Tim and Leanne Newsletter Sept 2017

Coming up • What's Been Going On • Baby Rose
Current Projects • Something About Storytelling • Our Recordings

Coming Up

Saturday Night Pocket Chautauquas
at the Four Corners Schoolhouse

945 Vincent Flats Road, East Montpelier. (Just up from the EM Elementary School)
Showtimes 7-9 • Admission $10A / $5C • complementary refreshments

9/23 Foliage Chautauqua T&L with Blue Fox

10/29 Halloween Chautauqua T&L

11/29 Thanksgiving Chautauqa T&L with Tom Azarian

Blue Fox started playing on Church Street a couple of years after we began, and kept doing it for awhile after we stopped. He's really good. Sonny Terry, Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jesse Fuller, Son House, Peg Leg Sam, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker-- you can be really really good, and out on the street singing the blues.

I'm curious about Blue. He grabbed my ear outside the Montpelier Farmer's Market with a smokin' bottleneck blues interpretation of an Elvis song: I think "That's All Right." He was Annie Lund's favorite musician. He plays in clubs with a band, he plays on the street with subtle & appropriate one-man-band augmentation. That's about all; I know. We're going to interview each other for a few minutes on stage. I don't know how I've gone this long without paying attention.

And I play if you have the money 
Or if you're a friend to me 
But the one man band 
By the quick lunch stand 
He was playing real good for free

Joni Mitchell

It's kind of a theme this season, performing on Church Street. Tom Azarian worked up his Cranky Show as a street act. Storytelling doesn't really work there, at least the kind Leanne and I do, but we began our artistic collaboration by playing music there. Good times and bad there, excitement and deadly tedium. But it was good that it was there for us.



What's Been Going On

Its been awhile since our last full fledged newsletter.

Health matters have slowed us down some, we call ourelves semi-retired, and I'm not actively hustling work. But folks still got to see us at Burlington First Night, a Valentine Chautauqua at the Four Corners School and at Brookfield Old Town Hall. Good crowds, good shows. And there's been a nice sprinkling of private engagements as well, parties, resorts, bonfires, associations, scouts.

This Labor Day weekend we told stories for a backyard wedding celebration. The parents had first heard us a quareter century ago, back when they were dating, we played Irish music and told stories at a wedding they attended, I think at a state park. Then they heard us again at another wedding, then at their wedding when that came around.

So they tracked us down earlier this year to perform for their son's reception. We told them we don't really do weddings any more. The harp's not part of the show, or most of that kind of music. The stories we've kept up aren't really wedding stories, they're kind of anti-romantic if anything. They didn't care; they really wanted us to perform at their party.

So we did. The set up was good. We got'em early and still had'em well in hand as the twilight deepened and the program ended. Great weather, great crowd, great ambiance, great show. Things were, what's the word, magical.

Most of the guests had no idea of what they were in for, but a few had seen us before, at the usual mix of venues. Lots of complements. One man in particular showed a kind of excited wonder that dreamlike elements like us could resurface from a distant pool of early childhood memory and walk right up into his adult world.

"I remember you. I remember you from a long time ago, I must have been five!" We hear that a lot.

Getting old, to put the best possible face on it, is a mixed blessing. But as ways of getting old go, this one ain't bad. We'll keep going as long as we can.

One remaining piece of specifically wedding-themed material left in our repertoire is the Charley Poole song "Baby Rose." We recorded it last spring, Leanne on ukulele, Tim singing and playing concertina.

(Or rather, our neighbor Colin McCaffrey recorded us playing it. (How close-by qualifies as a neighbor? Colin's not right around the corner, but we go to the same Town Meeting.))

Some folks might well protest that nothing could sound better than Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers, and... those folks would be right.

Other folks might make a stink about substituting concertina for the Ramblers' well-oiled hard-charging banjo-fiddle-guitar combo, and (they might protest) that guy don't sing like no hillbilly.

Hey! Poole himself played and dang any kind of song he liked-- show tunes, WC Handy blues, hoedowns, novelty numbers, medicine show, blackface & parlor songs. He got Baby Rose from turn of the century Irish Music Hall, where concertina and ukulele feel right at home.

If the embed below doesn't work for you, our song is here on the web.

