Monday, July 9, 2012

Kentucky Folktales


I was crossing a hot college parking lot in Tennessee, on my way to a CREATE Conference, when a man came up along side me to introduce himself as a storyteller from New Mexico. "What about you?'  he asked me, as we kept up the brisk pace toward the opening session. "I'm a songwriter and singer from Kentucky," I countered. "Kentucky!" He seemed delighted.  "Then you must know Mary Hamilton."

This wasn't my first experience with a storyteller from another state assuming that we all know Mary Hamilton. She is that well-known among storytellers. So, when her first book from the University of Kentucky Press, Kentucky Folktales: Revealing Stories, Truths, and Outright Lies, was published this month, I was only too happy to give it a read.

The fact is, I have known Mary Hamilton since around 1999, when she and my trio Raison D'Etre were both juried into Kentucky's Performing Arts Directory.  Plus she and I have spent many summer training sessions together as part of Kentucky's Teaching Artist Roster. Mary is well-respected in the storytelling world and was instrumental in organizing Kentucky's Storytelling Association. I suspected her book would be more than just a collection of tales.

And, I was right.  The book offers a personal introduction to Mary, who openly proclaims herself as "a professional storyteller since 1983."  Following each of the 26 tales in the collection is an essay that discusses either variations and origin of the story--many gleaned from Mary's 2010 Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship at Berea--or some description of how Mary adapted the tale to fit her way of telling.  Truly, the book offers a glimpse into the artistry of the teller.

That Mary began her volume with scary tales could not have pleased me more. Stories like "Stormwalker," "Promises to Keep," and "The Blue Light" are eerie enough to hold a reader's interest on their own. But, the essays following each story explain how Mary uses song, repetition, and various hand motions to add to each tale's power. She also shares with the reader where she encountered each story and the process she used to make the tale part of her repertoire.

It would be hard to pick out favorites from this collection, but I especially enjoyed the one entitled "Some Dog" from the section entitled "Tall Tales and Outright Lies." Anybody who's had a particularly wonderful dog will appreciate the embellished deeds of this hound. And the trick tale called "The Fortune Teller" has some physical humor and surprise in it that made me want to try telling the story to an unsuspecting family member. Mary credits a Kentucky middle school teacher with telling this story to her for the first time. She includes the trick story in the "More Kentucky Folktales" section.

Another great story from the "More Kentucky Folktales" section is "Rawhead and Bloody Bones."  Despite it's less than savory title, the story has some enchanting repetition passages that truly create images in the mind's eye of the two main characters' kindness and cruelty. Following the tale, Mary discusses why she decided to include certain phrases like "she acted ugly" to help the listener form the necessary images for a full understanding of motivation.

The section called "Beyond Kentucky Folktales" introduces stories that do not come from Kentucky, but since they are now being told by a Kentucky teller, will no doubt become more Kentucky-like when filtered through both her technique and her listeners. The author shares examples from India, Scotland, and Japan in this section along with her amusing stories of how she acquired and adapted each tale.

In the final section of the book, Mary Hamilton shares some family stories, including one about her when she was a baby,  and several on the theme of family mistakes. I want to share just one of these with you, so you can get the hang of how Mary's family life has been important to her becoming a storyteller:

It's called "Jeff Rides the Rides." (p.169)...

Mary Hamilton's first book--a collection of tales and her commentary on each one--is a must-have for anyone considering telling a good tale. And for those of us who mostly sit and listen, Kentucky Folktales provides some really good stories along with a little peek behind the scenes at the mind who tells them.

This review aired on the July 1st broadcast of Around Cincinnati. Listen to the entire review at this link:
Listen to the review here.


1 comment:

Keith Stewart said...

I just purchased, and I'm starting it tonight!