I have always considered the art of storytelling one of the purest forms of theater: it runs the gamut of emotions, presents a wealth of diverse characters, and can almost literally hold you spellbound. I've made two pilgrimages to the annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where this fall I first heard Affrilachian teller Lyn Ford, who will headline Rhode Island's homegrown storytelling festival, Funda Fest 14, from January 15-22.
HOME-FRIED TALES Storyteller Lyn Ford.
"Affrilachian" was coined by poet Frank X. Walker in the '90s when he discovered that Webster's defined Appalachia as inhabited by "white residents." He promptly settled on Affilachian to mean any person of color with roots in that region. Ford was born in Pennsylvania and lives in Ohio, but her family has roots up and down the backbone of those mountains, and her heritage includes Native American, African American, and European ancestors. As a child, she loved to listen to the stories her father, her maternal grandfather, her aunts, and her great-aunts told.
"My grandfather — he was good at lying," Ford recalls, with a laugh, in a recent phone conversation. "My dad had a lot of rabbit tales and very good spook stories. From the aunties, most of the stories had a little lesson in them, though you didn't realize you were learning anything.
"If it was a familiar story about something that happened in the family," she continued, "sometimes the relatives would get into arguments about which was the better version!"
Although she claims to know only a couple of good "liar's tales," Ford, who is also a certified instructor of Laughter Yoga, won the Liar's Contest at the National Black Storytelling Festival in 2005. She's undecided whether she will participate in the first such contest planned at FUNDA (January 20, led by North Carolina's Mitch Capel, an award-winning "liar" and storyteller).
I heard Ford tell her version of one of the rabbit tales, which included a fox, a bear, and an unripe pumpkin, with the emphatic message of "no matter how old you are, listen to your mama!" She also told a few hilarious anecdotes about her own "mama," now 81, who lives with her, and who is "5'1" but 11 feet of attitude." One had the distinct feeling that Ford has some of the same.
She first started telling stories outside her home in the mid-'90s, when her children (now grown) were in elementary school. They bragged on her to their teachers, and "I got invited in, and the next thing I knew, I was doing more and more stories." She quickly started telling at local festivals and, by 2001, on the national circuit.
Ford calls her adaptations of traditional and family stories "Home-Fried Tales," some of which are on award-winning CDs, and she continues to be a "teaching artist" with the Greater Columbus Arts Council. She will conduct an interactive Family Storytelling Workshop at the Providence Public Library January 21.
For her "Home-Fried Tales," Ford often starts with something she remembers from her childhood, such as her five-year-old fears about singing a solo in her church choir. Then she asks family members about it. "I try to tap into the people stories first, because most of them have some kind of humor," she emphasized. "And those also seem to have a message — they can be teaching tools."