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.

 

So Far Away (I love you, Carole King)

Not so long ago, I went with my buddy Debra to watch the recent film of Carole King performing her groundbreaking Tapestry album at Hyde Park in London in 2016.

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Tapestry (1971) was on repeat play on the turntable in my sisters’ room when we were growing up. I have strong and fond memories of the music.

Tapestry

Debra, inviting me to go, remarked that I seemed like the type who would love Carole King. She was right.

The Hyde Park concert was amazing enough to watch as a film. It must have been magical to be there. First of all, Hyde Park in London. I’ve never been but it looks lovely in photos.

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Hyde Park, London

A huge and congenial crowd is in attendance, singing along with Carole and clearly connecting to her music, whether as a remembrance of a time past or as younger, newer listeners struck by the emotion and angst of the songs.

Tapestry itself is such a classic, every song a gem (except maybe Smackwater Jack, but I loved it when I was 10 and I still like to sing along with it). This is the list of songs on Tapestry:

  • I Feel the Earth Move
  • So Far Away
  • It’s Too Late
  • Home Again
  • Beautiful
  • Way Over Yonder
  • You’ve Got a Friend
  • Where You Lead
  • Will You Love Me Tomorrow
  • Smackwater Jack
  • Tapestry
  • Natural Woman

You’ve heard them all. I’ve sung them all. It’s a legendary work of art. But what I’ve noticed a month after seeing the film is that the one song that won’t leave me is So Far Away.

 

There’s so much about this song that keeps it on my mind. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and prone to nostalgia. The lyrics themselves provoke a sense of loneliness, time slipping away, a need for connection and love and friendship.

so far away

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I’ve been thinking of the notion of far away. It can be distance, it can be time, it can be a mental state. My sisters and my brothers are distance away–3,000 miles give or take. That’s far. Too far. My mother is time away; when I say time I mean earlier days and memories, not a discrete amount of time that can be traversed. She died in August, 2009. But I dream of her frequently and miss her every day. And then someone can be sitting right next to you and be far away, lost in thought, in another world, with you but not with you. I am sometimes that person who is far away, dreamy and distant.

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I wake up with So Far Away playing in my head. I will be listening to my audiobook of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and up will pop So Far Away. That is fitting in its way. If you know Anna’s story, she was ostracized by friends and family and the larger society, not allowed to see her beloved son. She was right there, but made to seem far away, even to herself. Spoiler alert–Anna’s story doesn’t end well. We need family, friends, connection.

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“One more song about moving along the highway can’t say much of anything that’s new.” So true. And it’s predominantly men who sing those moving on down the highway songs. The Allman Brothers and Ramblin’ Man as well as Midnight Rider. The Grateful Dead and Truckin’.  Ricky Nelson and Travelin’ Man. (And what’s with the dropped letter g, by the way?) Steve Miller took it to the skies with Jet Airliner. Steppenwolf and Born to be Wild. Pretty much anything from Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska (which I love).

 

 

Was it a coincidence that about 95% of the audience in the movie theater the night we went was female, of a certain age, and we all sang along? But it was So Far Away that had me wiping a tear from my eye. I can think of one other song that has this effect on me–James Taylor’s Shower the People (1976).

 

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Letting the people that you love know that you love them–it seems so simple yet it can be so difficult. It’s the subject of many a novel, play, movie. We carry such inner turmoil around showing love. Yet we crave love ourselves. James Taylor is a guy that gets it.

Again, not a coincidence that James Taylor and Carole King have a history going back more than 40 years, including him performing backing vocals on Tapestry. In addition to his own songs, he’s performed (and made famous) many of King’s songs, such as You’ve Got a Friend.

 

James has his own Highway Song; it seems to be a male rite of passage. Women want to seek out and befriend, men want to get moving along/away.

 

When I was younger, my ex-husband’s response to strife was to suggest we move. During our 20+ years of marriage, we lived in too many apartments and houses to count in several different towns, including Ashland, Oregon; Ankara, Turkey; Chico, Vacaville, Winters, Sacramento, Davis, Fairfield, and Napa in California. I think what he really wanted was to move on without me. Now, with Bob, we’ve lived in this same house for the 13 years we’ve been together. It’s a nice feeling to be at home! Yes, he travels, but I always know he’ll be back, and be happy to be back. He’s never so far away that I can’t reach him.

Come visit us sometime; it would be so fine to see your face at our door. As long as you aren’t allergic to dogs and cats. They help make this place home, too.

 

 

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.

stackable

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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.

red record player

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.

christmas

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.