Sometimes the emcee is as entertaining as the tellers. That's how we were introduced to Kevin Kling a year ago. If Barbara McBride Smith or Ed Stivender or Gayle Ross is the emcee you look forward to their brief moments on stage.
Gay Ducey was emcee for the Sacred Telling session in the College Street Tent on Sunday morning. What a hoot! She performed the usual anti-cellphone duty to the tune of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus":
We know how much you love your cellphone,
You take it with you everywhere,
But if it rings while we are telling,
You'll be standing in the need of prayer!
Then in her best and most solemn voice she recited the rest of the usual "Thou Shalt Nots" of audience etiquette.
My Facebook friend, Suzi Whaples, was our first Sunday teller. She told a touching tale of a street person in Charleston, WV, who hung around the office building where Suzi used to work. Mary Jones was expressionless and definitely less than articulate, but Suzi made the effort of greeting her every morning and afternoon nonetheless. When the woman was suddenly killed in an accident, Suzi learned that her daily greetings were more important than she realized. "Be careful how you treat strangers," Suzi reminded us, "you might be entertaining angels, unaware."
Corinne Stavish was next. Of Jewish heritage Corinne is known for her bible stories told from the perspective of women from the Old Testament (Sarah on Friday). But this morning she spoke of her mother's creative uses of the common exclamation, "Oy veh!"
"I understood," she said, "that compassion passed directly from God to my mother." Though she also admitted that her mother "... had anger management issues of her own." Embedded in this story of her mother was a tale she borrowed from a writer named Kohn (sp), "The Princess Who Never Cried".
When Gay took the stage to introduce Bill Miller, she had to interrupt herself to turn and cough. She immediately turned back to the audience with an unwavering gaze to announce, "Don't worry -- just a hair ball."
Bill Birdsong Miller is a Mohican who grew up on a Wisconsin reservation. He sang two of his songs: "Listen to Me" and "Dark River"
Next came the inimitable, unlimitable, Kevin Kling. He told a short Ukrainian folktale called "The Mitten". Then told of some of his own childhood experiences in church. During one seemingly endless church service he noticed the long list of names under a stained-class window next to his pew and whispered to his mother to ask who those men were. "Those are the men who died in service," she replied. Kevin wondered, "The first service or the second?!!"
Abbi Patrix is this year's international teller. He's a Frenchman. He is an amazingly animated, joyful teller, whose stories give the impression of being created before you. They are more than passing strange. Unique. They include bits of chanted or sung French phrases. One was a dream/vision from the night before, or maybe moments before, about an ascension into the sky and his deposit outside the tent just before the telling. He reminds me of the lesson I try to teach my children before a performance: If you have fun on the stage, you audience will have fun too. Abbi always seem to be having great fun!
As Gay introduced the wonderful Carmen Agra Deedy, one of my very favorites (and a friend of our family friends the Jorge Gonzales family), she despensed with the usual admonitions and just just said: "Make your Mama proud."
Carmen told of her first visit to the public library in Decatur. Tersi, her older sister --- and another wonderful teller and my Facebook buddy --- took her there to be rid of her for an hour or so. (I'm sure there's another side to this Tersi!) This is the story in which Carmen describes Tersi as a "pink flamingo" in her ballet costume. She also beautifully paints the WPA murals in that library on our mental canvasses and sculpts for us a very Southern, very tough, and very loving, librarian.
Parenthetical aside: Some of my favorite folks have been librarians... Gloria & Priscilla, WC Owen, Matilda, Ms. Burge, Avis & Martha, Sadie, Libby, my buddies on the Bookmobile, even old FB friend Tony, and those whose names I can't retrieve, at the library in Griffin where we walked with my Mama in the fifties, and in the cannery-building library at Ellijay. I read all the Hardy Boy books and so was reduced to checking out Nancy Drew "for my sister".
Librarian Mary Mac explained to little Carmen that "you don't like books because it hasn't found you yet." So of course Charlotte's Web leapt off a shelf in no time, almost onto her toe, and found her, and Carmen was hooked.
