Storytellers draw crowd at library
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Beverly Fields Burnette sometimes likes to bring personal experiences into her storytelling, and Saturday seemed a good time to tell the story of Hurricane Hazel.
It happened 57 years ago to the day — on Oct. 15, 1954, when Burnette was an 8-year-old third-grader in Rocky Mount. She deftly painted a picture of leaving early from school that day and seeing everything that wasn’t tied down blowing across the school grounds.
When she asked her teacher whether the students would ever be coming back to school, Burnette failed to catch the sarcasm when the teacher replied, “You can come back if you want to.”
Her family later huddled against ferocious Hazel in their old homeplace as the storm’s winds howled and broke the landscape around them. That evening, she and her sister ate their dinner under the dining room table as an extra precaution, and that became the their tradition with every fierce storm after that — eating dinner under the table.
Riding out the hurricane was something that stayed with Burnette all these years as a story of safety, love, comfort and family — the message she shared Saturday at the Jackie Torrence Storytelling Festival in Salisbury.
Almost a dozen members of the N.C. Black Storytellers Association shared tales on the front lawn of Rowan Public Library in tribute to Torrence, the late storytelling queen from Rowan County.
The event was held in conjuction with the Rowan Blues & Jazz Festival held across from the library for most of the day.
Torrence died in 2004, but like a good story, she lives on in the hearts of most of the storytellers who participated Saturday.
“You know, Jackie wasn’t a small woman,” said Jamal Koram, an affiliate director with the National Black Storytellers Association, based in Baltimore. But when she told a story, he said, the audience was drawn to her expressive eyes and hands more than her size.
Koram remembered Torrence’s appearing in New York and sharing her story about Wiley and the Hairy Man — a version of which was told Saturday by Willa Brigham of Cary. During Torrence’s performance — for that’s what her stories were — a mouse ran across the stage. Torrence wasn’t fazed.
“”There’s goes that Hairy Man right there,” she said.
Koram was in Jonesboro, Tenn., for Torrence’s last visit to the National Storytellers annual gathering. By then, her mobility was limited, and she was relying on a motorized scooter.
The standing ovation Torrence received on her introduction to the crowd must have lasted “10 to 15 minutes,” Koram recalled.
“We’re just honored to be at the library today in her honor,” he added.
Asheville’s Roy Harris, a relatively new member of the N.C. Black Storytellers Association, recalled how he missed a day of work so he could hear Torrence one day at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Pat Mardia Stepney met Torrence when she was a children’s librarian.
Burnette, now president of the black storytellers, became friends with Torrence when they were students together at Salisbury’s Livingstone College, where Burnette graduated in 1968.
On a picture-perfect autumn afternoon, the storytellers covered every subject imaginable, from deep-sea fishing to the girl without a name.
Healing Force, a family group from Winston-Salem, also showed how storytelling can be combined with music, as they had the crowd singing and dancing to their Nigerian folk story.
Spend an afternoon with storytellers, and you realize all the talents required — creativity, showmanship, voice control, communication and even philosophizing.
“You always would like the story to have a message for people,” Burnette said, noting how the Bible, one of the most widely read books, is full of parables.
Stepney’s message to the children in the audience with her story about “Obedient jack” was, pay attention to your mother. “Sometimes it brings you riches,” her story proved.
Harris said his recollection of a deep sea fishing trip off the coast of New Jersey proved what all good storytellers know: “When people get together, something’s going to happen.”
Burnette, a retired school social worker now living in Raleigh, said the storytellers’ craft is one of the best-kept secrets, but it’s something that today’s world needs as much as ever.
Throughout history, the ability to communicate and tell a story has helped people learn how to get along with each other, she said.
While the black storytellers deal with African-American culture, Burnette said every culture’s values and beliefs can be told through its own stories.
Today’s connected society and its use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter has not necessarily comprised the art of storytelling. Rather, Burnette said, “it gives us a place where we can be found.”
John Evans of Cornelius, one of Saturday’s last storytellers, told about Lil’ Sis, whose parents could never decide a real name to give her. So for years, even as she began attending school, everyone called her Lil’ Sis.
It wasn’t until the third grade, when a teacher asked the girl what her real name was, that she decided on the spot that she was going to name herself.
She told the teacher her name was “Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth “Libby” Cotton became a blues singer known for her song “Freight Train,” covered by many artists through the years. One of the last stories Jackie Torrence dictated to her friend Eleanor Qadirah was about singer Libby Cotton, who had earned a Grammy before she died in 1987 at age 92.
Evans said the point of his story of the girl without a name was to remind everyone to live and create a life in which your name will be remembered.
He just happened to be the grandson of Lil’ Sis.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.