Celebrating 40 Years: From Theater to Storytelling

Forty years ago, in the midst of winter, I had no idea that a future in storytelling awaited me. I was beginning my last semester at Hampshire College. The work involved research into the history and the ideas behind the San Francisco Mime Troupe, writing up an account of my work the previous year acting and touring with Little Flags Theater, and thinking about what I wanted to do for a final performance in the spring.

One of the plays I’d performed in with Little Flags was titled the “Furies of Mother Jones,” a play about union organizing and coal mining. Thinking back to our tour through Appalachia and the folks we talked to, I decided to put together an evening of coal mining songs. I’d found a very powerful book “Voices from the Mountains,” by Guy and Candy Carawan, which included black and white photos, quotes from oral history interviews, and songs with lyrics and sheet music. What if I took slides of photos from the book, as well as slides from photos in National Geographic, got some friends together to form a back-up band (I could sing but I couldn’t play an instrument to save my life,) and then performed the songs, interspersed some of the stories the I’d heard while touring in West Virginia and Kentucky.

I got excited about the project and started to do more research. Found a small recording company from Whitesburg, Kentucky, June Appal Records. Wrote them a letter (there was no email for me in those days, and no computer; typed all my letters and term papers on a manual Royal typewriter from the 1940’s) and told them about my project. They sent me a bunch of records (at no charge) which included a double album of stories by Gurney Norman and the Roadside Theatre.

The liner notes for the album said that day the recording was made, the June Appal folks discovered that they only had enough material for three sides of an album, and they needed more material. So, they called a friend of theirs, Si Kahn, a community organizer and songwriter, and asked him if he had a story that they could use on the fourth side. “Not yet,” he said, “but I’ll have one by the time I get there.”

And he did. This was “The Last Panther in East Kentucky,” which I learned and told in my final project performance at Hampshire College, and evening of Coal Mining Songs & Stories. The performance took place in the upstairs center room on one of the modular apartment “donuts” in Greenwich House, attended by well over 100 students, faculty, and staff, as well as at least five dogs, one of which was mine.

I’ve been telling that story for almost 40 years now, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.