Archive for September, 2010


Okay – someone tell me why there have been a thousand visits to my post about the folk song about the Titanic….


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Duncan, in Balmullo, Scotland, where I met him years ago

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.”

Here’s one.

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My new recording of stories comes out this week, and I thought I’d post a couple of blogs about the stories and the process of recording.

This was the first recording I’ve made in which the bulk of the recording was done at home. Over the years, most of my work has been done at Celebration Sound studio in Warren, RI, with my longtime conspirator David Correia, serving as engineer and observant listener. This time, after having finally cleaned up my workplace and gotten a couple of good mikes, I did most of the spoken word work out back of my house. I’ll post some pictures of my place next week, when I get back from Oklahoma.

After I was finished with the basic recordings, I took them over to David, who helped me edit them together, adjust levels and turn some knobs I don’t know much about. The stories that have guitar on them were done with David at his place.

Recording myself had a big learning curve. I would estimate that the first long story I did there (The Best Candy in the Whole World) took me about twenty-five hours of my own time – for twenty-four minutes of story. Part of that time was spent learning to get the levels right, and then trying to get a take of the story I liked to edit together.

The editing took hours and hours – if I made a mistake while recording the story, I just paused, backed up and started again from before the mistake. I end up with about forty-five minutes of raw material, which I have to snip and splice together on the computer. It’s very time-consuming, but very much like an addictive computer game – nudging, pushing buttons, recording some lines over. I sit down at 7 pm by myself, and before I know it, it’s 2 am. And I have a 9:30 am school show. Uh oh.

What I’m looking for is a very intimate feel – I’ve learned in recording stories that the best approach is to imagine telling the story to just one person, or a very small group. The hardest thing, as it is always is for me, is to slow down and take my time. This is a lesson I have to learn every day, and probably will until I’m done here on this mortal coil.

I learn a lot recording my stories. By listening over and over again – a very painful process – I find better ways to say things, focus more on the emotional core of the story, clarify images with some added detail, and get rid of things that shouldn’t be there. Debbie and other friends listen to the recording and give feedback. At the end of the recording process, I know the stories better – even the ones like “Jack and the Singing Leaves” that I’ve been telling for fifteen years.

The stories on this recording were pretty much ones I have in my head (one exception the new story “Sillier Than You” – more on that later). As a result, there’s no paper in front of me, it’s just the picture in my head – that I’m trying to put in the head of someone listening in some other part of the world, at some future time.

Next: The shaping of “The Best Candy in the Whole World”

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