A Celebration of American Family Stories
In response to the Coronavirus pandemic Joe is offering to send a Story-A-Day in an email to anyone who requests it. The recorded stories will be from 2 - 6 minutes in length in Mp3 form and are selected to help bring a bit of encouragment and reflection on the power of families and communities to overcome hardship by pulling together. Plus a bit of humor to keep our spirits up. They will be posted here too.
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1 Kevin Burke / The Joke with the Pony Cart
Renowned Irish fiddler Kevin Burke grew up in London, the son of Irish parents, and he would go with the family to Ireland to visit his grandparents. Here is a memory from those days.
2 Alan Hayashi / Mother Treated for TB
This story is told by Alan Hayashi who served as the head medical officer for Placer County in California. As we think and appreciate what public health officials do to keep us safe, it might be a good thing to consider the influences that led them to take on this challenging work.
3 Maria Gillan / The Yearbook
Maira Mazziotti Gillan is an award-winning poet and the founding director of the Paterson Poetry Center in Paterson, New Jersey, the city where I did most of my growing up. Paterson was, and continues to be, a community of immigrants, a place people come to hoping to improve their lot in life. Here Maria talks about her Italian-born mother and her enthusiasm for this experiment we call America.
This story is courtesy of Michael Pritchard, an actor who has worked with troubled youth for many years. I met Michael and recorded his family stories when I was giving a talk at a juvenile justice conference where he was also a presenter.
4 Michael Pritchard / The Johnstown Flood
Music can play an important role in the life of a family. Here are two such stories. The first is told by Eric Funk. Eric is a composer, musician, and professor of music at Montana State University in Bozeman. The second story is told by Dr. Bill Durbrow from Nevada City, California. Bill often came over to our house and played wonderful Stephen Foster songs on our piano. I miss those visits.
5 Eric Funk / Opera Day and Bill Durbrow / Chopin Waltzes
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out how to meet our basic bodily needs: food—clothing, and shelter. Here Olga Andreyev Carlisle tells a story from her family that speaks to the needs of the soul—in this case, the need for beauty.
6 Olga Andreyev Carlisle / The Necklace
When I first met James Farris, he was serving as a juvenile judge in Beaumont, Texas. Here are two short stories that I culled from a longer interview in which Judge Farris talked about his family and his memories of his father.
7 James Farris / The Smartest Man I Ever Knew
8 Betty Farmer / Those Beans Worked Me Hard
It is important to tell the truth, especially for those in leadership positions. When they don’t, they risk making the situation a whole lot worse than it needs to be. I met and interviewed Betty Farmer at the West Virginia Folk Festival in Glenville, West Virginia, some years ago. She was one of the “Belles,” women over the age of seventy-five who were selected by each county in West Virginia to represent them at the festival. She had many good stories to tell and this one reminds us why it’s usually a good idea to tell the truth.
9 Les Purce / The Fortune Teller
10 Stan Miller / The Reunion
Stan Miller was the principal of the elementary school that my daughter Emily attended from 1st grade to 3rd grade. Stan had a slew of great family stories and this one is about what turned out to be a fortunate mistake.
Les Purce is an African-American who grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. When I met Les and recorded his family stories, he was serving as president of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Here he tells a story about a fortune teller who helped his grandmother Birdie prepare for what Fate had in store for her.
11 Joanna Robinson / The Fire
We often find ourselves tested by disasters both large and small and, if we’re lucky, we might learn something true about ourselves and others. This story is told by Joanna Robinson, a wise soul and our daughter's godmother.
12 Frank Orlando - Mother Was a Hairdresser
During the recent pandemic, many women could not go to their hairdressers. As this story told by Frank Orlando reminds us, a good hairdresser does more than wash, cut, and style hair.
13 James Houston / Some Thoughts on the Importance of Family Stories
Maybe you have considered writing down your family stories But then think that nobody will publish your stories, so why bother. As a writer myself, I find the act of writing deeply satisfying whether I believe that what I am writing will get published or not. It’s a journey, the writing, a great way to develop the reflective powers of my brain and mind. James Houston was a writer who died in 2009. He was also my friend. His fiction and non-fiction books chronicled the history of the West and the Pacific Rim. When I was going around recording people telling their family stories I asked him to share his thoughts on the subject of family stories and why we sometimes feel compelled to tell them. So take his advice and start writing.
14 Billy Cornette / A Civil War Story
Here's what you might do if they come for your stash of toilet paper. Billie Cornette is an old-time musician who is a member of the Reed Island Rounders. I recorded him telling family stories while attending the Appalachian String Band Festival that is held in early August each year at a state park in Clifftop, West Virginia.
15 Izzy Martin / Get Me to the Chuch on Time
16 Skip Houser and Kevin Arnold / Bits of Folly
Here are two stories involving practical jokes. The first is told by Skip Houser and the second is told by Kevin Arnold. When I recorded Kevin’s stories in the early 1990s, he was living in Palo Alto, California.
Here Izzy Martin tells the story of her parents' rather remarkable courtship and marriage during the troubled days of WWII. Izzy was serving as one of the county commissioners of Nevada County, California, when she agreed to record this story for me.
