Last Laugh: Storytelling Festival

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Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
The Sage of Plumtree Crossing recommends the National Storytelling Networks' storytelling festival.

“Had to shoot my dog the other day. “
“Was he mad?”
“Well, he weren’t exactly pleased.”
Marshall Dodge 

Well sir, here it is the dead of winter, but I ain’t goin’ to tell you a thing about how them rascals who make up the Plumtree Crossin’ Truth and Veracity League is dealin’ with the cold weather. Thet’s partly ’cause those boys has all been holed up in their respective dens lately, doin’ nothin’ more int’restin’ than countin’ snowflakes. But it’s mostly ’cause I aim to tell about an event what happened last October in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Namely, the annual storytelling festival sponsored by the National Storytelling Network (used to be they called themselves the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, but I s’pose it took too long to say all that).

Now I know I’ve mentioned thet yarn-swappin’ show afore, but I’ll likely keep talkin’ about it ev’ry year from now on, ’cause it has got to be the most delightful gatherin’ of full-fledged raconteurs anybody could ever hope to find. Why, one minute you’ll be listenin’ to Jackie Torrence bellowin’ her bullfrog’s “HEEERRRRRRRE HE COMMMMMMES!” as she relates the old story of Br’er Coon and the frogs … and the next minute, you’ll be misty-eyed ’cause Native American Ron Evans’s tale of the lovesick — and indolent — Southwest Wind has moved yer heart.

Over in one tale-tellin’ tent, you’ll hear New England’s Henry Hatch recite a Down East version of Romeo and Juliet (“the moral … one cheap weddin’ is better’n two expensive fun’rals”), while a little piece down the way a livin’ dictionary, Gamble Rodgers by name, rattles off fast-paced fictions about a feller who was “the square root of sorriness” and spent all his time lyin’ in his hammock in a state of “catatonic recumbency.” You might find yerself stoppin’ to let Jay O’Callahan suspend yer imagination with a child’s-eye view of a visit to Gramma’s apartment. Or to let Laura Simms scare yer skin off with her softly delivered tale (told late at night in the of town cemetery) of a lost woodcutter who gits trapped by a vengeful witch-headed snake.

Yessir, you jist ought to attend this Tennessee fete, or at least some storytellin’ festival in yer own area. Some of the folks tellin’ tales today are plumb spellbindin’.

Tell you what, though … jist to give you a slightly better feel fer them goin’s on, I’ll write down here — as best as I recollect ’em — three of the tales I heered this past year.

Damn and Hell

The first one were told by Cora Bardwell, a nice lady whose stories come outa southern Vermont. It has to do with the sorta language young folks ain’t s’posed to use.

There were two brothers, Timmy and Peter, who lived in the country. Now these boys had a pretty strict mother who didn’t allow any barnyard talk in the house. Well, by and by the boys were getting on to being teenagers and feeling their oats a little. So one day, Timmy says to Peter, “I’ll say damn if you say hell.” And after considering the matter a little, Peter agreed.

The next morning, the two boys headed on down to breakfast and their mother says, “Well, what do you want for breakfast, Timmy?”

Timmy answers in a perfectly casual voice, “Oh, I guess I’ll have some of those damn cornflakes.” Well, his mother spins him around, whacks his bottom, runs him up the stairs, and slams the door!

Then she comes on back downstairs and says, in a voice as sweet as if nothing at all had happened, “And what do you want for breakfast, Peter?”

Peter says, “Uh … uh … I sure as hell don’t want any cornflakes!”

“Ghost Story”

The next one were told by a bearded southern yarn-spinner by the name of Lee Pennington. Lee’s tale will likely ring true to most anyone who’s driven the South’s country roads at night.

Probably the most famous ghost story of them all is the one about the vanishing hitchhiker  who, in most versions, is a ghoul that waits in hiding around that one dark curve.

Well, it seems there was a little town where someone had once gotten killed on just such a curve. It was said that whenever folks went riding back through there at a certain time of night, the ghost would start thrashing around in the bushes, and if they got too close, it’d jump up on the back of somebody’s horse. The spook was big and white, and if the moon was shining just right, the travelers could see its pink eyes agleaming.

Finally, one of the town characters decided he was going to find out just what that apparition was, so he stuck his big old .45 down in his belt, and headed for the haunted curve late at night. Sure enough, the bushes started thrashing, and that thing up and jumped on his horse’s back, skittering the steed so bad it almost threw the rider.

The old boy was a good bit rattled, so he grabbed his gun and — without looking — held it back over his shoulder and fired. Too scared to stop, he rode like the devil back to town.

The next day, however, he did get up enough nerve to go investigate. And there, in the middle of the road, was a 300-pound albino possum.

Perceiving the Godhead

And this last tale — shared at the festival’s Sacred Story Tellin’ on Sunday mornin’ — comes from Cherokee Gayle Ross, one of two dynamic Texas women who make up the Twelve Moon Storytellers. Gayle says this is a Sufi teachin’ story she got from Idries Shah, but its humor — an’ its significance — won’t be lost on folks of any creed.

There once was a young man who wanted to study under a master who lived way up in the mountains. The would-be pupil journeyed by foot way up into the hills until he reached the monastery, and there he spent four years. He worked in the garden, meditated, helped prepare meals, listened, and studied. And all the instruction he received concerned the master’s central teaching: If you perceive the godhead in everything you meet, you will be safe.

Eventually, the disciple felt that he’d learned this lesson, and that it was time for him to return to the outside world. So off he went, and marched down to a small settlement in the valley far below. However, he’d no sooner arrived than several of the villagers rushed around him and warned, “Don’t go on down that road! There’s a wild elephant down there!”

Well, right away the young man smiled. How blessed he was. He had just left the monastery, and here in this village he was meeting his first test! So he turned serenely to the townspeople, said “Don’t worry about me,” and went on.

He hadn’t gone very far before, sure enough, he saw the crazed elephant right in the middle of the road. The young man gazed at the giant animal and perceived the godhead of its nature.

The elephant looked at the young man and charged.

The man stared intently at the elephant and perceived the creature’s multicolored aura.

The elephant trumpeted once and came on faster still.

The man looked unflinchingly into the giant animal’s face and perceived, on a deeply personal level, the godhead of that particular elephant.

The elephant trampled him.

When the young man got out of the hospital, he hobbled back to the mountains and climbed all the way up to the peak where the monastery stood. There he sought out the master, sat down before him, and cried, “You lied to me! You said that if I perceived the godhead in everything I met, I would be safe. Yet I was trampled by an elephant!”

The master listened to the young man’s tale, nodded his head, smiled, and said, “And why is it you failed to perceive the godhead in the people who told you not to go near that elephant?”

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, familiar things new.” — William Makepeace Thackeray

“A life without festivities is a long road without inns.” — Democritus