The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday September 27th

Storytelling Provides a Means of Transmitting Culture, History

In Germany it is said that "Handsome words do not butter the cabbage." Popular Chinese folk wisdom affirms that "Talk does not cook the rice." In the United States, culinary references aside, "talk is cheap." But these proverbs may be underestimating the significance of words, and stories in particular, in society.

"Stories from across the world deal with the core of what it means it be human," said Professor Glenn Hinson, chairman of the UNC curriculum in folklore.

People tell stories to give a moral to the listeners, to observe a phenomenon and to deal with the unknown, Hinson said. Folk narrative provides a way of communicating from generation to generation.

And storytelling and folk narrative have a special importance in Southern history.

"The artfully crafted word is part of the rich heritage of the South," Hinson said. According to Hinson, there is a respect in the South for eloquent speech and well-told stories.

It's therefore no surprise that the capital of the storytelling world is located deep in the South. Jonesboro, Tenn., is a mecca of folk stories, modern stories, children's stories and every kind of story. People from all over have gathered there since 1973 for an annual October festival to listen to and tell stories.

Listening to stories is different from reading literature or the passive entertainment of television, said Professor Brian Sturm, who teaches a performance class on storytelling at UNC. He explained that "oral stories are actually picture based."

Storytellers involve the listeners' imaginations and capture them emotionally by talking about the scenes that form a story.

"Stories are more than plot," Sturm said. "The plot is a coat hanger for the emotions of a story."

North Carolina in particular has a history of storytelling. The Appalachian Jack Tales, including the classic "Jack and the Bean Stalk," have endured and spread into modern culture, said Charles Zug, professor of English and folklore at UNC.

"The Jack Tale traditions are very famous but very few people tell them," Zug said.

According to Zug, immigrants from Europe brought the Jack Tales to the Appalachians and retold them to fit their new lifestyles. They are still told in the original form by a select and dedicated group.

Orville Hicks, a resident of Boone, is renowned for his ability in telling the Jack Tales. "He is the Hemingway of folk narrative," Zug said.

The Appalachian Jack stories served to instruct youthful mountain dwellers with morals of kindness and hard work.

"All stories have a purpose," Zug said.

Stories develop from the needs and enthusiasms of a society. "They might have a moral, like no matter how big you are there is someone bigger, or be kind to strangers," said Sturm.

All stories are reflections of a particular culture, and oral traditions have been a part of human societies since ancient history -- from the 1001 Arabian Nights tale to the Odyssey. The Grimm Brothers first recorded folk narrative in their collection of fairy tales in the 1800s, preserving them in their original context. But the stories of modern culture have evolved to fit the times.

The urban legend, the anecdote and the well-told joke require shorter attention spans than stories.

This is consistent with the fast pace of communication and transportation in modern society, Zug said. "People don't have the patience to listen to an entire fairy tale anymore."

People all tell stories every day, almost unthinkingly. But the well-trained storyteller brings the art alive.

"There is a dynamic between listeners and teller of trust and vulnerability that breaks down boundaries," Sturm said.

Sturm has theorized from his own experience as a storyteller at schools and libraries that the "entrancing power" of stories can actually be measured. He plans to use the new MRI scanning equipment at UNC to monitor brain waves and prove a changed state in listeners.

Professional storytellers use facial expression, gesture, tone and movement to deliberately capture the audience. If Sturm's theory is correct, the semi-hypnotic state that these techniques create make listeners highly suggestible.

This "entrancing power" gives storytellers a certain amount of power that may have been previously overlooked as the technological advances of the 20th century overshadowed traditional storytelling with other forms of entertainment.

Storytelling has only recently made a comeback.

"The last 20 years have seen a renaissance of the art of storytelling," Sturm said. It is now possible to make a living as a professional storyteller, making the art a career instead of a hobby.

Folklore, and storytelling with it, have become more valid in the academic world as well. It is possible to get a degree in folklore at UNC and many other universities.

The N.C. Arts Council presents its Heritage Preservation Awards to storytellers along with other traditional artists.

According to Hinson, stories are a natural reflection of society: "The essential human conflicts -- rites of passage, fear of the unseen -- these things invite drama and stories."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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