17 Thomas Moore / Tragedy on the Lake
This story is told by a former monk named Thomas Moore who is a noted psychotherapist and writer of popular spiritual books such as Care of the Soul and The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. I asked Mr. Moore to share his family stories with me when he came to give a talk in Seattle some years ago.
18 John Olmstead / Lost Lakes
John Olmstead is a naturalist, educator, and descendent of the Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect who designed many urban parks in the United States including Central Park in New York City. Here he tells a story about his father and his love of fishing.
19 Ellen Duffy and Beverly McHugh / For the Love of Books
This pair of stories are told by women who love books. The first is told by Ellen Duffy who is a librarian with the Timberland Library System in Washington state. The second is told by my mother. I was just beginning work on the American Family Stories project and for practice with a digital recorder I decided to record my mother who was staying at our home while recovering from an illness. I thought I knew most of her stories but found I was greatly mistaken. She told one story after another about her parents and her own life that I had never heard before. This was one of them. I have the bookcase today in my home in Boston Harbor near Olympia, WA.
20 Richard Bausch - A Joke on a Car Salesman
The citizens of the United States have never felt the need for straight talk and bold action from our political leaders as keenly as we do now. This story is told by a son about his father. The teller, Richard Bausch, is a writer who I interviewed when we were both presenters at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2001.
21 John Eliason / The Powered Toboggan and Music Machines
Our family is blessed to own a small lake cottage in the northern part of Wisconsin and the local building supply company is owned by John Eliason, Jr. John’s grandfather, in fact, build our cottage and he also invented the first snowmobile. When you go into the Eliason’s Building Supply today, one of his early snowmobiles is on display as are a number of mechanical music machines. Here John tells two stories related to these items.
22 Beth Goodwin / Whatever it Takes
This remarkable story is told by Beth Goodwin who I met and recorded when I visited Nelson County, Virginia, in 2001. It is a story about a deadly disease and the determination to find a cure for a loved one.
23 Irene Paul / A Passion for Democracy
Americans have fought and died for the right to vote and choose their own leaders. Here Irene Paul from Montclair, New Jersey, recounts the lengths her step-mother went to preserve this right for her and her children.
24 Andrew McBride / Courtship in the Shadow of War
My best friend growing up was Eugene McBride. Sadly, Eugene passed away some years ago and it was soon after his death when I had the opportunity to record his older brother Andrew telling some of his family stories. As I often spent the night at the McBride’s home, I grew very fond of Dr. and Mrs. McBride and it is with deep pleasure that I share this story about how love can work its magic even during times of strife and suffering.
25 Alasdair Fraser / The Healing Power of Music
This story is told by Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. He's an old friend and lives near the town of Nevada City, California where Paula and I lived for many years and where we often went to the Flour Garden Bakery Cafe to enjoy a danish, a cup of coffee, and read the Union newspaper. It is followed by the tune from his Skyedance music CD that he mentions in the story.
26 Utah Phillips / Integrating the Theaters in Utah
The late songwriter and labor activist Utah Phillips told me this family story. It concerns his mother and his step-father who managed movie theaters in Utah and other western states for Paramount Film Studio. It is a story about how something good can arise from something bad, even though many years might have passed. A reminder, perhaps, that history is not just what happened in the past but that it lives with us still. And so will the history that we are making today. The story is followed by Utah singing a song he wrote about the Mountain Meadow Massacre.
27 Laurie Lewis / The Light
I gave the selection of a story for Easter/Passover considerable thought and decided to turn to another songwriter. Her name is Laurie Lewis and I recorded this story backstage at a music festival some years ago. Laurie is a talented musician, a kind soul, and a friend. Since the story is about what happened when she attempted to write a song for her grandmother, I included the song as well. Enjoy.
28 Robert Butcher / Far Too Many Chickens
Perhaps a bit of comic relief is called for. My daughter Emily got in touch today to wish us a Happy Easter and mentioned that she and her boyfriend Donald had just bought a trio of chickens. She said Donald had built a chicken coop and they were very excited about this new chapter in their stay-at-home life. And that brought to mind a cautionary tale I recorded in central West Virginia in 1998. The teller was Robert Butcher and this is just one of many great stories he was willing to share. The musical segment is performed by the Red Clay Ramblers.
29 Judith Parkhust - How the World Changed in a Moment
For many of us, one day our lives were much as they had been for some time and then suddenly it all changed. Will we remember the moment when the realization of that change occurred? Here Judith Parkhurst recounts a moment when the world changed for her and her family. And for the rest of humankind as well.
30 Judy Neilsen - Buying a Hotel
The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the corona virus and many hotels stand empty and forlorn. Here is a story by a good friend, Judy Neilsen, about relatives who decided to get into the hotel business without being all that sure how that business worked in the United States.
31 Howard "Rusty" Hamer - A Father's Advice
I hear the word “crash” being used a good deal these days when people talk about what the pandemic is doing to the stock market, to the economy, to our public health system. Crash can be either a noun or a verb but it is the verb that engages the imagination because anything might happen in that split second between the glass slipping from the hand and striking the floor or the car hitting a patch of ice and skidding off the road. This story is told by pilot Rusty Hamer and concerns a crash that had a most unexpected outcome. May fate be as kind to us now as we crash into an uncertain future.
