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.

one_thousand_and_one_nights17_cropped

 

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.

storyteller 1

al-halqa-in-the-storytellers-circle
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.

sulawesi

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.

chauvetlionspanel

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)

rs-leonard-cohen-2c24a166-affc-4250-a4a5-a8fd0a52a730

 

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.

Eudora-Welty-by-Losing-Battles
Eudora Welty.

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

new-fannie-flaggjpg-91fbd7a4cb3b150c.jpg

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.

a_redbird_christmas_by_lars_sinde-d8cappl.jpg

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.

 

Sticks and Stones

sticksandstones

Remember the old childhood rhyme:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?

There are variations on the words, but for anyone who was ever called names as a child, an adult might have recited this to you to remember the next time (and there was always a next time). It really didn’t help. Words do hurt.

words hurt

I will never forget proudly riding my new bike to school in 4th grade and someone calling out, “Hey, fatty on the red bike!” All these years later, I still hurt for my 9-year old self.

red bike.jpg
I loved that bike.

Labels. I started thinking about them at work recently. One of our volunteers had the Dymo LabelMaker out, and was on a roll reorganizing the file cabinet of materials we hand out to animal adopters at the shelter.

DYMO

I’ve always loved label makers. Getting things organized and in their place with the nicely typed label–such a satisfying thing to do. Between my educational background in library science and my years working cataloguing art in museums, I naturally tend to categorize and label things. Things, not people. Labels are great when we need to know what’s in our food, for example. Although the little labels put on every piece of produce in the grocery store drive me crazy. Someone has to put them on, and then they are hard to get off. Another reason to go to the farmers’ market. They don’t have to label the food to identify it.

fruit_labels

What I did learn about the labels on our produce is they actually are a code that means more than just an identification for the checker for pricing. This IS important.

know-your-labels

But it was a slow day and my mind drifted to what labels I would put on my coworkers and our volunteers. The Bossy One. The Talker. The Mother. The Scary One. The Big Sister.

bossy

And as I was doing this, I realized how unfair it is to reduce people to a single characteristic, and how hurtful it can be. Growing up, I always thought of me and my siblings with the labels The Pretty One (Cathy), The Funny One (Ellen), The Boy (Steve, obviously), and The Baby (me). My alternate label would have been The Shy One.

nerdy me
That outfit was high fashion in 1971! I was a shy nerd, but a well-dressed one.

But I wanted to be pretty, and funny, too! I never wanted to be The Boy, but my brother was also The Athlete, and I, to my embarassment and humiliation, had (have) no athletic abilities whatsoever. We are all so much more complicated than simple labels imply. I worried about following in the footsteps of these siblings when it was my turn at Druid Hills High School, and how disappointed the teachers would be when the youngest Cottraux turned out to be a quiet, clumsy nerd.

nerd girl

Things happen in life that we don’t predict, and I never went to Druid Hills High School. I arrived in California at age 11 with no labels, but that didn’t last long.

Stereotypes abound in popular culture. In books and movies, there’s the Sassy Best Friend and the Goofy Sidekick and the Grumpy Old Man and many others. A popular movie in the 1980s, still beloved today, was The Breakfast Club (1985).

the-breakfast-club 2

The 5 high school characters are clear stereotypes. I most heavily identified with the Ally Sheedy character, Allison, who in plot synopses is called The Basket Case. I disagree. She’s an introvert and an outcast, misunderstood, with things to say if anyone cared to ask.

