Troubadours and Storytellers

For many years, I have been intrigued by the designations troubadour and storyteller. There is a very long tradition of both throughout history. What’s the difference? The word troubadour is from the French and was used to refer to medieval lyric poets, often concentrating on the theme of courtly love, with verses written to music. A poet musician is how I think of it. In more modern times, troubadours have been folk singers in particular.

 

Scheherazade spins tales about Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor over One Thousand and One Nights, enthralling her murderous husband King Shahryar, who postpones her execution night after night in order to hear another story. Stories are that powerful.

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Storytelling goes much further back, when histories were passed down in the oral tradition rather than the written. Oral storytelling remains central in some cultures today.

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Still from the documentary Al-Halqa–In the Storyteller’s Circle (2010, Thomas Ladenburger).

 

The storyteller figures above were made by Cochiti Pueblo potter Helen Cordero (1915-1994), who based some of her work on the “singing mother” motif and others on memories of her grandfather. Her figures are storytellers and she herself became a storyteller through their creation.

Storytelling clearly doesn’t have to involve words, as seen by Helen Cordero’s work. Images tell wonderful stories. Think of ancient cave paintings, some over 35,000 years old. In the January 2016 issue of Smithsonian, Jo Marchant and Justin Mott explored the cave paintings on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, thought to be the oldest cave paintings thus far discovered.

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Scattered on the walls are stencils, human hands outlined against a background of red paint. Though faded, they are stark and evocative, a thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, directs me to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of a cathedral, and I crane my neck to a spot near the ceiling a few feet above my head. Just visible on darkened grayish rock is a seemingly abstract pattern of red lines.

Then my eyes focus and the lines coalesce into a figure, an animal with a large, bulbous body, stick legs and a diminutive head: a babirusa, or pig-deer, once common in these valleys. Aubert points out its neatly sketched features in admiration. “Look, there’s a line to represent the ground,” he says. “There are no tusks—it’s female. And there’s a curly tail at the back.”

Humans making figurative art, using imagination and symbolism–truly a remarkable development. Previous to the discovery of the paintings on Sulawesi, the oldest cave paintings were thought to be the famous Chauvet Cave paintings in France, made a World Heritage site in 2014. You can see an online exhibition of them through the Bradshaw Foundation.

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I come to write about this through my love of singer/songwriters. Preferably menlacholy ones. Or romantic. Or romantically melancholy. As I have written about before, I have really weird and vivid dreams. Last week, I had several dreams in which Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot (as a young man, not the close to 80-year old he is now) was wandering through the action, playing his guitar and singing.

As I have also written, I am highly susceptible to ear worms. So for days now, Lightfoot’s song “If You Could Read My Mind” has been on an endless loop in my head. The song is about the breakup of his first marriage. Hauntingly beautiful but unbearably sad.

 

Sigh. Of course, there are many wonderful examples of troubadours: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, David Wilcox, Kelly Joe Phelps. I heard Kelly Joe Phelps describe how when he’s performing a song, he sees it as a movie playing in his mind. Storytelling, yes indeed.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

 

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) and his son Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947)

 

Bob Dylan (b. 1941)

 

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

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David Wilcox (left), Kelly Joe Phelps (right)

 

Lest I leave out women, I’ll add Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Emmylou Harris. I consider Natalie Merchant to be in this group of female troubadours and storytellers. I could go on and on.

 

And this is only a very narrow sampling from North American, white culture. There is such an array to choose from; the African American blues tradition, for example, with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter…

 

Writers are, by nature, storytellers, but I consider some to be more in THE storyteller tradition than others. For example, Irish writer Frank Delaney (1942-2017), a novelist, journalist, and broadcaster, is best known in the United States for his book Ireland, a many-layered and rich story of storytellers. Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

In the winter of 1951, a storyteller, the last practitioner of an honored, centuries-old tradition, arrives at the home of nine-year-old Ronan O’Mara in the Irish countryside. For three wonderful evenings, the old gentleman enthralls his assembled local audience with narratives of foolish kings, fabled saints, and Ireland’s enduring accomplishments before moving on. But these nights change young Ronan forever, setting him on a years-long pursuit of the elusive, itinerant storyteller and the glorious tales that are no less than the saga of his tenacious and extraordinary isle. 

