Under Storytelling's Spell

Storytellers from around the world will gather at Colonial Williamsburg to participate in the Third Annual Storytelling Festival, including Williamsburg's own Art Johnson. September 10, 2007


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes," where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Beginning this Friday, Here with me is Art Johnson, and he is one of those storytellers.

Lloyd: Is that a popular festival?

Art: It is. It is a popular festival among individuals who know about storytelling and understand the great entertainment it is.

Lloyd: I was told, years ago, that the reason storytelling is so popular in the South was that there was such poverty in the South after the Civil War, storytelling was about the only entertainment anybody could afford. Does that sound reasonable?

Art: That's a reasonable idea. I think everybody tells stories, from the North to the South, from the West to the East. What is their reason for telling the stories? It varies. In the South, when there was a lot of poverty, folks found different ways to entertain themselves: music, reading, telling stories of the past.

Lloyd: I've always just liked the sound of the human voice. I like people because they express themselves, and they get into it. Storytelling is not a dry or a dull subject, I've always found. People get really wrapped up in it.

Art: Listening to a good storyteller, or listening to somebody you are interested in hearing what they're telling you about, you get wrapped up in their voice. Their voice will lead you to a place that you forget about where you are and what you're doing; you're in their world. That's the difference between a good storyteller and somebody just talking to you in front of an audience.

Lloyd: How did you get into it?

Art: One of the first people that I ever heard tell stories was Rex Ellis, and a gentleman by the name of Nyland Kritcher. They just engulfed me in their storytelling. I've always been somebody who likes to do speeches and audio interpretation. Anything that dealt with talking, I liked doing that sort of thing. When I heard storytelling, I said, "This is where I want to be." 

Lloyd: Tell me a story.

Art: Once, there were two slave boys that decided their master wasn't feeding them enough. You know, they were of that age of 15 to 16 tobacco seasons where they never really got full. They seemed like they could eat and eat. So they decided to go to their master's barn and steal a sack of their master's taters. They figured, "Boy, when we get hungry, all we got to do is go get us a tater, fry that tater up, and don't nothing taste better when you're hungry than some fried taters."

Well, they went to the barn that night, got the sack of taters out. They was gonna divide them when the one slave boy said, "Uh-uh, we can't divide these taters here, somebody might hear us and we'll get our backs whipped raw. Taters just don't taste good, fried or otherwise, when your back is whipped raw." The other slave boy said, "Where are we going to go? Where are we gonna go where don't nobody go, and where nobody will hear us?" Right then and there, that slave boy said, "I know where we'll go. We'll go to Bruton Parish graveyard. Don't nobody go to a graveyard at night."

Now, for those of you that don't know about the graveyard, Bruton Parish's graveyard, it's got one gate with a bunch of rails that go up and down. Connected to those rails is a brick wall that goes all the way around them dead bodies. They say no matter where you stand next to that brick wall, it's always just tall enough that you can't see over it, but just low enough where you can hear the bodies turning at midnight.

Well, they got right there to that gate, and they was about to open that gate when the one slave boy said, "Uh-uh, we can't open the gate to a graveyard at night. Something might get out that we can't get back in." So they jumped over the gate. When they jumped over the gate, two of the taters fell out the bag, right there in front of the gate. The one slave boy who was carrying the bag, he said, "Don't worry about it. I know where those two taters are. They're right there in front of the gate. Ain't nobody here but us. On the way out, I'll pick them up."

They got themselves situated right there in the middle of the graveyard, behind one of them great big tombstones. And the slave boy said, "Look. I'm going to stand here. I'm going to sit the sack of taters right next to me, and you stand on the other side of the sack of taters. I'm going to reach my hand, I'm going to pull out a tater so you can see me, and I'm going to say, 'You take that one, I'll take this one. You take that one, and I'll take this one. You take that one, and I'll take this one.'" And that's how they divided them taters on up that night.

There was only one house next to the graveyard, that's the house that George Wythe lived in. George Wythe was the only man ever dared live next to the graveyard. Folks said they didn't want to live next to no dead bodies. George said them the best kind of neighbors to have, they don't cause no trouble. Well George, he had a slave by the name of Issom. Issom was his coachman. Mr. Wythe, he was kind of different. He wanted things where he could control it. So, anytime he needed George [Issom], who was his coachman, he kept him in the basement. All he would do is stomp his foot on the floor, and he'd call George [Issom] up, instead of keeping George [Issom] with the horses. George [Issom], he liked going out at night, going to what they call "Saturday night gatherings."

