Monday, December 01, 2014

Stories the ads tell us

I do not watch too much American t.v. because I dislike the number of adverts which continuously break up the flow of a story. This Thanksgiving I sat watching cable t.v. with my kids and was horrified at what I saw, on kid stations.

Time-Warner Cable showed a father with two kids taking over what could have been a living room or den/family room. The furniture has been taken apart, blankets and rugs added to make some fabulous forts. In walks mother and gives a look of disapproval, that says she gives up, and takes her tablet to another room to be on her own. Is playing with the family so bad? Is it better to vanish with your devise? Admittedly there are times we need to spend on our own, but is the place of companies to suggest we go to our devices?

Ensure Active had an equally disturbing, if that's not too strong a word, commercial. The scene is similar to a type of gym with lots of fruit and veggies standing around, as if they were people, along with plastic containers of Ensure Active, also humanized, Veggie Tales style. One of the plastic containers of Ensure seems to be the instructor for this 'gym' and tells a pear, in not so many words, that it is not fit, that you can get better nutrition from a mass produced product in plastic, rather than from fresh vegetables and fruit. Unbelievable that in country where obesity is a problem that a company would steer folks away from fresh produce.
On the flip side Kellogg's Frosted Flakes have a much better idea. Tony the Tiger is with the family playing American football with them. When a break happens in the play and they move to the kitchen for a Frosted Flake snack, moves are discussed, using the frosted flakes on the table to plan the 'play'. A wonderful story of family playing together, tied in with a product. Tony is greeeeat!

Another story I finished over Thanksgiving was a book from a genre I have not tried before - alternative history. When someone let me borrow Harry Turtledove's "Ruled Britannia" I had a blast. Set in Shakespeare's London, the story tells this alternative history of the Spanish invading and ruling, with Elizabeth I in the Tower,on Philip of Spain's orders. It is not a bad book, and is one I enjoyed. Lots of Shakespeare's work entwined into the writing and lots of facts, given a nice twist, or explanation!

What stories did you enjoy over Thanksgiving? What stories did your family tell? What books did you start or finish? What devises did you lay down to cool off over the break?

I hope everyone had a fabulous Thanksgiving, with those you love and care for.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Richness and Beauty of the Selchidh, and Hiking Boots

From Arthur Rackham's Undine

I have just finished reading a wonderful book about the seal people of Ireland and Scotland. It is a journal of a journey, mainly through Ireland, and the stories collected of the Selkie, the Kane, Silkies, Selchies, Selchidh; the shape shifters. The stories are of another time but not that long ago. The book was printed in 1954, and some stories were told 'in living memory', the rest as ancient as the creatures themselves.  There is something special, timeless about the tales of the seal people.

My brother gave me the book for my birthday this year and it is one of those rare books that are an easy read which do not lose the richness of language. The writing, the narration, has an easy gait to it, but I did not want to rush through it. The stories needed to be savoured, so I would dip in and read a chapter, then sit there and mull it over. I felt I was traveling with the author, David Thomson. My brother had given me a first edition and the pages are now delicate, the dust jacket worn. It is a treasure to enjoy slowly. Sometimes I would look up words I was unsure of, words describing clothing I had not heard of, like bawneen, or the pronunciation of those tricky Gaelic words. Life of the islanders in the 1950's had the old ways upon them; the old men had certain ways of life and attitude the younger folk had started to lose. It was similar in that way to reading Mary Webb's 'Precious Bane'. She wrote of a time passing and the old ways just about hanging on, but a generation earlier in England.  'The People of the Sea' by David Thomson, is a book I will treasure for a long time.

There is something very magical about what I call the Old Stories and Ancient Stories - the folk and faerie tales, the myths and sagas of long ago, but there is something even more magical, or deeper to the Selchidh, Selkie stories. I often wonder what it is. My mother, I think, told me the story of the Woman of the Sea when I was young, or someone did when we visited the Isle of Aran in my very young days. I rediscovered the story in Kevin Crossley-Holland's wonderful book 'Northern Lights, Legends, Sagas and Folk-tales' when I bought it in 1987. It was a great rediscovery. I have been sharing the tale since then. That book got me into folk and faerie tales as an adult in my 20's.

There are many fun tales to be told, some stories which beg for humour. There are those filled with depth, and those with meaning, but the Selkie tales for me stand out. Is it because of the shape-shifting ability? (My son likes werewolves!) Does this dual life appeal to us because these tales offer a hope of something else when things get rough, life gets tough? Could some of us, the dark haired of us, walk to the coast, dive in and take form of a seal?