It’s probably not okay to bring up now-disgraced storyteller Garrison Keillor, but for many years, before the sexual misconduct allegations, he created a wonderful world of characters and stories with his radio program and books about the fictional Lake Wobegon. There, I brought him up anyway.

 

One of my personal favorites is Eudora Welty, author of one of my all-time favorite short stories, Why I Live at the P.O.

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Eudora Welty.

Following in her footsteps and the tradition of female Southern writers is my mother’s favorite, Fannie Flagg.

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Mom made a point of making sure each of her children had a copy of A Redbird Christmas, which I’ve reread over several holiday seasons, and also listened to the audiobook, read by Ms. Flagg herself.

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You might be more familiar with her work from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, based on her book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

 

Filmmakers are certainly storytellers, whether it is in telling a hardhitting true story through documentaries, like Michael Moore, or whimsical fictional stories along the line of Tim Burton or Wes Anderson.

 

There’s a novel I am going to write someday. I know what it’s about, but it’s a long way off, and will require much research on my part. (I think I’ll complete the Ph.D. first.) I already have a vision for what the film version will look like, and Wes Anderson is my first choice for director. I see something in the spirit of his The Grand Budapest Hotel. I hope your curiosity is piqued so that you will read my novel. When I write it. When it’s published. By then, I’ll be old enough for the large print edition myself.

 

I could go on and on, but I will end with an art exhibition here where I am now at the Saybrook University Residential Conference, being held at the Hyatt Regency Monterey. Photographer and filmmaker Randy Bacon has compiled a work entitled The Road I Call Home, featuring portraits and films of people who are homeless telling their stories. The project is presented by Gathering Friends for the Homeless in conjunction with 7 Billion Ones. I have been gazing at the portraits as I travel the conference center today, but only just started reading the stories they tell. Everyone has a story to tell, and deserves the chance to tell it. Here are a few of the portraits.

 

It’s late now and time for me to sleep, perchance to dream. And perhaps hear a little Gordon Lightfoot.

Sweet dreams to all.

 

Once upon a time…

Ah, another sleepless night. Hello insomnia, my old friend. Often when I can’t sleep, my brain takes a nostalgic turn, so here I am listening to the dog snore and dredging up childhood memories again (see Be It Ever So Humble…). This happens more often than I’d like these days. Is this what my golden years are going to be like? And by golden years, I mean the “I am getting old” kind, not the cool David Bowie song kind.

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This isn’t really a new phenomenon in my life. I remember lots of sleepless nights. Often I would lie awake in the dark on the nights before a big day at school: the first day of the new school year, the day I had to do anything in front of the class (my biggest dread), if I had a really awesome new outfit to wear or new haircut, if I thought I might see whichever cute boy I had a crush on, all kinds of triggers.

It goes back even earlier. When I was a little one at Bassett Kindergarten in Decatur, Georgia, there was the worst time of the day–nap time. We’d roll out our mats, the teacher would turn out the lights, and while all the other kids drifted off to sleep, I’d lie there in the darkened room wishing it would be over or that I could have a book to look at. I do not nap.

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Kindergarten, 1960-something. I’m in the lower right in the stylish red knee socks. I still love colorful legwear.

Sleeplessness didn’t look so bad on me then. Now, I can use some beauty sleep.

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Sleepless in Oakland.
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Sleepless in Surry.

Sometimes I think I was a cat in a previous life. I like curling up in sunny spots, I prefer to be alone, I hate the wind and dislike riding in cars. But there are 2 ways I could never be a cat–I don’t eat meat and I have trouble sleeping. Cats don’t have trouble sleeping.