Current Projects

A Book?

I've been circling around the idea of making a kind of book: written-out folktale texts with suggestions for performance, musings about the form of storytelling, and maybe a bit of memoire.

I'm thinking of starting with several separate smallish volumes-- maybe ebooks-- and then put them together for a real book.

The first volume would probably be my current retellings of tales I've collected from oral transmission here in Vermont, mostly from schoolchildren, mostly (though not entirely) of the "scary story" variety. The "how to tell" coaching would make it useful for a wide variety of ages, I believe.

Some of that stuff has already shown up in these newsletters, under the heading "Something About Storytelling." In this issue I discuss "The Golden Arm," below. Let me know what you think.

A Lecture?

If that first book of Vermont-collected material comes together, a new set of venues could open up, something we keep hearing about as potentially lucrative, but into which our shows do not naturally fit: the lecture circuit.

I'm not sure how it works, but there's usually some old guy out there doing country-themed material. This wouldn't be exactly up that alley, but it might

Talk a bit about about the form, my introduction to it, some scholarly babble, a few anecdotes about life on the hustings. Then scare the pants off of them and tell them how it was done. Probably end up with something sweet. For the first time we'd have an "real Vermont folklore" product; much more marketable item than "reconstitutedly oral world fairy tales," perhaps.

A New Story?

There's a Halloween tale I've been wanting to tackle for at least 15 years.

Leanne and I are unlikely to tackle a new duo tale, alas, it's just the way things are. We're keeping up a selection of our (and your) favorites as long as we can, and we'll keep performing them as long as the shows work for us, and for you, and your children and grandchildren, which will hopefully be quite a while.

But this Halloween story has resisted duo treatment. We came back to it several times, but always ended up finding something else to do.

It's called "Pretty Maid Ibronka" -- not sure what I'll call it-- tempted to make it "Pretty Polly" which is right for feel. But that's a different story. Mostly. A classic Hungarian folktale of the Demon Lover variety, but much richer, more various, and complicated than the usual.

During a time when traditional performers were filling theaters in Hungary, this was the signature tale of the country's most popular storyteller.

It flows relentlessly from a village love story, through horror, to magic, to a fairy tale prince, to the somewhat disappointing man he turns out to be after you marry him, to a thriller climax turns into a long spellbinding chanting finale that will be a challenge to make work right.

When looking at a folktale text I like to notice an odd or flat passage that doesn't that read well. That's often the sign of a purely oral effect. As I pointed out in an earlier newsletter, my old standby Weatherbeard's ending looks unsatisfying on the page, it's how I spotted it as potentially a good oral tale.

And I know the Ibronka finale can work, it was, you'll remember, the favorite story of the favorite storyteller of a vibrant storytelling culture not too removed from mine. I have a willed belief that the story and I can rise to the challenge and, no doubt after a period of awkwardness and doubt (the telling's adolescence, if you will) the finale will be revealed as indespensable.

Maybe it'll be ready to debut on October 29th, at this year's Halloween Chautauqua. We'll see. I can always find something else to do..


Something about Storytelling


Like many people, I read Mark Twain's The Golden Arm when I was a child.

My buddy Stevie and I had been swapping scary stories on the schoolbus ride home. I told him stuff out of Poe—Tell Tale Heart was my best— and he told me elements of Lugosi’s Dracula, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and most memorably something about “The Mad Axman,” who comes into rooms out of any corner that's too dark to see into. (That's one that'll come back to you after bedtime.)

Naturally I was on the lookout for something new. And here was this compelling traditional oral tale, transcribed by an author I loved, with instructions for performance.

Around 1850, little Sammy Clemens heard it just before bedtime; much later as the legendarily effective public speaker Mark Twain he performed it in front of large audiences all around the world, and wrote it down in an essay "How to Tell a Story."

His words are fun to read, you can see how they work. Best of all— and rare to this day— in addition to the words of the story, Twain gave tips on how to tell it.

Most emphatically, Twain told me (he said “you,” so he was definitely talking to me) that the story would create a big effect. But, he said, that would only happen if I could manage the timing on a particular pause just before the final line. He said, “you must get the pause right; and you will find it the most troublesome and aggravating and uncertain thing you ever undertook.”

