National Circus School & a clown conservatory are in Montreal to study unicyling, juggling, acrobatics, trampoline, tightrope & contortion. Mandatory dress code: leotards & sensible shoes.
blazing the trail for an american folk style
singin', slingin' & tellin'
It is the late 1700's. You are a young Anglo-European male and you just got off the boat, so to speak. Not much here, but you catch glimpse of a scruffy critter with a paddle tail scurrying along the drifted bramble parallel to the shore. Forest & thicket meet the beach like a great green wall, except for the ax-attacked break in the grove— a footpath running directly to the fort.
Deckhands continue unloading crates of tools, textiles, foodstuffs. The few dozen souls in the outpost beyond the pine scented tunnel-trail wait... like dogs in a kennel. The fort-village is all barricaded against what the haggard-looking colonists claim are primitive, superstitious & mostly malleable indigenes. By and large harmless, the sentry says, but they can be terribly irrational (and you know he is sparing the word "dangerous" for your sake). There are only a few women in residence, keeping their eyes to the ground, carrying pails of water to and fro, a handful of forlorn children & a pitiful stockyard of animals (bantering chickens, piglets, a bag-o-bones milking cow). People act too busy for chit-chat, going about their business— stacking endless cords of oak, fretting over stores of wheat that look no good for respectable bread… worthless, brown-tassel, crooked-teeth corn rotting in a basket.
The captain barks, "Git'n the salt! The salt, hurry! The boat'l leave un the tide!"
"Ow many bags 'r thur?" someone screeches hysterically. Running back down the path, the man's voice is weak as a wheezing ghost, "Hol'up… got more salt doya…?"
"E-nufff to cure h-hides, I hope sir," a soldier with no buttons on his coat says to himself. "E-nufff for meat for the h-hard season, I hope sir?"
People seem whipped, unsociable, thoroughly un-entertained. It is artless, deprived, claustrophobic.
Holy-doodle-mother-uh-James(!), you did not come to the New Land to feel confined or stressed like this. You were looking for opportunity is all. You only wanted freedom from governmental restrictions. You are independent, capable, willing to risk your life, anything & everything you have, to meet this dream of total freedom & self-reliance. You are a new breed of person. You will be called "the backwoodsman" because you will strike out on your own into that dangerous, mysterious wilderness. You will come to be known as the quintessential New American.
But what art can come of you? Why are we even talking about you on a website about American Spoken Arts? What spoken word genres could ever be pulled out of your coon-skin cap? What kind of creativity will come from a solitary, gruff-n-tough muscle man like you?
Remarkably, many art forms were honed from the backwoodsman's ax, shaped by this archetypal image of self-sufficiency. This freedom-loving man grew in numbers through the 1800's until he became a metaphor for the American spirit. His adventures were woven into allegorical definitions for what it means to act like an American, and he was a key figure in the vast genre of Traditional Storytelling. He inspired a new style of humor & spoof telling. He inspired plain-talk literature & a crude do-as-I-please Burlesque. He was a lumberjack, a fisherman, a trapper. He was a railroad engineer, explorer, soldier, riverboat man, statesman— a leader. He was a commonsense philosopher, a winner, an innovator— the all-American hero.
In relation to this examination of Early Traditions (which is our label for the Spoken Word era of the 1800's) we must note: no matter what time period or what culture you examine, the artists who stand in the brightest spotlight are those who have the most social/political/economic power. They get access to the greater audience and to greater resources for their own promotion. Thus, in America in the 1800's, it is the Anglo-men who are the biggest soapboxers and, in turn, they become the most renowned spoken word artists of the day.
The Anglo-men were the tellers, the liars, the leaders & players of Early Traditions. They were the snake oil sellers and the auctioneers who are today the "in-your-face" salesmen & advertising executives. They were the Wild West Show Bill Codys who innovated spectacles that would be later boasted by circus barkers; they were brash, full-of-steam showboaters. Any modern multi-media extravaganza you see today was founded on the trial-and-error techniques, strategies & conventions developed by these early performance art inventors.