Some of my sleepless childhood nights have a soundtrack. I was afraid to sleep in my own room. There was a weird gleam off of the fence post outside of my window that made me think of eyes watching me. Even with the shade pulled down, I knew it was out there. So I sometimes acted true to the pesky baby sister stereotype and camped in my teenaged sisters’ bedroom, which in my mind was huge and fun and full of cool things (a television, a phone, inscrutable hair and make-up products, high school text books). They had a record player, and often put a stack of albums on to play through the night to lull them to sleep. So dark sleepless nights came with the sounds of their favorite music: Carole King, Barbra Streisand, popular movie soundtracks.

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There was a jeweled beetle pin that Cathy and Ellen would place on top of the stack of records for extra weight. Not sure why. Or was it on the needle to keep it from skipping?

Maybe to get me to sleep in my own room, I was given my own record player, a cute little portable in a red box.

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I got to pick out my own records! I loved playing my mother’s old 45 of the Mills Brothers singing Glow Worm (1957).

Like my sisters, I loved a good movie soundtrack, but in my case, it was mostly a Disney-leaning collection.

Peter and the Wolf

My first attempt at coolness was when I bought the 45 of Dobie Gray’s Drift Away in 1973, leaving Disney behind. Here is a 1992 performance:

We also had a record player (aka, a turntable) in the den. I have so many memories of that room! Mostly around either reading in the green arm chair or watching the miracle of color television (we had color, but this was before remotes or cable, children). I was not an active child, clearly. I seem to remember a Danish Modern stereo cabinet with a vertical filing section for the albums.

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Perhaps something like this.

But I don’t remember what records were stored in there! I know my mother loved the singer John Gary, so I’m sure there were a few of his albums. And I know we had the Andy Williams Christmas album, a classic and well-loved in the Cottraux home.

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John Gary (1932-1998) is probably someone not many people are familiar with anymore, but he was quite popular in the 1960s, known for songs like Catch a Falling Star and So Tenderly.

The song I remember is Once Upon a Time, written by Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics), from the 1962 musical All American.

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It was performed by many artists, including Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, and apparently, Tom Jones (if you trust Wikipedia). I have to find this recording, if it exists; I love Tom Jones! I did find a version of Bob Dylan singing it at a Tony Bennett 90th birthday tribute.

But the version I know is John Gary’s. And it’s beautiful. And I will always think of my mother when I hear it.

In my imagination, then and now,  it was my late father, who died young and tragically in 1962, singing to my mother from heaven (see Nancy and Pete: A Love Story). I was a romantic even then.

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One of the few pictures I have of my father.

As I write this, I wonder how accurate my childhood memories mwight be. According to some scientists, not very! Our brains are susceptible to false childhood memories. I’m not sure I want to know, but if you do, read this! Yes, human memory is fallible. But I like the bubble I live in just fine.

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The Swiss-designed Cocoon I. I want one. Now.

When my mother got her first and only CD player, my sister Cathy sent her a CD of John Gary songs. I thought maybe I had it in my CD cabinet, but if I do, I couldn’t find it. I might have a degree in library and information science, but I can never find anything on my book or music shelves. Like the cobbler’s children have no shoes, the librarian’s books have no order.

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If John Gary is in here, I don’t see him.

'Where in the world did I put the book, 'How to Organize Your Home Library'?'

I think I’ll add home library organization of things to do in my golden years. Unless I am too busy catching up on my sleep.

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Peace and hugs. And sweet dreams.

On Desolation Row (or, just shoot me before I have to go to another staff meeting)

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You’ve been to that meeting. You know. THAT meeting. The one where someone is standing at the front of the too hot/too cold/overcrowded/uncomfortable room reading a PowerPoint to the audience of zombies.

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You’ve made your shopping list. You’ve doodled so much you are out of ink or an empty millimeter of blank paper. You might have drifted off and checked that you’re not drooling. You wish you’d paid attention to that guy who told you how to sleep with your eyes open. You drank the Kool-Aid, I mean coffee, from the brown box of Peet’s coffee. (Note to leaders: The Coffee won’t make us love you or the meeting but please keep having it brought to the meetings anyway.) You’ve collected all of the words on your Buzzword Bingo card.

