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Down on the Farm: Recording the stories

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"You know, somebody should get him on tape telling all those stories," you hear people say about some local wag.

"Someday I just want to set up a video camera and have her talk for an hour," others announce. "When she's gone, all that history will just disappear."

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Most wanna-be documentarians never get around to recording the storytellers and the old-timers.

And maybe it is for the best. When somebody actually drags a tape recorder or video camera in front of old-timers, the results aren't always that great.

People freeze up in front of a camera. Or, they change their tone.

Or, they start telling the truth.

"Well, I am not sure if they shot 500 ducks, maybe it was more like 80," the suddenly careful storyteller tells the camera. "But it sure seemed like 500."

Well, that's no fun.

A while back, a public radio reporter called to ask if I knew of any good local storytellers.

Boy, did I ever. We have an all-star cast. But getting them on tape would have been a trick!

We never figured out how to do it.

You know what? I think we should just forget this whole idea of getting storytellers on tape. Nobody will listen to the tapes, anyway. And if they do, the humor will likely get lost in translation.

Instead, when the moment happens, just sit back and let the old-timers and yarn spinners tell their tales.

That's what went on around the fire before electricity changed everything. That's how people got through the winter, by telling tall tales by the fire.

Let's go back to those days. Just hear the story. If you want, learn the story. Study the timing. Practice the accents. Take notes if you must, but only after you get home.

Then tell the stories yourself if you think they are worthwhile.

But don't ruin the moment by trying to preserve it while it is happening.

Look how many spontaneous pudding-all-over-the-face moments are ruined when some historian just has to run and get a camera.

It is like trying to repeat a spontaneous party that turned out to be an utter blast. It never works. As a friend of mine says, "You can't press rewind!"

Same with stories. They have to just happen. You can't send out invitations.

Humans were made to tell stories over and over around the fire and pass them down through the generations.

The only thing which gets in the way is when somebody writes the stories down. That ruins everything.

Once written down, stories can freeze into dogma. People start thinking the tales actually happened.

Once written down, stories lose their whimsy. The tales either become lifeless, or, what's worse, they get turned into doctrine.

Soon, professors start poking at the stories like they might probe a cadaver. Grim-faced theologians pore over the written words as if they are finite numbers in the largest math equation ever.

But if left unwritten, stories continue to improve with the telling. With each retelling, the good storyteller leaves out a few inconvenient facts, polishes off some of the rough places, improves the timing, cleans up the sequence of events, adapts the story to present circumstances.

As the story slides slowly towards fiction, you might think it would have less value. But the opposite is true. As it is polished, a story's point becomes more vivid and clear. That's why they're called stories and not news reports.

Stories are improved versions of what happened.

One legendary local storyteller, who a neighbor claims "could have made millions as a sit-down comedian," is so good that when he starts in, people start texting others to get their butts down to the bar.

However, when too many people show up, he gets uncomfortable and clams up. It is almost as if he thinks somebody's going to report him to the authorities for stretching the truth.

Local storytellers should relish their role. They are the keepers of our myths and the distillers of our folk wisdom.

And when they start in, it is wise to just shut up and listen.

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