32 John Lilly - Grandmother's Outlandish Stories
John Lilly lives in West Virginia. When I interviewed John he was editor of the state’s history, arts, and culture magazine, Goldenseal. He is also an accomplished musician and a thoroughly delightful person as you can tell as he talks about his grandmother and her bigger-than-life stories.
33 George Daugherty - Uncle Dennis
It’s said, “You’ve never met a con man you didn’t like.” But the thing about con men and con women is that reality has a way of catching up to them. It might take awhile, but the falsehoods come to light and people realize they’ve been duped. Well here’s a story about a con man. It’s told by George Daugherty from Elkview, West Virginia. Back in the 1980s when I lived in the state George and I often shared the storytelling stage at the Vandalia Folklife Festival. George’s day job was being a lawyer but he spent much of his free time singing songs and telling stories at Rotary Club banquets and senior citizen centers. He’s gone now but his wonderful stories remain.
34 Nancy Knoerzer - The Gift
I like the story of how I came to record this story. I went to see an elderly woman named Nancy Knoerzer who lived in Montclair, New Jersey, because I learned that her father had been an artist who painted windows for Tiffany and who also worked as a radio actor performing radio live plays with the actors such as Boris Karloff. Montclair is located close to New York City and, as such, it is home to both middle class families and some quite wealthy families. Nancy’s home was lovely but modest compared to some of the nearby mansions and I noticed that much of the space of her small living room was taken up by a Steinway grand piano. Well, after I finished my interview and was heading for the door I asked how she came to own such a beautiful instrument. She then told me a story that caused me to unpack my microphone and digital recorder again. Here is that story.
35 Oleta Singleton - Five Turkeys
Aristotle believed that courage was the first virtue because it made all the other virtues possible. There’s physical courage, of course, but perhaps of greater consequence is personal moral courage. It is what we look for in our leaders and in ourselves. Of all the people I interviewed for the Telling Takes Us Home series I was most impressed with a 93-year-old woman by the name of Oleta Singleton. Like Betty Farmer who told the story about planting beans, Oleta was one of the “belles” at the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville, WV. Despite her age, she was spirited and funny and her use of the English language had about it a certain quality that is now only found in letters written long ago. I’ll feature more of her stories soon but I thought this one was a right one to start with.
My advice: listen to the story twice. Once for the story and the second time for her use of old-time words and expressions.
36 John Wheeler - Lunch in a Pickup Truck
This story is told by John Wheeler who I met when he attended a presentation I gave at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2001. Some of John’s family hails from the same rural community as the writer Earl Hamner, Jr, who became famous for his book and subsequent television series about a family of mountain farmers named the Waltons. In fact, it was John’s grandfather who served as a sheriff and judge in the community and was the inspiration for the fictional sheriff in the Walton family stories.
37 Darryl Cornell/Agnes Holt - Magic of Radio
Zoom, Facetime, Skype, Houseparty, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp—even though many of us are confined to our homes, there are many ways to stay in touch with friends, family, and business colleagues while also finding out what’s going on in the world. Let’s look back now to when these electronic marvels were first becoming part of our lives with two stories:
The first by Darryl Cornell tells about his grandfather’s love affair with radio when he was a boy growing up in East Texas.
The second story I recorded when I stopped by the senior center in Portage, Michigan. I was wondering if someone might have a good family story to share and was introduced to Agnes Holt who was celebrating her 100th birthday.
38 Estelle Chun - The Greatest Sacrifice
Each day we hear stories of people risking their health and even their lives to keep others safe from the corona virus. Here is a story told by Estelle Chun that I recorded some years ago when I gave a talk at the annual conference of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Baltimore, MD. Founded in France during the upheaval of the French Revolution to care for young women who were in trouble, today the organization operates residential homes for female juvenile offenders throughout the United States and abroad. The members of the staff come from a variety of religious backgrounds—Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish—while others would describe themselves as secular humanists. What was clear to me was that they genuinely cared about young people and did what they could to help improve their lives.
39 Bruce Perry - Father was a Dentist
Dr. Bruce Perry is a leading expert in the area of childhood trauma. I met him at a juvenile justice conference where he told me this story. As my daughter Clara is a dental assistant and studying to become a dentist. She donates her time helping the homeless and senior citizens on fixed incomes receive dental care and I thought I would send this out thinking of her and others who are motivated by compassion in these trying times.The fiddle tune was composed and played by Skip Gorman
40 Bob Walsh - Grandfather was an Aviator
The story of the airplane crash I featured in an earlier story-a-day email generated a number of responses so perhaps it's time for another set of stories about those who are enchanted by idea of flying. Our teller is Bob Walsh who was my daughter Emily's fourth grade teacher in Nevada City, CA. She remembers him as one of the best teachers she ever had.
41 Nancy Knoerzer - Buck Rogers Meets Arsenic and Old Lace
We heard Nancy Knoerzer of Montclair, New Jersey, tell the story about how her mother received a piano as a gift. Here she talks about her father who turned away from promising careers as an architect and a college professor to become an actor, a risky line of work at the best of times. Alas, how much more challenging is that life today when theaters and movie lots across the country are closed because of the pandemic. I pray our artists will survive this dark time and once again help nourish our souls with the bounty of their lively imaginations and generous hearts. Nancy’s story is followed by a sample of the Buck Rogers radio show featuring her father, Edgar Stehl, playing the part of scientist Dr. Huer.
