Wyoming is about to have its first storytelling event. Professional storytellers and anyone else who wants to join in the oldest form of art are welcome to spin a good yarn, organizers say.
The “Hear Me Now” Storytelling Circle will take place at the second annual Big Horn Basin Folk Festival from Aug. 6-7 in Thermopolis’ Hot Springs State Park.
Professional storytellers, members of Wyoming’s first storytelling guild, a former Wyoming poet laureate, cowboy poets and storytelling songwriters from around the state will join the circle, which also includes open mic sessions. Nationally known musician and storyteller Spencer Bohren, a Casper native, will moderate and perform his most popular program, “Down the Dirt Road Blues.”
The festival also includes activities for all ages and more than 130 demonstrators and artisans from 33 communities around Wyoming.
Storytelling is poplar in the southern U.S., where the National Storytelling Network is based in Tennessee, said Ellen Sue Blakey, director of the Hot Springs Greater Learning Foundation, which is organizing the festival.
Wyoming has a long storytelling tradition, too, even if organized efforts are just beginning here.
Stories have been passed on from mountain men’s whoppers at rendezvous, Native Americans’ history of storytelling, rodeos, ranching, homesteads, oil patches, mines and other facets of life in Wyoming, she said. Whether it’s fishermen or hunters telling their families about the one that got away or the 14-point buck they didn’t get, they’re all stories, Blakey said.
“It is part of our culture in Wyoming, because we’re the guys who sit around the campfires and tell stories,” Blakey said. “Stories become part of our culture. … We tell stories as a human people — that is what we like to do. We pass on information through stories. But we don’t realize that it’s an art form.”
Professional storyteller Michelle King, of Basin, plans to tell folk stories, a Wyoming tall tale, a personal story and a historical account of a 1903 lynch mob in Basin. She encourages people to stop by the tent even for just a story or two and consider telling one of their own.
She’s also spearheading the new Big Horn Basin Storytelling Guild, the first of its kind in Wyoming. She’s the Wyoming liaison for the national association and may be the only member in the state, she said.
She became a professional storyteller when she retired as a librarian, after many years of storytelling in schools, libraries and other venues. It was listening to famous storyteller Augusta Braxton Baker and later a class while earning her master’s degree in library science from the University of Kentucky that hooked her on the art.
She’d read great stories with beautiful illustrations as a public and school librarian. Yet there’s a unique magic to telling a story, she said. Studies show more parts of the brain are involved in storytelling than in reading, she added.
“If I told a story, I had 100 percent eye contact,” King said. “They just glued to you. That is the power of storytelling. That’s why it started in the very beginning of our civilization with telling these stories and imparting wisdom or imparting the lessons that we need to know.”
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Anne Hatch, the folk arts specialist at the Wyoming Arts Council, plans to give historical perspective on Wyoming storytelling and on-the-spot analysis of some stories during the event. There may be stories from cultures around the world to daily life, ranching and hunting in Wyoming, she said.
Storytelling is one of the ways people since the beginning of verbal communication have shared experiences. It’s also how generations have passed down information about ethics, values, knowledge and skills, she said.
For instance, storytelling has been a major part of the hunting tradition, which she’s researched for the WAC’s “Art of the Hunt” project.
Hunting stories also are more than entertainment. They also train others to avoid and handle dangers such as sudden storms, getting lost, mountain lions and bears, she said.
Then there are stories about the ethics of hunting, such as parents requiring their kids to eat what they shoot — even if they weren’t excited to cook a gopher for dinner, she said.
“These stories show how there’s a very strong commitment to a way of life and something bigger than just the one experience,” Hatch said. “These stories are never really told out of sheer entertainment. They’re always told with that underlying purpose and a value, and I expect that in the storytelling circle we’ll come to see that repeatedly.”
She hopes to pull out some of those bigger themes from the stories there and for people to see themselves in the storyteller role as well, she said.
“We all carry a repository of stories, whether we know it or not,” Hatch said.
Jason Burge was excited to see the storytelling circle come across his desk as the eastern regional director of the Wyoming Humanities Council, which is providing much of the funds for “Hear Me Now.”
He’s also a singer/songwriter for the band Dauphin, and will perform a quick solo spot in the circle performing and telling the story behind a song about his dad called “King of Carolina.”
Storytelling is the original mode for entertainment and transferring information, said Burge, who moved to Wyoming about 10 years ago for his second master’s degree in fiction and creative writing to add to one in literature from Mississippi State University.
Storytelling is more important than ever these days, when many people find most of their stories on Facebook and Twitter, Burge said. But traditional storytelling engages the imagination, which is how people learn from stories, as well as spurs empathy, because they put themselves in the places of the characters, he said.
“Even if it’s an apocryphal story or a lie, someone who manages the timing and the pacing and can actually mesmerize and hypnotize and get people to follow along imaginatively,” Burge said. “There’s something that you get from that that you don’t get from reading it yourself or watching TV. There’s really an art to it — where you’re being seduced into the narrative by the person’s inflection, by the pacing.”