Storytelling Review: “Love, Work, Mistakes and Miracles: A Night of Song and Story”

Bill Harley

Last Friday night I drove downtown to the Indiana History Center to hear the Indiana Historical Society and Storytelling Arts of Indiana present “Love, Work, Mistakes and Miracles: A Night of Song and Story” featuring Bill Harley and Carrie Newcomer.  Local storyteller Bob Sander was the MC.  Joyce Ellinger provided sign language interpretation.

It was a treat!

Newcomer lives in Indiana and Harley was raised here.  He lives in New England now, but his son attends Earlham College.  Newcomer and Harley had given this same concert there a couple nights earlier.

They have both performed all over the world.  “Tell people you’re a Hoosier and it opens doors,” Newcomer joked.

They often perform alone, but their program Friday night was a truly tandem offering, with each folk artist adding layers to the other’s work but remaining distinctly themselves.  The program was therefore much richer than if they had just taken turns performing individually, although it was nice when they did that, too.

The concert was also a treat because it included well-crafted spoken storytelling, not just the nattering that musicians sometimes do before they get to what they imagine is the most important part of the program.  The songs in this program included good storytelling as well.

Newcomer and Harley opened with a tandem recitation of a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Mad Farmer Liberation Manifesto.”  It set the tone for the evening and made me want to “practice resurrection,” too.

Each artist played guitar and shared a good mix of songs: songs that their respective fans had come to hear as well as songs off their new CDs.

Harley’s new, all-music CD for adult audiences (he is best known for his stories and songs for kids and families) has not even been officially released yet, but it was available for sale in the lobby.  It is called “First Bird Call.”  I have been listening to both it and Newcomer’s new CD, “The Geography of Light,” all weekend.  More about them in a moment.

One of the stories that Harley told Friday night was a war story from the time when he was 17 years old and working as a busboy in a busy restaurant.  I bet that anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant has a story to tell, just as almost everyone has a story of first love and first heartbreak.  What I admired about Harley’s story – what made it unique –  was how specific it was, both in terms of the characters and the setting, and therefore how present I felt while he was telling it.  That feeling lasted long after the concert was over.  Driving home, I really felt as if I had spent time in that restaurant with him.

I also loved how layered the story was.  Yes, it was about the hard work of bussing tables, but it was also about bullies and communication styles and gracious celebrities and more.  As one character says, “Ah, Bill, it’s everything.”  The layering was very subtle.  Harley is a skillful story creator as well as a story teller.

But his telling of it was masterful, too, and another reason, I think, why I felt so present.  Harley’s telling style is never rushed, and he knows how to hold for laughs when his audience needs it, but he also knows when to sort of slide right into the next part so that the audience doesn’t have to come up with a laugh, even though we’re smiling.

Most of all, I loved that in his story there was an 80-year-old woman dining alone on her birthday, and Harley did not make us feel sorry for her.  He left room if people wanted to feel sorry for her, but he carefully did not give any indication that he felt that way.  She was simply the trigger for him to discover both his purpose for being there in that crazy restaurant that night and (very, very subtly) his purpose in life.

After that wonderful story, Newcomer shared a wonderful, related song that she said she had just written.  The chorus was something like “That’s my job, that’s why I’m here, here on earth.”  I don’t think she has recorded it yet.  I hope she does.

The song of Newcomer’s that I loved most was from her new album, “The Geography of Light.”  She prefaced it by saying she lives where a glacier stopped in southern Indiana.  She and all of her neighbors have piles of geodes on their porches.  They don’t crack them open, necessarily; they just like having them around, knowing that those lumpy, brown-and-grey rocks hold the miracle of crystals inside them.

“Geodes are Indiana’s bling,” Newcomer explained.

Her song, “Geodes,” is a miracle, too.  Its delicate beauty made me cry.

I’ve been trying to think of how to describe Newcomer’s voice.  It makes me think of fresh raspberries, soaring eagles, and polished hardwood floors.  It is exquisite.  (But better yet, you can hear excerpts from her albums on her website and try to describe it yourself.)

