"Old Days and New Ways"

The modern storytelling revival was presaged by the folk music of the early 1960's and there was a resurgence of the ballad, the folk story, and similar traditional folk arts. It was a 'fringe' experience, often limited to college campuses, coffee houses and the like.
Nearing the Bicentennial, in 1976, however, there was a renewed interest in discovering, reclaiming and reshaping traditional arts of all forms.  Candle-making, textile arts, and storytelling sprang to life.  Suddenly the traditions, amusements, and ways of pioneer folk became intensely interesting to academics, anthropologists, and many others.  As is often the case, the fact that many pockets of society and culture had never lost this particular art form - well, that was of small consequence. 
In the late 1970's and through the 1980's storytelling was "in."   It had been discovered by the artistic segments of society and was ratified by academics, social theorists, and arts communities as being 'valid' and 'authentic'.   Across the country storytellers emerged to speak for and from their unique vantage points : urban ghettos, inner city neighborhoods, small towns, rural hollows, mountain peaks, desert plains, and shady bayous.  Stories were everywhere!  Wasn't it lucky they were re-discovered and saved...
Storytelling has always been around. It never went anywhere. It simply did not fill the stage or the concert hall until it was socially recognized and an "approved" was stamped across it  by the arts community or the winds of a particular trend in society.
As the result of these trends, artificial elements,  and strange combinations of artistic DNA,  have resulted in limiting understanding of what storytelling is and what it can be.  The great white dancing stallions of Europe were put through precise, rigid forms, dressed in sparkling braid and with tall plumes in their hats. Audiences exclaimed at the grandeur of these dancing horses, weren't they clever to teach them to dance?   The truth was, the movements were nothing a horse did not or could not do on its own.  The rigid steps and artificial dress were the result of attempting to make the natural movements and abilities of the horse fit into an artificial and unnatural form (i.e., 'to dance').
Is this what some have attempted to do with storytelling as an art form?  Storytelling's legitimacy seems to often be measured, not against its own internal essence, but in comparison or contrast to another art form or communication  media. 
"Well, if storytelling were just more like....theater...stand-up comedy....or less rustic....home based....historic...spoken-word...or....."

"If storytelling was more stylized, spontaneous, hip, gritty, provocative....."

The evolution of an art form, to be authentic, must emerge from the art form and its working artists, to be of true value.  The purpose of the shift must be in response to the hunger of the artist to do something more, different, or achieve in a new manner.  Sometimes, that might even mean a return to an older traditional form but whatever the case it happens organically within the artistic realm. 

"Jazz" developed outside the confines of traditional standards of what comprised true music.
"Impression" developed outside the artistic world that defined true artistic painting by its intensive detail and realism.

Today, can we say that either of those two do not reflect true art?  If the voices that shrilled out derision or conformity had been listened to by many artists the world would be missing many enriching and lovely examples of artist expression.

The question for reflection might be: who is defining storytelling today, why, and how should the storytelling community respond?


The Many Types of Traditional Storytelling

Hearth Side Telling:  The first instances of stories shared for education, instruction and values sharing occurs in the home or in the family unit. The "hearth" is  symbolic of that fire around which family life revolved, unified and learned.  The stories told around the kitchen table, at bedtime, and on the front porch that help to ground a person in their identity, the heritage, and their values as a member of that family unit.

Kitchen Table Stories of Childhood
Bedtime Stories
Family History Stories

The Culture Bearing Storyteller:  These are the individuals who educate. shape and keep the history and values of the community.  They may be librarians, elders, ministers, religious leaders, educators, health care providers, youth leaders, and others.  They help define the corporate identity of a community (a town, an ethnic association,  a school, a church, a club, etc.) and are its historian remembering who the community was, why it is the way it is, and sharing that with future generations.

Pastors/Religious Leaders
Community Leaders
Political Leaders

The Performing Storyteller: These are individuals who learn stories to share to entertain, to advocate, to persuade, to encourage, to motivate, and to make people think. They emerge from a variety of 'hearth' settings, shaped by a variety of culture bearing stories, and bring to the place where they share publically using the skills of oral communication.

Examples are diverse because the origins and influences are so varied.  There is no 'one' type of storyteller, no approved single form or style. That is its power and that is its strength.



As part of a larger research project, I explored how storytelling has developed, spread, and been promoted in the state of Oklahoma in modern times.  The process raised many questions, offered many concerns and led to some thinking about storytelling perceptions, promotions, and prejudices. 
One of the primary challenges storytelling has is the misunderstanding people have about just what that means.

Common uses of the term includes:
  • Screenwriting
  • Novel Writing
  • Sharing a Business narrative
  • Reading a book to children
  • Telling a Story to children
  • Telling a Story to any age group

As a result storytellers often hear: "What are you reading to the kids?"  There are, however, other less obvious side effects of this misunderstanding.  These involve assumptions about the nature and value of storytelling in this wired in, hooked up and electronically hip world.
Some assumptions about storytellers include:
They are cowboys
They are old people
They are Ethnic (Native American, African-American, etc.)
They are always costumed
They are always 'crazy'
They have be active, noisy, and theatrical to connect with child audiences
They have to be theatrical to connect with adult audiences
Some assumptions seem to be:
  • Storytellers are not artists or craftspeople
  • Storytellers have limited appeal
  • Storytellers are old-fashioned
  • Storytellers are too 'country' and unsophisticated
  • Storytellers are not 'performers'
  • Storytellers are not communicators
  • Storytellers are not important
  • Storytellers are just for children
These lead to other questions or issues, such as:
  • If storytellers are not important - why are they relegated to an audience of children? Don't children deserve the best of the arts? What does this say about how we value children in society? 
  • How can storytelling be outdated? Is ballet? Opera? 
  • If music can be expressed across genres and styles - why not storytelling with its many styles from rustic raconteur to stylized presentations of great elegance and beauty?
  • Storytellers can a big, loud force on a large stage or a small, mesmerizing and powerful force in an intimate venue.  In any setting they are great communicators.
  • If storytelling is so unimportant - why is the term associated with so many other types of creative activity? (film, writing, etc.)
The State of Story in the State: Confused and facing an identity crisis.



Let me tell you about...."I Love Stories" Workshop.  Saturday, February 8TH, 2014 from 10 a.m. to about Noon.

Location: Education Wing, Wesley United Methodist Church (NW 25th and Classen; free parking and entrance on the west side- past Douglas).

 Two wonderful workshops will be offered for both the beginner and the more experienced story teller:

Chara Watson, Edmond, will share tips and methods to begin your storytelling journey. She holds a masters in storytelling from East Tennessee University.

 Kathryn Thurman, Del City, will share skills for those who have some experience but wish to fine tune skills in stage presence and use of microphones, etc.