Scipio Storytellers: Learning from Some Southern Indiana Folks
Article from Storytelling Magazine September-October, 2002
Much is written about storytellers from exotic faraway places. But few studies treat the raconteur in your own community. I wanted to document the storysharing styles of the small farming community where my mother grew up, Scipio, Indiana. As a child I spent many Saturday nights at the homes of Spiv Helt or his brother Pert. Spiv was the favorite storyteller of the community. Whenever a group gathered, he would be urged to tell his tales. He told no folktales. These were all carefully crafted stories from his own life and the life of the small community, Scipio. But they were repeated over and over. "Tell the one about…." folks would beg. And Spiv would be off.
Over a period of ten years, I collected over 200 hours of audiotape of Spiv's chat and that of his friends. From these I published a small volume SCIPIO STORYTELLING: TALK IN A SOUTHERN INDIANA COMMUNITY (University Press of America, 1996). We might learn a bit from noting the things that make these tellers successful. As a product of Southern Indiana, I know that my own telling style is strongly influenced by the telling styles of these Scipio tellers. It is interesting to analyze just what they are doing.
Spiv's stories paid great attention to spatial relationships but he used almost no adjectives. About catching a big fish, he told us: "Well…I fished for him all summer…and didn't catch him. Now the grapevine had gone. But there was this tree that tipped over more in the crick…and I could reach up and get a limb. And I got a small limb and tied it around it…so it'd be limber, you know. And I went in there the next morning and sure enough…that old line was just a-goin' round. Just like a submarine. And I don't know how I'd land him. I had just a little bitty of a net. And I just…got down there…but the water was muddy…you couldn't see too good, you see. I just put that net in front of him. He just swung in there fur as he could git. And I grabbed him by the tail…just jerked him like that! Over in the boat! And I got him home." Spiv is reliving the scene as he tells. We see exactly where every object is…the tree, the boat, Spiv, the line, the fish. These things are more important to Spiv's telling than any other visual elements. Only if a descriptive element enters into the story "the water was muddy" do we get it. For Spiv, storytelling is all plot and action.
Though Spiv almost never used an adjective in his tellings, he did provide visual pictures. Telling of a city slicker who caught a skunk one August and wanted Spiv to skin it so he could make a fur for his wife of it, Spiv laughs, "There wasn't a dozen hairs on it! They don't hair out and get fur on it till the frost starts a-fallin'. …In the summertime, why he ain't got enough hair on him to…The hair all falls off. If he had the same set of fur on there he had in January, why he'd smother to death in the summertime!"
Spiv's stories vary little from telling to telling. The tales by now have shaped themselves into a perfect tellable format and retain their shape. Only stories newly added to his repertoire change slightly from telling to telling. Though he is clearly "seeing" the episode which happened, he is now "seeing" it through the words of his own story. He is not describing the scene from a visual image, but is creating the visual image of the past from the shape of his own memory-stored tale.
Spiv prides himself on telling only true tales. From his brother Pert I collected Kentuckian jokes and some humorous anecdotes with familiar tale types. But in my presence, Spiv told only of actual Scipio happenings. It is in these stories that he excels. Others can pass on the common jokelore.
I was also fascinated by the way story fits into an evening's chat in Scipio. I recorded two New Year's Eve parties with the Helts and their friends. It is interesting to observe that a story does not really begin and end with the first and last words of the tale itself. The storytelling event is more extended. If Spiv is in the room, there is an expectation that he will begin telling a story at some time during the evening. He never says, "Would you like to hear a story?" He just suddenly launches into a tale with a very strong and forceful first sentence, and everyone stops their conversation and turns to catch his story.
The audience is expected to make interjections, repeating phrases they love, filling in blanks when he pauses, making humorous asides. Without this continuing banter, his story might seem to be falling on deaf ears. And the punch line of the story is only the beginning of the story's ending. It is followed immediately by humorous reinforcing comments by the audience, and usually the teller finishes the whole thing off, after a bit of banter, with another humorous cap for the whole tale. In Scipio Storytelling I note:
It is clear that storytelling in Scipio is a group effort. No one feels bored or left out in a Scipio story performance because everyone is taking part…laughing, teasing the teller, tossing out humorous asides. Folks don't stop the talking when a master teller starts up…they begin. The amount of kibitzing in the room probably increases in direct proportion to the skill of the teller holding the floor. Not that the skilled teller won't command spots of absolute silence. But the general tone of the happy storytelling event is one of group participation.
It is interesting to look at some of the things which make for a successful storyteller in Scipio. Tale selection and timing of offering: The master teller waits for just the right moment to interject his tale. The second-string teller will be sure that his tale follows logically on a thread of conversation. But the master teller can interject a tale at any moment, if he senses that the audience is primed. Carisma: Always a factor. Impossible to define. But quite possibly this is the individual who makes us feel we have performed well as an audience. Caretaking the audience: The master teller works with his audience, rather than performing in front of them. Through his skillful telling the audience is able to participate joyfully. Together they create an artistic event which is pleasing to all. The Scipio storytelling event is created jointly by audience and teller. It is the master teller who most skillfully enables this event.
Some of the points of delivery used by the Scipio master teller are worth noting. A straightforward, confident beginning to the tale. The first sentence is attacked strongly, without hesitation, in a performative voice. The first sentence is often rhythmic and catches the audience by its cadence as well as its tone. Varied pacing, dramatic pause. The Scipio teller uses these to elicit (and allow space for) laugh lines. Varied voice tone, mimicry. A variety of vocal keys, and occasional mimicry especially in the case of characters being shown as buffoons, is effective with Scipio audiences. Fitting of narrative style to content. A good example of this is a telling by Spiv's friend, Jack McConnell. Jack was describing a little first grader who took forever to go step by step back up to his house to get a pencil he had forgotten, while Jack sat with his school bus door open waiting impatiently. Note that the delivery imitates the plodding steps of the Branstetter kid and the nerve-wracking waiting experience.
Went back up.
Had that light on, you know.
And old Branstetter
I saw him comin' , you know.
Come on around.
Opened the door.
I said, "Good morning, young man."
And he looked up and said,
(lowers voice, in resigned tone) "Forgot my pencil."
(Jack pauses to allow audience to laugh)
Went back to the house.
Got that pencil.
Come back around.
Got back on.
Well that was another fifteen minutes.
Other performative elements used by Scipio storytellers are Narrative directed body language; Ending the tale assuredly; and Capping the tale.
An interesting element of the Scipio tellers tale shaping, is the use of parallel structure. This appears in Jack McConnell's storylet above. Note that most sentences in that narrative begin with the verb. These brief action lines give a pleasing repetitious feel to the narrative.
Scipio tellers are also fond of alliteration. In one story Jack begins to say, "You couldn't buy that." But he stops himself and begins again. "You couldn't buy, beg, borry or steal that." Obviously a much more pleasing sentence, incorporating a traditional folk phrase, and also bringing enjoyable alliteration into the tale.
As you can see, there is much to learn from the tellers right next door. For more about the Scipio storytellers see my Scipio Storytelling and "It Don't Take Long to Look at a Horseshoe": The Humorous Anecdote Catch-Phrase as Proverbial Saying" in Indiana Folklore and Oral History. Vol. 15, no.2, 1986.
Margaret Read MacDonald was born and raised in Jennings County, Indiana. Her mother's family, the Amicks, founded Scipio, Indiana. She has written a well-documented history of that community, Scipio, Indiana: Threads from the Past.