I was having lunch with Papa Joe a couple of days ago and we were talking about stories and how there are different types of tales that come to you. I am not talking about motifs or the
Aarne–Thompson tale type index, I am talking about how a story finds you. When I come across a tale I love, there are times the story is immediately lodged into my head and never leaves, like, for me, the Woman of the Sea; and The Goat from the Hills and Mountain, collected by Alma Flor Ada and Isabelle Campoy. There are other stories which I know I want to tell but stay dormant in my mind as I process them, mull them over. Sometimes years pass before I tell them, like Beowulf (still mulling around!), or those which have not yet given me their voice yet like Little Red Riding Hood - she is out and about now! Although Woman of the Sea sank in immediately, but I did not tell it for years. I would share it, but not tell it. As I said to Papa Joe, it is like buying a brand new pair of very good, expensive, leather hiking boots - you would never go hiking the same day, you would break the boots in over days and weeks. The Selkie stories, all of them, to me are like that. I have them in my mind and could tell them, but they need, no, I need to be broken in with the story. The tales need to tell me how to share them, how I personally can best serve the stories and those who listen. Some stories are like sneakers and you can jump into them and start running; some are like dress shoes, you polish them up and keep them polished; and some are like hiking boots that need to be worn for a good while before taking them out. Maybe that's why I like the Selkie stories so much, once you have worn them for a while they will last forever, and will take you to places you never thought you would go.

For a source of Selkie stories, or books with the stories of the seal people, go to my website.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

It's not Friday the 13th, but it is Jason!

Since Friday the 13th first 'graced' the silver sceen in 1980, the name Jason has been synonymous with ice hockey masks and slasher movies, but before that, there was another Jason. This Jason was joined, according to Padraic Colums's book, The Story of the Golden Fleece, by heroes who themselves were the seed of the gods, or at least demi-gods. It's been a while since I read or studied the book, but a side project I am working on had me pick it up. This truly impressive telling ties in stories of Theseus, Daedalus, Atalanta, Hercules (Heracles), Perseus, Demeter  and Persephone. Although originally geared toward young eyes and minds, it reads incredibly well and the language, now, might be better suited to middle school and up. Still, dig up a copy and read it. Call it a late beach read!

Photo by Simon Brooks (C) 2014
This side project began about 2 or 3 years ago when I was asked to tell some Greek myths.  I will be leaving the Odyssey and Odysseus alone, as there are many others who do that already, and do it really well. I will be sticking to the stories that come before Troy.  Although not a huge fan of the Greek tales due the amount of abuse and mis-use of females in the stories and Zeus just going when and where he wanted and the constant lying to Hera and her savage revenge against the innocent, I found some tales to be really good. And Daedalus was one of them. Because I have not really looked much at Greek myths since school, I was reminded of so much and rediscovered for myself the intricacies of these stories. Daedalus helped Theseus through Ariadne, Theseus meet Demeter on his travels to find his father, Demeter's daughter was picking the Narcissus flower when she was taken to the Underworld. Theseus' father knew Medea who sailed with Jason, but then so did Theseus, okay, it's getting confusing! But it popped the thought in my head that I should work on these stories and record them.

So I did. I wrote the story of Daedalus, and later Theseus, well part of it, and the story of Persephone and performed those. I recorded the story of Daedalus a few weeks ago and it sounds good! I worked on and told the story of Midus. These stories have been told with all the meat on them, or have been watered down for younger ears. But these stories can be told to all ages. Sure, you might not want to mention that Poseidon was so angry with Minos that he got the king's wife drunk and had Hera cause her to have intercourse with the White Bull which the sea god had given Minos to sacrifice- hence their son the Minotaur! (This is one of the moments where the women are mistreated. Why not have Minos give birth to his Minotaur son? His wife had nothing to do with it as far as I can tell.) I researched and wroteup the story of King Midus and performed it. It is a funny story, although the ending a bit grim and disgusting (but can be used as a warning against the consumption of alcohol)! Midos is an idiot! Researching has been a blast. Discovering new parts to the stories is so exciting. Reading Ovid and learning the full story of Alcyone was a treat after seeing it told in a paragraph or two in so many places. And you find that Ceyx knew Theseus. (That Theseus gets around!) One of my other favourite tales is that of Perseus. The ending when he returns home and his old dog dies, and he saves his mother is just wonderful. Great stories with grit!

Apollo gives Midus his ears
So if, like me, you were not a huge fan of the Greek tales, take another look at them. Read the story of Jason or Perseus. Check out some of the other stories too. Or better yet, let me know if you want to hear the stories recorded! They are slowly coming together. My plan is to make a book and record all the stories in a way that all will want to hear.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why Do I Tell Folk Tales?

Why Folk Tales? 
Based on an interview with Sam Payne of BYU Radio, and the Apple Seed show.

Old folk stories are still around because they are such great stories. If I get a book published, that would be great, but I don’t expect it be around in 100 year’s time. How many books have been printed since 1900 and before, which are no longer in print, nor being read, or have even been forgotten? I want to give the Old Stories which have been around not just for hundreds of years but thousands, in some cases, the light they deserve, the voice that they need.

