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Synthetic Yarns : HOMESPUN Tales From America's Favorite Storytellers , edited by Jimmy Neil Smith (Crown: $19.95; 416 pp., illustrated)

December 25, 1988|Paul Jordan-Smith | Jordan-Smith, a senior editor at Parabola magazine, is a free-lance writer and storyteller. and

Because I'm an occasional storyteller, I have often been asked whether just anyone can tell stories or if it is a high art form that takes a special apprenticeship. I usually ask a question in return: "Heard any good jokes lately?" When the questioner understands that my question is serious, I am then treated to a story--and the original question is answered.

If we extend the domain of the joke to include anecdotes, recaps of movies, books, sitcoms or even Monday-morning quarterbacking, the answer is even more obvious: We all can and do tell stories, jokes, anecdotes and so on. In fact, most conversation is laden with narrative, not only with jokes to amuse but with stories that make a point.

We do not think of ourselves as storytellers, but we are telling stories all day long--to our families, friends, business associates, or just to ourselves if there's no one else about. Humans are not only rational animals; we are ratiocinative. We just don't pay too much attention to the fact, don't notice that we are telling stories all the time.

This point is often cited in the pages of "Homespun," as encouragement to would-be storytellers. Unfortunately, it sounds somewhat disingenuous when uttered by professional performers whose emphasis on technique at the expense of substance, spontaneity and intimacy often exaggerates the distance from an audience that is imposed by the stage. The present collection consists of 34 stories by 22 professional American storytellers who, in the view of editor Jimmy Neil Smith, represent "the architects of America's storytelling revival." Smith, the founder and director of the National Assn. for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, is also the founder of the annual National Storytelling Festival, held every October in Jonesboro, Tenn. All the storytellers in the present volume have held forth on the stages and in the workshops of Jonesboro over the years since the festival's inception in 1973, in addition to having performed under other public circumstances. They are storytellers by profession.

That there is no other festival comparable in scale and scope is somewhat of a brief for regarding these storytellers as "America's favorites." The stories given have been selected as representative of the repertoire and style of the narrators. They range from down-home local stories, such as Ray Hicks tells on his North Carolina porch, to a tale collected in Haiti by New York storyteller Diane Wolkstein, from the familiar Brer Rabbit stories Jackie Torrence tells to the touching African story "Moseatunya," told by Mary Carter Smith. As the editor points out, all these stories belong in the American repertoire because America represents such a diverse heritage. It is a pity, however, that only one American Indian storyteller, Gayle Ross, was included.

As I read through the stories in this volume, I often remembered times when I had heard one or another of the storytellers tell them. Doc McConnell's "The Snake-Bit Hoe Handle" had a slightly different ending the first time I heard it at a Jonesboro workshop about 12 years ago, and I recalled Diane Wolkstein's excitement when she first told me "The White Wave" shortly after she had found it. As I remembered each storyteller, I was struck by the realization, not for the first time, how inadequate the written word is for conveying the lively magic of the spoken, and that what was foremost in my recollection was not on the printed page at all. The oral tradition is precisely oral and therefore aural , a communication from the heart and mind of one person to those of another by word of mouth and ear, unmediated and therefore uninterrupted. That the accouterments and techniques of performance are themselves media and, therefore, interfere with that communicative channel is a point that would be best taken up elsewhere.

What such a book as "Homespun" can do best is present the story as given by such and such a storyteller. That is all it needs to do. Along the way, however, a rather large quantity of extraneous material was included to pad the book: Of the section devoted to tales, slightly less than half is taken up with anecdotes about the storytellers, and in some cases, the introductions are more than twice the length of the stories.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag, serving more to advertise the skills and approaches of professional performers than to illuminate the art of storytelling. One often feels that the stories are best left told by their temporary "owners" rather than repeated by oneself, say, to one's children. This is because the polished, even slick style in which many are presented is obviously tailored for the stage and not the hearth. For this reason alone, "Homespun" is exactly the wrong title for this book.

The most disappointing feature of the book, however, is the essay at the end, entitled "Everyone Has a Story to Tell." While chatty and friendly in character, Smith actually gives little more than an editorial compilation of what some storytellers think is helpful. Such a compilation is not without its uses, but much more comprehensive advice is given by Marie Shedlock in "The Art of the Storyteller." In all, the book is too nearly promotional and far from being the "definitive" volume on American storytelling that the dustjacket proclaims it to be.

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