Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling

 

  Celebrating Our Culture  

 
Uncle Remus, Small Towns and Dad
An Interview with David Clark

by Joyce Dixon

 
 

David Clark is a storyteller for adults.  He hits with the home-spun wisdom reminiscent of Will Rogers and touches the soul through his songs a la Burl Ives.  A master of dialects, David Clark adds realism to his rural characters.

His weekly newspaper column "Dirt Roads" appears in 28 papers in ten states.  He is a regular contributor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Clark's essays have appeared in nationally recognized newspapers and magazines, including Southern Living and The Christian Science Monitor.  His spoken-word essays have been broadcast on radio shows such as National Public Radio's "All  Things Considered."  His stories appear on Georgia Public Radio's "Georgia Gazette" and Mount Washington Observatory's "Weather Notebook."  

Down the "Dirt Roads" of David Clark's America one finds a celebration of God's nature, small town values and the strength of family. 

Radio Commentator Paul Harvey took note of David Clark in his August 1, 2002 broadcast: "Today's quote is from David Clark: 'The most effective part of prayer is when we finally shut up and listen.'"  Or to hear Paul Harvey say it himself, click here.

 

A strong "sense of place" comes through in your storytelling.  As a farmer is linked to the soil and changing seasons, your stories show a stewardship to the land.  What draws you to these subjects? 

Dirt is a great metaphor and symbol. We see it all the time, yet for the most part, we don't pay attention. Bingo -- metaphor and symbol. How many things does this describe? 

I love dirt. I always have. 

The other thing is that we will end up as dirt. So if we examine the workings and mysteries of the soil then we are looking at ourselves. 

And people don't want to think they are nothing but dirt. We are proud, you know, as a creature. We buy lead-lined caskets so worms won't eat our bodies -- and I want to know: why? Is someone planning on digging up a bunch of people a few years from now and standing them up in the corner at a wedding or something? 

Anyone who has watched any sort of animal rot -- and anyone who has lived in the country has seen this -- can testify that all things end up as dirt, except maybe plastic cups and other toxic junk that man has learned how to make. 

I have handled the ashes of both my parents and one of my uncles. All ashes look the same, and there is no significant difference between a handful of ashes and a handful of very dry dirt. 

So if we know that dirt acts a certain way, then we can learn about ourselves. 

One must bear in mind that the same root that forms humus also forms humiliation and humble. I suspect it also forms humor as well. 

One of the incredible things to me is to see the constant miracles occurring in the dirt. Anyone who grows even the smallest garden will witness these things. What this means to me is that if we are nothing but dirt, look what can happen within us. We can nourish. We can hold fast during hard winds. We can soak up the water (which of course is the metaphor for the spirit). 

I think another reason I am drawn to dirt is because when I was a little boy I had the most fun playing in the dirt and mud. I was happy doing that no matter how else I felt otherwise. That is still true. Gardening is nothing but playing in the dirt. 

Cochran, your adopted home and the setting of many of your tales, is a small Georgia town that seems to be the gateway to Heaven.  What makes small towns unique and timeless? 

Small towns are unique because they are not big towns. This sounds silly, but anyone who travels will begin to notice how all big town exits look alike. There are the various chain restaurants and stores. They have about as much soul as a smashed-flat tin can. They're all the same, and if you aren't careful you're not sure where you are when you pull into a big town because there's nothing about the surroundings to let you know you're somewhere different than any other place. 

Each small town is different in many ways. 

Small towns have their flaws, of course. But those flaws are relative. I have heard some people say: "well, there's nowhere to shop in a small town." In the smallest of towns that is true. But in a town the size of Cochran (pop. 3,000), one can find anything one needs. Can you find every conceivable choice of every conceivable item? No, you can't. The real question is does one need every choice of every item? 

It is a relatively recent thing for Americans to think they need everything under the sun at their disposal all the time. What do we say about children who think they need everything they want all the time? It says a lot about our culture that we demand this sort of thing. 