The soapboxer was indeed a brilliant braggart, an entertaining liar. No other skill is more essential in the making of a great storyteller! You've got to stretch it out, flesh it out, and hold their attention. The original American jokester, someone who could tell a real whopper with a serious tone, is now called the American Humorist, and the psychology of this genre is incorporated today into American political satire, supermarket tabloids & stand-up comedy. The most famous jokesters of the Early Traditions Era were widely published during their day in pamphlets, newspapers & books, but they were expert spoken word performers as well. Those who toured extensively were like the rock-stars of Early Traditions: Dan DeQuille, Major Jack Downing, Artemus Ward, Orpheus C. Ker, Petroleum V. Nasby & the ol' high school, lit class staple Mark Twain. We can't forget the prolific Will Rogers teething on these early greats; a young man by 1900, he went on to international notoriety in Circus, Vaudeville, Radio & Motion Pictures.
An art form that draws heavily on spoken art & humor is the broad category of Vaudeville Theatre. One America vaudevillian form that developed around 1828 was called Minstrel with racist, black-face skit shows. Minstrel shows fell out of favor for the larger general audience around the 1870's, and this void in common theatre went in two directions: one raunchy, one nice. Burlesque (the raunchy) picked up steam (it had been around from the time of the first saloons) with hardly-dressed ladies & dirty jokes that mostly brought out a male crowd. The other Vaudeville style was called Variety Theatre. This exciting new stage genre swept the country showcasing a variety of acts; not so race-bashing and it was suitable for women & all ages. The upper class had opera houses & high theatre but now, what a joy(!), there was quality entertainment for labor & middle-class families. It was snappy, hilarious, bizarre, a cornucopia of art & style— music, drama, poetry, magic, freak stunts & jokes, jokes, jokes. (This time the fat-cat bureaucrat was the back end of the joke.) Socially, you were really out of it if you missed a show, so we imagine it was quite the sensation during Early Traditions, maybe a kind of old-fashion version of the televised antics of ColbertNation.
This next fact might seem unbelievable to anyone clinging to inappropriate ideas of gender roles. Cheerleading was invented by men! It was a promotional idea for the American version of rugby—football— and first initiated by Johnny Campbell at the University of Minnesota in 1898. Cheerleaders cluster onto a limb of our Genre Tree. An American Spoken Art & an Early Tradition, it is also a collaboration of movement, athletic strength, rhythm, rhyme & vocal expression; there is an audience, a well-planned routine & a troupe of performance artists.
The spoken word element of Cheerleading relies heavily on "signature" cheers & chants. A cheer is like a spoken word poem. A chant is a short, repetitive call & response that will incite audience loyalty no less than team worship. (Give me an A, or an Amen, if you've ever been to a game you felt the rapture.)
So even Cheerleading, a form so far removed from the Wild West, Mark Twain or snake oil, can be described as stemming from early oral traditions. And, one way Oral Tradition is maintained is by telling long-lived legends using Traditional Storytelling.
The classic tales include: Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Casey Jones, Jesse James, John Henry, Daniel Boone, Pecos Bill & Ethan Allen. There are the wonderful tales, also, of the train-saving woman Kate Shelley & dead-shot Annie Oakley. Many of these super-heroes were based on real persons or a combination of admirable traits from more than one altruistic & ambitious person. Some great stories are based on sensational events: Blackbeard's ghost sightings, "the Gulls in Utah", mineshaft Tommy Knockers… there has been a lot of bragging about the size of mosquitoes, fish, grizzlies and a large repertoire of tales about the stubbornness of mules & the loyalty of dogs & horses.
Some traditional stories seem to be eternal: the Headless Horseman, Windigo, lake monsters, fiery St. Elmo's, the Jersey Devil, Sasquatch, and there's that fantastic "Nain Rouge" troll-thing on the banks of Detroit. (Everyone's seen it, from way back in settler-times until present day, really.) These stories are older than old, yet are often classified under Urban Mythology, a contemporary storytelling genre.