Arthur Rackham, 1910
Because the Old Tales, the folk and faerie tales, myths and legends have been passed down from generation to generation, during that time cultures change, way of life changes and the stories change with that. But they still have the core value, the core lessons in them, if you want to find the lessons in them. These stories are powerful, and strong, and yet adults and kids are not getting to hear them.  These stories are so deep, we need to get them out to adults as well as to children. Some of these tales have a lot of red meat in them. If you were to tell one or two of these to a group of kindergarteners they would be going home telling their parents: “Mummy, there was this scary man there, and I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” Not all folk and faerie tales are like that, but there are a good number which are. And there are stories about life, love, growing up, and death. It is a shame that adults think it is stuff for kids, but it’s not all like that. There are many stories which are deep and have much meaning in them. I told my own version of Little Red Riding Hood to a group of 12 year olds who thought, when I mentioned it before I began, it was a little kids story. They saw another side of it, by the time I had told the tale. These tales were not meant for books, they need to be told.

I love the fact that the MOTH is out there and people are sharing their personal stories. I think it is great that people are sharing their stories. We all do it, whether on a stage, or by the water cooler. Some of the stories I have heard on the Moth, I wonder why they are shared and broadcast across the country if not the world, but they are interesting and some are great. It is all about empathy and how we see each other as other human beings, and how we translate our experiences with one another, or don’t!  But these tales, these shared experiences will not be around in 50 years time. The old folk tales need to be heard, too. I do not tell personal stories, not often, because these old tales are so important. We should be giving the Old Tales the air time they deserve, and need, and keep them for another few thousand years.

Yesterday I was told by one listener after my performance that she couldn’t tell stories. “But,” I told her, “You will be telling stories about your trip here, when you get home.” Teachers tell me they are not storytellers, yet the best teachers ARE storytellers. Humans inherently learn through story and experience. List a bunch of facts and they are hard to remember, but couch them in a story and the facts will stay. Some storytellers dress up, and act out stories, but there are many who do not. They may only use hand gestures (which they may or may not be aware of), or facial expressions, but there are some storytellers, who just use their voice, and a certain choice of words. And it always engages. Even the ‘most troublesome kid in the class.' Those are the ones who usually respond the best!

When you use folk tales, there is a layer of separation, and it is this which allows one to identify themselves safely with the stories. They can see issues and difficulties second-hand, if you will, which can act as a buffer, whether the audience is elderly and the story is about death, or the audience is a bunch of middles schoolers who are trying to deal with bullying.

Start with the personal stories, they are easier to remember after all. But then move into the folk and faerie realm of stories, share the myths and legends, and be prepared to see those Old Stories in a completely new light.

Simon Brooks (c) 2014

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Odds Bodkin at the White Mountain Storytelling Festival - coming very soon!

Between Friday the 26th of September, 2014 and Sunday the 28th of September, once again the New Hampshire Storytelling Alliance will be hosting the White Mountain Storytelling Festival. It will take place at Waterville Valley in the heart of New Hampshire's White Mountains, and will have Odds Bodkin featuring and presenting two concerts.

Other tellers at the festival are: Mark Chamberlain, Mark Lang, Simon Brooks (me!), Cora Jo Ciampi, Peter Brodeur (who will also be opening for Odds), Lani Peterson, Joey Talbot, Gelaldine Buckley, and me!

These concerts are part of a three day event which begins on Friday evening with ghost stories at the town gazebo, stories told by Angela Klingler, Ruth Niven, Lauretta Phillips, Mike Lockett, Shelly Hershey and Andy Davis. If you like a good shiver, in amongst the fall colours, this is a great event to come to. Saturday will begin with a concert of tellers at 11 am and the day will have three concerts on top of the performances by Odds. Two of the concert of tellers will be family friendly and none will be up against Odds. There will be lots to do. If it gets a little chilly, then at noon there is a chilli cook-off in the town square! The other tellers at this year's festival will be: Mark Chamberlain, Mark Lang, Simon Brooks (me!), Cora Jo Ciampi, Peter Brodeur (who will also be opening for Odds), Lani Peterson, Joey Talbot, Gelaldine Buckley, and me (did I mention that already?)!

I will be performing a story at the 11 am performance at the Meeting Place.

In case you have never been to the White Mountain Storytelling Festival, I have put photographs I took at the 2012 Festival which featured Rebecca Rule and Jo Radner. Click on the link below to check them out. The photos of the bowling pumpkin are NOT here!

This is a fabulous event and is great for families. Full Festival Adult tickets can be accompanied by up to 4 children under 12 free!  Families who want to go to the evening performance by Odds Bodkin (7.30 pm) will have pay $2.00 for each child!  For full details of the event, please go to the New Hampshire Storytellers Alliance website and visit the Festival Page. I for one am looking forward to all the tellers who will be there; it is a GREAT line-up!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

On (and off) the road - or when not listen to your GPS

Tonight (Sunday 29th June) I was heading for a gig. The performance was for a client I have worked for for many years. The venue has always been the same. Although I moved with my family about 3 years ago, I know where I am going. The GPS is a safety blanket, if you like, really there to tell me how on time, or in tonight's case, how early I would be.