 

David Clark at The Enrichment Center in Sanford, NC.
(Photo by David Hughey)

Small towns are almost always places where one can eat good for not much money, enjoy good conversation almost anywhere one stops, and where one can drive slow without getting run over. 

This sort of thing doesn't appeal to a lot of large-city people because they think it's their right to eat junk and not know any different, and they ain't got time to talk or drive slow. 

And that's what big cities are for -- for people who want to eat junk and rush their lives away.

One can live a rich life anywhere.

But it is a whole lot easier to do this in a small town.

Something to consider is that the gateway to heaven is wherever we choose for it to be. One can be happy wherever one is, or one can be unhappy wherever one is.

The task, I think, is to know what one wants and doesn't want.

I know that I don't want to sit in traffic all the time and I don't want to drive like a bat out of hell all the time and I don't want to pay too much money for food that isn't fit to eat. I don't want to live in a place where crime is something one must accept.

I want to live in a place where people know their neighbors. I want to live in a place where the people working in stores know who their customers are -- and I don't mean because of a database but because they know them in their heart.

One of the features of small towns that I really like is the way 4-way stops are handled. Our custom is to let the other guy go first even if we get there ahead of him. Sometimes this is funny. Four cars pull up to the stop sign at about the same time, and no one will go because everyone is waving the other person ahead.

We can always tell an outsider, because they always take the first chance they get to go, even if it isn't their turn. And people shake their heads and say: "Well, that's ok. Let them get on out of here."

Even large cities have certain small town aspects. If you go to New York City, there's a little diner on the corner of 28th St. and Madison Avenue called The Big Apple Coffee Shop. The lady there is named Nancy, and she has a regular crowd that comes in every morning.

She creates this small town feeling of knowing people and knowing how they feel and caring whether or not they are doing ok. This is an island of small town life even though it's in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. All it takes is time.

And people will object to what I say about small towns and big cities. They always say: "Well, you just don't realize there are mean people in small towns, too." Sure, I realize it. We all know who they are. That's the difference: we know who they are.

I was really impressed with my little town of Cochran when my Daddy died. Most people here don't actually know me, and they have no reason at all to care one way or another about my Dad or me or my family. But when Daddy died, people knew about it, and I can't tell you how many people approached me on the street to tell me they were sorry. And I don't mean it was just the little old ladies doing this. It was old men, who stopped to put their hand on my shoulder. It was working men my age who stopped to shake my hand. An electrician I know -- a strong, tough man -- put his arms around me right in the middle of the street when he heard about it and kissed me on the cheek. He had met my Dad, but still -- how often does that happen in a large city? The unchangeable burdens of living are shared by the community, and it makes a difference in carrying those burdens when they hit one personally.

The simple answer to your question is that the things which are unique and timeless are what have always been. The small towns thankfully just haven't caught up with the modern way of throwing out unique and timeless for quick and cheap and easy to throw away. That which is unique and timeless lasts a long time, but these things can be destroyed very quickly. And these things are destroyed in places every day because somebody is more interested in making money than making a life.

And besides all this, can you imagine the gates to Heaven looking like the typical Interstate exit?

Many of the stories from "The Peanut Farmer Stories" and "Myth America" are based on your parents and were written during a time when you were dealing with their illness and death.  How did the tone of your storytelling change after these experiences?  How is your storytelling a celebration of your heritage and the love of your parents?

I had already written several stories about my Dad before he died. We were always very close, and I grew more and more appreciative of him as he got older.

And then, suddenly, Mama forgot my name.

The way we view our lives is like a great big camera lens. We see things a certain way. Then an invisible hand reaches up and grabs an invisible handle and gives the lens a yank. Things we could not see are suddenly very plain. Things we paid close attention to are suddenly nowhere to be seen.