For ya'll who don't know what a Saturday night gathering is, that's where all the slaves get together away from their master, and some of them bring food, some of them bring a little drink, some of them bring instruments to play. That's where, for the next couple of hours, they become what they want to be, and leave what they were. It's dancing, and drinking, and storytelling.

Issom, he liked going to them kind of gatherings, what they call "Saturday night gatherings," on a Monday night, and a Tuesday night, and a Wednesday night. Issom, he had a way of doing things. When he would come out of the basement into the backyard, he would stick his left arm on the brick wall. That would lead him to the path where he could go anywhere in the county. When he came off the path from being out so late at night, and he had a little bit of the drink in him, and he was kind of not sure where he was going, he put his right arm on the wall, and that would lead him right back to the back door, which would go into the basement.

Well, this was the same night them boys was in the graveyard. Issom was coming back, had his right hand on the wall, and he was thinking about the good times. "Woo! That was some good singing, and dancing. Mmm!" Then he thought he heard something. You know, a man's hearing gets real good when he's by himself in the dark, next to a graveyard. He said, "Nah, must just be in my mind." He put his hand back on the wall, and he said, "Mmm! And them ladies could dance, dance, dance. Woo!"

Then, this time, he was sure he heard something. He got right next to that graveyard wall. He reached up, and he put all his weight on his toes to reach his body on up so he could get his ear at least to a good place. Sho' nuff, he heard a voice coming from the very center of the graveyard in the midnight air. And that voice said, "You take this one, I'll take that one. You take this one, I'll take that one. You take that one, I'll take this one." Issom thought right then and there, he said, "Day of judgment done come! The lord and the devil in the graveyard, dividing up souls." You should have seen that boy. He ran all the way home. Got to the back door, bam! Hit the back door, went above stairs, bam! Hit the master's door, he said, "Master Wythe, Master Wythe! You've got to come and see this. The lord and the devil in the graveyard, dividing up souls. It's the day of judgment. You may want to see where you going to be."

Master Wythe, he liked doing different kinds of things. He called himself a man of science, so he did what they called experiments. So he put on his britches, and he put on his shirt, figuring well, "No need to put on this wig." The two of them headed out his own front door and went right to the one place they figured they could at least hear what was going on, since they couldn't see over the brick wall. And that was right at the gate. One of them kneeled down and got his right ear – that was Mr. Wythe – and Issom, he kneeled down and got his left ear to the gate. Sho' nuff, both of them heard that sound, going, "You take this one, I'll take that one. You take that one, I'll take this one. You take this one, I'll take that one." When Mr. Wythe heard that, when Master George Wythe heard that, he looked over at Issom and he said, "Issom. You are correct! The day of judgment is upon us. The lord and the devil are in the graveyard dividing up souls. Oh, what a day this is going to be."

You've got to understand, they were concentrating so hard on what was going on in the graveyard, that they didn't see down in the dirt between they feet, those two taters that them boys had left. So much time had passed since the first time Issom hears that voice, and he hears it with his master, the boys that were dividing the taters on up, they had practically finished. "You take this one. I'll take that one. You take this one, I'll take that one."

Well, the boy that was doing the dividing, he looked down, picked up the last two out the bag, and he stared at them for a moment. Then he said, "Look here. This is what we do. You take these two here, I'll take them two over there by the gate." You should have seen the master and Issom run. Yessir, one went above stairs, one went below stairs, and neither one of them came out for a week. To this day, Master Wythe don't miss a day in church. Mmm-hmm. Cause he realized, when the lord or the devil didn't come and get him, he had a second chance at life.

So it would be those kind of stories.

Lloyd: That's a perfect story for Williamsburg, it really is. Where'd you learn that?

Art: Well, I heard it from other folks early on, and different people tell their stories different ways. What you have to do is figure out if you like a story, or if you read a story, you like it, and how would you tell it? That would be you, not somebody else. So I've wrapped that story the way I want to do it.

Lloyd: So, when you're telling a story, it's not just any story, any way: it's your story, your way.

Art: Your way. Because you're the one that has to tell the story. Your personality should come out in that story. When you tell that story, I've always felt it should be you, not you copying somebody else doing it their way, but how would you tell that story.

Lloyd: I had never thought about it, but that makes perfectly good sense. In the first place, if you ever have to tell it another time, you know what you said the last time. It's because it's you, you said it. Do all storytellers work like that? 

Art: I think so. I think all storytellers tell their stories their way. Those who are more creative, who can create stories, they definitely tell it their way. The way they tell it, and if you listen to them, they could tell you the same story three different times, in three different ways. If you were to put them all together, you'll hear there are a whole lot more likenesses than there are differences.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Colonial Williamsburg's Third Annual Storytelling Festival is September 14 through September 16. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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