March 20 is World Storytelling Day. Tying storytelling with the equinox in March is thought to have originated in Sweden as Alla berättares dag (all storytellers day) in 1991 or 1992. Other countries joined to celebrate storytelling on the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere and the first day of autumn in the southern hemisphere, so it is now a global event. To inspire you to tell your own stories, here are some examples from events sponsored by the American Folklife Center that are available as webcasts. The suggested theme for the 2016 World Storytelling Day is “strong women” and we certainly have examples of strong women to offer.
To have strong women we must grow strong girls. In a concert of Choctaw music and storytelling, with D. J. Battiest-Tomasi playing the flute and storytelling and song by Tim Tingle, Tingle tells the story of Martha Tom, a Choctaw girl living in the early 1800s who crosses a river, leaving the Choctaw nation and venturing into Mississippi. She finds and befriends a slave family on the other bank of the river. Tingle tells of her heroic adventures in story and song, explaining how the Choctaw came to have a version of the song “Bound for the Promised Land” in their own language. Find the story at time code 00:37:40 using the slide under the video display. The story is about fifteen minutes long. The story, which Tingle published as a children’s book (grades 2-6) with the title Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale Of Friendship And Freedom in 2008, has an historical basis, as Indian nations were places where slaves might flee and escape. This situation was one of the reasons behind the removal of Indians in the southeast to Oklahoma Territory in the 1830s. But this story is of a triumph before those terrible events.
The first stories we learn often originate in our own families. In a presentation titled “Waking up the People,” storyteller Linda Goss tells a story about her mother. She calls the story “I cannot tell a lie – Peach cobbler pie” (2006). Goss introduces this story about time code 00:17:00 on the video and the story is about seven minutes long. She describes her mother as a strong church-going woman who always tried to do what was right, but the story shows how she was also human. Goss explains that it is important to collect family stories stories as part of preserving family history. Her own goals are to pass on to the next generation some of the memories of her childhood in segregated America, and the strong communities that rose up among African Americans as a positive reaction to the troubled times they lived in. (This video has recently been updated to MP4 and a larger format than the version that was put online in 2006.)
Some of the most powerful stories we can tell are of our own history and adventures. Folklorists study personal narratives to learn about traditions and creative expression, while oral historians may be most interested in how these narratives provide us with historical details and add a personal face to famous historical events. The stories told by Flory Jagoda of her life provide both these kinds of information in this interview with Howard Bass in 2013. She was born into a Sephardi family in Sarajevo in 1923 and grew up in the town of Vlasenica, Croatia. Early in the video she talks about the importance of Nona, the grandmother, and las tias, the aunts, who passed on culture and language. When she was a teenager she had a dramatic coming-of-age experience (she says she was about fifteen, but she would have been seventeen — no doubt she felt younger during this frightening experience). In her community with her extended family she never encountered prejudice and she talks about how she was sheltered from this, beginning at about 00:18:00. Initially she found it exciting when the Nazis marched into Vlasenica in 1941. But one day she was told not to go to school anymore and the same day her father came home to tell the family that they had to leave. He told Flory to only take the clothes she was wearing and her small accordion (which she sometimes refers to as her “harmonica,” as this was what it was called in Croatia). This was her first realization that she could be hated for being Jewish. She tells of their subsequent escape to the city of Split, which was then occupied by Italy, and from there to the island of Korcula, as the Italians chose not to turn them over to the Nazis. Though the family of her household survived, her extended family in Croatia did not. (The story up to the family’s arrival at Korcula is about 20 minutes long. The story of her subsequent life continues in the interview.) 1
Opalanga Pugh (1952-2009), a storyteller from Colorado, studied storytelling both in the United States and in West Africa, in Nigeria and Gambia. In this performance at the Library of Congress in 2008, she demonstrates a storytelling style that draws on West African traditions to tell stories for American audiences, linking African American history with African tradition. At about time code 00:24:00, she tells a story about a West African village and Mama Keba [phonetic], an old woman who wakes the people every day and offers teachings about preserving the culture at a time when the slave trade was beginning. The story is one she learned in the United States, but adds elements of West African storytelling style, which is appropriate for the time and setting of the story. Africans who were brought to the Americas as a result of the slave trade usually lost some of their traditions over subsequent generations. Pugh showed us that some parts of what was lost can be reconstructed as new stories that attend to history and tradition, and that these can benefit all Americans by bringing people together. As importantly, what has not been lost can be kept alive if we remember Mama Keba’s lesson to pass on the stories and teachings from one individual to another and from one generation to another.
Storytelling continues at the Library of Congress. On April 7, 2016, join us at noon in the Montpelier Room, James Madison Building, to hear Carmen Agra Deedy and Karla Campillo-Soto: Lado a Lado (Side by Side): Contemporary Latin American Storytelling. The event is free, no tickets are required. Request ADA accommodations five days in advance at 202-707-6362 or [email protected] The link will take you to more information, including short biographies of the two storytellers.
- Flory Jagoda’s history and musical tradition are represented in several webcasts from the Library of Congress in addition to Oral History with Traditional Artist Flory Jagoda (2013): Flory Jagoda and Friends (2007); A Concert of Ladino Music (sponsored by the African & Middle Eastern Division, 2012); Flory Jagoda: The Celebration Concert (2013); Flory’s Flame (a discussion of a film biography of her life by Curt Fissel and Ellen Friedland, 2015).