And we know, in our head, that at some point our parents will die. But the first stage of grief is denial, and this grieving begins long before we are aware of it. That's because denial makes us blind to things, including our own blindness.

And maybe it's also because we can't know these feelings until we know them.

But then suddenly, the focus changed for me and everyone else in my family. I try to understand things by writing about them, and I wrote a lot during these days. Everything was turned upside down in literally an instant. Daddy's faith was shaken deeply. Suddenly the man I had looked up to 39 years was turning to me for guidance. And think about this: turning to me? Me?

And I'm thinking: wait just a minute, God. I ain't ready for this. I don't know what to do. What can I do?

Then, a few months later, Daddy and I had a long conversation at my house one morning. We talked about a garden we were going to put in the next week. He looked great. And then he went home and died.

So instead of being a man who observes and writes little stories about interesting events I witness, I was suddenly at the wheel of a tiny ship in the middle of a big storm on the ocean -- and the wheel had come off in my hands.

It is true that the stories I suddenly saw and was living through were sad. But Daddy's death and Mama's illness was much more than sad. These times were fire. And this fire is the fire that makes us know we are alive.

Some folks really, really want me to be a humorist, and I can write some funny stuff sometimes.

But now, every day, I think about what I can contribute to the world with my life. If I can do that with a funny story, well, that's fine and good.

What I try to do is get people to stop dead in their tracks and look at the world they live in and the life they live and the people they love -- and really see what is there.

Americans tend to view life by what it's not. We tend to complain about the 2% imperfection rather than being grateful for the 98% perfection.

The stories I tell are things I learned from my parents and people of their generation. Sometimes a story is something I have seen as a result of paying attention to the viewpoint of my parents' generation.

Their generation went through pure hell during their growing up years. My Dad told me his family never discussed feelings when he was growing up. He said this in such a way that I knew he had something else to say along with that, and it took him a few minutes before he could look up again and say it. But when he looked up, he said: "Nobody cared about our feelings back then. What they cared about was whether or not we would have anything to eat for supper that night."

Daddy grew up during the Dust Bowl in Western Kansas. They were poor as could be. And everyone back then went through the same sort of trials. About the time the hard trials were over, there came the biggest war of all time. And all these men who became our fathers celebrated their 19th birthdays in muddy foxholes with bullets whizzing overhead, and these bullets were shot by men who fully intended to kill every American they could hit. Our Moms were simply young women who were building airplanes and ships and working long hours trying to help in their own way to bring home some young man they loved.

Now all this sounds so sweet, doesn't it?

It was hell.

But these people were really living. I'm not saying we should go back there -- what I'm saying is that these people who became our parents were glad to be alive from one day to the next, and just glad to have all their arms and legs, and to be able to see American soil again after watching thousands and thousands of their own kind get blown to pieces right in front of their eyes.

I'm not much on movies, but a few old-timers have told me that the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan" -- where they were landing on Normandy Beach -- is about as close to the real thing as you can get without going there.

Every single person who didn't serve in World War II should be required to watch that movie.

But people say: "Ooooh, it made me feel sick to my stomach. I didn't want to see that."

And I think: "Oh, you poor thing. Your Daddy was there and he was only 19 years old. Imagine how he felt."

The point I'm trying to make is that we can't stand to even watch 20 minutes of a movie about what was real life to our parents. And you know, that 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" was tough -- it really was. But read in the books sometime about how long it took them to land on Normandy Beach. It took hours and hours and hours, and the bullets never let up. And an awful lot of those bullets found their mark.

And it is completely missing the point to say: "Well, it's a shame war has to happen and this was so horrible."

The point is that enough of those men -- who had been young boys just the day before -- made it on to that beach alive. If you had waded through bullets and dead bodies and body parts and blood to get there, do you think you would have just sat down and taken a nap?

Hell no, you wouldn't have. You would have kept going until those bullets quit firing in your face, because you had made it over the guts of your brothers and friends and people you didn't know who died so you could climb over their bodies and shoot somebody who had shot them.

