In 1986, I first heard Duncan Williamson at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I followed him around like a puppy the whole weekend. A traditional storyteller from Scotland, he did not attract the huge crowds that some of the American tellers were attracting (I’m one of those now), but to me, he was the very heart of storytelling. In a very small tent, before a small crowd, I heard him tell “The Happy Man’s Shirt” – my single favorite story – really a story I’ll carry with me through my whole life. (And yet to record…)
Duncan was not a flashy teller, but his language was beautiful; the Scottish burr, the slightly unfamiliar vocabulary, and the slightly different syntax of his oral delivery was so arresting I really didn’t care what the stories were. But it was , of course, the stories that attracted me – there was no artifice or trickery in the delivery, it was just the story, and told so that it could be remembered. Many times, I’ll hear a performer and like the performance, but not really be able to tell you what happened in the story. Not so with Duncan – it was the story first.
Duncan was one of the Travelers of Scotland – that country’s gypsies – outcast and disenfranchised like gypsies elsewhere. Born into a large family and out on his own at an early age, Duncan early on was recognized for his amazing memory and ability to recount stories. Folklorists collected stories from Duncan for decades, and every time they thought they were done, he seemed to find more no one had ever heard.
I visited Duncan several years after I first met him, and he was very gracious and kind to me – I sat at his kitchen table (having brought some Boddington’s Ale as a peace offering) and he told me stories for a couple of days – he was just as animated and direct with me as he was with an audience. From him I heard stories I had never heard before, and have not heard since. “How many stories do you know?” I asked him. “Fifty-five hundred” he said with certainty and without a blink. A storyteller’s answer.
“Jack and the Singing Leaves”, a story on my new recording “The Best Candy in the World” is a story of Duncan’s he told me at his kitchen table – it can also be found in one of his books, “A Thorn in the King’s Foot”. Maybe because of my own Scots-Irish background, or some psychology, I’ve always told Jack tales, though not usually on a large stage – more frequently in schools where I want to make sure that kids hear traditional stories along with my original work.
I love the story of the Singing Leaves – I’ve been telling it for ten or twelve years now. Over the years, I’ve accentuated Jack’s ADD nature, and I see the nods of kids and adults when I describe who Jack is – Jack is forever, and there are usually seven or eight Jacks in each audience. In the story, when Jack finds the bird with the broken wing and picks it up to save it, I look out at an audience of kids and see their heartfelt reaction – with that kindness shown, they’re on his side wherever he goes.
While “The Singing Leaves” seems very much a variant of Cinderella (with the genders reversed), it takes a huge left turn as we near the climax, sending poor Jack out into the world again, hoping to keep his head, quite literally. This is shocking, hilarious, and very interesting. Duncan didn’t emphasize that parallel, but I’m too much of a wise guy to ignore it, and my comment “Just like Cinderella!” becomes a keystone phrase in the story – something I always look for in a spoken tale.
I’m really happy with the recording of it on The Best Candy – it’s a good long piece (of course, likely to be even longer in performance), but it’s a reminder that kids, and even easily distracted, Blackberry-addicted adults, will listen to something if it’s compelling.
I hope that my recording of the story serves as some tribute to Duncan and his effect on me. When I showed up at his doorstep he asked, “Where’s your tape recorder? How are you going to tell my stories when you go home?”
“Duncan,” I said, “If you can remember fifty-five hundred stories, surely I can remember one or two.”