I had to note this wonderful detail: "Librarians are all about precision - three-ninety-eight [quick index-finger jab accompanied by a sound-effect "pttt"] point-two"
Bil Lepp was next and chose to tell the familiar "My fourth-grade teacher was Wonder Woman". Fun all over again.
Bill Birdsong Miller was back with a few more songs: "Blessing Wind" "Blowing in the Wind" [We were invited to join in], a Jim Pepper song, and "Wild Horses".
Jay Ocallahan presented a tribute to the late Brother Blue. "Brother Blue flew above his ego."
The joyous Abbi Patrix was back to talk about the Creator and his imagination. He often accompanies his stories with a hand-held Kalimba. The Creator "... looks at man and thinks, 'I can do better!'" We must "... tune ourselves with the world."
We got our second taste of Charlotte Blake Alston -- I wish we had heard more from her -- who told a tale I have heard on Sunday morning, maybe from Jim or David, about the little girl teased about the futility of trying to toss all the stranded starfish on the beach back into the safety of the sea, "... to this one it will matter".
Bil Lepp came back on and talked of his experiences with other languages and as an exchange student in Germany. I laughed so hard I forgot to take notes.
Rafe Martin told folktales. I enjoyed them without jotting any notes.
Then here came Suzi Whaples again.
We are ready for the tears to flow as our hearts are rended as usual. She elicits tears alright!! The most tearful laughter of the festival!! She begins by discussing how language has changed since her childhood and teen years. She has learned that peddle-pushers are now capris, for example. She told of the incredulous looks she got from her granddaughters when, concerned that her granddaughters have appropriate footwear for the beach, she asked them if they were taking their thongs. With great timing she drew out this misunderstanding for several minutes ending with: "Well, if y'all feel that strongly about it, I'll leave my thongs at home, but you'll never talk your Granddad out of wearing his!"
Corinne Stavish told of her father's reaction to a neighbors petition to keep "those people" out of the neighborhood. She ended by quoting her father: "Honey, never be afraid to do the right thing. The time to be afraid is when you don't."
By this time I think Gayle Ross is the emcee. Her introduction of Andy Offut Irwin was simple: "Take cover -- incoming!!!"
Aunt Marguerite is back of course, this time with a campaign to change the Newton County High School "Lady Rams" (????) to the "Embraceable Ewes". Braswell plays cymbal in the band and uses them for an impractical joke that he thinks goes unnoticed, but he's convinced otherwise when Margueite remarks, "Braswell, that's a wonderful use of symbols."
The festival ends for those of us at the College Street tent with the grand old man of storytelling, Donald Davis. Donald talks of visiting Hugh Massey's Toggery with his mother. Her only admonition before they entered was two words: "Be Have!" Of course he didn't. After all "I was only six. I didn't have a memory yet. Didn't need one."
And it's over. We rush to the "Resource Tent" - It's only open for thirty more minutes! - and drop a hundred dollars (it's only money) for an assortment of storytelling CDs to listen to on the way home. Sheila has finally succombed to my cold and is miserable so we head back to the hotel where she collapses into bed and I go out for soup-to-go from Panera. After a long night of sleep, we have a brunch at IHOP across the street -- no diet today -- and Sheila sleeps more as I drive listening to Andy Irwin and Kathryn Windham and Kevin Kling thorugh the beautiful Tennessee countryside.
Alright, Facebook friends! I want to organize a real, big name with local talent interspersed, Northwest Georgia Storytelling Festival! I can see those beautiful white tents blooming in the pastures at Berry College, or down in Booger Hollow at the Burton Farm. Tie it to Chiaha? Or Waterfest? Maybe get the Georgia Writers group involved.
We've got Tersi & Carmen & John & Andy right there in the Atlanta area. Kennesaw has a storytelling professor! We've got Jane & Barbara & Bob (and Terrell, of course) here in Rome. Shoot, Ms. Windham and Donald Davis aren't all that far away.