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And some almond milk would be awesome, thanks.

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Even though you are a peaceful and compassionate person, you’ve devised some horrific endings for the person up front droning on at that PowerPoint. Or for yourself.

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If this were an episode of The Office, it would be funny.

 

But this is real life, and you have better things to do with your precious time on this planet. As you are finally released and stumble into the hallway, you and your colleagues all whisper to each other about what a waste of time that was as NOTHING EVER CHANGES anyway.

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There is hope! Meetings can be seriously fun and productive. Just ask the people who practice Liberating Structures. I went to a 2-day workshop, the Bay Area Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop, held in Reidenbach Hall at the First Congregational Church of Oakland.

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Dr. Reidenbach, seventh pastor of the First Congregational Church of Oakland.

It was my first exposure to Liberating Structures (LS), but I had heard of one of the structures, Open Space Technology, and liked the sound of it so I thought, why not?

Plus I am at the end of another semester in my doctoral program, taking an awesome class in Humanistic Foundations of Organizational Development (see Life is Our Classroom). This seemed to fit right in, empowering groups to determine their purpose and direction.

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Your intrepid reporter, Day 1.

LS co-developers Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz were there, joined by Fisher Qua. They don’t call themselves facilitators, so I will just call them Keith, Henri, and Fisher. Everyone was using the American pronunciation Henry but I prefer the French:

 

 

So as not to be the person reading the PowerPoint, I am not going to go through the 2 days structure by structure as we learned about and practiced them. If you are really interested, check out Keith and Henri’s book, The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation.

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Instead, I’ll highlight a few of my favorites. My absolute favorite was the Mad Tea Party, which isn’t on the LS matchmaker menu yet, but is a “structure in development”.

Our Mad Tea was subtitled A Nod to Bob Dylan; our open sentences we completed in rapid fire succession in our revolving circles of tea party pairs were based on the lyrics to Bob Dylan songs.

Well, thanks to a certain ex-husband, I know a lot more about Bob Dylan and lyrics to Bob Dylan songs than you might think. So that made it even more fun. I felt like I was in on a joke, which doesn’t happen very often. I kept waiting for the open sentence to be something like:

“Little red wagon, little red bike, I ain’t no monkey but I know____”. (From Buckets of Rain, Blood on the Tracks album, 1975).

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Some of the ones we were given included:

“All I really want to do is___”

“I’m all tangled up in___”

“If I gotta serve somebody, I’m gonna serve___”

“Beyond the horizon I see___”

It was all very rapid moving, which got my energy up. I am seriously an introvert. Most of those in the room who identified as introverts said they did not enjoy this activity. As a true introvert, I didn’t speak up about my experience, but I had a blast! I think the reason I liked it was I didn’t have to spend more than about 60 seconds with any one person; no small talk, just finish the sentence, move on down the circle. Maybe if I ever end up single again I’ll try speed dating!

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I did love Open Space Technology. The key is having enough people in the group who are willing to put their topics up in the Marketplace. We did 4 rounds, ranging from 30 to 60 minutes. For each round, I had about 6 sessions to choose from.

 

The four I picked were:

-Bringing Art and Movement in LIberating Structures

-Liberating Structures in the Classroom

-Surfing Sideways (meaning when things don’t go the way you think they will)

-LS at Your Worst, or LS with Yourself (for personal and family challenges)

You can tell it’s a seriously fun time when everyone leaves their notebooks, coffee, and sometimes even their phones at their chairs to jump in hands on, brain fully engaged.

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Me being me, a bonus of this expedition was exploring the old church during lunch and breaks. I don’t go to church, but there’s something cool about church buildings, especially old, musty ones.

I managed to sneak into the church kitchen (not hard, the door was wide open just off Reidenbach Hall). I want to cook there! (Vegan spaghetti dinner for 100, no problem!)

I also got to reconnect with Saybrook University colleague Jim Best, a local host for the Bay Area LIberating Structures group. He ran a Shift and Share session on using LS in virtual sessions, a reality of life.