42 John Yeager & Ricki Cooley - Buck Rogers
Yesterday I sent out a story about an actor who was a member of the cast of the radio show Buck Rogers back in the 1930s and 40s. Well, here’s something of a coincidence: some years ago I was performing in a park in Glenview, Illinois, and I met a brother and sister who told me they were the children of the artist who illustrated and wrote the Buck Rogers comic strip. Here John Yeager and his sister Rickie Cooley share memories they have of their father.
43 Lee Smith - Uncle Was a Musician
I had the pleasure to sit down for an hour with author Lee Smith as she shared one entertaining family story after another with me. Lee grew up in a coal mining town in the hollers of southwestern Virginia and I appreciate her understanding that what might appear to be a flaw in someone's personality might also be the source of their artistic gift.
44 Dave Johnson - Father Confronts Church
April is National Poetry month and we’ll say goodbye with stories today and tomorrow that are told by poets. Our first teller is poet Dave Johnson. I met Dave at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Chicago in 2000 and the story he tells is about resisting the temptation to just go along but to stand up and do the right thing when it’s necessary.
45 John Barbado - Poem for my Dad
As my second poet to see out National Poetry Month, John Barbado was one of the first people I interviewed for the Telling Takes Us Home series. I found him a generous soul who loved poetry in a way that made you love it too.
46 Vic Meyers - Two Families
In recognition of the relationship that exists between organized labor and the first of May, I turned to a project I did some years ago called Omaha Voices. For this project I worked with a group of juvenile offenders in the Omaha, Nebraska, area teaching them how to do interviews with the “elders” of their community. These interviews later aired on Nebraska Public Radio. Some of the elders they interviewed included WWII pilots, a ninety-year old former Pullman porter, three generations of firefighters, Holocaust survivors, jazz musicians, and a man named Vic Meyers. Mr. Meyers was in his eighties and had worked for years in the meatpacking industry. He had also served as a union organizer and we met for the interview at the regional office of the AFL-CIO in downtown Omaha. Given how we are now hearing stories about problems in the meatpacking industry, I wanted to share a few of Mr. Meyer’s recollections about his two families: his biological family who came to America from Romania and his union family and the struggles they went through together.
47 Al Dover - Tough Grandfather
Here’s a story with a different take on labor unions that involves a revelation about a grandfather who was regarded by his grandchildren as fairly ordinary. It is told by Al Dover who at the time I interviewed him was serving as the superior court judge for Nevada County, California.
48 Angelica Santamuro - The Miracle
Angelica is the director of the American Labor Museum in Haledon, New Jersey. I interviewed her inside the museum that was formerly a private residence from which organizers with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) addressed nearly 20,000 silk workers from Paterson who went on strike in 1913. My maternal grandmother was twenty-one years old at the time and was working in the dye house of a silk mill. Although she never mentioned the strike, I often wonder if she attended the rally and participated in the strike.
49 J.P. Fraley - Ill-Fated Baptism
J.P. Fraley was a gifted fiddler who grew up in eastern Kentucky. I had the pleasure to play music with J.P. on several occasions and those moments were made even more special because of his great stories. Here is one about his elderly father who decided one day that perhaps he should get baptized after all.
50 Brian Dooley - My Mother's Knowing
On our first trip to Ireland Paula and I had the great good fortune to meet Brian and Marie Dooley in the village of Inniskeen. Since then they have become dear friends and here is Brian telling a few stories about his mother. The music is an old Celtic air titled “Mist Covered Mountains of Home” and is performed in concert by the late fiddler Johnny Cunningham.
51 Jo Lakota - The Coat
Yesterday, May 5, was designated Giving Tuesday for 2020 and, as such, I received a number of requests for donations arrived in my email folder. And that got me thinking about a woman I interviewed in Peoria, Illinois, whose parents were American Indian. Her name is Jo Lakota and she is a school teacher, which is appropriate also because this week is Teacher Appreciation Week. Here she tells a story about her father’s generosity.
52 Bill Knight - ZZ Top
I met journalist Bill Knight when I spent a week in Peoria, Illinois, recording people such as Jo Lakota telling their family stories. Here Bill shares a few stories that came from his mother’s side of the family who hailed from the backcountry of Kentucky. One story concerns a relative who was “forced” by world events to make a serious change in his life. Many people today are feeling forced to change the way they live because of another world event. Now and again such changes can be for the best, even if we don’t see it that way at the time.
53 Patty Looman - Haunted House
Here is a story by Patty Looman, a hammered dulcimer player I first met in West Virginia in the late 1970s and interviewed in 1998 when I traveled back there to attend the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville.
54 Frank Ciccio - Good Advice
Frank "Cisco" Ciaccio was serving as a police detective in the Philadelphia area when I recorded him telling his family stories, This story is about advice his brother gave him that I think matches the fight we are all involved in now and in the coming months and years, a story that reminds me to take heart and not give up.
55 Richard Bausch - Rescued by the Enemy
As the world celebrated the end of the WWII in Europe I thought about this story told by Richard Bausch who we heard from earlier playing a practical joke on his father.