Bill Harley’s voice is deep and sometimes rough, sometimes gentle.  He knows how to be goofy (I mean, he knows how to be goofy!) but he also knows how to care deeply and respectfully.  I think he’s actually pretty shy when he’s not performing.  In any case, people feel seen when he’s around. 

You can hear excerpts of his work on his website, too.

Harley was into the pleasures and benefits of social networking before the term even existed.  As I mentioned earlier, his bread-n-butter, and what he’s best known for, is his work with children and families.  He told us that he sent out an email asking people to send him titles of songs that should be written – not songs that already existed, but songs that should exist.

He shared with us some of the funny suggestions he had received, and then sang the one that he had turned into a high-energy story-song.  Newcomer led the audience in singing the easy back-up parts for “Barbie’s Head is Missing.”  We all laughed and tapped our toes.

That song is not on his new CD, but “First Bird Call” brings his years of experience creating sing-a-longs to topics that are of more interest to adults than kids.  Topics such as a father’s thoughts as his now-grown son leaves home.  The “dangerousness” (not) of gay neighbors.  Curiosity about whatever happened to that wild friend from high school.  Environmental destruction -and love – that lasts for decades.

In the last song, “Where Am I From,” he mentions growing up in Indiana as part of a long list of geographical ties.  I found myself singing the chorus after the CD was over.  “Where am I from? Where am I going?” are questions that interest me, too, and besides, it’s a very singable song.

I am very glad that I bought both of these new CDs.  I got a little carried away at the Resources Table, but I’m looking forward to listening to what else I bought, too:

  • Harley’s “Mistakes Were Made” CD (because it says it was recorded “live with adults” and there is this quote from Nuvo on the back: “Bill Harley takes his life and turns it into art. Sounds simple until you actually try to do it. That Harley’s art seems so effortless only underscores his mastery.”
  • “Betty’s Diner: The Best of Carrie Newcomer” CD
  • “Yes to Running!” – a DVD of Bill Harley live.

But CDs and DVDs are only good souvenirs – not substitutes – of time spent together in person.  One of the many things I love about live storytelling is that it’s live and therefore a uniquely shared experience, never to be exactly the same again.  Here are a couple things that made Friday night’s experience unique:

At one point when Newcomer was on stage by herself, about to sing a quiet song, we all suddenly heard Harley vocalizing off stage.

Newcomer just laughed, but she teased him about it when he came back on stage later, without telling him what had happened.

And towards the end of the program, as the two were winding up, thanking the sponsors and each other, Bill said, “My wife Debbie said, ‘I just love Carrie!  You have got to work with her!'” 

Carrie said, “And my husband said, ‘You have got to work with Bill.  I just love Debbie!'”

We all howled at the look of surprise on Harley’s face.

For an encore, they sang Bill Harley’s “Echo” song.  It’s a beautiful call-and-response song.  It starts out simply, “Hello!” (“Hello!”) like a real echo but turns funny as the caller gets frustrated and shouts things like “Stop that!” and “Be quiet!” and “Don’t make me come up there!” which of course, the echo (and the audience) just repeats.

I heard a woman behind me say to her neighbor, “‘Don’t make me stop this car!’  That’s the other one.”  Hah!

Harley mentioned the next teller in the Storytelling Arts Storytellers Theatre series, a woman named Motoko.  He said he had just worked with her at a storytelling festival a couple weeks earlier and highly recommended her “Tales of Now and Zen” program coming up here in Indy on January 10th.  (To purchase tickets, please call 317-232-1882 or visit www.storytellingarts.org/store/category/Tickets.)

Harley said, “Storytelling is at the heart of being human.”

That is so true.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

2 thoughts on “Storytelling Review: “Love, Work, Mistakes and Miracles: A Night of Song and Story””

  1. HI Hope,

    Debbie Block here (Bill’s wife) and I just wanted you to know how much we all appreciated your amazing feedback. We are hoping that we’ll find a way for Bill and Carrie to do some more work together.

    thanks and best to you and yours,
    Debbie

  2. You’re welcome, Debbie. Thanks for reading! And thanks for your contribution to the wonderful show. I, too, hope that there will be a chance to see/hear Bill and Carrie work together again.

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