And yes, I think war is horrible. But on that day, in those days, war was what was required. And it wasn't any of this computer-game war that happens now. It was a matter of one man and a batch of bullets against a whole army just like him.

It was a truth and a courage our generation has never even contemplated firsthand for an instant, except for those who went to Vietnam.

My generation -- and I'm 43 -- often doesn't want to hear about all that. Well, that's fine. But what I can say about myself and others of my generation is that we are soft. We have known nothing but an easy life no matter how hard it's been. Our parents set out to give us a better life and they did it. Very few of my generation has ever gone hungry or gone barefoot in wintertime or slept in houses with spaces between the wall-boards.

Now, I say all this to say: most of my Mama and Daddy's generation is gone. And then we will be the old folks. And it is our job to pass on what we know to our children.

And what do we know?

What do we really know?

What would any one of us be willing to die for?

What would any one of us be willing to fight our way across the state of Georgia for?

You can bet it wouldn't be season tickets to a ball game or a One-Day sale.

We would only do it for freedom, for our kids to have the freedom just to live. And that boils down to being willing to die for love. And as a generation, we really don't have the slightest idea of what that means.

We know all kinds of things from books, but very few of my generation knows what they are made of and what they really believe in. Very few of my generation has ever stood up for anything because they haven't had to stand up for anything. The closest most of us have come to war and the truth one must live in those circumstances are soap opera arguments we've had with friends or lovers.

I have never been in combat, but I have the strongest feeling that hearing men screaming and bullets whizzing causes one to discover a totally different kind of truth than one discovers in divorce court or in a checkout line.

My intention is that my stories will cause listeners to stop and think about what they are hearing. Each of us carry a slice of perspective inside. If someone hears my perspective, then they might look at their own.

It is this perspective that we must pass on.

After watching Mama die slow, and talking with her throughout that time, one thing I learned is that no one talks about cars and money and junk like that when one only has a few paragraphs left.

Love is really, truly, all there is.

Did you live? Did you love?

Those are the last questions we will hear.

My stories involving my parents are a celebration of two people who could answer yes to both those questions.

You credit Mrs. Middlebrooks, a librarian and neighbor, with introducing you to Uncle Remus.  How important was this experience in making you a storyteller?  How important is it to share oral history?

Mrs. Middlebrooks told me many stories. I learned to love stories before I knew my own name. She told me stories and I loved them and I loved her. Is there a connection between that and me becoming a storyteller? Well, I suspect I would have become a storyteller no matter what, simply because it seems to me that any sort of life in the South requires the ability to tell a story. But the love of stories and the learning and listening to stories is directly related to this woman's wisdom in sharing her own love of stories with that little boy from across the road.

Oral history is important because there is an element of trust involved. When there is trust between two people, they both leave that situation knowing more about how to trust. If we could all trust ourselves and each other more fully, then the world would be a better place.

Oral history is also important just because it's important. It needs no justification. Ten minutes of oral history -- meaning stories -- from an old person is worth 10 years of crap on television.

Television has been the death of much of what is best in our culture. We have sacrificed our culture's soul to a box which sells us junk we don't need.

Like Mark Twain, the works of Joel Chandler Harris have gone through periods of being in and out of vogue - depending on what is politically correct.  What is the value of African American trickster folk stories to modern listeners?

Isn't it interesting how society will decide that things of the past are suddenly worthless?

It strikes me that a lot of this shifting opinion has at least two facets. One is that the shift is usually brought about by academic types. The other is that the common run of people think the academic-types are full of baloney.

In my original answer to you, I wrote several paragraphs about the Politically Correct Movement, but I have struck those paragraphs since you didn't ask me what I thought about it.

And if I say too much about it, I am stuck to the same tar-baby they are -- because I am now judging The Political-Correct Police.

