee Welcome Center: firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-438-1601.
Feed & Seed Storytelling
Quarterly series, this time directed by storyteller/folk musician Elena Diana Miller. Program is supported by a grant from The Arts Council of Henderson County. Held in the unique Feed & Seed building in Fletcher at 4PM. Contact 828.684.0481, for more information.
July 8, 15, 22, & 29
Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch
Billed as “a variety of tales from other lands and from our home of Western North Carolina” and taking place at Jubilee Community Church in downtown Asheville on consecutive Saturdays, the summer series will include: July 8th: John Thomas Fowler plus Pansy Jo and her clown troupe (The Hop ice cream available for purchase); July 15th: Moonshine in the Mountains with Jon Sundell, Sandra Gudger, and Milton Higgins; July 22nd: World Tales with Daphne Darcy, Kirsten Mitchell, and Walter Ziffer; July 29th: Mountain Tales with Joe Penland, a Madison County native sharing tales and ballads learned at the feet of the old masters. Note that the initial event is specificially geared for children, with clowns and face painting in addition to the storytelling.
National Storytelling Festival
Held annually on the first Friday of October each year, this year’s festival will feature such personalities as Carmen Deedy, Sheila Kay Adams, Josh Goforth, Ben Haggarty, and David Holt. Events include the Ghost Story Concerts (frightening tales under the nighttime sky), the Story Slam! (open to all attendees’ participation), Swappin’ Ground (ditto), and the late-night Midnight Cabaret. Come to the International Storytelling Center, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, for a delight in storytelling.
The Asheville Storytelling Circle
Meets third Monday of each month at 7PM, Asheville Terrace, 200 Tunnel Rd., Asheville. Contact Wallace Shealy, email@example.com or 828.581.4603.
In 2007 Laura Hope-Gill of Lenoir-Rhyne University founded the first Asheville Wordfest featuring readings, workshops, and open mic contests. It’s now a much-anticipated annual event. The 2017 Wordfest, held last month over the course of six days, offered everything from 25 area writers and poets giving readings (one of Wordfest’s goals is to showcase local talent and community diversity), to national figures leading workshops, to Slam-styled storytelling—notably, eight-time Story Slam winner and Appalachian State University history professor, Ray Christian.
Possibly the earliest object of storytelling was to create and preserve a narrative of events, from isolated instances (that time Og killed the wooly mammoth) to a whole history (how the descendants of Og became renowned mammoth hunters). This was particularly true, and vitally important, in tribal societies, from the Hebrews to Bedouins to Native Americans. Irish and Scottish clans, descendants of the Celts, each had a bard, or seanachie, whose duty was extolling the valiant doings of his clansmen (i.e., that time we gloriously ran off the raiding McDevious clan, never mind that they took fifty head of our cattle along with them). The seanachie also served as a sort of human register of deeds who, when called upon, could provide an oral record of clan transactions and, most importantly, recite the pedigrees of the chief and his family—and testify, with his own sword as his authority, to their legitimacy. The seanachie’s duties made him so important that he was considered the third-ranking clan officer, behind the treasurer and before the piper.
Meanwhile, back at the cave: As cultures and value systems evolved, stories became useful ways of teaching community culture, ethics, and beliefs. A new phrase crept into the storyteller’s narrative: “The moral of this story is…” Some storytellers took to using the device of humanizing animals that were known to have certain qualities (the wise owl, the sly fox, the deceitful snake) and making them characters in these oral morality plays; today we call these stories fables. Aesop invented the tortoise and the hare to illustrate the value of persistence and the folly of overconfidence. A couple of thousand years later, Joel Chandler Harris recorded former slaves’ stories for his Uncle Remus collection that used exactly the same technique (“Born and bred in de briar patch!”).
Whereas fables use animals or the supernatural to make moral points, parables employ humans, in human situations; and the pre-eminent teller of parables, Christians would say, was Jesus of Nazareth. Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with the story of the prodigal son, which illustrates unconditional love, or the good Samaritan, which deals with the duty of kindness that one human owes to another.
Personal experiences make for particularly compelling stories because the teller is invested in them and is saying “This is what happened to me.” Our natural inclination is to believe the teller, and if he exaggerates a little—or even a lot—we’re prepared to cut him some slack because we identify with him as the teller. (That could be us facing down the dragon he’s telling us about, you know?)