There were times I felt a bit out of my element, but all of the other participants were warm and welcoming and eager to share and listen. The big question now for me: how do the people who need to be immersed in LS, the Michael Scotts and the PowerPoint readers, get there?

On a serious note, I’d like to end by pointing out that the church is collecting donations of items for the surviving victims and families of the Ghost Ship fire. Please find a way to help. Look for a reputable disaster relief fund or group and do what you can.

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Peace and hugs.

I’m a Believer, It’s the End of the World As We Know It, and Here Comes the Sun

I’m in a covers mood. After being plagued by earworms (Is there a cure for earworms?Or, Help! I Need Somebody…) I started thinking about the earworms I was suffering from that happened to be cover versions of songs. I was in Atlanta (Look Homeward, Angel, or Things Thomas Wolfe Said) visiting, and my sister Ellen keeps the radio on stations of music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

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It just happened to be Ellen’s birthday while I was in Atlanta.

I was born in 1961, so my sweet spot is pretty much music from the mid 1970s. Maybe not the best era for pop music, but we are teenagers when we are teenagers. C’est la vie. I seem to have been living under a rock, since my list of original versions of songs tapers off in the 1990s (with one most beautiful entry from Lou Reed in 2008). The covers, however, span the years, showing that a good pop song is timeless.

Ellen and I started a handwritten chart, which quickly got out of control!

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It’s a work in progress.
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Just a couple of pop divas hanging out.

I have cleaned up the list to make it legible. I do not expect anyone to agree with me on the choice of cover versions; a good song (and even some bad ones) has a lot of covers and our tastes differ. It would be a boring world if we all liked the same things!

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I should get a juke box and put all of these on it. Please forgive typos and misspelled names.

I am not going to post each and every song and its cover(s) on the list, as much as I would like to. Here are a few of my favorites, or if not my favorites, at least memorable versions of these songs. I am sure each and every one of you can add so many titles to this list. Feel free to add yours in the comments!

On my birthday, in 1992, there just happened to be an amazing tribute to Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden. The moment I remember most clearly is Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready performing Dylan’s 1963 Masters of War. It’s pretty intense.

 

A song that I played over and over again during a certain sad period in my life: Alison Krauss & Union Station’s 1995 version of Baby, Now That I’ve Found You. It’s much more melancholy than the original to me. And despite the cheerful face I generally show to the world, I love a good melancholy, make-me-cry, song.

 

Stevie Nicks’s song Landslide also serves the “I’m sad and I’m going to listen to this song over and over” purpose.

 

Ellen’s request for the list: Ewan McGregor singing Elton John’s Your Song  (1970) to Nicole Kidman in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

 

For my own selfish ends, I have to get some Hall & Oates in here somewhere! So here they are covering The Spinners 1972 hit I’ll Be Around.

 

I’m sticking with the original on this one; I’ve been singing this one in the car all week now so I have to post it to get it out of my system!

 

This one cracks me up. I love R.E.M., and It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine), is a good song. I will not brook argument on this one. I’m posting the original and the cover, which I first heard as filler music on NPR. It made me laugh, and we need more laughter in the world.

 

In the songs-that-make-me-cry category is Eva Cassidy covering Sting’s Fields of Gold. I remember the first time I heard it. It was a Sunday, I was driving to my job in Benicia from Davis, listening to Acoustic Sunrise on KFOG radio. Heart-breakingly beautiful.

 

Ellen keeps up with current pop music better than I do, so this is her pick: Sam Smith covering Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car. I’d never heard of Sam Smith before (I mentioned that rock I live under), but I approve.

 

I can’t not post the awesomeness that is Richie Havens performing Here Comes the Sun.

 

In case you’ve never hear Peter Gabriel’s 2010 cover of Lou Reed’s 2008 song The Power of the Heart, I hope you love it as much as I do.

 

I think I’ll leave you with something to cheer you up and make you dance. If this doesn’t make you dance, I give up!