It's all storytelling, founded on good ol' traditional standards— imagination, enthusiasm, a snappy portrayal of high courage & wit, all put in plain & simple language. If you want to be a troubadour of the classic American tales, best to do it with a rifle & ax in hand (if props are allowed.) Be aggressive, courageous & fiercely competitive. Be fit (or at least very large) for you are hardworking & don't take no for an answer. You are masterful (probably a bit wasteful), willful and crude. The American folk hero is a fighter, trail-maker, inventor & leader. "He must blaze a nation's way with hatchet & brand" as Kipling wrote. "This quest for the unknown, this yearning 'beyond the skyline, where the strange road goes down' is of the very essence of the backwoods pioneer…"
Thirty years ago, two very important things came together: The National Storytelling Network began in the US and the political atmosphere of the country was focused on multi-ethnic awareness. Suddenly, some storytellers began to out-shout Paul Bunyan, that singular classic icon of the American folk hero. Hey, wow, but there were other stories to tell, good ones too, and traditional(!), only from other roots, other races & perspectives. This art was dubbed "outsider art performed by marginalized artists" and offered a voice for those Americans that had never had a chance at the proverbial soapbox. There were stories about women, African American slaves, freed slaves and about religious & farm-disaster refugees from other countries. There were Jews, Gypsies, Dutch, Italians, Irish, Germans, Russians, West Indians, Mexicans, Latinos, Asians. All of these people, all American, are Traditional Storytellers too. Their stories have survived through the oral performance/cultural art/rituals practiced within their specific communities.
Of course, when any group assimilates into a different majority population (and a different environment & language), over time, some stories & traditions are not translatable. Details get dropped or changed. There are clues to tales being lost & ethno-traditions that have been forgotten. They trickle out of the "nonsensical" lyrics of today's Kid's Rhythms. Tidbits of ancient stories & vocal calls are stirred by the whooo-sh of Jump Ropes, then fall— suh-LAP— on the pavement like memories lost.
The traditions of Puppeteering, whether Euro marionettes or Asian shadow puppetry, still echo through the ages. Some puppet shows still reflect their original form. Some shows are transformations into American genres: There's the charming repartee with the dummy on the knee called Ventriloquism and Puppet TV creations like Howdy Doody, Kukla, Fran & Ollie, Jerry Mahoney, Shari & Lamb Chop, The Muppets.
Women are not a race or a class but have certainly been marginalized. We can safely assume that, as a group, women have a very different world view than that old-time backwoods-y guy. Women have traditionally told stories as mothers, educators, advisors, midwives, laborers & organizers. In earlier times, maybe their voices weren't as loud (often hushed when they got too loud) but any talented spoken word performer knows: loud is not always better. Women often outlived their powerful husbands & filled the vacant spots, became town leaders & business owners; They had charisma too, and a few good jokes of their own. In addition, Women's storytelling for other women is a female "ritual" rarely given much study, and yet women have shared the wisdom of their personal experiences with daughters & each other throughout the ages. We recognize, here, the heritage of generations of strong pioneering women shrouded in Old Wives Tales, Ballads, Oral Herstory and the Poetry Circle.
Why have we not mentioned the American indigenous tellers? Is there any style more "traditional", more "American" than Native American Storytelling? No. Even after the conquest of the continent and the genocide & internment of hundreds of different tribes, even after the near exhaustion of the (so called) infinite natural resources, surviving tribes have managed to retain their oral tradition. You can be sure that Native American Storytelling is the original American spoken art. And it is older than our category of Early Traditions!
Native American tellers don't hang on the limbs of our SpokenOak genre tree; they are grounded deep in the earth nourishing the tree. That is why we put this first genre in the era we call Telling Roots.
We will say here, however, that the term "Native American" is misleading because it lumps all tribes into one. The aboriginal people of America & their descendents were/are of many different tribes, with different legends, rituals, languages & storytelling conventions. Long ago, storytelling was not called an "art" by any aboriginal because storytelling to them was a reality preserved through ritual. Over the years, the truth underlying this idea— story becoming real as it is being told— has been lost in translation to English & to fragmented modern interpretations. But Native American tellers today persist in preserving the wisdom that can still be gleaned from ancient rhythms, natural sounds, invoking words & native archetypes.
All of the other American Spoken Arts & all the ones yet to be dreamed, the Futurwurds, will forever ride on the back of the Giant Turtle of native legend. The turtle lives beneath Telling Roots, the earliest era of Spoken Word; we must dig deeper for the truth about indigenous tellers. They are likely sharing stories like primordial acorns gathered under the SpokenOak Genre Tree.
|What came before Early Traditions?|