“Stories have to be told or they die.”
For instance, there was a story told of and by a (very) distant cousin of mine whose family was active in Southern publishing and politics. He was packed off to Princeton, where his Southern-ness would ordinarily have made him an object of derision, but his family’s wealth and prominence made him exotic instead. His classmates quizzed him endlessly about Southern life, customs, and mores; and the young man was delighted to discover that the sophisticated Yankees tended to believe anything he told them, the more bizarre the better. Bearing this in mind, he invited his roommate home for Thanksgiving, to observe Southern culture firsthand. Their train arrived late at night and the two retired as soon as they got in—but not before my cousin had a quick conference with his friend, mentor, and accomplice, the family butler.
Next morning, the roommate was awakened by a discreet knocking at his door. When he opened it, there stood the butler, stone faced and immaculate in a starched white jacket, and presenting a silver tray on which was a frosty silver goblet garnished with mint leaves. The roommate was taken aback, but he accepted the julep. The butler bowed and left without a word.
Now for those who don’t know, a mint julep is simply several ounces of fine bourbon whiskey over cracked ice, with a splash of sugar water and some bruised mint. Taken on an empty stomach, it has about the same effect as being tasered. The roommate suspected as much, but didn’t want to seem ungracious, so he sipped gingerly at the drink and then set it aside while he showered. He was drying himself off, a little fuzzily, when there was another knock. There stood the butler, as before, with a fresh julep. The roommate managed a goofy smile, accepted the drink, and the butler went away. Again, rather than risk rudeness, the roommate took a couple of swallows of the fresh drink.
He was fighting a losing battle with his trousers, trying to step into them, when there came another knock. He lurched to the door, dragging most of his pants behind him, and opened it. This time the butler spoke.
“Mister John says you better get on downstairs soon as you can,” he intoned, “‘cause this is the last mint julep before breakfast.”
The South in particular harbored a treasure trove of stories and legends, thanks largely to its diverse culture.
Personal stories that highlight the benefits of a product or service are referred to testimonials in marketing, and they are one of the most powerful forms of advertising precisely because of the identification factor. When I was a kid, Ray-O-Vac flashlight batteries cleverly inserted, comic strip-format, customers’ stories into the depths of comic books. In one such strip, I remember, a narrator told of being confronted by what he thought was a ghost in an abandoned house. A beam of his flashlight revealed that it was only a sleeping derelict, but I got the message: I wasn’t going in no haunted house without my flashlight, loaded with trusty Ray-O-Vacs. Years later I thought of the strip when that creative director admonished me to tell the nice folks a story.
You know those cave paintings, the ones depicting animals and hunters and stuff? Scholars now tell us those are story outlines—CliffsNotes for prehistoric bards to use in reciting tales as they grew lengthier and detailed. As writing developed, cave walls became unnecessary; it was possible to commit much more information to a clay tablet or a sheet of papyrus. Using these early laptops, storytellers could now achieve consistency because they could readily refer to something they had already said. Thus, over millennia, were born authors; thus was born narrative style.
And the papyrus-scratchers and their descendants came to realize that one way to preserve several tales at once was to wrap them up in a larger story retold by the author in his own voice. There was a fourteenth-century civil servant named Geoffrey Chaucer who invented a whole cast of characters comprising a cross-section of English life—a miller, a knight, a couple of nuns, a libidinous widow who wore red stockings, and so on—and gave them a common errand: a pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, arranging for them to meet up by chance at a wayside inn called The Tabard, where they were eventually joined by Chaucer himself.
Chaucer, as narrator, goes on to explain that to pass the time, the pilgrims decide that each of them will tell a story. The ensuing cycle of tales is remarkable both for its insight into medieval life and for Chaucer’s ability to speak in other folks’ voices.
Five centuries later, Arthur Conan Doyle, a London ophthalmologist with a slow practice, began filling in his “too abundant leisure time” by going Chaucer one better and devising a cycle of stories told by a fictional narrator—a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Doyle’s narrator is a recently discharged army doctor, John H. Watson, who is looking for a flatmate. Through a mutual friend he is introduced to a lanky, hawk-faced gentleman named Sherlock Holmes, who astonishes Watson, at their very first meeting, by glancing at Watson’s wrist and saying, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
Yet alongside all these cultural advances and literary innovations, the oral storytelling tradition has persisted, and in America this has held true, even while the coming of paved roads and broadcast media began making community isolation a thing of the past. New England seaports, the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina, north woods lumber camps, and cowboy bunkhouses all eventually were mined for the stories they had once perforce kept to themselves.
