Gather Round, I've A Story To Tell! Meet Local Celebrity Storytellers

by Linda Kobert and Jennifer Bryerton

Have you ever experienced a jam session? If so, you know that there's almost nothing so full of excitement and energy as the all-out, freewheeling, get-down fun when a bunch of musicians get together and just play. Storytellers, too, have their own version of jamming. One person will start telling the story about "Aunt Sally who…", and before you know it, everyone is adding their two cents' worth.

With all the terrific professional entertainers living in and around Charlottesville, it's like having a jam session or story fest in our own backyard all year long, not just during the Virginia Festival of the Book. Here are some of the folks who perform especially for kids and their families. You can hear them on the radio, online, on CDs, or maybe even see them live at special events around the area.

Jim Weiss took a leap of faith 12 years ago when he decided to leave a dull sales job to be a professional storyteller and bet his family's savings on Great Hall Productions, a company that produces Jim's stories and songs for tapes and CDs. Now he travels all over the country doing what he loves: telling stories.

In his years as a teacher, Jim often used his natural storytelling talents to lead his students into the lesson because he remembered how his father had used stories to engage Jim and his brother in music, art, science, and math when they were growing up in Chicago. Now he uses stories from classic literature - Sherlock Holmes, Greek mythology, King Arthur, fairy and folk tales - to inspire young and old alike with tales of noble dreams and daring adventures. Excitement, fear, joy, anticipation, love and all the elements of nature are in Jim's voice as he thunders, whispers, and draws you into the story's plot. His favorite stories are those of heroes, leaders, and peacemakers.

"Stories reach both the heart and the head," Jim says. They draw us together in a way nothing else can, and he advises kids - and grown-ups too - to seek out stories, especially those from people in our lives. "Real history is better than fiction," he says. And stories of real people are a fascinating way to learn about history, especially our own.

Jim recalls interviewing his grandmother, asking her to tell her personal story. "I remember the first automobile," the 80-year-old woman told him. "I remember the first electric street lights, the first telephone, radio, TV. I've lived long enough to see a man walking on the moon. I can tell you some things." Says Jim, "These anecdotes our grandparents tell give a whole new perspective on who we are, where we come from, and what is important in life."

But it's also important to let our own stories be heard. "Everyone has at least one good story to tell," Jim insists. "And you should tell it. Because the world always needs a good story."

You can see Jim perform this summer at local libraries as part of his Virginia Library Association tour (June 26, July 10, 11, 12, 2001). Also, watch for a new project in the near future about our own local presidential heroes, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. In the meanwhile, you can buy Jim's CDs (there are 25!) at many area bookstores and toyshops, as well as online at www.GreatHall.com.

When John McCutcheon performs, he doesn't so much tell stories as weave them, spinning out tales colored by the strains of guitar or banjo or dulcimer, a tapestry rich with wisdom, passion and a clear, inspired message of grass-roots activism. To meet this middle-aged man wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, you get the feeling that this tapestry isn't just any old beautiful work of art that hangs on the wall for folks to look at as they pass by… it's his life.

John grew up in Wisconsin, the oldest son of a Catholic, social worker mother, whom he credits with helping to shape his sense of social justice and desire to serve. From the time he held his very first guitar, a mail-order from Sears for his fourteenth birthday, the lyrical stories of Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters and the actions of civil rights leaders and activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and others gave him perspective and passion, and guided McCutcheon's ideas as he began unraveling the mystery of music.

This quest continued when, as a college student, he came to the South to study with the elders of traditional music in Appalachia. The social struggles of the time and place - labor, civil rights, the peace movement - informed the music and offered McCutcheon the chance to use his talents in service to the community.

In recent years, his two teen-aged sons have had a strong influence on John's music. "These days our house is full of Pearl Jam, Presidents of the United States of America, Dave Matthews Band, etc. I'm essentially a listener. When I travel to other parts of the world I always come back with some new stuff rattling around in my head. I like a lot of music and I like a lot of the music my kids listen to (though I'm careful not to share that info with them; don't want them to feel as though I'm ruining their parental-backlash fun!)."

Now that he's earned a national reputation as one of the most popular performers of traditional folk music (including several children's albums), with five consecutive Grammy nominations, John McCutcheon says he does what he does because he has no choice. His life, music, and politics are all of a fabric. John continues to find people who inspire his own growth, and offers this advice to aspiring young artists: "Follow your heart and sing about what is important to you."