Somehow we all need to quit judging others on superficial qualities and look to the heart of the people we meet. The same holds true for stories.

Regarding the stories, it is at least silly and most likely plain wrong to judge the past through the lens of the present. The past is gone, and we can't change it. We can't erase it, so why not learn from it?

Mark Twain has never fallen out of favor with the common person. Neither has Joel Chandler Harris. The only people who have decided Twain and Harris were unfit for human consumption were pointyheaded nincompoops who've never lived more than about few weeks of their adult life outside a library. In other words -- these folks are making pronouncements about the way life should be when in fact they are not living the life of what most folks call the real world.

Twain and Harris's work speaks to the life of real people living real lives. Their stories are enjoyed by people who work hard and have calluses and who sweat and who know how life really works. These are the common people. They don't view life through the amusement-park-mirror that shows a skinny person as fat and a fat person as skinny.

The Uncle Remus stories are very old stories. They have been told under various names in many cultures through the centuries. They are still being told in West Africa as the jackal and hare stories. Does someone want to say that the people in Western Africa are making fun of blacks or that they are racist? That's a bunch of malarkey.

The whole point of a trickster story is to get the listener to see things from a different point of view. It is my opinion that if someone thinks the Uncle Remus stories are anything besides wisdom stories, then the problem lies within that person, not the Uncle Remus story. There is no way anyone can hear and understand "The Story of the Great Deluge" and hear it as anything besides a wisdom story. But therein lies the problem -- understanding.

Understanding a fable is the burden of the listener.

I have found that almost all of the people who have voiced objection to me telling Uncle Remus stories have never actually heard the stories. All they've heard is that someone else thinks the stories are "bad." That sounds familiar, doesn't it? We are told that so-and-so is bad, and so we don't like that person. We hear that a particular group of people is bad, so we don't like those people.

This is a sad commentary on our culture -- we don't think for ourselves.

And this is part of the point of the Uncle Remus stories. One must hear the story for oneself and choose to see the meaning. It's like choosing to take the time to listen to an old man's wandering story. One always gains from hearing the old man's story, but many people are too busy and think the old man is just a poor dumb old man. Well, people don't get old by being dumb.

If a person wants to hear Uncle Remus's voice as making fun of black people, then it is a pretty sure bet that person has never sat with any old folks to begin with, and it's a pretty sure bet that person hasn't listened to any Uncle Remus stories well enough to know what the stories are saying.

One of the values of the Uncle Remus stories to modern listeners is simply because the stories are old. They have been around a long, long time. They were originally told by men and women who had no reason to try and impress anyone. And these stories are fun, besides all that. They bring people together.

I remember a person telling me once that Uncle Remus stories were racist and harmful to society and how they represented this and that and so forth. In the background this person's child was playing a Nintendo game whose soundtrack was explosions. It is comical to think about it. But this person couldn't help it, of course. Something about too many college degrees tends to make some people idiots.

Another northern friend of mine spent a great deal of time trying to enlighten me on how Huck Finn is really a story about the homosexual love affair between Huck and Nigger Jim. Of course, this friend's intentions were good, but she was quoting from some other Northern person who may or may not have ever seen the Mississippi River and who may or may not have ever spent any time with a black man. In any event, both of these folks were brilliant and highly educated and all that, and both of them missed the story completely.

Is that Twain's fault? Is that Harris's fault?

The trickster story's strength lies in how a child and a common person can understand it and the highly educated person doesn't get it and thereby makes a fool out of himself.

"The Grill" captures the small town diner where farmers gather pre-dawn for breakfast and coffee.  How is it like a town meeting and a great source for capturing the pulse of the community?

You are absolutely correct when you say places like The Grill are like a town meeting. An atmosphere in any local diner such as the one I describe in "The Grill" is one where men and women who've known each other for years gather in complete trust and respect. They might not like each other that morning, but they are still there together. There is a great amount of unspoken love of the purest kind in this setting, though you'd probably have a hard time getting any group of people in this setting to always admit it.