The South in particular harbored a treasure trove of stories and legends, thanks largely to its diverse culture. Here were many story-loving ethnic groups living cheek by jowl, each group handing down its own oral tradition and simultaneously mingling it with material from all the others.
Going all the way back, Native Americans have an extremely rich oral tradition, one which continues to this day in Western North Carolina among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Prior to the arrival in America of Europeans, the Cherokee passed down their culture exclusively by word-of-mouth, spinning tales to detail their history and traditions, illuminate morals and values, and of course provide entertainment. In her classic novel about the 1938-39 Cherokee removal from their land and the Trail of Tears, Pushing the Bear, Native American author Diane Glancy outlined the significance of the spoken word to the Cherokee culture, at one point having character Lacey Woodard say, “The voice carried power. What was spoken came into being. Even Reverend Mackenzie talked of the Great Spirit creating the world with his voice. Was the white man just now finding that out? Hadn’t the Cherokee always known the power of the word?”
Here in the present, during tourist season the Cherokee host their weekend Cherokee Bonfires—fire is a sacred symbol—at the Oconaluftee Islands Park, featuring dance, music, and storytelling, with performers attired in 17th century clothing. (See sidebar, p. 67) Bonfire organizer Daniel Tramper, in an interview with VisitCherokee.com, explained, “At the Cherokee Bonfire, you can get a lot more culture and education about Cherokee. You can learn about the way we live now, and the way we used to live. It gives more insight into Cherokee, and Cherokee culture, and how great it is.”
In 1947 the folklorist B. A. Botkin published A Treasury of Southern Folklore, a compendium of stories, anecdotes, and legends he had captured in a decade of traveling from Maryland to Texas. The work contains a good many entries from Western North Carolina, including one that’s probably true, from the chapter Botkin titled “Irrepressible Cussedness”:
For a great many years, [people from Madison County] were considered to be the toughest of the tough, especially those mountaineers living in the vicinity they call Shelton Laurel. They tell a tale of an old feller coming to Asheville for an appendicitis operation… The following morning the physician went in to see how he was getting along, and instead of finding him in bed he found him sitting in a chair… The physician said to him, “Ah-ah! You ought not to be sitting up. You’ll tear your stitches out.” And the old feller looked up at the doctor and said, “What’s the matter, Doc? Ain’t your thread no good?”
About the same time Botkin was hunting and gathering, Alabama-born Richard Chase made his way to Beech Mountain, in Watauga County, North Carolina, and discovered a whole cache of storytellers, some related and some not, keeping alive the British-rooted, Appalachian-adapted material handed on from their own ancestors. In particular, Chase found and cataloged a number of “Jack tales”– stories about an adventuresome boy whose most famous exploit has come down to us as “Jack and the Beanstalk.” He eventually published these and other stories in two collections, The Jack Tales and The Grandfather Tales, both of which are still in circulation.
Among the Beech Mountain storytellers Chase heard were R. M. Ward, a descendant of the nineteenth century mountain bard Council Harmon, and Ray Hicks, who became known as “the grandfather of storytelling” in America. When the National Storytelling Festival was founded in 1973, Hicks was its headline performer, and he remained so until his death in 2002. He was, in fact, credited with almost singlehandedly reviving the art of American storytelling that began in the late twentieth century.
And thereby, if you will, hangs another tale: how face-to-face storytelling is surviving and even thriving in the electronic age.
It is frequently observed that today’s tsunami of electronically-borne information and entertainment is drowning an essential ingredient of our human-ness: our ability—and even desire—to communicate face-to-face with other people. But, some sociologists are now saying, humans are after all social animals, and more and more of them are becoming aware that virtual reality, clever as it is, can’t satisfy our need for sure-enough reality. We require—we crave—actual association with others. And nothing brings people together like the sharing of a story. Which is why there’s a groundswell of grassroots storytelling going on; it’s happening not in spite of the information age, but because of it.
Enter the Moth
In 1997 the poet George Dawes Green gathered around him in New York a group of storytellers dedicated to preserving storytelling on its most personal level. The tellers called themselves “moths,” an allusion to insects gathering under the light on an old-fashioned porch where people had gathered to swap tales.