One thing I disliked about the movie is that the key to opening up for Allison is getting a makeover by Princess and Popular Girl Claire, played by Molly Ringwald. Suddenly she’s happy and being noticed by the boys. Life doesn’t work that way.

before and after

One of my favorite television shows, and it unfortunately wasn’t on for long, was Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), set in 1980. I graduated from high school in 1979, so the world depicted in the show is a little closer to my high school experience. A great show with a great cast, critically acclaimed, yet it failed to find an audience for reasons I don’t understand. I developed several celebrity crushes seeing the early careers of actors like Jason Segel and James Franco. I loved this show. Please watch if you find it.

freaks_and_geeks-show.jpg

The high school counselor, played by Dave Allen, reminds me so much of my senior English teacher. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was different. He took the desks out of the room and put in old couches. The first day of school he talked about how the movie Midnight Express (1978) was the scariest movie he’d ever seen (drug smuggling reference, if you’re unfamiliar with the movie). I was a little afraid of him, but he was a great teacher.

counselor
Dave Allen as Mr. Russo.

Labels and stereotypes, again. In 1977, Randy Newman released the song Short People, about the ridiculous nature of steretypes and prejudice. And as a short person, I found it highly amusing.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 4.31.13 PM.png

Ridiculous yet hurtful. So why do we persist in labeling each other? Within the family it starts, then continues when we go to school. Teachers label us. We decide we are good or bad at something based on stereotypes and labels. I was in school in the days when girls weren’t encouraged in math or science. According to Peter DeWitt in Education Week, teachers use a term Growth Mindsets; he discusses the labeling teachers use with students and how it leads them to treat students in fixed ways.

Adam Alter, writing for Psychology Today, describes a study done by Darley and Gross (1983) that is still relevant today:

College students watched a video of Hannah playing in her neighborhood, and read a brief fact sheet that described her background. Some of the students watched Hannah playing in a low-income housing estate, and her parents were described as high school graduates with blue collar jobs; the remaining students watched Hannah behaving similarly, but this time she was filmed playing in a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood, and her parents were described as college-educated professionals. The students were asked to assess Hannah’s academic ability after watching her respond to a series of achievement-test questions. In the video, Hannah responded inconsistently sometimes answering difficult questions correctly and sometimes answering simpler questions incorrectly. Hannah’s academic ability remained difficult to discern, but that didn’t stop the students from using her socioeconomic status as a proxy for academic ability. When Hannah was labeled “middle-class,” the students believed she performed close to a fifth-grade level, but when she was labeled “poor,” they believed she performed below a fourth-grade level.

Scott Barry Kaufman, also writing for Psychology Today, describes how we become trapped by labels. Labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies, and follow us long after the label has been lifted. I will always be that 9-year old girl humiliated by the mean taunts as I rode my beautiful red bike. And labeling doesn’t allow for variations and gradations:

When we split people up into such dichotomous categories, the large variation within each category is minimized whereas differences between these categories are exaggerated. Truth is, every single person on this planet has their own unique combination of traits and life experiences. While this isn’t true of objects, such as rocks, books, and television sets, it’s true of humans. Which is why we must be very, very careful when we allow labels to get in the way of our perceptions of reality. As the actor Anthony Rapp so aptly put it, “labels are for cans, not people.”

quotation-philip-pullman-simple-people-meetville-quotes-49158

Have you ever seen the Diversity Day episode on the comedy The Office? Funny, yet a little too true in how stereotypes work.

I particularly like this quote from Ellen DeGeneres:

quote-the-problem-with-labels-is-that-they-lead-to-stereotypes-and-stereotypes-lead-to-generalizations-ellen-degeneres-47-93-02

And here is one from Joan Baez:

quote-if-people-have-to-put-labels-on-me-i-d-prefer-the-first-label-to-be-human-being-the-joan-baez-1-52-08

I still get labeled. The Good Sport. Annoying Vegan. Book Nerd. Crazy Cat Lady.

cat lady

We were out walking the dog this afternoon and I saw this on a telephone pole:

Kevin

I laughed, and wondered why someone felt the need to write the name Kevin on the pole. “I shall call this telephone pole, hmmm, lemme think, Kevin!” It’s probably not even the pole’s name. Who knows.

I tried Googling songs about labeling, and came across this by The Ting Tings. Not my musical style, but it seemed appropos.

My name is Genevieve, and someday I am going to get back on that bike again. I don’t care what anyone says.

old lady bike 1.jpg