My, up to this point, trusted GPS, said: "Take that left'. A new route for me, one I have ignored many times. I know the area fairly well and how to get to where I am going. But I had time, so I thought 'why not'. The arrival time says I have plenty of time and I can always back track, I am only a few miles away at this point. So I take 'that left'.  I know it will bring me out on one of the main roads as I have taken the road before. "Take a right," said my GPS. Okay, I am not sure where this will take me, but I still have plenty of time. The pavement ends and a dirt road begins, but there are many dirt roads around here. Some folks vote for them to stay dirt because people drive too fast on some, 'imagine what kind of speed track it would be if it were paved.' So off I go.

I love to drive. When I say drive, I mean DRIVE. I have a stick shift, because that, to me, is driving. Not highway driving either, but the beautiful scenic roads aplenty in New England. Roads with curves, and ups and downs that require shifting gears, and good command of your car. This looked like a fun dirt road, steep in places, curves, downhill bits with hard corners at the bottom. But it was getting narrower. No problem, many country roads in the UK are as narrow as a horse where the speed limit is 50 m.p.h. on some of them. Some of those roads I grew up with have high hedges so you would only know a large tour bus were on the same road, with cars and bikes appearing like magic! I was not driving at 50 mph, but 20 to 25 mph. and then the road began to get muddy, and rocky, and deep grooves made by the last truck which had taken this road. Only two point five miles to my destination and this is the back end of the road the venue is on. Never been this way before. Always come from the other side.  Not sure if it is faster though, even if it is shorter.

Suddenly the road gets worse. I have to drive close to one side or another to avoid the massive grooved tracks and rocks in the road. Huge puddles. Bad drainage. Muddy grooves which I could bottom out in and become stuck in if I am not careful. Pulled out with a big truck stuck, but there is space if I hug the edge. My Corrolla is not a low street car, and has pretty good clearance. When we moved from Boston I saw the practicality of a sensible car on back roads such as this. Wait, did the bottom of the car scrape? Not good. 'If it happens again, I will turn back. But the road is narrow. How can I turn around?' I think.  I look for a spot. Only 2 miles now. Still have time. (Ever seen The Incredibles? Mr. Incredible keeps looking at his watch, saying "I've got time." And JUST makes it to his own wedding. And then I see the road in front is half stream, and half mud and rock. There is JUST enough space and there are rocks I can put in the tracks to give me the clearance I need. It can't get worse than this, I think. I place the rocks carefully on the road where I need them, get in the car, cross the muddy road and nip over, but hear the car bottom out again, but I made it.  Around the corner, down the hill, even closer now, but wait. There is NO WAY I can get through there.  Backing up a muddy dirt road is not an easy task. But I did it, and found a fence with a heavy duty cable which the back of my car should just sneak under. It does, I turn the car around and head back to the narrow crossing. Time is now Very Tight.

When I drive over the rocks this time, they are not high enough. Of course. It is muddy and the weight of the car driving over it pressed the rocks into the ground. My car bottoms out and gets stuck. Only a little bit, I tell myself. The front wheels (front wheel drive) are spinning. Mud flecks hit the windows. Bother. I got out of the car, and look underneath. There is a space where there is no daylight coming through. I looked around and seeing some rocks in the stream which flows across the road pull them out of the water and get them up against the front wheels. They don't bite. I try putting bits of sticks and wood which surrounds me under the tyres (UK spelling). Nothing. Need to call the venue and let them know I am stuck. I feel like an idiot, and for good reason. No phone signal (great), so I keep trying to get the car unstuck. Now it is smells like the clutch is working too hard. More rocks, stones and wood, but they are just pushed into the mud.

At this point I need to call. I am going to be late even if I can get off the rocks - I need help. So I walk and walk and walk until I get a signal. I walk at least a mile to get a signal. Help will be sent. I walk back. Up hill. And run some. I cannot just sit and wait. I am not like that, so I think and think. What do I need to do to move the car? It needs to be raised off the mud. If I empty the car it will be lighter, and might be high enough. I empty the car. Still not off the mud.  I need a lever. There is nothing strong enough that I can see. Then I realize that I could jack the car up! I can put stones and rocks (they are littered everywhere) under the wheels and bring the car height up and drive off this ruddy, muddy knoll!

