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Smithsonian Institution
Midwestern Crossroads1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


Storytelling and Recitation

Oral Traditions: Context and Background
       A friend of a friend told me . . . . Traditional stories are passed down orally, told as truth or told as fiction. Traditional narrative forms include folktales, myths, epics, legends, parables, and personal experience narratives. Accepting an expanded version of reality, we add to the list tall tales, stylized boasts, and urban legends. Myths are usually set in a remote past with characters such as gods and goddesses who have extraordinary powers. Myths often include origin stories explaining such mysteries as how the world was formed. Folktales occur in an imaginary time and place and are peopled by fairies, princesses, magic helpers, and talking animals. Legends are stories told as true in which the action purportedly happens to real people in real places in the recent past. Anecdotes, tall tales, numbskull stories, and modern joke cycles are often humorous in content and function in part as entertainment. Ballads function as stories in song. Like legends, they are often based on historic events or people. Oral histories bring together personal experience stories about a person's life, family history, occupation, social and economic era.
        Narrative themes in oral tradition derive from universals of human experience; yet at the same time, stories are tied to particular groups, reflecting the values, beliefs, and life histories specific to those groups. The spoken word, as the province of each of us, is layered with semantic symbols and narrative styles, the linguistic legacy of distinct regional and cultural communities. Seen as contemporary and local, familiar oral narrative patterns (including dialect, lexicon, and recitation forms) are sometimes devalued as merely slang, colloquialisms, or street talk; yet are rich resources of linguistic facts and cultural knowledge. The boasting, toasts, and dozens of Black Americans, for instance, are examples of complicated systems of spontaneous invention and memorization skillfully brought into play within the boundaries of formal linguistic rules.
        Occupational narrative is illustrated by oral narratives of working cowboys. For more than a century, cowboys have composed poetry and more recently tell poems that express the emotions, rigors, history, and characters of ranch and cowboy life. These stories are molded into patterns of short, metrically tight, rhymed verses typical of nineteenth century literary poetry. A conventional form emerging at meals, roundups, and in the bunkhouse since the Civil War, the tone of cowboy poetry is upbeat, sentimental, humorous, or lightly ironic, and often bawdy.
        Storytelling style is a matter of wide variation. Storytellers in Missouri Performing Traditions are those with knowledge of how it used to be, or those knowing the anecdotes, history, and boasts of their communities. Some collect stories from living resources, elders whose knowledge is in danger of being lost; others combine personal stories with the repertoire of the written cultural inheritance of their ethnic homeland. An individual's style might be the unselfconscious presentation as Vance Randolph described Ozark ballad singers, those whose narratives flow naturally into everyday communications. Others, create a dramatic presentation by borrowing vocal and movement techniques of theater.

The City Feller
Well you live in the city/ya drive a big shiny car
It's got TV in the back/and a little wood bar
Ya got a thin Rolex watch/and big diamond rings
Solid gold chains and other nice things
Ya wear Luchesse boots and thousand dollar hats
Silk western shirts and Cutter Bill pants
You got a huge house with plenty of yard
The maid and the butler and gardener work hard
But late in the night when you're setting alone
And the maid, the butler and gardener have gone
Well your thoughts start to wander and you'll wish you could be
A hard workin', underpaid cowboy . . . like me.
-Martin J. Bergin

Program Offerings:

Gannon Family program includes a recounting of their own bicultural experience in immigrating to St. Louis over thirty years ago as they embraced the values of their new home while at the same time maintaining a sense of the old. Programs are built around music and dance and vividly convey the motivation behind the Gannon's dedication to conserving the expressive arts of Irish traditions. Active in St. Louis teaching, presenting, and organizing cąilis, the Gannons preserve in America the instrumental, song, and dance traditions of Ireland. Other established Irish oral traditions in these programs include boasting, nonsense recitations, and humorous stories. Presenting artists: Helen and Patrick Gannon. (See also music and dance)
       The drama and drive of cowboy life related in the lyrical rhymes of poetry surprises those first hearing cowboy poetry. Martin Bergin's gravelly voice and choice detail can hold audiences spellbound with the dramas of cowboy life contrasted with touching scenes of cowboys in transition or the nostalgia of older cowboys for bygone days. Topics cover explanations of regional differences between cowboys, family cowboy stories, ranch life, and descriptions of the famous annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Cowboy poets demonstrate the creative process of traditional narrative forms as they address in poetry current issues for this occupation, such as portraits of women cowboys, environmental concerns, and corporate ranching; and Bergin, as activist, urges audiences to support a cowboy: "Eat a stake." Presenting artists: Martin Bergin and Clarence Schaffner.
       Family legends, personal experience stories, folktales, and collected oral histories make up the repertoire of Gladys Coggswell. Many of these accounts date back to slavery, while others reveal the efforts of Black Americans from the post Civil War era up to the present to attain an education, build self-sufficient communities, and fight for equal rights. Gladys Coggswell shares her family stories and those she has collected from African American communities in Northeast Missouri. Presenting Artist: Gladys Coggswell with additional presenting artists Debbie Swanegan and Vivian Hawkins.
        Classic African and African American folktales and interpretations of African seasonal rituals are included the repertoire of Imani and Kunama Mtendaji. As Taifa, they look for the lesson embedded in each story, giving their programs the instructive purpose of cautionary tales. They explore meanings of proverbs and illustrate how we all use story in our everyday lives. Using African musical instruments and working with movement, they emphasize the teaching aspect of storytelling and inform listeners of the many cultural contributions from the African American heritage. Giving programs for teachers, community leaders, or those learning storytelling skills, Taifa examines approaches for adapting the meanings of folktales so that they speak to current concerns of families and the greater African American community. Presenting artists: TAIFA, Imani and Kunama Mtendaji.
       Native American animal stories, creation myths, and legends are presented along with the accounts of tribal concerns, historic figures, and personal experiences. Explanations of social customs, attitudes toward environment, animals, and spirituality help translate the aesthetic and value system of Native Americans embodied in the folk tales. Presenters in full tribal regalia give audiences a chance to see splendid beadwork, careful leather sewing techniques, and percussive jewelry used to enhance the dances.
       Members of Eagle Talon Brotherhood set up an Indian drum, and tribal members and elders sit around the sacred drum singing and beating rhythms for dances. Truman Coggswell tells of his own vision quest and demonstrates a gourd dance. Programs hold a great deal of visual interest and humor and are followed by question and answer sessions. Presenting artists: Preston Tonepahhote, Kiowa, and the Eagle Talon Brotherhood; Truman Coggswell, Schaugticoke; Nora Foutes, Navaho- Ute.
       Ozark Stories, in their short, ironic, humorous form are unassumingly told by Jim Price. Slipped into informal conversational, these stories paint pictures of local people and incidents and illustrate the testing and wordplay that goes on in an everyday context. Jim Price frequently tells personal experience stories, tall tales, legends, and jokes at informal gatherings in his home town of Naylor, Missouri. Mr. Price, who keeps his listeners in stitches, is also a respected wood joiner, tool maker, and archaeologist. Presenting artist: Jim Price.

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