Yes, it was.

Instinctively, I dropped the dialect. (Twain assumed the persona of the black man who had told it to him as a boy.) After the usual early stumblings, I got control of the narrative so the story would reliably take hold, and would ratchet up tension all the way to the climax. I shed a lot of sweat over the ending, and by adulthood was able to spring what Twain calls “the snapper” without telegraphing its approach.

But Twain wasn't lying about that pause. It— or something— was aggravating. Somewhere in my twenties I began to suspect that the promised final effect never was going to pay off the way Twain said it should.

Nobody gave out a “dear little yip.” I never made anybody “jump out of her shoes.” Sometimes nothing happened. Sometimes something did— maybe their stomachs sank— but it wasn’t enjoyable. I might see them shrink a little, or look stunned, or cringe. To tell the truth, they often looked abused. The slow-winding energy of the build never got released, there was no laugh (which you expect from a “snapper”), no sense of fun.

At its most effective, the story left us all feeling stupid and a little sore, it was like being on a roller coaster that goes up and up and up, then at the top somebody slaps you and you have to get out.

Maybe just I didn’t have the chops? But then I saw Hal Holbrook as “Mark Twain Tonight”— lots of chops there— tackle the same story, with similar results to mine.

For a modern teller, it doesn’t help that, thanks to Twain's essay, the story is so well-known. Much of an audience’s enjoyment from this kind of tale comes from the sudden final surprise. As Twain points out, if a listener can figure out the surprise is coming the whole set-up “fails of its purpose and makes trouble.”

It’s a problem with all jump tales. As listeners figure out what kind of story they’re hearing they begin to brace themselves, and it’s hard to get under their guard.

I gave up on The Golden Arm a few years into my professional career. I had taken to telling Dead Man’s Liver, a different jump tale I'd collected myself, with my own timing and my own balance of humor and scares. It worked. The roller coaster went up and up and up, teetered on the brink, then plunged, reliably delivering its brief payoff rush of primal fear. I watched my audiences jump, recoil (in a visible wave sometimes), squeal, then after the briefest catch-your-breath silence, explode into ten to thirty seconds of laughter and loud talk. That’s what you want, it turns out, that’s the sign the thing has landed right and you’ve given your crowd a good time.

Nobody wants my second-best jump tale, I decided It was useful, I’d learned from it, now let it go.

Then one day during a course of elementary school workshops in Chester Vermont, a fifth grade girl told a story she got from her auntie. It was The Golden Arm all right, but miles away from Twain’s version, clearly coming from no book. And it was great!

Best of all, the ending was different from anything I was familiar with. Actually, I realised later, I had come across that ending it in the text of an English dialect tale, but had turned my nose up at it. I had to hear it performed to know, it’s perfect.

I tell the story that way now using that little girl's ending and structure, mixing in some of Twain’s setup and flourishes, a few things I’ve learned from perfornubg the Liver story, and a lot of stuff— maybe too much— that just comes up on its own. It's one of Leanne's favorites, and it always works.

The Golden Arm

There was a man who lived in the swamp, he was a miser, he loved to get and keep and never spend, more than anybody you know. He lived in the swamp because it was free, and because nobody came around to bug him out ther e, trying to get something from him. He built himself some kind of a house out of the things people dumped out there. And actually, he was pretty handy, it was an OK kind of place to live, considering it was made out of junk, in the middle of the swamp.

Now they say there’s somebody for everyone in this world, and I guess it must be true, because this man had a wife, somebody got married to him. She was an ordinary person, nothing unusual about her except for three things. First, she was willing to marry him. Second, she was sickly, she was never very well. (Maybe that’s why she married him, maybe she thought he was her last chance.) And finally— I probably should have told you this first— one of her arms, instead of of flesh and bone, was made out solid gold.

And that’s why he married her.

He figured, because she was his wife, community property, her arm was kind of his arm too. And, like I said, she wasn’t very well; a swamp’s not a healthy place; maybe she’d die, then the golden arm would really belong to him.

No, he didn’t kill her! He wasn’t that kind of man, not wicked, he wouldn’t do that, not a murderer. Just, very very tight, very greedy.