I get the jack out and keep trying to get the car higher. Getting the jack under the car was a slight problem, but I found a couple of spots with enough space to get the jack under with a stone underneath it so it would not just push itself into the mud. One side of the car done, and then the other. No sign of help yet either. I look at my watch and it has taken an hour to do all this. It almost works, but need to get the car a little higher, so up with the jack again. A larger, longer and flatter piece of rock and I can get moving. This is a ruddy workout. I am now filthy. And mosquitoes are feasting on me tonight. I do get moving. And I remember to pack the car up again. But going down the hill was not as easy as going up. Too fast and I will crack something in one of the many ditches, which seemed to be fine going up hill. I also don't want to go too fast in case a large truck coming to rescue me is coming in the other direction from around a sharp bend.

I get out of this mess and I get a signal again on my phone, and a huge truck is flagging me down.

Windows down and a Southern accent calls out: "Are you Simon Birch?"

"No Simon Brooks, but have you come to rescue me?" I say.

"We did! Gees look at your car! How did you get out? We tried coming from the other side and couldn't make it."

The grill of this truck was higher than the roof of my car! I could probably drive a smaller, lower car under the truck! I told them what I had done, with sweat still running down my face.  They cannot see my white pants covered in mud, but I show them my brown hands still ingrained with mud.

"Are people still waiting for me?" I ask. "Is my contact still up?" My contact has young kids and sometimes takes off to put them to bed before I finish my stories there.

"No, everyone's gone to their cabins now. Sorry we were late getting to you, we couldn't find the road from this side."

"Hey, thanks for trying, I really appreciate it." I felt like saying, 'here, take my blooming GPS it will get you there!' but I didn't.

"We'll see you next week. Get home, now! And no short cuts, okay?"

"No more short cuts, I promise!" I told them there was a house with a drive just a few feet up the road, and that they shouldn't go further up the road unless they wanted to back the truck down the hill.  There was no way that beast could be turned around. It would have barely fit on the 'road'!

So what's the point of sharing my stupidity with you? (I still have dirt under my nails, but I will get that out as soon as I finish this.)
Learn from my mistakes. I knew how to get to the gig. I have been there probably at least 50 times, over the years. I thought I had time to check out a new route.
I didn't, it turned out. Don't do what I did! Go the route you know. Even if the GPS says 'This way could be quicker'. It may not be. Also, if you hit a dirt road that looks rough, hit that button that says, 'Find Alt Route' and tell your GPS there's a road block. Or look at your map to find another route. You do have a map for back-up, right?

And the fall out from this: My daughter heard me leaving a message when I got home apologizing for messing up the evening. The whole drive back home I was thinking that this stupid mistake not only makes me look bad, but also my client. They had planned to entertain their guests, and they were not able to. I felt terrible that I had let them down. My daughter told me it was not my fault, that I did not know I would get stuck. But what I did know, was that taking the road I knew, and had taken many, many times, would get me there in plenty of time. That if I had taken that well known route, I would have arrived looked spiffy in my white pants; and felt fresh and relaxed and ready to welcome people into the place of story. It was my fault I did not take that route, and instead I got myself filthy, and bug bitten, but more importantly, I left my clients patrons disappointed.

UPDATE (3rd July): Last night, after arranging for a make-up (for free of course) I went to the venue. I arrived very early taking my normal route. I told stories for about an hour and a half, including the tale I told above. The people there (who were the same folks waiting for my stories on Sunday) were thrilled I was there and got a good laugh out of the adventure. My clients were happy I had offered to make up for my bad choices of route and I will be back there on the 7th July!

Happy 4th July everyone!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Summer Reading, Get That Feeling

There are a lot of resources out there to keep your young friends and family members reading and it is important to do so!  Research has shown that if students do not keep their chops up over the summer holidays their learning can drop back at least one whole month. That is a lot to catch up when you start back at school.

Here are some helpful links:
The American Library Association's reading list:

The Collaborative Summer Library Program (all American states, I believe, are now part of this.  Vermont and New Hampshire were the last to join!):

Goodreads has a good source of summer reading for all ages, from kids to adults:

The Huffington Post has a list of Must Read books for Grown-Ups:

I am adding Scholastic's site as it has some resources, but you have to log in and it is very fussy. Resources are there for kids, parents and educators:

Want to read some research to back up my earlier comment:

and this from the New York State Library:

This years Summer Reading Program theme is science - namely: Fizz, Boom, READ! If you want to tie in some activities at home with this, don't forget the basic science of home economics, just remember to cook healthy snacks and hold back on the juices and sugar!  And your school will have a list of books for folks to read, too. Those, hopefully, come home with the students!