I have been in The Grill on numerous occasions when something will be brought up, sort of as a "trial balloon," so to speak -- and men will comment on it. More than once I've seen this happen when the county commissioner or some other local figure will come in. Bear in mind that this person is a member of this group, too, but he has chosen to place himself in a position where he is required by his position to listen to others. One of the quickest ways for a man in this position to find out what is going on in the mind of a community is to walk in The Grill after a particular new program or idea is presented. One man will say: "Hey, don't you think that this new idea is going to be such-and-such?" And another man will say: "Or won't it affect the little man in such-and-such a way?" Someone else in the back will say: "I think it's a bunch of hooey, myself." And sometimes you will hear most of the men agree with the last comment. Other times you will hear men argue with it. The whole point is to figure out if the idea is valid or not, and debating the hooey comment is the crux of the matter.

Something that happens in a Grill or similar places is that almost all the levels of society are represented. There will be a farmer sitting next to the druggist who's sitting next to a dentist who's sitting next to a mechanic who's sitting next to a bricklayer.

You'll also have old men who've seen it all sitting next to young men who don't know enough to have a voice but who have one anyway.

I can remember one morning when someone started talking about how our town needed a Wal-Mart. We are still one of those few towns where the local businesses are owned and operated by people who live here. And some of these business owners will be in The Grill on any given morning.

So someone brings up how we need a Wal-Mart. And I was minding my own business, eating my grits.

And one of the men said: "Hey, Clark, what do you think? Don't you think we need a Wal-Mart here?"

Of course the place got very quiet. And it usually does when a question like this is posed, but since I was the one being questioned it seemed to me that it got quieter than usual.

And I said: "Well, which one of your neighbors do you want to see go out of business?"

There was a little shifting around in seats, and a few coughs, and the fellow who asked the question got up and paid his bill and left. And the general run of conversation began again. The town meeting was over, sort of, except that after awhile a couple of local business owners caught me as I was going outside, or on the street the next day and said: "I sure do appreciate what you said about the Wal-Mart thing yesterday morning."

And the fact is very simple: all of us have seen little towns like ours completely dry up because of a Wal-Mart coming to town. We all know it will happen.

Everyone was thinking the same thing that I said. I just happened to say it. And it may be that I was the only one who could say it because I was the outsider, and because I'm not running a business which would be affected by a Wal-Mart. And I'm fairly certain that the man who asked that question -- though I can't remember who it was -- probably worked at the nearby Air Force Base. Because his job wouldn't be affected by a Wal-Mart. The point is that no one who owns a business in our town would have asked that question. And no one would ask them how they felt, because everyone knows how any of those local businessmen already feel about it.

This same town-meeting feeling happens in a lot of places. There's a route that the pulse of a community travels. The Grill is one of the main stops. The Grill and places like it are also great places to learn that men are probably the greatest gossips on the planet. It's funny that way.

And there's a pulse to the women's part of the community, and it has its own route. And I know that the men give reports on what the women are saying, so I would assume that the women give reports on what the men are saying. And in this way the town arrives at its idea of itself.

I wish we could have more real sure-enough town meetings. But I'm afraid those days are gone because of the idiot box and other bad influences on our culture like bad movies and the fact that people have just gotten lazy.

This is why so many of our small communities get swallowed up and everyone wonders what happened. The ideas were never actually presented so no one ever said they would object to their nice old houses getting torn down or their quaint peaceful life being ruined by a bunch of strip malls or any of the other ways people who only want to make money rape and pillage the character of a community.

Who were the storytellers that inspired you?  How does the audience effect your selection (does your program change by the mood of the audience)?

The storytellers who originally inspired me were preachers.

Once I got out into the world, it became the older men or women I worked with.

Now, it's people everywhere I go.