A swamp is not a healthy place, she got sicker and sicker, and one day she went to bed and didn’t get up. She called him over to him. She said, “Honey maybe I’m not going to get better this time, and now it’s time to tell you. I know why you married me. I’m not blaming you, I knew who you were when we got married, we’ve done all right, you’ve been good to me, considering, as good as you know how. But, now I need you to make me a promise.

“When I die, I want you to bury me with my arm. It’s part of me, and I want to go into the ground whole. I want you to promise me that, right now.”

He said, “Oh, honey!” He said, “You’re not going to…. I would never… how could you think…. I didn’t…. … … All right, I promise.”

And, she did die, just a little while after.

He didn’t get her a coffin, they cost too much, and for what? He wrapped her in a sheet. It was good enough for his grandparents, it was good enough for anybody. He wasn’t going to bury her in the churchyard, you have to pay too much, big waste of money. He knew a spot in the middle of the swamp, where the ground rose up to a high place, dry enough that trees and flowers grew there, and berries, and birds came, and butterflies. He thought she’d like it.

He carried her up there, he dug the hole, put her in and covered her up, then started back home.

But every step he took away from the golden arm, he grew more angry and upset. He started talking to himself as he walked.

“Why did she make me promise that? How selfish can you get! But I promised, damn it. I’m a man of my word, I do what I promise.” A little further on, more angry, more upset. ”It’s wrong! I never should have promised. She never should have made me! Why? What good is it doing her? Doing anybody? I should have said no, I should have changed the subject. Aaaa! ….But I keep my promises, I’m man of my word.” Walked a little further, furious: “Wasted! It’s wasted! She can’t use it! In the ground, in the dirt! Oh! It’s stupid! It’s wrong! It’s wicked! In the grave, with the worms! No good to anybody! And I waited so long!” Over and over, more angry and upset every step he took. Until suddenly he stopped.

“I kept my promise. I said I’d bury her with her arm, and I did! I am a man of my word. But I’ll tell you what I didn’t promise. I never said I wouldn’t go back there and dig her up again.”

And that’s just what he did. That mean, grasping, greedy man turned around and went back to her grave. He dug down to where she was, re-e-ached in. felt around— there it was— reached into the sheet, pulled it out. Then he filled in the hole, and started back home, heart pounding, hugging the arm tight against his chest.

Well, by this time, with all the carrying, and digging, and going back and forth, it was growing dark, and from the coolness of the night after the heat of day, a thick mist was rising in the wetlands. And as he walked down into the mist, a big moon rose up above it. He couldn’t see the moon itself, but the moonlight turned the mist white. He could see a step before him and a step behind him, but beyond that was just like a glowing white wall.

But he wasn’t concerned, he’d been that way many times, his feet knew the way without him thinking about it at all. His heart and his mind were full of the golden arm as he was hugged it tight to his chest.

And now up above the mist a wind rose up. He didn’t feel feel it down where he was, but he could hear it blowing up there, it made a kind of moan: whoooooooooooooooo.

And while he was listening to that he began to imagine he could hear something else too, under the wind: his own footsteps, of course, but also — was it an echo?— something that sounded like another set of footsteps coming along behind him. But how could it be an echo? There’s no echoes in a swamp.

He stepped a little faster, the echo did the same. And now he began to hear the moaning of the wind almost like a voice: whooooooooooooooooooooo. He walked a little faster, and the steps kept right up. Whoooooooooooooooooooo sssssssssstoooooooooooooole. He walked faster, the steps behind him came faster. The wind was getting louder, it sounded more and more like a voice, and if you let yourself you could hear words: Whooooooooooooooo sssssssssssssssstoooooooooooooooole my goooooooooooooooooolden arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrm?

He stopped walking. The other footsteps kept coming.

He ran, fast as he could, he never knew how he got home, the next thing he knew clearly was, he was in his house, heart pounding, hugging the arm to him, looking around wildly. “Where am I going to hide it? Where can I put it where nobody will find it?”

He saw the cellar door, went down into the cellar. There was a dry stone wall set up against the dirt and in front of that was a set of shelves, with jars of pickles and peaches and jam. He pulled the shelf out, took some of the stones down from the wall, dug a nook into the dirt, and put the arm in there. Then he set the stones back up in front of it, moved the shelf back, went back up to the house and shut the cellar door.

