Author: Campbell, Bruce

Telling Tales

We humans are always trying to define what it is that makes us different (or superior) to animals. For a while, we were smug about our species’ ability to use tools, only to later learn that apes and birds (and for al we know, sowbugs) also make and use tools in some fashion. OK, we said, well, only we humans have speech, but even pirates know birds can talk and whales and dolphins appear to have pretty sophisticated languages, so that distinction has fallen into disfavor. For a while, I clung to the notion that only humans are unafraid of household vacuums, but the scientific community refused to adopt that standard. Today, however, I have a new standard: storytelling. Only humans tell stories, and telling stories is a universal trait amongst humans -- a trait that surely aided our development into the selfish, polluting beings we all know and love.

All cultures treasure their storytellers, and have since prehistoric times. Before there was writing, folklore had to be handed down verbally, and that meant people who could relate stories in a gripping, memorable fashion were invaluable. They were as important to their people’s survival as a culture as the master fletchers and hunters. In many cultures, the stories survived as songs – it’s sometimes easier to remember a song than a spoken-word story. I remember reading somewhere that Polynesian royals wererequired to memorize their history back 50+ generations – Hawaiians had a memorized history that stretched back to their original arrival from Tahiti, nearly 1000 years prior!

Everyone loves a good story, and songs with good stories. “Footprints in the Snow” has a terrific story, as does “Long Black Veil” – it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion of either song when performing them. They appeal to profound emotions within us. “Afternoon Delight”, on the other hand, doesn’t resonate in quite the same way.

The best songwriters and poets tend to be great storytellers. Loss, tragedy, love and sentimental views about home and family provide subject matter that anyone can relate to, and coupled with a good melody, some clever phrasing and rhythm, those musical stories appeal to generations of musicians and listeners alike.

It’s not all sentimental stuff though – with the advent of cheap printing, news was often circulated through the countryside via “broadside ballads” - songs that could be sung to any of a number of popular melodies. In 18th and 19th century countryside communities where literacy was not too common, a broadside ballad could be delivered to a tavern or inn, and sung by those who could read and sing, and news was passed along. The news was often political in nature, but just like people today, the more lurid tales of crime and punishment were very popular. I am told a lot of well-known folks songs began as broadside ballads. I don’t which ones they’re talking about but it sounds true.

I appreciate a well-told yarn, and it seems to me that our bluegrass community is blessed with some very good slingers. A jam session is much enlivened by a well-told tale that can be expertly delivered in the brief pause as a fiddler rosins a bow, or a guitar player moves a capo. This is our folklore, and I’ve heard some pretty good stories. I’ve even been the subject of a few...

Posted:  6/29/2011

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