Come close and get comfy as we guide you through Southern Indiana’s storytelling charms.
The lighting dims as the rows begin to fill in the Monroe County Library’s theater. People talk in hushed voices as they wait for the performance to begin. After brief introductions, Lisa Champelli takes the stage, and the room is still. She does not sing. She does not dance. She tells a story about a farmer who disobeyed God’s orders to stop working. After multiple visits from angels warning him stop, the only threat that could finally get the farmer to drop his plow was a bad neighbor.
The Wintertelling is a storytelling event sponsored by the Bloomington Storytellers Guild, which began as a group of librarians who met in their homes and today organizes storytelling events around Bloomington every year.
Ginny Richey, coordinator of the guild, says there is a long tradition of people entertaining people by talking. “For most of us, it is retelling a structure that has a beginning, middle and end, that has some form to it, whether it’s a personal story or whether it’s a legend,” Ginny says. Some consider storytelling to be the first form of entertainment. But times have changed. Today, books, television and music tell stories. Comedians tell stories. You tell stories. We are telling you a story right now.
Storytelling lies deep in our Southern Indiana roots. Old timers in Nashville once gathered at the fabled Liars’ Bench to tell tales that grew taller every year. With the simple story of sweethearts “Jack and Diane,” Bloomington’s John Mellencamp kick-started his career.Throughout the Ohio River valley today, audiences can hear author Scott Russell Sanders telling stories from his Wilderness Plots collection. We even have the world-renowned Indiana University Folklore Institute, where we study the art of storytelling.
Hoosier-born author and storyteller Margaret Read MacDonald says we’ve developed the art through generations of listening and speaking. “Southern Indiana storytellers have refined a cadence and leisure of delivery which makes their tales easy to listen to,” she says. “Their pleasure in their tales is infectious. As we listen we relax into the story and are swept along with their humor.”
We’ve selected three different kinds of Southern Indiana storytellers – a traditional raconteur, a comedian and a songwriter/author. Each of them takes us to places we haven’t been and introduces us to people we haven’t met. We also recount a myth, a legend and a folktale from our region and share thoughts on the importance of storytelling in our lives.
So, wrap your blanket of imagination around you. It’s story time.
The traditional storyteller
It was the early spring, and Davy Crockett had gone into the woods to hunt bears. Luckily for the bears, he hadn’t had any luck. And it was just starting to spring a light sprinkle of rain, so he took shelter under a tree and he leaned his head back in what was the crook of the tree between two branches. And he fell asleep. And he slept for quite a little while. By the time he woke up, the sun was way up in the sky. He tried to stand up, but he found that he had gotten his head stuck in the crook of that tree. He was a big old fighter guy, so he starts wrestling, trying to get himself out. He cannot get out. He was just about to give himself up for a goner, just going to be stuck there, when he hears a young woman’s voice just over his head say, “What’s the matter, stranger?”
The Wintertelling crowd quiets again as the woman on stage introduces the next storyteller. Stephanie Holman walks under the hot glow of the overhead stage lights and takes the mic. She tells the legend of Diana of the Dunes, a strange and freethinking? woman who lived in a shack on the shore of Lake Michigan. The audience reflects the emotional shifts of the story, laughing when Diana prances naked around the lake and falling silent when Stephanie tells of Diana’s lonely death.
Stephanie studied to be a children’s librarian at Indiana University, and one of the classes she had to take was the art of storytelling. As part of the class, Stephanie went into the community to tell stories. “Telling to kids changed everything for me,” Stephanie says.Soon after, Stephanie found the Bloomington Storytellers Guild. She became a member in 1989 and hasn’t stopped telling stories since.
Stephanie says a good story has two criteria. First: “A good story is one that fits the audience,” Stephanie says. She’s often commissioned to tell stories at events and venues for drastically different audiences. Whether she’s at a museum or a Boy Scout outing, Stephanie must find a story that suits the nature of the event and the age of the audience.
The second requirement? “What makes a good story is that the storyteller likes it.” Stephanie says when a storyteller likes a story, it will show. “You will be more confident. The audience will feel that.” Stephanie’s prefers tall tales, stories of American greats like Paul Bunyon and Davy Crockett.
Stephanie works at the Ellettsville Library and helps students from visiting classes with research questions. One day, Stephanie was asked to come tell a story at their school. She chose a collection of stories that related to what they were studying. The next time she saw the kids at the library, they addressed her by name and hugged her. “Just through one storytelling event, I had changed from just that librarian who helps them to their storyteller.”
Stephanie says storytelling connects people through shared human experiences. Storytellers are the bridge builders, she says. But you don’t have to be a professional like Stephanie to get the construction underway. Stephanie sees everyone as a storyteller, from teenagers to tiny old ladies. “We’re all storytellers. If you’re human, you’re a storyteller.”
To contact Stephanie or find out about upcoming performances, visit: http://www.storytellingarts.org/index.html
The Hoosier Campfire
812 found a myth, a legend and a folktale that have been intriguing Hoosiers for years.
THE MYTH - a story featuring supernatural entities and events that are not part of an actual experience.
Stepp Cemetery, Morgan-Monroe State Forest, Martinsville
Stepp Cemetery is a small burial site in a wooded area off Old State Road 37. Troy Taylor describes the cemetery in his book Beyond the Grave as a lonely place with roughly two dozen grave markers and a tree stump where the ghostly figure of a woman sits. The story goes that the woman’s husband died in a tragic quarry accident, and her daughter died in a car accident coming home from a date. Overwrought, the woman made nightly visits to the cemetery where the two were buried. When she died, she was buried there, too. But her spirit won’t rest, and today she can be seen under a full moon sitting on the tree stump, guarding her family.
THE LEGEND - a story set in a historical period and told as if it were true.
Prince Madoc, Clark County
After the death of his father, Prince Madoc of Wales took a small fleet of ships and sailed west. He returned with stories of a foreign land. He convinced some of his countrymen to accompany him and set sail again, never to return. Madoc and his followers settled along the Ohio River Valley in what is now Clark County. In 1799, six skeletons enclosed in brass breast plates sporting the Welsh coat of arms were reportedly found near Jeffersonville. It’s said that Madoc and his crew married local Native American women, and their descendents moved near the Falls of the Ohio and became known as “White Indians.” In a battle with a nearby tribe, the “White Indians” were massacred. The evidence of their existence is a large burial site on the north side of the Ohio River.
THE FOLKTALE - a story that originates from a people or folk.
The Tunnel Mill, Clark County
John and Henry Work moved west from Pennsylvania with their families in 1803. Henry died the next year, and John cared for both families. He bought a long stretch of land in what is now Clark County and built his mill along 14 Mile Creek. John traded with the local Native American tribes. As the story goes, John became friends with one of the old chiefs. He told John that his tribe had sealed a hidden silver mine. If John could find it, the white men could have all the silver they needed. John began a long excavation in search of the mine. Another version says that the Native Americans covered John’s head and led him to to mine where they gave him a pouch of freshly made silver bullets. They covered his head once more to lead him home, and in the morning the tribe had moved on and was never seen again.
The town clown
I almost didn't go to IU because of something that happened on a visit. It was my first time at Indiana University. My mom and I were there for a tour of the campus. It was raining and the 50 other people there are all soaked and pretty angry. There was one tour guide trying to pump up the crowd. He was running around yelling at people things like "Welcome to the land of the Hoosiers!" "Welcome to Hoosier Nation!" and he runs up to me and yells "Hoosier daddy!" and I say "I don't know...".
The days after his grandmother died were hard for Robert Sherrell and his family. Everyone was is mourning and, even as a child, Rob felt the responsibility to lighten the mood. So he told a joke.
And he’s never stopped.
Every class has that kid who sits in the back making witty comments, cracking jokes and disturbing the general peace. That was Rob.
As he grew older, he wanted to take his sense of humor to a more public setting. At 16, he performed stand-up for the first time at a community talent show. Now 21 and a junior at IU, he performs in comedy clubs and at university events.
But what started as a hobby has become more. The realization struck Rob after his set for Random Acts of Comedy last year. “Man, this is something that I love. I really love doing this,” he thought. “I want to do this professionally.”
Quitting school was out of the question. Rob is the first person in his family to go to college, and a lot of people are counting on him. So Rob is combining his passion, his art and his education in an individualized course of study. In 2016, Rob will be the first IU student to graduate with a major in stand-up comedy.
He draws stories for his act from his own life. “Almost everything I do on stage is a story of something that happened -- to me or to a friend,” Rob says. He draws laughs from stories about his gender studies courses to things he’s overheard on the bus.
The way he sees it, most people think of a story as just having a beginning, middle and end. But that’s not enough. There has to a point. In his field, the point is the punch line. People have to be surprised. “There has to be an ah-ha,” Rob says.
To get to the ah-ha, Rob has to get the audience to picture themselves in the story. He does this through the visualization of storytelling. He describes the setting, the situation and the people involved. The more the audience is immersed in the atmosphere, the funnier the joke will be.
Every audience is different, and, as a comedian and a storyteller, he adjusts to those differences. Rob says that when he’s doing a set he might have to alter the story chronologically or context-wise to better emphasize the punch line or reason why he’s telling it. For example, college-based jokes go over better when he’s performing in Bloomington, so Rob tweaks his stories to suit that audience.
Rob sees power in storytelling. He sees storytellers as those who can convey an idea through what he considers the oldest form of entertainment. “The best people in the world are storytellers.”
Five Reasons We Tell Stories
Your life is full of stories meant to be told. If you don’t think you have the skills to become a storyteller, start watching other storytellers. It’s all about listening closely to what you like and then practicing around your dining room table or the campfire.
1. To make us feel good.
And even if you’re already healthy, storytelling can keep you that way. “We have a social need, that laughter, amusement, it creates good kinds of endorphins. Even sad stories can make us feel good because of the cathartic effect,” says Brian Sturm, who earned his Ph.D. in folklore at IU.
2. To create a community.
Folklore graduate student Chad Buterbaugh defines community as a sense that “we share a language, and we’re not those other guys.” And storytelling helps us connect with this group. When we identify with someone’s story, we find support for our beliefs and values and create what Sturm calls a “lived community.” It’s a place where everyone tries to make sense of the story together.
3. To give us real, physical connection.
Face-to-face interaction lights up your eyes and opens your ears. “We have a physiological need for connection,” Sturm says. A computer screen can’t really smile at you or look into your eyes. When you watch storytellers, you share a real space. “Our bodies tell stories through winks, handshakes, embraces and dances,” Buterbaugh says.
4. To find establish values.
A good storyteller taps into powerful themes and emotions that touch us all, Sturm says. “We learn vicariously from story characters how to cope with life.” New perspectives can engage us in new ways, Buterbaugh says. “Listen closely to the words of authority figures, from parents to politicians. Then consider how likely you are to practice their values when they are baldly stated, as opposed to when they are embedded in a narrative of some kind.”
5. To highlight changing traditions.
Current stories maintain classic themes and motifs but in a modern framework, Buterbaugh says. “When people think of tradition, they erroneously think of the same story passed down verbatim, but things have to change. Telling an old story is not simply a way to preserve the past. It is a way of reformatting the past for contemporary understanding.”
The hometown songwriter
I can see them rising, standing one by one, like some green horizon, blockin’ out the sun.
I step back with my ax as I hack at this trunk and imagine just what might be.
Whenever I look at trees I see cities. -Excerpt from “Whenever I Look at Trees.”
The belly of his Gibson dreadnought guitar vibrates as Tom Roznowski gently strums its strings. His pale blue eyes soften. You’re no longer in the seat of a concert hall or a local pub, but in the forest looking straight up to the sky. Spinning around, you find yourself lost between skyscraper trees and a log cabin home.
That’s how Tom tells his stories. You gently float back to the banks of the Wabash river, to the porch of your grandmother’s house. You fly from through his songbook listening to the pages of history.
Based in Bloomington, Tom, 63, is widely known for his original songs. His album “A Well Traveled Porch” ranked 24 on the Gavin Americana chart. But his stories go further. He’s also known for his digital storytelling, particularly his work with Memory Chain, a series of short films of early 20th century photographs; his work on the public television special Hometown: A Journey Through Terre Haute; and his book An American Hometown, published by Indiana University Press. He tells stories about urban development in the 1920s. And these stories’ roots are in Terre Haute.
Tom says he tells stories in many different forms and with unique intentions than most storytellers. “They want to explore human character and behavior and then reference the past. I have a specific intent. I am curious about how people lived in the early part of the 20th century and when technology was creating a counterbalance with nature.”
Tom’s eyes glow as he paints Terre Haute in the 1920s: the lively neighborhoods integrated with shops and workplaces; local food; and energy sources. It’s a place that most people don’t see the real beauty of. “It’s like adopting a mutt from the pound,” he says. But for him, Terre Haute in the ‘20s is a microcosm for the rest of the United States, a perfect hometown.
Tom’s journey to Indiana began when he left upstate New York in his Volkswagen van and ended up in Bloomington. Some college buddies had asked him to come and play with their band and write some songs. He didn’t imagine then that 40 years later, he would be the only one of them still in Bloomington.
“It was a small town, yet it had aspects of the city. It was very much rooted in Indiana but had an international flare from the university. You didn’t feel like you were cloistered in a small town. There’s a certain energetic buzz like a urban environment, and it’s still quiet.”
Tom lives with his wife, Trisha, and is currently working on finishing 12 more episodes of Memory Chain. You can find him at local pubs, festivals and concert halls scattered around Southern Indiana.
To contact Tom or find out about upcoming performances, visit: http://www.tomroznowski.net/
A Family Story
Born and raised in Scipio, a community 20 miles northeast of Seymour with 50 houses and rich farmland, Margaret Read MacDonald brought the town’s storytellers to life in her book Scipio Storytelling: Talk in a Southern Indiana Community.
In 1979, she earned her Ph.D. in folklore at the IU. Afterward, she began researching the stories she grew up with. Her book comes from over 200 hours of audiotape of stories and conversations with Scipio natives.
“It was just about everyone being together in a party,” she says. “We would go to somebody’s house and have dinner, and they would sit in the living room. They knew all the stories we would want to hear.”
Scipio Storytelling allows us to gather around at the party and listen.
Today, MacDonald is a folklorist, prolific author, teacher and professional storyteller based in Washington state and continues to travel all over the world.