He paced around for awhile, listening to the wind, looking out the window trying to see into the mist, until he finally went upstairs to bed. But he couldn’t sleep. He just lay there in bed, wide awake, for hours, staring out the window, listening to the wind.

Then, at midnight, the wind stopped. He heard footsteps outside, shuffling towards the house. He heard the steps come up onto his porch, heard the screen door open, heard the kitchen door open, and then slam together shut. He heard the footsteps moving around downstairs, under his bedroom floor, then he smelled, coming up through the floorboards, a dank smell of earth, of mold. Then he heard ripping and crashing and smashing and tearing below him. Then he heard the steps go toward the cellar. He heard the cellar door open, heard footsteps going down.

“No!” he thought. “Don’t! Leave it alone!” But he didn’t say anything, he was too scared. He wanted to jump up, to go down and stop it, whatever it was, keep it away from his arm, but he was paralyzed, he couldn’t move. Then he heard the steps come back up to the living room, and leave the house, and go away. And the wind came up again, he couldn’t hear anything else. He wanted to go downstairs— so bad!— and see what had happened, but he didn’t dare. He stayed in bed, still, wide awake, until the first light of day.

Then he got up and ran downstairs. The couch and tables had been turned over, cushions ripped open, cabinet doors open, dishes smashed all over the floor. The cellar door was open! He ran down the cellar stairs, The shelf was moved, pulled away from the wall, the stone wall part way taken down..

“No!” and he reached back behind the stones— Oh! thank god! The arm was still there. He pulled it out, hugged it to him. “Where can I put it? She’s going to come back. Where can I hide it where she’ll never find it?”

He carried the arm up out of the cellar, went into the bathroom. He pulled the clawfoot bathtub away from the wall. Some of the tiles on the wall next to it were loose, he took them off, behind them was bare lathing. He pulled some of that out a bit, and dropped the arm back behind it into the wall. Replaced the lathing, stuck the tiles back, moved the tub up against the wall where it had been.

And, everything was fine from then on. Nothing happened after that. He knew where the arm was, he could put his hand up on the wall near it whenever he took a bath. Whenever he wanted, he could take down the tiles again, reach down behind the lathing, and touch it, or take it out and look at it. Everything was great. For a year.

Then a year later, to the day, the sun set, that same white mist rose up, and that same wild wind above it. And at midnight exactly, lying in bed he heard the wind stop. He heard the shuffling footsteps come into his house, smelled that powerful smell of mold, much worse now. Heard it go down into the cellar, then smashing crashing, like rolling stones, splintering glass. Heard it come back up the cellar stairs and go into the bathroom. “NO!” he thought. But he couldn’t move, he didn’t dare, he was paralyzed. Heard smashing and crashing in there, then the steps left the bathroom, left the house, and he heard them shuffle away. The smell drifted away, the wind picked up, and again he lay there motionless till the first light of dawn.

Then he ran downstairs, down into the cellar. Shelf was thrown down, jars broken, pickles and peaches and glass all mixed on the floor. The stone wall was down. If the arm had still been there, she would have found it.

He ran up to the bathroom. The cabinet was open, bottles and pills and such all tossed onto the floor. The tub had been moved out from the wall! The tiles were disturbed. “NO!” He pulled the tiles down, reached behind the lathing— ah! thank god! It was still there. He took it out, hugged it to him.

“She’s going to come back! I know she is! Where can I put it where it’ll be safe?— I know! I’ll hide it under my pillow.”

And he did. From then on, every night, he’d sleep with it under his pillow, he could feel it under his neck, he could touch it whenever he wanted. And everything was fine. Nothing happened. For a year.

And exactly a year later, to the day, that same weird weather, the white mist, the moaning wind. At midnight, the wind stopped, and as he lay in bed he could hear the shuffling footsteps come into his house. Smell of mold was over powering, rising up through the floorboards. He heard it cross the room to the staircase. He heard it coming up the stairs. He heard it outside his bedroom door. Saw the doorknob turn. Saw the door swing open. Saw it at the the foot of his bed.

“Honey— what happened— to your…. long, long… hair?”