In twenty years, Green’s original concept has morphed into a cultural phenomenon. The Moth is now an umbrella under which a whole range of storytelling projects takes place. The Moth Mainstage, based in New York, holds storytelling programs featuring both professional and amateur storytellers. The latter may even include famous folk from other walks of life—politicians, actors, writers, newspersons—who simply have a stories of their own to tell. The Mainstage also goes on the road, A Prairie Home Companion-style, to cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cambridge—and even Asheville.
But much like poetry slams have, over time, been embraced by a sizable segment of the poetry community, so, too, have story slams steadily grown in popularity.
The Moth hosts “StorySLAMS,” which are open-mic storytelling competitions organized along the lines of poetry slams. These are actually competitions in which ten storytellers (whose names are drawn at random from a pool of contestant hopefuls) present five-minute narratives relating to an assigned topic. The tellers are then awarded points, a la Dancing with the Stars, by panels of judges. There are rules: Stories must be personal, and they must be true (there’s an honor system in play), and the tellers must not use notes or scripts.
Some traditional or “classical” storytellers look askance at the StorySLAM and other open-mic, free-for-all story sessions on the grounds that, as Robert Frost once said about free-verse poetry, it’s like playing tennis with the net down. Similar to how certain literary critics and members of the poetry community have complained about competitive poetry slams, storytelling traditionalists object to the story slam’s competition format as crass and irrelevant. And they express concern that its focus on strictly personal subject matter discourages the universality, the abiding truth or moral, inherent in all great stories. But much like poetry slams have, over time, been embraced by a sizable segment of the poetry community (American poet Marc Smith is generally credited with creating the first poetry slams, in Chicago in 1984), so, too, have story slams steadily grown in popularity; National Public Radio program The Moth Radio Hour, which debuted in 2009 and went on to win a Peabody Award the following year, has played a significant role in introducing the public to the artform.
On a chilly March evening in the middle of the week, the line waiting for West Asheville’s Mothlight venue to open stretched half a block down Haywood Street and around the corner. The crowd queuing up for this month’s installment of The Moth: True Stories Told Live was predominantly under-30 and wearing the official Asheville under-30 winter uniform: women in boots, skinny jeans, and down vests; men in watch caps, hoodies, and Doc Martens. At seven o’clock they filed in, easily filling the rows of chairs set up on one side of the former storefront (the bar occupies the other side). They fell quiet as, after a few preliminary announcements—the evening’s assigned topic was to be “wonder”—the first storyteller’s name was drawn out of a hat.
This was a woman whose story was an elegy for a long lost friend who had succumbed to alcohol and drug addiction. She was followed by a prepossessing, white-bearded gentleman in a prominent hat who said he was from the Ozarks and launched into a tale about the doings of three eccentric brothers in his hometown. Next up was a young man who said he was an empath, a term used “chiefly in science fiction,” according to Google’s dictionary, to describe someone capable of taking on the mental and emotional state of another person.
All in all, it was a long way from Jack and the Beanstalk. But fans and performers alike applaud The Moth’s approach, saying it promotes the commonality of being human, encourages self-confidence, provides valuable experience, and has in fact served as the launching pad for hundreds, if not thousands, of storytelling careers.
David Joe and the Buffalo: A Really Open Mic
Just a few doors up Haywood Street from the Mothlight is Buffalo Nickel, another 1920s storefront converted to a popular neighborhood bistro. Downstairs is food and drink; upstairs is pool and entertainment (not usually at the same time). And once a month, sort of, it hosts Spoken Word OPEN MIC!, a free-form storytelling session, under the leadership of nationally prominent storyteller David Joe Miller.
Miller, a genial man with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, is a career storyteller who, besides performing in the usual storytelling venues—schools, libraries, camps, festivals—has also carried his talent into corporate board rooms, executive retreats, and even political rallies. (He also puts on David Joe Miller Presents WORD!, bringing fellow storytellers to town to perform at different area venues, including the Buffalo Nickel.) Miller is a native of Jonesborough, Tennessee, which is considered to be the hub of American storytelling and is the headquarters of the National Storytelling Association, where Miller formerly served as staff storyteller. He’s a past board member of the National Storytelling Network and the founder of the Jonesborough Storytellers’ Guild.