In a live performance, my program selection is determined by the feeling I get from the audience. I go into a 90 minute performance with about four hours worth of stories and about four hours worth of music. I have a general idea of what I am going to do, because there are certain things I want to do in every show. What I want to do is sometimes a particular list of selections, or it might be a particular set of meanings, or it might be a particular set of emotions. I might want to raise a particular set of questions.

It is not necessarily that the evening is supposed to make a particular point, but rather we experience a journey together through a range of feelings and emotions.

Sometimes the selections are affected by seasons -- at Christmas, for example, I will do selections I won't do any other time of year. But even then, the pace and the timing and the order of selections is affected by the feeling of an audience.

Occasionally, when I only have a limited amount of time, I will prepare a set list. I have done this stuff enough to know how that list is going to work. But in the shows which I believe are most memorable to both me and my audience, I have the time to listen and feel between selections. In that little bit of time between selections, I can feel the push and pull of the audience's energy. This might sound a little nuts, but it is a very real thing to me. And I suspect any performer feels this.

I know that certain essays will do certain things to an audience. I know that certain essays combined with one song will do one thing to an audience and when combined with another song will do another thing.

There is a flow of energy between the audience and myself -- or maybe it is between us and the cosmos, I'm not sure -- but there is a flow and a tension and relief and a rising and a falling.

The real artistry of performance, or at least what appeals to me, is this ebbing and flowing that occurs in the room, and working with that.

What was the motivational force that made you leave the city and become a professional storyteller?  What has been positive about the experience?

Ah, the motivational force that made me leave the city. It was love.

The love thing that made me move from the city didn't work out. But the love thing that I found as I listened to the people in my county and surrounding area stuck. I also love being able to see the stars shine at night. And I love being able to drive 35 miles an hour all the way to town if I feel like it without some fool running me off the road.

And one must understand that I've been listening to people tell stories all my life. I've been loving stories all my life.

You have one story that speaks to all writers - "Disclaimer".  What advice do you give to aspiring storytellers?

Listen.

The best storytellers in the world are just people standing around shooting the breeze. I don't know if this happens in large cities like Atlanta -- people just don't stand around and shoot the breeze at Home Depot.

You have to go to places where real people are living real lives. This means small towns.

All you have to do is get in a car and drive somewhere and take the back roads. Stop somewhere -- a diner, a gas station, an auto parts store -- anywhere. Go in, take your hat off when you go inside, say yes, ma'am and yes, sir, order something, and sit down and shut up.

If there's only a couple of people in there, and they ain't talking, ask them how long the place has been there, or how long they've lived there, or what's the biggest cow they remember. Just get them talking and then shut up, but keep talking enough to keep them talking. But only talk as a way to get them to tell more stories.

It's sort of like keeping an old squeaking wheel turning real slow so it will squeak. It takes a little effort to get it turning and squeaking, but once it's turning, you only have to put in the right amount of effort at the right time. Too much will make it spin too fast and it won't squeak anymore. The wrong kind of effort will make it stop.

And it's not the stories themselves that are so important, though if you're lucky and patient and smart about it you'll hear the dangedest stories you can imagine.

What's really important is the way they tell their stories. Listen to the sound and the cadence and the pauses. Watch the gestures and the little things like spitting tobacco (and women do this, too, just for the record). Soak it in (not the tobacco juice, the stories). Listen to the truth of the stories they tell -- how the stories are true to the person telling it, even if the story itself is a lie.

Impress little aspects into your mind, like you're making an impression of a key in clay so you can copy it later. Then leave that place and imitate it.

Then go somewhere else and do it again.

After awhile you can tell stories you've heard others tell, though you better find a way to practice them somewhere first. But if you can tell a halfway decent story in a place then you will be highly rewarded. Because everyone will try to top your story.

It's just like tennis. Someone serves. Someone returns it. The whole point of stories is to out-tell another person. But it's not like the typical American competition, because everyone wins.

