by Tim Van Egmond ©2016
Everyone has experienced how music can touch our hearts and reach deep into our souls. Stories and music are a powerful combination that can take many forms. My entry into the world of storytelling was in large part through music. I was a folk music fan since childhood, and when I heard Pete Seeger’s musical story “Abi Yo-yo” on one of his albums, I was enchanted. I retold it for kids when I was a teenage babysitter and a college-age summer camp counselor. It was magical how it captivated the kids! In the mid to late ‘70s Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan (the tandem storytelling duo known as The Folk Tellers) were performing at folk music venues. I saw them at the Brink Coffeehouse at Mt. Holyoke College and the Fox Hollow Folk Festival, and hearing them rave about the National Storytellers’ Convention in Jonesborough, Tennessee drew me to make a pilgrimage there in 1980. It was there that I really “caught fire” about storytelling, but I remember being especially struck by storytellers who had a musical element in their tales. I heard the songs Jay O’Callahan crafted in his stories, the scat-singing, harmonica-playing Brother Blue, Heather Forest’s musical adaptations of tales accompanied by her guitar, and a shivery lumberjack tale Doug Lipman told interspersed with verses of “The Lumberman’s Alphabet.”
These and other storytellers have inspired the musical side of my storytelling ever since. Hearing Michael Meade led me to accompany some African tales with a hand drum. I emulate other performers when I tell the legend behind the traditional tune “The Gold Ring” and then play on my hammered dulcimer, or play a musical interlude in a tale to suggest dancing. At times I think of a song that goes well culturally and thematically with a story, such as “Brown Girl In The Ring” for a Caribbean story, or “Brinca La Tablita” for a bilingual tale from Cuba. Occasionally I come up with a melody for words already in a tale (often borrowing a melody from another song).
There are many ways music can enhance a story. From playing an instrument to simply using one for a sound effect, from singing to speaking in rhythm, from evoking a mood to inviting audience participation, there’s a wide range of possibilities and levels. I’ve joined in with delight when one storyteller patted his legs in rhythm to a simple chant for a character’s travel, or another clapped in a rhythmic pattern and swayed to give an image of a protagonist dancing. I’ve also been tickled or deeply moved by songs storytellers have written to go with their stories.
Another avenue is to seek out stories that have strong musical elements already in them. Some collections where I’ve gotten help and inspiration are The Singing Sack compiled by Helen East, Patakin – World Tales of Drums and Drummers edited by Nina Jaffe, Shake-It-Up Tales! collected by Margaret Read MacDonald, and Troubadour’s Storybag edited by Norma J. Livo. The first three collections have lyrics and music notation, and the first two also have companion recordings.
I’m deeply grateful for the way storytelling and music have enriched my life, and I feel they’re needed more than ever in these times. In this spirit, a tale that’s especially meaningful to me lately is “A Sufi Creation Story” adapted by Jennifer Armstrong from the telling of the Mayan storyteller Floating Eagle Feather. In the beginning the Creator first fashions the bodies, then the souls, and then tells the souls to climb into the bodies. The souls refuse to climb into “those heavy, lumpy things.” After an interval of silence, the Creator laughs and music and dancing and storytelling come into being. The souls see all the people dancing and singing, and they’re intrigued, saying “That looks like fun. What’s going on?” They enter into the bodies to find out. “And so it has been ever since. To hold body and soul together, we sing and we dance and we tell stories.”
Tim Van Egmond, Folksinger & Storyteller
118 E. Chestnut Hill Road
Montague, MA 01351
Raised in a musical family, a lover of books from an early age, enraptured by daily sing-alongs at day camp, enchanted by a storyteller who performed at his grade school, Tim Van Egmond had a lot leading him to his chosen profession as a folksinger and storyteller from an early age. Van Egmond has performed for over 30 years throughout the country, weaving together tales, tunes and songs to share their wellspring of rib-tickling, spine-tingling, heartwarming richness. He’s been chosen for the New England States Touring Program, the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s STARS Residency Programs, and the New Hampshire State Library’s “Kids, Books, and the Arts” roster. He’s presented his workshop on Music in Storytelling a couple times at “Sharing the Fire” Northeast Storytelling Conference, and he’s slated to present it to teachers as part of the New Jersey Storytelling Festival in September of 2016.
This blog series is a part of the LANES Connections Project. This task seeks to celebrate connections to other organizations, professions, and audiences to which we are joined through story. If you are joined through story with another organization, profession, setting or special audience, we would love for you to share your experiences with us in a blog.