The web is a fabulous source for science too, if you want to play and experiment:

Remember that wonderful kids show, ZOOM (rhymes with BOOM!)? They maybe off the air, but are still alive and well on the web: has some pretty excellent experiments too:

If you want some traditional stories to go along with all that, then try looking up the stories of the stars, going back to Home Ec., what about Hansel and Gretel? For those of us who love rocks and creation stories, there is a huge topic of interest called Geomythology. Some of the books I have on my shelf (not guaranteed to be in print) which might help are:
Beyond the Blue Horizon, by Dr. E.C. Krupp
Sun Stories, and The Return of Light, by Carolyn Edwards
Myths of the Sacred Tree by Moyra Caldecott
Tales of the Shimmering Sky by Susan Milord (includes activities)
Why the North Star Stands Still, by William Palmer
A Forest of Stories, by Rina Singh
and of course the wonderful collection of tales and activities put together by Joseph Bruchac and Michael Caduto:
Keepers of the Earth
Keepers of the Night
Keepers of the Animals
Keepers of Life

Can we count science fiction as science? Hmm...
If so, check out any Ray Bradbury, (Fahrenheit 451), Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land) and Arthur C Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama which I read in high school as compulsory reading). Or something a little more modern:
Rushed, by Brian Harmon
The Sentinel, by Eden Winters
Tanglewreck by one of my top favourite writers, Jeanette Winterson
and the Sixth Science Fiction Megapack, by Art et al!

I hope this is of some help. Keep your minds sharp, your bodies moving, and your fingers flexing!

And let's hope for more fizz and reading, and not so much BOOM & BANG!


Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Taking Something Floating in the Air

My first recorder. It weighed a ton!
This past weekend I taught a workshop on recording in a home studio, from setting it up, to find the right equipment, to recording.  As a kid, my brother and I recorded on my step-father's Grundig reel to reel machine, and occasionally on the Dictaphones my dad sold from his office supply store in South Wales (before Office Max was invented).  The Grundig had a great smell to it and would wake up like a living beast.  You would click it on with the roll volume button, and watch the green light (above the word automatic) come slowly on and the whole creature of a machine would hum. You could smell the electricity of it, like you can smell the gas burning from a fast car driving 100 mph or more.

I wonder where those tapes are now, and if they still have a couple of little boys pretending to be police officers or spies on them! I later used that same Grundig to record my rock and band. I moved 'up' to a cassette machine, a Walkman and tried recording with that. My best friend Billy in the UK had a Tascam Portastudio which recorded 4 track onto a cassette.  We played with that a lot and recorded a bunch of songs - at least one albums worth! That was the first time I tried engineering a track.  I would take my cassette recorder with me and record my life and stories to my wife when she was over here in America and I was still in the UK. I have always loved recording sounds, stories, and other people, especially street musicians, as well as photograph them. I usually have a voice recorder and camera with me!

When I began life as a professional storyteller in 2003, one of the first things I wanted to do was record stories, share them with the world, and show the world what I could do. Share stories and show my talent, was my plan.  But I also knew I wanted to do the best job I could possibly do - not just a quick record, get it out there, but a really good job.

There is a folk story about a woman who spreads gossip. One day she discovers that something that she spread was a lie and went to the preacher to see what she could do to stop it from spreading further.  The preacher told her to take a feather pillow to the top of a hill on a windy day.  When she was there, she was to rip open the pillow and sake the feathers into the wind, then return to talk to the priest. She did this.  When she got back to the priest, she asked what to do next.  He told her to go and collect every single feather she had released from the pillow. She said it could not be done, and he agreed, but this is how rumours, lies, gossip spreads. Once it is out there, you have no control over it. It has a life of its own, and that is the same to ANYTHING we put up on-line. So I wanted something good, that in 10 years I could look back on say 'It's still good, and I am still happy with it."

Second-hand Tales, released 2006
Artwork copyright Rob Brookes 2006
The first CD was recorded professionally in a studio, but I watched and learned and went home, found Audacity and played with it. Audacity is a free Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). That first CD was released in 2006. I recorded more, and played with Audacity more. I began putting stories on my website. Some of the tools I purchased a long the way (my Roland Edirol R-09 and Zoom Q3) had light versions of DAW programs like Cakewalk and Cubase, so I tried those out.  But I liked the simplicity of Audacity, although there were many limitations.  I began putting more stories on my website. I recorded my second CD in another studio and sat with the engineer, watched, asked questions and played more with the programs I had, working between Audacity and the others, combining talents (tools), if you were.  That CD was released in 2008.  In
More Second-hand Tales, released 2008
Artwork copyright Rob Brookes 2008
2010, with my own equipment (the Edirol R-09) and the DAWs I had, I recorded my third CD.  The music was recorded at the second studio and the stories and music were put together there, and produced, with me helping (again asking questions and watching closely). This was released in 2011 and won Parent's Choice Gold Award.

A Tangle of Tales, released 2010
Artwork copyright Rob Brookes 2010
Then I invested in new equipment.  I bought a condenser mic, a USB box, and set of headphones, as a kit, put out by PreSonus and it came with their DAW called Studio One.  I started playing around with the kit and discovered I had found the digital audio workstation for me! It was fast to learn, easy to use, did everything I wanted it to do and more.  I recorded more and put more out on my website. Played around with the new tools I found. I made bootlegs of unreleased stories which I sometimes gave away at birthday parties. Someone asked me to record their juvenile fantasy novel, which I did.  That was in 2012. Last year (2013) I recorded 4 more books and so far this year (April 2nd 2014) I have recorded two more. All in my home studio. (I would share a photo of it, but it is in a bit of a mess right now!)