56 Maria Gillan - Mother's ESP
Here is poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan talking about her mother’s extraordinary gift of ESP and offered as a belated Mother’s Day gift.
57 J.P. Fraley - Courting Annadeene
Many people emailed us with comments about J.P.’s story about his father’s ill-fated baptism. Well since Paula and I celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary today, I thought I would post another J.P. story about how he courted his wife Annadeene. It was a rocky start but they became not just man and wife but celebrated musicians who played together for decades. The story ends with them playing a tune together, J.P. on the fiddle and Annadeene on the guitar.
58 Joanne Scully - The Dancing Ring
Our bodies make their claims upon us; they require that we provide them with food, clothing, and shelter. But I think we also have a soul and the soul has its needs as well. This story told by Joanne Scully of Nutley, New Jersey, shows to what lengths people will go to satisfy that need. Or as my friend’s mother liked to say, “A little of what you fancy does you good.”
59 Craig Sease - A Close Call
Craig Sease is a close friend who lives Dayton, Virginia. He is a retired physician whose father and grandfather were physicians as well. When we sat down to swap family stories he told me this story about his grandfather who grew up poor on a farm and paid for medical school by working nights on the railroad.
60 Bebs Chorak - The Tea Party
This humorous family story concerns an unusual pre-wedding stag party held on a secluded island in South Carolina. The teller is our friend Bebs Chorak who lives near Florence, South Carolina. Some time after recording the story I discovered that the ritual Bebs describes has its origins in ancient Greece. I will send along that information tomorrow.
61 Willie Joe Meally - The Wreck of the Hesperus
Growing up in an Irish-American family in Paterson, New Jersey, my maternal grandmother was English but that’s another story, we often had parties that involved a fair amount of drinking and lots of smoking. Sometimes during these lively get-togethers each person would be called upon to sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke, or play something on a musical instrument. These were called “party pieces.” Well, back in 2015 Paula and I visited the village of Inniskeen in Ireland to perform at a festival at the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Centre. After the festival we went back to the home of Brian and Marie Dooley for a bit of a party. There was a good crowd and they also began to go around the room asking each person to perform a party piece. One man recited a poem that so moved me that the next morning, he was staying at the house, I asked if I might record him reciting the poem. His name is Willie Joe Meally and the poem is The Wreck of Hesperus by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is a the kind of poem that was often recited aloud in public in days gone along with other poems such as the Shooting of Dan McGrew and Casey at the Bat. In fact, I do my part to keep such poems memorized and at the ready in case a party piece is called for.
62 Isabel Abrams - A Friend in Need
At this time of year when college graduations normally take place, everyone is doing their best to adapt to the new situation. What’s more, many colleges predict that they will be switching over to distance learning for part, if not all, of next year. That may work in some ways to pass on important information to a younger generation but attending college was always about much more than that. In fact, when my own children were considering what colleges to apply to, I would encourage them to think as much about the kind of student who would be sitting in the seat next to them than the quality of the professors or course work or the college’s reputation. It’s his or her fellow students who often make the biggest difference in a young person’s life far into the future. And for that reason I want to share a story told by Isabel Abrams of Wilmette, Illinois, that I recorded after giving a presentation at the public library some years ago. The song is from the Carter Family and is performed by Ann and Phil Case.
63 Sands Hall - Pelle's Revenge
May 18 marks the 40th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption. Thinking about that event, which is not that far from where I live, brought to mind an unusual family story I recorded some time ago concerning another volcano, a volcano that many people believe is sacred. The story is told by Sands Hall, a novelist, playwright, stage director, and actress.
64 Susan House - Bootleg Aftershave
This story is told by Susan House who I met in Chicago when I was recording family stories at a Carnegie library located on the south side of the city. Susan was a contributing writer to the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, an organization that encouraged homeless and disadvantaged adults to write about their life experiences. These stories were then published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought and distributed throughout the city. The Alliance had a motto that, after my years recording family stories, I very much agree with: “Everyone is a philosopher.”
65 Kevin Burke - My Father's Take on the World
The first story I featured on St. Patrick’s Day for the story-a-day series was told by Irish fiddler Kevin Burke. Although his parents were raised in Ireland, Kevin grew up in London and here he talks about his father who served on the police force. One truth about life is that lessons we learn from our parents are shaped more by what they do than what they say.
66 Deborah Sparbell - The Shy Mailman
This story is told by retired librarian Deborah Sparbell from Portage, Michigan, and is about an unusually shy mailman. I picked it because today Paula received the stamps she ordered from the post office. She really didn’t need any stamps but she saw several news reports about the plight of the US Postal Service along with a touching commentary by the comedian John Oliver on YouTube that convinced her to do her part and buy some stamps. Perhaps remembering how central the postal service has been to all our lives, and those of our ancestors, will make us think twice before chucking it away in favor of private corporations. If we can’t run our own postal service, then we’re in deep trouble. That’s my view, at any rate, for what it’s worth.
67 Robert Morgan - Hellmira
This story is told by Robert Morgan. He grew up quite poor on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and went on to become an award-winning writer who has published numerous novels, collections of short stories, and books of poems. He is also a professor of English at Cornell University in upstate New York.