Miller’s open mic series at Buffalo Nickel is now in its third year. “My wife and I had been here before and we loved the food,” he told me one recent evening. “We got to know the owners, Lynn and Rob Foster, and we started talking and they said, ‘Why don’t you do it [the open mic] here?’ It’s proved to be ideal.”
Unlike the Mothlight sessions, those at Buffalo Nickel are almost entirely unstructured. There’s no assigned topic and there’s no competition. Participants can read from notes or texts if they want; in fact, written narratives and even poetry are allowed. Hence, the first presenters on the evening in question were two women; one spun a yarn centered around the battle of Gettysburg and the other discoursed on the joys and pitfalls of retirement living. They were followed by a monologue, a reading from the draft of a novel, some rather scatological poetry, and a recitation, all making for a lively, diverse evening of entertainment. Lack of structure aside, the audience was clearly engaged with the stories and supportive of the storytellers.
“It’s all spoken word,” said Miller. “That’s the thing.” And he quotes a favorite aphorism of his, a line from Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees:
“Stories have to be told or they die; when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
STORIES SET TO MUSIC
If you break a story down into four-line stanzas, of which the second and last lines rhyme, you have a ballad. As in:
In London town, where I was born,
There was a lady dwelling
Made every youth cry “Well-a-day.”
Her name was Barbara Allen.
In the late nineteenth century the Harvard professor Frances James Child published his life’s work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, an exhaustive, five-volume compendium of transcribed folk ballads and their numerous variants, which he cross-indexed according to subject matter. It was Child’s intent to demonstrate how, within the storytelling tradition, a ballad can survive innumerable local edits, references, and substitutions, and still retain the nexus of its original story. He ended up with 305 examples, of which “Barbara Allen” is Number 84; you’ll find it in the weird-goings-on-about-unrequited-love section.
In 1916-17 the English musicologist Cecil Sharp performed a reverse twist on Child’s research by combing the Southern Appalachians for remnants of British balladry that had been set to music. He stumbled (well, not literally) upon Olive Dame Campbell, who was engaged in the same sort of collecting. In Western North Carolina they found a treasure trove of perfectly preserved old-country musical stories, which they published as English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. (Sharp then returned to England, some said, after having ripped off much of Campbell’s research; in 1919 Campbell’s husband, educational missionary John C. Campbell, died; so in 1925 she founded the still-thriving folk school at Brasstown, which she named in his honor.)
Appalachian ballad making did not confine itself to preserving ancestral subject matter. The technique is too dynamic for that. As it had generations before across the Atlantic, it became a means of conveying, and often editorializing about, local news:
Oh hang your head, Tom Dula,
Oh hang your head and cry.
You killed poor Laurie Foster
And now you’re bound to die.
Nor did the storytelling-in-song confine itself to these mountains. There has always been a fine ballad tradition in New England. And as settlers pushed westward they brought their ballad/storytelling techniques with them and applied those techniques to what was happening around them: In the spring of 1882 much of America found out about the death of its most famous outlaw by means of a ballad that was sung, it seemed, in every saloon and music hall:
killed many a man.
He robbed the Glendale train.
He stole from the rich and
he gave to the poor
With his hand and his heart and his brain.
Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life.
His children, they were brave.
But the dirty little coward who
shot Mr. Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.
(Jesse James was calling himself Thomas Howard at the time he was shot dead, in his own parlor, by his cousin Robert Ford, the aforesaid coward.)
A 1949 mayoral election in Boston gave birth to another ballad: a campaign song, set to the tune of “The Wreck of Old 97,” that protested a proposed subway fare increase. The song told of a hapless apocryphal passenger named Charlie who, not having another nickel with which to pay the new rate, was doomed to stay on the train for eternity:
Charlie’s wife goes down to the
Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two,
And through the open window she
hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin’ through.
A decade later the song was picked up by The Kingston Trio and it rocketed to the top of the popular music charts. The folk tradition is nothing if not versatile.
Even in this totally automated age, new ballads are made every day. They require no musicianship beyond the ability to carry a tune and no expertise other than the ability to rhyme a few words. Try it: Pick a story you think needs telling, borrow a tune from somewhere (unless you already have one running loose in your head), and check the online rhyming dictionary. You may surprise yourself. And even if your ballad is only ever heard by the family dog or cat, or a few indulgent people at your next cocktail party, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve participated in a tradition almost as old as humankind.
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