It's is not that I like the sound of my own voice.  I just love playing around and recording. I take my voice recorder everywhere I go mostly. You never know when you will hear something cool. (This is the time to listen out for those Peepers calling out to their mates!) Sometimes we just take it for granted, but there is still wonder in it for me, which is probably why I love it so much.  The DAW does not have the same smell that the Grundig used to have, and luckily it does not hum like it! But the same magic instilled in me all those years ago, has a strong hold; and that magic of taking something floating in the air, something unseen and capturing it so I can be heard again and again is pretty cool to me!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recording (Family) Stories

If you have young children, read on.  If you have grandchildren, read on. If you have elders in your family, read on.

We all come from different cultures and each and everyone of us has different life experiences. These experiences, and our heritage, I believe, make us who we are.  These experiences can be told in stories, and the stories from our own culture and heritage can be, and should be told. As our planet, Earth, gets smaller and as we travel further a field to live the life we want to, we sometimes find ourselves leaving family behind and the stories they have within them.
Photo by Simon Brooks, 2014
Showing: Disney's Babes in Toyland LP, a compact disc, an Agfa cassette tape,
the Olympus WS-300M, the Zoom Q3 and Roland's Edirol R-09HR

I was not able to record many stories from my Gran before she died, just a little bit here and there, although I knew a great deal about my Grandad - he also came to America and Canada.  My grandparents on my father's side, sadly passed away before I could get any family stories from them, and it wasn't until after their death I found that I had Irish in me. My Mum, however, shared some great stories of her life growing up, when I last saw Gran, two years ago.  I found out about her jaunts to the jazz clubs of Birmingham and her wild and crazy friend. Her sneaking off to date with boys! I got some of these stories on tape. (To be used later...!)

As a kid, my brother and I recorded on my step-father's Grundig reel to reel machine, and occasionally on the Dictaphones my dad sold from his office supply store in South Wales (before Office Max was invented).  I wonder where those tapes are now, and if they still have a couple of little boys pretending to be police officers or spies on them! I later used that same Grundig to record my rock and band. I moved 'up' to a cassette machine, a Walkman and then an Olympus voice recorder. I have always loved recording sounds, stories, other people!

As Gran grew sick I realized how much I did NOT know about her.  She came from Canada originally, told me we were someway related to Cecil Rhodes, but I can't see how! She lost her brother, James, at a fairly young age. Gran and my Aunt (great aunt really) Andree sold their burial plots because they were worth some money and planned on being cremated! Our family has been Quakers and Christian Scientists. I tried to get over to the UK and record some of her stories but she was reluctant to talk into the recorder.  I wish I had done more many, many years ago.

These days, it is easy to record at very high quality for not too much money. With the ease of getting digital recorders we do not need tapes anymore, we only need free computer space, and we can get more of that with memory sticks, or external drives! For the cost of taking the family out for a meal or two at a restaurant, you can get voice recorders which record nicely. My grandfather was recorded on cassette, but there is a lot of hiss on it, as it was from one of those Jones cassette machines you see libraries giving away!

Now to bring this into a full circle!  I whole-heartedly suggest that you invest in a good voice recorder. Go to a store, take a good pair of headphones and try a few out. Why? The headphones will allow you to hear the sound quality, which you might not otherwise hear in the store.  Buy one and record stories for your children and grandchildren. If you have elders in your family, ask them to share some of their memories with you. Record your own stories! When your kids grow up, and have their own children, they might want to hear stories you might forget! When people pass away, so do their stories, their life experiences and the stories they knew and loved. If your elders are young enough, then they can record those stories and send them to you. Keep them.  Even though young kids might not appreciate the stories now, when they get older and get interested, you will have them.  If your family moved from another country be it England or Ireland, Egypt or South Africa, India or Serbia you might have family still there, embedded in your heritage.  Have them share those stories with your children, or share with other people's children within your community. You might have a rich source of stories that others do not.  Share this source, your heritage, your stories.

Books are great, they can contain so much information, but voices of your own family or of those close to you contain so much more - their own lives and experiences.