68 Judith Parkhurst - A House Divided
Judith Parkhurst is the mother of a good friend of ours, Libby Scott. We got together with Judith at a lake cottage that Libby's family owns near our family cottage on Ballard Lake in northern Wisconsin. Whether or not we'll get to Wisconsin this year is still a big question, as are so many other things.
69 Pete Seeger - Rendezvous
In 2001 I had the honor to share the stage with Pete Seeger at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for the opening night concert of the Virginia Festival of the Book. I was there to talk about my radio series exploring why and how we tell family stories and he was there to talk about a book he’d co-authored featuring stories his father told him over the years. After my presentation, he asked me to join him and his brother Mike Seeger with my fiddle and we played some old-time tunes together and told some jokes to the audience and it was a grand time. The next morning I sat down with Pete and Mike and they shared with me stories about their family.
70 Calum McKinnon - The Visitor and the Seer
Calum McKinnon lives in Edmunds, Washington. He is a retired aeronautics engineer for Boeing and is also an acclaimed Scottish fiddler and music teacher. Calum’s parents came from a small island called Tiree in the Scottish Hebrides. Gaelic was their first language. They moved to Glasgow before Calum was born and that is where Calum grew up. But when I interviewed him, he talked at length about the stories he heard from Tiree. Here are two of those stories that happened during WWII and provide a bridge from our flesh and blood world to that other mysterious unseen world that Scots with the “second sight” seem to know all about. Calum performs “Nathaniel Gow’s Lament On the Death of his Brother” on the violin and is accompanied by Muriel Johnstone on piano from his music CD It’s About Time.
71 Olga Carlisle - The Prison Storyteller
Olga Andreyev Carlisle’s family were rivals of Lenin and the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution in 1917. Here she talks about learning how her grandmother helped fellow prisoners during the Red Terror.
72 Steven Ginsberg - A Surprising Decision
During these uncertain times we can find ourselves thinking about issues of faith. Is there a God? What about an afterlife? What is the best way to live in hopes of finding an enduring meaning in our lives? And do established religions have anything to offer or should we seek the truth, such as it is, on our own?
73 Melany Vorass - Paying for Music Lessons
Being a musician, I really like this story. It is told by Melany Vorass who as a young child made the fateful, if not frightful, decision to play the accordion. And once that decision was made, her mother began to manage her musical “career” in unexpected ways.
74 Ken Huie - Mother Refuses to Sell Child
When I first met Ken Huie, he was serving as the park ranger for the Angel Island Immigration Station located in San Francisco Bay. Here he tells a story about his mother and her mother and the difficult choices immigrants often had to make when they first came to America.
The music, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” is performed by folk guitarist Martin Simpson and Wu Man performing on the pipa, a traditional Chinese musical instrument.
75 Blake Caravati - My Grandfather and Civil Rights
I scheduled this story before the murder in Minneapolis and all that has followed in its wake. Perhaps then it is a tame story given what’s going on but it is part of our collective story as Americans and worth remembering. When I met Blake Caravati in 2001 he was serving as the mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia. His Italian-American family is based in Richmond and here he tells about his grandfather’s efforts to promote racial fairness during the trying days of the Civil Rights Movement.
76 Thomas Moore - An Appreciation of Good Storytelling
The noted psychologist and writer Thomas Moore grew up in the Detroit area this story tells about one summer spent with his three uncles who owned a farm. One of those uncles was a gifted storyteller and this inspired Mr. Moore’s own appreciation for good storytelling. The music is performed by Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy.
77 Mike Seeger - Knowing Elizabeth "Libba" Cotton
Here’s a story told by the late folksinger Mike Seeger. It chronicles his family’s relationship with a remarkable African-American musician named Elizabeth Cotton. Given the deeply troubling events of the last week, I thought perhaps we should recognize as best we can those relationships across cultural divides that reinforce our common humanity. The music that follows the story is the very recording that was made on that Thanksgiving Day so many years ago.
78 Veronica Morris - Memory of the 1918 Spanish Flu
I realize the news of late is dreadful and that many people are experiencing pain and feel confused. And for that reason I dithered on whether or not to include this story as a story-a-day offering. But then I did some research on music from the Spanish Flu of 1918 and found a recording by the African-American blues musician Blind Willie Johnson. Listening to the lyrics of the song I was struck by how similar the situation was for the people back then with what is going on today. And we should take heart from the fact that we have weathered and overcome difficult times in the past. The story is told by Veronica Morris from Totowa, New Jersey, who I met and interviewed at a senior center in a nearby town.
79 Betty Farmer - Basket of Shoes
Betty Farmer shared her story about planting beans in a way that caused her much grief. Now she tells a humorous story from the days of the Great Depression in the hill country of West Virginia.
80 Libby Scott - Mom's Surprise Announcement
Well we’ve reached eighty stories and as Paula and I are making plans to travel to our family’s cottage in northern Wisconsin later this month, provided there is not a spike of Covid 19 cases in that part of the world, I’ve been thinking about our neighbor Libby Scott. We heard a story from her mother, Judith Parkhurst, about how her parents with very different religious and political views wound up working as election judges in the same precint. Well, this story is about a surprise announcement during a Thanksgiving Day get-together. And give the follow up music a listen: it too may be a little different than expected.