To find more about John go to his web site, www.FolkMusic.com.

Mine next, Peter, pleeease!" begs a young fan, energetically waving a book over her head in the hope that he will choose her story. This is a common scene at Peter's live Thursday night gig at Blue Moon Diner. If you stop by, you will find him in the back room captivating wide-eyed children with the smorgasbord of voices he uses to bring books to life. Peter Jones is the host of Tell Us A Tale radio show on WTJU 91.1FM.

Surprisingly, Peter doesn't yet have children of his own (making him the most eligible bachelor in town!). But his ease with children is evident and they respond, even when he is speaking a different language. Just last week in Munich, Peter led an impromptu storytelling in German at a park where he started with an audience of two that swelled to over 50 listeners of all ages. His voice brims with excitement talking about the day.

"It is the most alive I've felt - how powerful to be able to entertain in a language that is not your own!" Here in Charlottesville, Peter is a Pied Piper, too. Children who have seen him perform, often come up to him in the library or even on the sidewalk and ask him to read their storybooks. Who inspires Peter? "Mr. Rogers", he says. "I would like to be able to have that kind of impact on kids."

Not only is Peter a gifted voice artist but he also writes and produces his own stories for the comedic mystery series, Too Much Sugar, which is sometimes featured on Tell Us A Tale. The main character, private detective Sam Shade, solves fractured fairy tale mysteries with intriguing twists and turns in search of the real truth. One favorite is a story about the wolf who purportedly ate Little Red Riding Hood's Grandmother. The wolf's widow hires Sam to prove that her husband had been framed. He is exonerated when Sam shows that the wolf was a vegetarian and the real culprit was Red because he had caught her stealing flowers from the garden of Mary Mary Quite Contrary.

Tell Us A Tale is the only two-hour radio program for kids in Central Virginia. Every Sunday from noon to 2 pm on WTJU 91.1 FM, Peter tells stories from around the world and plays great children's music - often with a guest helping out. Working with area schoolchildren, who are sometimes included on the show, is one of Peter's most rewarding endeavors. "Having fun with the show is what it's all about."

Visit Peter online for a weekly preview story at AlbemarleKids.com and also check out his web site, www.TellUsATale.com.

Kathy Coleman's brochure identifies her as "a storyteller and Appalachian folkways preserver," which even she might admit is a bit "uppity." Her daddy called her a "liar fer hire", and Kathy herself says she makes a living running her mouth.

Kathy Coleman is really the fiery red-head next door who walks through the back door, sits down at the kitchen table for a cup of coffee, and in her rapid-fire, Appalachian twang starts telling about the time her Mamaw (grandmother) sent her brother down the mountain, through the dark woods, across the rickety old bridge over the stream, and up the wooden steps - clomp, clomp, clomp - into the general store to buy some bakin' soder. And, of course, what happened next...

Born a poor coal miner's daughter in Wise County, Virginia, Kathy was steeped in a rich tradition of stories, songs, and rhymes, that were a way of life for her large family and rural neighbors. But she didn't always recognize the gift she’d been given. She left home to attend Virginia Tech and even married a "flatlander" and lived "off" with their children.

One day, however, Kathy discovered her special gift. The kids were enjoying a long car trip as kids often do - they were in the back seat hitting, spitting, and calling each other names. So Kathy did the only thing she could think of. "Hush, now," she said, "And I'll tell you my mamaw's favorite bogger (spooky) story." It worked like magic. After that, she started looking back at the wealth of folklore she had inherited, and recognized the importance of these stories, which not only entertain, but convey a whole mountain's worth of culture, tradition and sense of place and purpose.

The thing that really opened her eyes, though, was attending a festival of storytelling at the Prism Coffee House and seeing other people - storytellers like herself - performing as entertainers. Before this, she never realized that there was anything special about these tales that roll so effortlessly off her tongue, or how effectively stories can bring people together.

So, as Kathy tells it, when her last child was weaned in 1985, she set off down the road that led to her becoming the spokesperson for Appalachian heritage and culture in the area. For the last 16 years she's been telling tales and singing songs, bringing along all sorts of objects - a wooden animal her brother might have whittled, her daddy's old pine branch cane, a quilt her mamaw made from the scraps of an old skirt - to draw attention to the way of life she darn near abandoned.

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