“Faded awayyyyyyyyyyyyy. Faded awayyyyyyyyyyyyy.”

“Honey— what happened to your….. bright blue….. eyes?”

“Faded awayyyyyyyyyyyyy. Faded awayyyyyyyyyyyy.”

“Honey— what happened to your…. long, long…. legs?”

“Faded awayyyyyyyyyyyy. Faed awayyyyyyyyyyyyy.”

“Honey— what happened to your……….. golden…… arm?”


Performance Thoughts

As usual with texts of performance material, much of what makes the thing good doesn’t reveal itself until you start working with it.

The great Viola Spolin had a useful prompt for improvisers: “Show, don’t tell.” Characters in a tale can speak and act from within their emotions— anger, terror, tension— there is no need for “He said in a frightened voice.”

Similarly, as you say “he reeeached in and felt around,” demonstrate what you’re talking about— it’s a normal part of high-value speech to show as well as tell. No careful mime here, just ordinary conversational gesture and high-level tone and timing.

You can skip the moaning of the wind if you want, I imported it from Twain, I don’t always use it.

One of the tale's biggest payoffs comes on the line “I know. I’ll keep it under my pillow.” Pause after you say that, share the moment with the audience and enjoy their reaction. Try to notice other places like that as you perform.

Clearly, there is quite a bit of similarity between this and the Liver story, and for that matter a host of other jump tales you may have heard, like Big Toe, or Teeny Tiny Woman. A Horrible Thing comes in, climbs the stairs, enters the bedroom, approaches the bed. Sometimes I use the bit from the liver story where the man pulls the bedclothes up over his face, and the Thing grabs them from the foot of the bed and pulls them down again. I may have gotten it from Jackie Torrence, I’m not sure. It’s a nice touch, I use it when the audience hasn’t already heard the Liver story.

Generally speaking you don't follow one jump tale with another. But I have followed the Liver story with this one (generally at different ends of the show) because the distinctive finale will go a long way to make the jump happen anyway, even though they know it's coming..

Do not memorize this story. Start by cutting it to the bone. Figure out how it works, and make it your own. If you're like me it'll start stretching out again soon enough, and you'll know why. Using your own words naturally and engagingly on stage is paradoxically difficult— ask any aspiring comedian— but it’s the only thing that pays off in the long run.

Getting the End Right

By the ghost’s final visit, you already should have demonstrated how the man looks as he’s lying in bed, terrified, holding his bedclothes up under his chin.

The cadences and language of the final dialog are as I received them from the little girl.

As the man, I address the Thing (ghost or zombie or whatever it is) directly, speaking to the space above the foot of his bed, six feet in front of me, up in the air. (I think of her as floating). I smile nervously at his wife, speaking in a hesitant, conciliatory, reasoning tone of voice.

The ellipses (…) in the wife's responses indicate pauses. Take them, it’s important. Don’t even think about what she looks like. Say her lines blindly, staring off into space, in a quiet, moaning, trailing, singsong voice.

Like the little girl from whom I got this story, I open my eyes wide on the word “eyes.” (She and I both have blue eyes.) It doesn’t really make sense, it’s the man's line not his wife's, but I'm sure she got the move from her auntie and it had a surprising impact when she did it, so I do it too.

Rhythm of question and response stay the same with each iteration, though there’s room to build within the sentences, and in the spaces between sentences.

The man can be increasingly nervous, conciliatory, smiling, swallowing, reacting to each of the ghost’s chants.

The ghost can vary between intense, resigned, spooky, sad. But the music of the chant must remain the same.

As the man begins to speak his final line, it should be clear that he knows he shouldn’t ask it, and in fact is in some way fighting against asking it, but he is somehow trapped by the structure, it’s almost pulled out of him against his will, like poor Little Red Riding Hood squeezing out “Oh Grandma…What big … teeth … you have.”

The audience also knows he shouldn’t ask that question, and is bracing itself. If you play it right, though, their ancient pre-verbal social intercourse module should set them up irrationally to expect a chant of “faded awayyyyyyyy” before anything else happens. So they will be unprepared, unbraced, when you go in sharp and sudden to get’em.

Once you get the dynamics right, you can get ’em every time. It’s bullet-proof.



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