81 Susan Woodruff - Strange Light
Susan Woodruff was a school teacher when we met and I recorded her telling this story. As we enter a summer of uncertain weather and no baseball, I thought this story might fit the bill.
82 Bobby Taylor - Searching for Emmeret
I met Bobby Taylor when I first became interested in playing the fiddle in West Virginia in the mid-1970s. Bobby is a first-class fiddler who also worked for many years at the state library in Charleston. In 2002, I attended the Appalachian Old-time Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, and interviewed Bobby about his family. Here he tells a story about a premonition, the kind of story I love to hear.
83 Oleta Singleton - Square Dancing
This story is told by 93-year-old Oleta Singleton from Stout’s Mill, West Virginia, and provides a glimpse into what the social life of rural West Virginians was like in years gone by. I could sit and listen to Oleta’s stories until the cows come home and there will be more of them soon.
84 Melvin Wine - The $20 Bill
Since the last story I sent out was about square dancing I thought I would follow up with another, and again from West Virginia, but this one from the fiddler’s perspective, not the dancer. And to remember what hard times were like and how much money $20 could be for people who made their living on small farms and working in coal mines.
85 Simon Yang - A War Story
Soon after Paula and I moved to Washington State we were asked by the public library in Des Moines, a city twenty miles south of Seattle, to record the family stories of people in their community. One seventy-year-old man was Simon Yang and he shared a powerful story about the Japanese invasion of China before and during WWII and his own birth during those trying times. His story is followed by music performed by the Pacific Harmony String Quartet from their music CD Melodies of the Far East.
86 Pam Varney - The New Cell Phone
I am fascinated with how technology influences our relationships, our sense of time, and our happiness. I also have ears that are very sensitive to sound and I find the world is becoming noisier and noisier. So when a neighbor passed away and left me his riding mower, an electric log splitter, and a leaf blower I was torn as to wha to do with the last of these marvels of our industrial society. I pretty much hate leaf blowers and wouldn’t use it, sell it, or give it away. Why add to the racket? Nor did I want to put it in the landfill. So I took out its guts and turned it into a recording device. I thought I might use it to record people talking about how technology has impacted their lives for both good and ill. In fact, I interviewed a good friend of mine who has decided to give up on the technology of shoes altogether. That’s an interesting interview.
Well, another interview was with my wife’s cousin Pam Varney. We were at our family cottage last summer in Wisconsin and she told me this funny story. So I got out my leaf blower recorder, image below, and recorded the story. And now with the pandemic, the recorder makes even more sense because it helps maintain the proper social distancing. So expect new stories sometime in the future recorded using what I think I’ll call The Roving Leaf Blower. But if you have a better name, I’m all ears.
87 Bruce Perry - Parking Meters
Driving through North Dakota last summer on our way home to Olympia from Wisconsin, I thought about this story told by Dr. Bruce Perry. We heard from Bruce earlier with a story about his father who was a dentist in North Dakota and who did what he could to help the native people of his community. Well, this story gives proof to the belief that that a lone committed citizen can do much to change his or her society.
88 Jo Lakota - The Bank Loan
Jo Lakota was raised in Peoria, Illinois, and she told the story about her father giving a hobo his new coat. Here she tells a simple but telling story about how her parents, both American Indian, went to a bank for a loan to buy a house.
I am also including something I came across today in a book that I am reading. Maybe listen first to the story and then the passage from the book and judge where we’ve been and where we’re going.
“Today more and more banks, corporations, and institutions are already using algorithms to analyze data and make decisions about us. For example, when you apply to your bank for a loan, it is likely that your application will be processed by an algorithm rather than a human being. The algorithm analyzes lots of data about you and statistics about millions of other people and decides whether you are reliable enough to receive a loan. Often the algorithm does a better job than a human banker. But the problem is that if the algorithm discriminates against some people unjustly, it is difficult to know that. If the bank refuses to give you a loan, and you ask, ‘Why did the algorithm say no? What’s wrong with me?’ and the bank replies, ‘We don’t know. No human understands this algorithm, because it is based on advanced machine learning. But we trust our algorithm, so we won’t give you a loan.’”
~ from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
89 Monty Schultz - Trip to London
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me ten single-panel Peanuts comics by by the late, great Charles Schulz. I’ve included two below. When Paula and I lived in Nevada City, California, a fellow townsman was Monty Schulz. We got to know each other and one day I recorded his stories about his father. Like many sons, his relationship with his father had a few rough spots but there was always love and deep respect for that father. Well I picked one of the stories because it has two timely themes: the fear of getting on an airplane, now because of Covid 19, and Father’s Day, which we celebrate a week from today.
90 Gene Enright - Old-time Baseball
We’re here in the middle of June and where is baseball? I loved baseball as a kid but, to be honest, in recent years I’ve lost much of that love thanks to the excessive commercialization, high ticket prices, exorbitant salaries paid to celebrity players, fake grass, and indoor climate-controlled playing fields—well you get the idea. So let’s travel back in time to when baseball was, well, a lot more organic. This story is told by Gene Enright who I met at a senior center in New Jersey. He was well into his eighties and had a long history with baseball, first as a minor league player and then as an umpire.
91 Jim Hightower - Aunt Yula
Jim Hightower is a political progressive and syndicated columnist who served two terms as commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture under Democratic governor Ann Richards. He also hosts a daily radio commentary that is aired by over 150 radio stations and publishes a monthly newsletter called the Hightower Lowdown. In my novel Kilowatt, the character Lyle Workman, “faithful friend of the workingman and woman,” is inspired by Mr. Hightower.
I first met Mr. Hightower when he came to give a talk at the Evergreen State College here in Olympia, Washington. I found him to be a thoroughly delightful person and I think you will agree when you listen to his family story about a favorite aunt and uncle.
92 John Barbado- Riding the Train with Grandfather
As we draw closer to Father’s Day, I thought a story about a grandfather’s special relationship with his grandchild would be just the thing. John Barbado is a poet and here he shares his memories of riding the train with his grandfather when he was young. The music is performed by the late, great Tommy Thompson accompanied by the Red Clay Ramblers.
93 Kirk Judd - A Love of Music and Baseball
Kirk Judd is a poet who grew up in the hill country of eastern Kentucky and who writes poems about old-time music among other cherished traditions reaching back into America’s past. When I interviewed him for his family stories he shared memories of his grandfather and father who both shared a deep love for baseball and, through that love, saw and respected the common humanity of everyone regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity. The story is followed by part of an audio essay written by the celebrated Detroit Tigers baseball sportscaster Ernie Harwell in 1955.
94 Nan Munigham - The Bugler
Here’s a story from Nan Murnigham who I met when I gave a presentation about family stories at the public library in Wilmette, Illinois. It harkens back to a time when we let our differences as citizens of the one nation get the better of us. Let’s prevent that from happening again
95 Joe Heitz and Alan Hayashi - Fishing with Dad
As tomorrow is Father’s Day here are two memories of fishing with Dad. The first is told by Joe Heitz whose cottage is near ours on Ballard Lake in Wisconsin. The second is told by Alan Hayashi who told us the story of his mother’s bout with TB and how his father worked to pay for her treatments despite being held in an internment camp during WWII.
96 Geraldine Flaherty - Driving Lesson
Happy Father’s Day. For today's story Geraldine Flaherty tells how her father taught her how to park a car so she could pass her driver’s test. Perhaps you have a story about your father teaching you how to drive.
97 Pete Seeger - The Homemade Trailer
Paula and I have been getting our little 16’ Casita travel trailer ready for an excursion back to Wisconsin to visit family. We’ll spend two days inside Yellowstone and stop by the Buffalo Bill museum in Cody, WY, to see the fiddle his daughter used to play. We’ll have our masks and Clorox wipes and will make sure to maintain proper social distancing from our fellow human beings and any wild buffalos we come upon along the way. And they got me thinking about a story Pete Seeger told me about his own parents’ remarkable excursion into the backcountry of North Carolina in the 1920s.
98 Jessica Radcliffe - My Texas Grandfather
Here’s a story about a grandfather who was a “card.” It told to me by Jessica Ruby Radcliffe, a gifted musician, poet, artist, and thoroughly interesting person. I interviewed Jessica at the Strawberry Music Festival where she was performing with her husband Martin Simpson. Paula and I were also performing as storyteller and musicians and directing the Sunday morning “live” radio play that was performed by volunteers who were attending the festival along with some of the featured musicians. The forty-minute play was broadcast through out the festival camping grounds by the festival’s own “Hog Radio.” We did a play for the Strawberry Memorial Day weekend festival—they held a second festival over the Labor Day weekend– for a number of years and remember those days with fondness and not a little sadness realizing that so many festivals, including Strawberry, have been cancelled for this year. Well, we’ll just have to have double the fun next year when we’ll be enjoying the benefits of a vaccine and the mad king will be only a sad memory.
99 Larry Hugo - King Lear
As a storyteller, I have many friends who make their living as actors and they have found that much, if not all, of their work has dried up thanks to the pandemic. Here is a story told by Larry Hugo of Charlottesville, Virginia, about his father who had a long and successful career as an actor. He got his start during the Great Depression in the famous Barter Theater located in a small town in rural Virginia where the actors performed their plays for eggs, potatoes, and the odd chicken instead of cash money. It was while an actor at the Barter Theater that he became friends with the actor Gregory Peck who was also just beginning to make his mark in the world of theater and film. For many years, Larry’s father played a major character on a popular television soap opera
100 James Farris - Nippy
Today’s story marks a milestone as it is the 100th story I’ve sent out since beginning Story-a-Day on March 17th. So I’ve been thinking about choosing just the right story when I happened to have a conversation with my good friend Craig from Virginia. And during our conversation he mentioned that his favorite story so far was told by a retired juvenile judge from Beaumont, Texas, named James Farris. It was story number 7 and concerned Judge Farris’ father and how he related to a certain irritable postmistress. For today’s offering, Judge Farris tells a story about a dog he once owned called Nippy and how the dog wound up teaching his young master a valuable lesson. And as you can tell, I love finding just the right bit of music or other audio to go with each story and I think I found just the music for this one. It was written and is sung by Jessica Ruby Radcliffe who just two days ago told us the story about her somewhat disreputable grandfather who hailed from none other than Texas.