Soon you will go into places where you will know it's a place where you are welcome to tell a story. Just make it good. Stick with the truth -- talk about the first time you rode a bike -- something you know in your bones. You won't have to blow it but a couple of times before you realize where your mistakes are. You will learn how to tell your truth.

And if you happen to blow telling a story in front of a bunch of strangers, who are sitting there staring at you like you've got three ears or something, just say "well, I reckon that story fell about as flat as a flitter, didn't it?"

And somebody will say, "yep, it sure as hell did."

But they will love you and respect you for trying it, and you will be rewarded with great stories you can learn from. Whatever you do, don't run away in shame right then, no matter how stupid you feel. Because failing in front of a crowd is how you learn how to tell stories, and that's how you get accepted in a crowd of storytellers.

Most of the really good storytellers I have met were scared to tell a story on command in front of people. They were almost always highly accomplished at something -- bricklaying, fixing hair, welding, changing tires. But their real glory in life was telling a story -- holding a crowd, making them laugh, making them wish they had told the story they had just heard. When these type of men and women die, no one talks about how well they changed tires or fixed hair. They talk about how well they told stories. And their stories go down in the great Storytelling Hall of Fame that every community has.

One thing to really pay attention to is how the story's point is sometimes completely irrelevant. It's just the vehicle that allows the teller to explore different devices. Watch these devices and learn them. Because they are valuable, when you blow a story in front of an audience.

Another thing to know about storytelling is something a preacher told me. He had heard it from his preaching professor at the seminary. This professor was black, and from what this preacher told me he was as good a preacher as there was. The first day of class, the professor told the class: "Now, listen. Any fool can make folks laugh. It takes a man to make folks cry."

What is your next storytelling production (book or CD)?

I am presently working on a couple of books and rehearsing for a CD. I have a bunch of material and am always writing more, so it's a fun problem to figure out what to do next. I plan to release another book very soon, and I also plan to release a CD of songs and stories sometime in the fall.

The next book I will release will be stories about what we can learn from trees and leaves and the rest of nature.

I've also got a couple of CD's worth of material recorded at performances that I will release.

I really want to do a CD of instrumental Christmas music just because I love that music so much.


Selected Works by David Clark

 

The Peanut Farmer Stories
Out of the Sky, 2002
ISBN:  0-9718868-0-6
 
The complete essays from Peanut Farmer Magazine
for the years 1998 - 2001.

 Cover photo by Frank Hamrick.

           Southern Scribe Review

 

Tales from Uncle Remus, Volume 1
Out of the Sky Recordings, 2001

Twelve of the favorite Uncle Remus stories told in the original dialect.  Originally published by Joel Chandler Harris in 1880. Recorded live at Golden Bough Vintage Books in Macon, Georgia.

Cover art by Paul Breeden.

 

Myth America
Out of the Sky Recordings, 2000

Songs and stories about our life and other things that are sacred.

Enclosed CD book features photographs by Frank Hamrick.

Cover art by Paul Breeden.

 

Kindly Curious
Out of the Sky Recordings, 1997

Sixteen stories of rural life, originally broadcast on Georgia Public Radio.

 

            Southern Scribe Review of the above recordings      

 

"The Crow Stands for Law" by David Clark is featured in "Porch Tales" (August, 2002)

To receive Clark's weekly column free via email, send a message to:
subscribe@outofthesky.com  (with - Subscribe - as the subject)

Selected audio of David Clark's stories can be found at:
http://www.mp3.com/dclark

To learn more about David Clark or to order book and recordings go to:

Out of the Sky Recordings
http://www.outofthesky.com

Contact David Clark at: dclark@outofthesky.com


The Paul Harvey soundbite is for non-commercial purposes only and is the property of ABC Broadcasting.
  • Photographs of David Clark taken by Frank Hamrick & copyright 2001-2 Frank Hamrick.
  •   2002, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved