Friday, August 1, 2014

You know you're a storyteller if ...

Fifteen ways to know if you're a storyteller:

  1. You can retell a 30-second joke as a 20-minute story.
  2. When someone tells you a story, you tell them a story.
  3. When someone asks you a question, you tell them a story.
  4. Your children complain, "We've heard that story a hundred times!"
  5. You can differentiate between epic, fable, fairytale, folk tale, legend, memoir, myth, parable, saga, tall tale, and yarn.
  6. You have wondered why "fairy tale" is two words but "folktale" is one.
  7. You can't read a collection of stories without noting which ones you might like to retell.
  8. You know what "tale type 333" means.
  9. You have missed a highway exit because you were telling yourself a story.
  10. You don't let what actually happened get in the way of a good story.
  11. You like folk music because folk singers introduce their songs by telling a story.
  12. You don't have to Google "398.2" to know what you'll find there.
  13. When things go horribly wrong you think, "If I live through this it will

    make a good story some day."
  14. Your children have stopped telling you what happened for fear you will make an embarrassing story out of it.
  15. You are right now trying to think of another way to know if you are a storyteller. What is it?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Prize Inside

My lawnmower broke. My wife had set out to mow the lawn but quickly reported the lawnmower broken, again, and we needed a new one. Having maintained that mower for years, I wasn’t about to give up on it. Not that it was anything special, it was a no-name gas-powered mower, red on the bottom, black engine on top.

I wondered what the problem could be this time: dirty carburetor, fouled spark plug, clogged air cleaner, broken starter rope, bent cutting blade – what else? I figured it would take a while just to size up the situation. But, with my keen diagnostic powers, I identified the problem in an instant. The right front wheel was sticking out at a crooked angle. Instead of rolling forward, it was digging into the ground.

When we first bought our house, we planned to put in a hot tub, a sauna, a pool table, the idyllic dreams of home ownership. Reality intervened and we put on a new roof and bought a lawnmower. In the course of years, lawnmowers get old, they break, and they wear out. But the idea that we needed to replace this lawnmower didn’t sit well. The way my father taught me, if something broke – well, it shouldn’t break in the first place because you should have taken care of it – but if it did break, you didn’t just run out and buy a new one, you fixed it. So I’d been maintaining and fixing this lawnmower for years, and it – and the roof – hadn’t worn out yet.

I brought it into the basement and examined the wheel arrangement. It didn’t have an axle with a wheel at each end, like a car. Instead, each wheel had a short bolt that attached it to the housing, the heavy sheet metal that shields the blade (so you don’t cut off your toes) and support the engine. This wheel was still bolted to the housing, but bent outwards at an angle. I loosened the nut on the inside of the housing, removed the bolt, and then removed the wheel. It became clear what happened.

The section of the housing around the bolt was cracked and bent outwards. I surmised that the nut on the inside of the housing had loosened a little bit so the wheel wasn’t attached firmly and consequently, every time you pushed the mower over a bump on the lawn, the wheel was jostled back and forth. Over the course of years, it bent the section of metal housing back and forth until finally the sheet metal had fatigued and cracked and gotten bent outwards.

In the years before my father died, I would have called him on the phone, described the situation, and asked for his advice. I would call him when I had an electrical problem, his specialty, or any kind of home repair or mechanical problem. He had a knack for using language so precisely and descriptively that I could follow what he was saying, even over the telephone, without diagrams or hand motions. Instinctively I thought about calling him. Habit.

I figured I could patch the cracked section with a piece of heavy sheet metal that would overlap the cracked section. I cut out a piece of scrap sheet metal, drilled a series of small holes near the perimeter of the patch, drilled matching holes in the housing, and attached the patch to the housing with pop rivets. The patch held firmly. In the middle of the patch I drilled a new hole for the bolt that holds the wheel in place.

I put the bolt through the wheel and then through the hole. I picked up the lock washer and the nut that will tighten onto the bolt and hold the wheel in place and, as I looked at the lock washer, I saw that it was squashed flat. The lock washer is supposed to be springy, to press out against the housing and the nut, to prevent the nut from coming loose from all the vibration from the engine. And I realized this was why the wheel failed. It was this lock washer. It wasn’t doing its job so the nut loosened, the bolt wiggled back and forth, the metal fatigued and cracked, the wheel went crooked. The lock washer was the source of this problem!

I needed a new lock washer. I considered driving down to the hardware store. But, I thought, if I run down to the hardware store I will have to find a place to park my car. And so long as I’m making the trip, since the CVS pharmacy is right across the street, there are a couple things I need to pick up there. And when it comes to buying this lock washer, I’m going to have to buy a whole blister pack of assorted washers, because you can’t go and buy just a single one. Instead, I decided to look for one in the basement.

I headed down to the “tool room,” and started looking. I looked through the plastic cabinet I’d bought with two dozen little plastic drawers, each stocked with a particular type and size of fastener: wood screws, sheet metal screws, machine screws, washers, and nuts. It had a range of lock washers but none big enough for this bolt. So I moved on to search through my father’s old storage boxes.

My father had kept a number of black rectangular boxes, made from Bakelite, "the first synthetic plastic," from when he worked at Tech-Art Plastics in the 1940s. He always referred to them as “the Bakelite boxes” and used them to store his miscellaneous parts and supplies. It had been my job as a kid to find things for him. He was an electrician and we’d be working on a job and he would say, “Sandy, run out to the Jeep,” he had an old, 1948 Jeep station wagon, “and get me …” 8/32 screws, wire nuts, BX connectors, fluorescent starters, knock-out blanks, whatever he needed.

It happened quite often that I’d come back and say, “Dad, I couldn’t find it.” And he would say, quite forcefully, “Look with your hands!” It took me a long time to figure out what he meant: if you just look in the box, if you just use your eyes, all you see is what’s on the surface. You have to reach in with your hands, rummage around, pick stuff out, dump out the box, go through it piece by piece. You have to use your hands, not just your eyes; you have to “look with your hands!”

I was in the basement searching through those old Bakelite boxes, searching for the lock washer I needed, hearing my father’s voice, “look with your hands,” and what did I find? There, among the dirty old screws, washers, and nuts, a small, plastic magnifying glass, the round, magnifying end the size of a nickel, with a plastic handle that ended with a little hole so you could put it on a key ring. And I was transported to a day, probably 45 years earlier, when I was four or maybe five or six years old.

It was a beautiful sunny day. We were on a family trip to visit Cousin Ray who lived near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. After much searching for a parking space, my father parked the car and my mother went into the apartment building, to the seventeenth floor, to get my elderly Cousin Ray. This would take a while. My father and I walked out to the promenade to kill time. In the middle of the walkway there was a large, wooden planter with a small tree growing in the middle surrounded by bright flowers – blue and yellow pansies, red petunias, golden marigolds. Facing out from each side of the planter was a built-in bench, the wood a weathered grey. My father and I sat down on one of them, taking in this lovely day.

My father reached into his pocket and took out a cigar, carefully removed the cellophane wrapper, and put it in his mouth. He reached into another pocket but came out empty handed. He tried another pocket and another, pants, jacket, shirt. No matches. How frustrating! A fine day to smoke a cigar, but no matches. Gazing down the walkway, he noticed a vendor selling Cracker Jacks. He said to me, “Sandy, here’s a nickel. Go over and buy a box of Cracker Jacks. Maybe we’ll get lucky and there will be a plastic magnifying glass inside.” That was back when the “toy prize” in the Cracker Jack box was a real toy.

I wasn’t all that fond of Cracker Jacks, but I wasn’t going to turn him down. Moreover, my major interest in Cracker Jacks was the “toy surprise inside.” I tore open the box and, not feeling the polite obligation to first eat the contents, went right for the toy prize. And there it was, a small, plastic magnifying glass. My father took it in one hand, held his cigar in the other, and focused the rays of the sun to a pinpoint on the end of the cigar. I had no idea what he was doing.

Within a minute, I was amazed to see the end of the cigar start to smolder. “Sandy,” he said, “you come around the other side of the cigar and you puff on it.” But I was five years old and I didn’t know how. I tried but I couldn’t get the cigar to light up. “Okay,” my father said, “you hold the magnifying glass and I’ll puff.” He held the cigar and leaned forward so I could reach the cigar as I held the magnifying glass, trying my best to focus the rays of the sun on one spot on the end of the cigar, just as he had done. I held it as steady as I could, though I couldn’t keep it from wavering. My little-boy effort was more intently focused than the beam of sunlight coming though that magnifying glass.

At last it started to smolder and my father leaned forward even more so he could puff on it, gentle, short puffs, and I watched as the pinpoint glow of the tobacco gradually spread to the edges. He raised the cigar, signally that I didn’t need to focus the magnifying glass any more, and leaned back to take a long, relaxing puff. He was beside himself. Not only had he lit this cigar, he demonstrated to his little boy the magic, the power of the magnifying glass. And we sat there, the two of us, he puffing on his cigar, me, eating my Cracker Jacks, feeling pretty darned pleased with ourselves, perhaps even a little smug, and I had a small plastic magnifying glass in my pocket.

This recollection flashed through my head and then I was back in the basement, holding a Bakelite box, hearing my father’s voice, “look with your hands.” I’m wasting time, I thought, fighting with myself, just get in the car and go to the hardware store

I found it. A lock washer just the right size, stored there by my father, perhaps 50 or 60 years ago. I tested it out on the bolt. It was perfect. I put the bolt through the wheel and then through the hole in the new section of sheet metal. I put on the new lock washer. I used two wrenches – one on the head of the bolt, one on the nut – to get it good and tight. Learning the lesson, I checked all the other wheels to make sure they were all good and tight. I put the tools away, just as my father showed me, so I could find them the next time I needed them. I took the lawnmower outside and rolled it back and forth. It worked perfectly. I pulled the cord and it started right up. My wife heard the lawnmower, came outside and took over, mowing the lawn.

I sat down on the glider on the front porch. I took out a cigar, removed the cellophane, put it in my mouth. I struck a match, lit it, and sat there, listening with satisfaction to the buzz of the lawnmower in the backyard. And I would have to admit I was feeling pretty darned pleased with myself, perhaps even a little smug, and I had a small, plastic magnifying glass in my pocket.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sister Lillian Harrington's Midrash

In the long, long ago, the Lord God searched for people to be his own.

God went to the Greeks and asked, "What can you do for me if I make you my chosen people?"
"We are gifted architects. We can build beautiful temples where people can come in great numbers from all over the world to worship you."
"Thank you very much," God said, and moved on.
Then the Lord God went to the Romans and said, "What can you do for me if I make you my chosen people?"
"We are great builders of roads and bridges. We will build bridges and roads so that the people can find their way to you."
"Thank you very much," God said, and moved on.
Then God went to the Jewish people and asked, "What can you do for me if I make you my chosen people?"
An old rabbi answered for them. "We are not gifted architects. Neither are we great builders of roads and bridges. What we can do is tell stories."
And God said, "Then you will be my people."
Sister Lillian Harrington, OSB, Benedictine Sister of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, KS.

This story is quoted in Atchison Blue, by Judith Valente. I heard it while at the Mount Saviour Monastery, where it was read during dinner and caught my ear. I received a copy of it just yesterday. It differs substantially from the traditional Jewish midrash, Sifre Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33:2, which describes God offering the Torah to various nations of the world. Each asked, "What does it say?" To one nation God answered, "Thou shalt not murder." The nation replied, "We can't abide by that." To another nation God responded, "Thou shalt not steal." The nation replied, "We can't follow that rule," and they too rejected the Torah. Finally, God offered the Torah to the people of Israel, who responded, "We will do and we will hear."

Since I am a Jewish storyteller, the story is especially significant to me. I wonder, where did Sister Lillian Harrington find this version? I would like to ask her but, unfortunately, she died a few days ago, on April 1, 2014, at age 96. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Words We Use: Storytelling, Folktale, Legend, Myth ...

I just scanned all of the books published in the English language since 1800 and counted the number of times the word “stories” appeared in these books. “Stories” has been on the upsurge since 1968 and peaked in 2003! Here's a graph showing the results, year by year:

Note: Apparently the Ngram Viewer graphs are not visible in Internet Explorer. Try Firefox or Chrome.



Of course, you can see that I scanned a number of other words and phrases as well: storytelling, storyteller, folktales, fairy tales, fables, epics, sagas, myths, legends, and tall tales. Since they occur much less frequently then stories, their results are squished. So here's another graph, without stories, so you can see the other results in more detail.


The results are clear: fables are “out,” myths are “in” (peaking in 1997).  Legends peaked in 1879 but are still hanging in there. Sagas, epics, and fairy tales have had a long and fairly consistent history. As for tall tales – well, who would believe anything I said about tall tales anyway. (After all, I'm writing this on April Fool's Day.)

There appear to be some interesting trends since about 1920 with storyteller and storytelling, so let's take a closer look.


There appears to be steady, slow growth in the appearance of these words between 1930 and 1970 when their use started an upsurge. In 1978 storytelling overtook storyteller and continued to grow at a faster rate. Storyteller peaked in 1996 and has declined since. Storytelling peaked in 2003 and declined slightly since. I wonder if the difference in the use of storytelling and storyteller has significance.

To tell you the truth, I might have misled you by saying “I just scanned all of the books published in the English language since 1800 … ” The truth is, I used the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Indeed, you can quickly perform this analysis for any words or phrases you choose – in English (American, British, or All) Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, or Italian.
For more information about the underlying data and how to perform this analysis visit the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Please let me know if you find some interesting results.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Unfriended

Everyone called her Queenie, because she was such a “drama queen!” And she liked the nickname because it brought her immediate attention. When Facebook became available, she’d found her medium, keeping her pages up-to-date all through college and after graduation, into her new job. She strove to be the most popular and best connected; the supreme social networker.

Facebook logo
She talked one of her boyfriends, a computer programmer, into creating an application to monitor and compare her friends' Facebook pages with her own. It tallied their numbers of friends, comments, photos, tags, invitations, and such, and reported on who had the most. She called it Magic Mirror, because it would tell her if she was the fairest of them all. When she fell behind – which happened rarely – she anxiously pursued new friends and posted status updates and photos, all aimed to push her Magic Mirror score back to the top.

When she married her high school sweetheart, George Blanca, the best-looking boy in their graduating class, her friends teased her, “We won’t be seeing you so much on Facebook, now that you’ll be busy with George!” But marriage spurred her on. She tagged wedding photos and friended George’s friends and relatives. She was the supreme social networker.

They named their beautiful little daughter Nieve, “after George’s grandmother’s,” Queenie said, “but we just call her Evie.” Much to everyone's surprise, Queenie's Facebooking accelerated with photos of little Evie at each milestone and in each new outfit. Her friends, many of them young mothers themselves, marveled, “Queenie, how do you find the time for Facebook?” Her response: “I always find time for what’s important.”

Evie grew up watching her mother on Facebook and, of course, wanted her own page. But Queenie insisted, “You’re too young. Facebook is for when you’re older.” In high school, Evie implored her mother, “All my friends have Facebook pages. Why can’t I?” George was sympathetic, and talked with Queenie. Finally, in her senior year, Queenie opened a Facebook account for Evie and set up her page. Evie was pleased, but puzzled. “If it’s my Facebook page, why are you setting it up? It’s mine!” Evie changed her password and took control. When Queenie offered to help and share some of her knowledge of social networking, Evie responded angrily. “I’m doing fine on my own.” Nonetheless, Queenie patiently offered her assistance and proudly liked and shared her daughter’s updates.

Queenie checked Evie’s Facebook page daily and, in secret, monitored her activity with Magic Mirror. As Evie's Magic Mirror score rose, Queenie felt proud of her daughter’s efforts and growing skill. But as Evie’s score continued to rise, Queenie’s pride turned into disinterest, and then displeasure and disdain. “You’re spending too much time on Facebook,” she told Evie, “I’m not going to help you anymore. You’re on your own. You didn’t want my help anyway.”

As George saw it, this was just the beginning of a series of mother-daughter conflicts. Queenie wanted to keep an eye on her, so when Evie was accepted to the local college, that was the end of the story, even though Evie had received a scholarship to a college three hours away. The summer after her high school graduation was particularly problematic since mother and daughter spent so much time together. George looked forward to the beginning of Evie's first semester at college, anticipating that with her busy academic schedule these conflicts would ease. But to his disappointment, matters got worse. Conflicts grew – everything from which car Evie should drive to school and what she should pack for lunch to responsibilities for household chores and priorities for class assignments. No doubt, all of these conflicts were exacerbated by the fact that, with the addition of Evie's new college friends, her Facebook Magic Mirror score had approached her mother's.

George watched these mother-daughter conflicts in agony. He talked with them, but each problem they solved was replaced by a new one. By mid-semester, with no resolution in sight, he convinced Queenie to allow Evie to transfer to the a more distant college where, instead of living at home and commuting, she would live in the dormitory.

Evie arrived for her second semester on her new campus, apprehensive on one hand, hopeful on the other. The dorms were at capacity, so she didn't have any choice about her living situation. She was assigned to a suite.

On her arrival, one of the girls opened the door. “You must be Nieve!” she exclaimed, smiling and excitedly nodding her head up and down. “My name’s Roberta, but everyone calls me Bobbie. Come on in.”

“Don’t believe her,” called a voice from inside the suite, “we call her Bobble because she’s a bobblehead.” Appearing at the door, she continued, “I’m Dorothy, but they call me Dourthy, or just Dour. They say I’m sour, but I’m not, I’m just realistic.”

Evie stepped into the suite’s living room, where she saw a third girl with puffy eyes and a reddened nose. “Hi, I’m Stephanie, Stuph for short, because I have allergies and I’m always stuffed up.” She turned to introduce another girl who just entered from one of the bedrooms. “And this is Ikki. She’s really smart, but she doesn’t like to admit it.”

“My real name’s Nicole,” she said, “but ‘Nikki’ is apparently too conventional for this suite. So, Nieve, that’s Spanish, right? Do you have a nickname?”

“Evie, just call me Evie.” She was pleased to be greeted so warmly by these girls. She noticed another girl, standing off in the corner. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, that’s Ilona, but we call her Lona,” Ikki replied. “Come on Lona, come over and say hi.” Lona came closer and extended her hand.

“What’s all the noise about?” Another girl entered from her bedroom, rubbing her eyes and yawning. “Is this the new girl?”

“Hi, I’m Nieve, but everyone calls me Evie. And you are …”

“Dawn. But they call me Yawn. You’ll never guess why.”

“Well, I guess you’ve met everyone,” said Bobble, “so let’s help you get moved in.”

“Duh,” called a voice from the kitchen, “even I can count up to seven.” Another girl made her way into the living room. “Hi, I’m Denise, but they call me Duh. Get it? Duhnise.”

“Yeah,” Evie replied, “I get it. I have seven suitemates, and I just hope I fit in.”

With her suitemates’ help, she quickly moved in. The suite was already over-full since it was designed for six. It had three double rooms, one of which was a bit larger and used as a triple. Evie moved into the living room, the room that everyone used but no one cleaned up. She worked hard every day to pick up the mess.

Even though Evie was the tallest, her seven suitemates were each a year or two older than she. They proved to be an interesting bunch. Ikki seemed to know everything about anything. She loved biology, especially dissection. Evie figured that’s why they called her Ikki. Duh, by contrast, seemed so lacking in common sense it was hard to believe she had been accepted to college. Stuph rarely remembered to take her allergy medications. Bobble was always so upbeat it verged on annoying. She got along well with everyone, even Dour, who was at the other end of the spectrum, short-tempered and direct, more inclined toward negatives than positives. Yawn was a procrastinator who stayed up late almost every night to complete her assignments. Lona never initiated a conversation but she was a good listener and when she spoke, it was because she had something genuine to say. Evie was amazed to find that, in spite of their differences, they were all very close and dedicated to each other. She was extremely pleased and indeed honored that they took her in and accepted her. She figured the dorm director must have known this was a group that could adopt a newcomer.

She wasn't looking for a boyfriend, but when a very nice-looking and well-mannered young man came by to visit the suite, she was enchanted. He already new her seven suitemates and all their cutesy nicknames. He referred to them collectively as “the minors,” a reflection, she believed, of the fact that they were all under the age of 21. Her suitemates referred to him as “the prince.” She supposed that his family was well-to-do, or at least he acted that way. When asked her out, she accepted, and thereafter they were often seen together.

With all of these new friends, and their friends, and more friends that she made in her new classes, the number of her Facebook friends surged, not to mention the number of comments on her updates and the photos in which she was tagged. She became the supreme social networker. Her Magic Mirror score soared, although she didn't know it because she didn't have Magic Mirror installed.

But her mother did.

“She thinks she’s so cute in those photos! She assumes she’s so well liked! Better than her own mother!” Queenie spent nearly all her time trying to build up her Magic Mirror score, but she couldn't catch up to her daughter. She was distraught, and then became desperate. She saw only one solution. She became fixated on it and plotted secretly without George’s knowledge.

She found her old boyfriend, the computer programmer, on Facebook. He wrote a computer program enabling her to take over Evie’s Facebook account. She called it Poison Apple. She unfriended Evie’s friends and deleted her photos, status updates, and comments.

The next time Evie signed into Facebook, she entered her email address and password again and again, but it didn’t work. When she looked at her public Facebook page, her updates were gone. Photos gone. Friends gone. And then she started getting messages. “Why did you unfriend me?” “Why did you remove that photo of you and me at the party?” What happened? She was upset and alarmed and didn’t know what to do. She confided in “the prince,” hoping that he would have some advice. “Don’t ask me,” he said, “you should ask the ‘miners.’”

“The ‘minors?’ You mean my suitemates? What would they know?” she asked.

“What do you mean, ‘What would they know!’ They’re the computer geniuses! They’re the ones everyone comes to with their data problems! Why did you think we call them the ‘miners,’ the ‘data miners!’”

“I didn’t know!” Evie replied. “I noticed they all spend a lot of time on their computers, but I figured they were just doing homework.” She returned to her dorm and showed the suitemates her Facebook account.

With barely an explanation they set to action. Never before had Evie seen seven individuals get to work so fast, coordinate so effortlessly, working individually and in shifting pairs and trios, and share information and trade ideas so freely. And it was all for her. She never felt so taken care of.

Dour took her aside and promised, “Evie, we’ll sort this out. It may take us hours or days, but we’re persistent. We will fix this for you.” Bobbles was as bubbly as ever, but worked as hard and fast as anyone. Stuph came over with her bottle of allergy medication. “Evie,” she said, “remind me to take one of these every four hours. Just interrupt me.” Lona sat with one girl at a time, listening carefully to understand a problem she encountered. Then, after thinking about it for several minutes, Lona would suggest two or three different approaches for how to work on it. Yawn worked all night while the others got some sleep. Duh, it now became clear, provided important insights. When she helped another girl solve a problem, the other girl said, “Duh, I should have seen that!” Evie was wrong about Ikki, too. As each girl left the suite for class she told Ikki everything she had done and what problems she was working on. Ikki integrated all this information and saw the big picture in all of its details. She managed to keep track of everything. Her high IQ had earned her the nickname Iqqi.

Thirty-four hours later they sent a technical memo advising Facebook of a security hole in its identification system. Then they asked Evie to sit down to hear their report.

“The good news is, we reclaimed your account and re-established your friends and photos and everything. The bad news is, we found out who stole your account.”

“The bad news! Who was it?”

“Your mother.”

Evie was shocked. She called her father and they had a long talk. She talked to her psychology professor and with her advice, met with a counselor at the health center. She came to understand her own growing desire for autonomy and recognition as an adult, and as well, her mother’s long-felt insecurity and need for attention. With support and prodding from George, mother and daughter talked and they saw a family therapist. And while it can’t be said that they lived happily ever after, every day, they tried.

© 2014 Sandor Schuman. All rights reserved.
An updated version of this story was published in Distressing Damsels: A Fairy Tale Anthology, 2017, Fantasia Divinity.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Living in the Country

Every time I heard Living in the Country I said to myself, I must dig out that unique recording I have of Living in the Country, the one with that powerful, rhythmic, bluesy introduction that dramatically shifts into the light-aired melody everyone is familiar with. The one that Pete Seeger attributed to Huddie Ledbetter, that I recorded off the WQXR radio show,  Folk Music of the World, in the late 1960s. It was the first time I heard it, and it became my aspiration, my obsession. I had to learn how to play it on the guitar. I even bought a 12-string. I listened to that tape repeatedly in high school and college, and then stored it away. And although I have heard many performances and recordings of Living in the Country by many artists, none of them approach that first one I heard by Pete Seeger. And although I said many times I should retrieve that tape, I never found the time.


A few years ago, my sister asked if I wanted my father's old Wollensak 7" reel-to-reel tape recorder. I said yes, anticipating that I would use it to play back that old recording. After all, it was the machine I had used to record that radio show in the first place. But the old Wollensak just laid there, gathering dust. I didn't even know if it still worked.

When Pete Seeger died I could put it off no longer.  I looked for those old 7" reel-to-reel tapes – in my old storage crate in the attic, in my cartons of old books, in my box of high-school treasures. Not there. I gave up. And then, days later,  I spotted them on the book shelf above my desk. I had retrieved them some years ago and placed them there – so they would be handy.

I opened the old Wollensak and cleaned off four decades of grime, only to find there was no take-up reel.  It took me a few days before I set about finding one on eBay: $3.00 (plus $5.94 for shipping) from a seller in Orlando, Florida. Then I had to wait several days for the auction to close, and more until finally the package arrived. But I had found not one but two of my old 7" reel-to-reel tapes and it would likely take hours to find that particular recording. I was too busy. 

I don't know what inspired me today to drop everything and listen to those recordings. And I got lucky – Living in the Country was one of the first recordings on the first side of the first reel. I was pleased.

I retrieved my bag of audio cables and adapters from the basement, a carry over from my college days when I thought myself knowledgeable in such matters. I connected the Wollensak's outputs to my computer's inputs in every conceivable configuration, to no avail. Audacity recorded hums and buzzes. Watching the afternoon tick by, I gave up and held a microphone in front of the Wollensak, a reversal of the process I had used to record the radio show (using a microphone in front of the radio speaker) some 45 years ago.

The quality of the recording is poor, but still conveys the essence of this unique arrangement.

The host of the radio show provides a brief introduction to these two versions of Living in the Country.  The first version is from a London recording made in 1960. I searched the web but was unable to find a better quality version. It starts with Pete Seeger talking about Huddie Ledbetter and he seems to attribute Living in the Country to him. It is unlike any other recording of Living in the Country, starting with a powerful, rhythmic, blues section that breaks into the lighter melody with which we are so familiar. The second version is the well-known "whistling" version that appears in numerous recordings by Pete Seeger and other artists.

You can listen to my recording of Living in the Country from the Folk Music of the World radio show here.

But that's not quite the end of the story. You see, I've been trying to find the lyrics to Living in the Country for as long as I've been trying to play it on the 12-string. I thought I saw the lyrics printed in an issue of Sing Out! magazine, but the lyrics did not turn up in a search of it's archives. To the best of my recollection, here they are.

Living in the Country

I'm living way out in the country
I rarely come into the town.
It's always so lovely, delightful,
I wish that you would come around.

Oh, please, won't you come away with me.
We'd be so happy living in the country.

Work all day,
Laugh and play,
Sing this song to you.
Perhaps I will retrieve my old 12-string from the attic.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Goodnight, Pete, I'll see you in my dreams"*

I wrote to Pete Seeger in 1969, inviting him to perform at our Earth Day celebration at Cornell University, the first one, to be held on April 22, 1970. He wrote back, saying he couldn't come because "I am up to my ears in projects which I have started on and have not finished ..." (He added, "There is another singer from the Hudson River Sloop who I believe would be very good ... Don McLean ... He is an extraordinarily talented young fellow who within a year or two is going to become very famous." He was right. Don McLean's American Pie was a number 1 hit song in 1972 and the number 5 Song of the Century.)

Pete ended up singing at the Washington, D.C. celebration of Earth Day, but he did give a concert for us at Cornell.  One of my friends, also a Pete Seeger fan – and an automobile enthusiast, was eager to find out what kind of car he was driving. He was disappointed when Pete called from the Ithaca bus station asking if someone could pick him up and give him a ride to the campus. When Pete found out that his concert at Bailey Hall was sold out, he offered to give a free performance afterwards. We had to scramble to find a sound system that we could use outdoors.

While Pete Seeger was best known for his songs and music, he was also a great storyteller. Telling a story to introduce or reflect on a song is part of the folk music tradition, and the stories were a good part of what attracted me to folk music (although aspiring to play Pete Seeger's guitar instrumental, Living in the Country, was a big attraction too).  Here is one of his many stories that has stuck with me, from “Seek and Ye Shall Find,” on his album, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs. It's no coincidence that in 1974 I named my publishing company This Too Shall Pass Press.

The King and His Wise Men
There was once a king in the olden days. He had three sons and he wanted to give them a good education. He called in his wise men, he said I wish you’d boil down all the world’s wisdom into one book that I’m going to give my sons and have them learn it. So the wise men went away, took them a whole year, and they came back with a beautiful leather-bound volume, trimmed in gold. The king leafed through it. “Hmm. Very good. Yes, this is it.” He gives it to his sons, and said, “Okay, learn it!”

Then he turned to the wise men and he said, “You know, you did such a good job with that, I wonder if you couldn’t boil down all the world’s wisdom into one sentence. Well, the wise men went away, it took them five years. They came back, their beards must have been dragging on the ground, and they said, “Your majesty, we’ve decided upon a sentence. “What is it,” says the king. “This too shall pass.”

I guess the king didn’t have anything better to do with his wise men. He said, I wonder if you couldn’t boil down all the world’s wisdom into one word. The poor men must have groaned. They went away. It took them ten years. When they came back they were all bent over. The king said, “Oh yes, what was that word?” He’d forgotten all about his little whim. They said, “Your majesty, the one word is: maybe.”
As I mourn his death and reflect on his life, I am pondering, "this too shall pass." And too, I am recalling his words from that letter he sent me in 1970, "I am up to my ears in projects which I have started on and have not finished ..." There is so much more to do, Pete, and you have done your part.

 "Goodnight Pete, Goodnight Pete, I'll see you in my dreams"*

* This line is adapted from Pete Seeger's first best seller, recorded by The Weavers, Goodnight Irene, which repeats the line, "Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene, I'll see you in my dreams." I heard it this morning on WAMC radio as the closing line of one of the listeners who called in and thought it was a great tribute.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sharing the Fire: The Northeast Storytelling Conference

http://lanes.org
March 28-30, 2014, Amherst MA 

Be a better storyteller. Participate in workshops, panel discussions, performances, and story swaps with the greatest storytellers in the Northeast. I hope to see you there!