(I am doing a workshop on recording stories using voice recorders, computers, microphones and Digital Audio Workstations - DAWs - at Sharing the Fire, the North Eastern Storytelling Conference on Friday, 28th March at UMASS, Amhurst MA. For more details visit the website of the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling:

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

If it ain't broke (or how change occurs when it is 'not supposed to')

From the 1970's and earlier
Stories change as they travel through cultures, and as society changes. As I was putting together some information for teachers about storytelling and the new Common  Core Standards, I was using Little Red Riding Hood as an example of stories to use.  I had found an interesting article by Terri Windham on the Endicott-Studio website from 2004.  Terri wrote: "Great Aunt Tiger, a story found in various forms in China, Japan, and Korea is a close relation to Little Red."  This reminded me of an article reported in 2009 by the Guardian (which also mentioned Jack Zipes' work (his book on Little Red Riding Hood) which talked about an Iranian version with a boy in the place of Red.  "Dr Tehrani found that the variants shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years... He said: 'The oldest tale we found was an Aesopic fable that dated from about the sixth century BC, so the last common ancestor of all these tales certainly predated this. We are looking at a very ancient tale that evolved over time.' "  NBC recently covered Dr. Tehani's story two months ago with a new twist, showing all of Little Red's relations in a chart!  Dr. Tehani's full report can be found here!  All of it makes for great reading.  Andrew Lang published back in the 1800's that he thought all 'fairy stories' came from India so this research has been going on in various forms for a while.  Looking at these reports and articles shows how stories can evolve.

Stories do change over time. With the printed word, illuminated manuscript, chiseled stone, found papyrus, or scribed scroll we can trace stories and find, or have an educational guess, at where they began. But I also believe that two people, or cultures can have similar ideas at the same time in very geographical places.  I wonder, sometimes, if when people like Tehani say they have found variants, they are simply stories that appeared in different places at the same time, independently.

Can something hit the human psyche at a given time and start things happening? It has happened with technology from the Victorian times to present day.  Even artists go through gestalt moments and come up with a new variant on a theme.  Writers in different places on the planet come up with similar ideas, as did, I believe, storytellers did hundreds of years ago, either to explain why things happened (what's the sun doing up there and why does it go away and come back every day? Where does it go, and can we go there too?) or as cautionary tales like Red.  As humans change either in development (have we really?) and culturally we see new things sometimes in these ancient stories, or we re-write them, either knowingly (The Weight by Jeanette Winterson) or not.  Recently my son and I were talking about the Lord of the Rings trilogy and suddenly I remembered a movie we had seen a few months back called '9'.  I asked my son if he also thought (as I had) if there were similarities. He agreed.  Did the writer/creator come up with the idea independently, or had he read Tolkien?  Did he think it was an original idea?  It is, but there are many influences.  (If you have not seen '9', it is a lot shorter than the Rings movies, coming in at 79 minutes in a single sitting and is a whole lot of fun, even if it is dark.)

And the stories change again! And more research is done and we might be getting closer to finding out who Little Red Riding Hood is and where she came from. Folk tales, to me, are fabulous things, and the research which has been done and continues to be done on them is fascinating. But I wonder when some of us say we need to be true to the original Old Tale, how true we need to be.  We choose what we put in and leave out.  I try to keep as much as the culture as I can find as a way to honour the tale.  But there are stories which I have changed.  My story of the Shape-Shifting Girl is a retelling of a Scandinavian of the Boy Who Could Turn Himself into an Ant, Falcon and Lion (also The Ashlad and the Beasts).  I loved the original story but was frustrated by the number of stories I was reading in the collection where the boy got to marry the princess. She, of course, had no choice, as it happened back in Those Days, but I thought I could make it so that no one had to get married. And also the gift of shape-shifting was given for some very small reason.  I believed that a gift such as that should be won by growth or a somewhat large challenge - more like Real Life. The lad became a lass and the beasts asking the lad to decide for them which part of the horse carcass they should eat became a battle and rescue mission.  These are probably the largest changes I have made to a story, but I have made others.  Some changes to make the story more accessible to a modern audience, some to make a story richer, adding to it where I have found additional cultural information giving depth.  Are either of these things doing a disservice to the stories? The Shape-Shifting Girl is a popular story of mine which is popular with boys and girls of all ages - from kids to adults - running at usually 20 minutes in the telling. It addresses things like consequences, strength of character, and shows that girls can be just as adventurous, smart and courageous as boys.

Many people tell their own versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  When I was growing up Goldilocks was always depicted as a pleasant looking girl, which sort of gave her permission to do the things she did.  A bit Jack and the Beanstalk-ish. My version of Goldilocks came out of talking with my daughter about Goldilocks (what a terrible person she was - a pain, a liar and thief, taking no responsibility for her actions) and playing around with the story and characters.  I added things that were part of my life, or at least my parent philosophy, it one could call it that ("what kind of a parent would I be if I gave you chocolate for breakfast?"), and experiences as a parent.  These things are identifiable to the older care-providers and draw them to the story as much as it draws the children. The Old Tales surely did this when they were first told - were empathic to the listeners, linked to their own existence, and experiences. Should storytellers, oral and/or authors, make changes like these?  And if we do, I wonder which stories will still be told, or read in 50 to 100 years from now.