House Concerts: A New Way to Entertain

Planning a holiday party? Or just want to have some friends over for a nice evening of entertainment and talk? Then consider a house concert.

Most of us plan parties or get-togethers of some kind during the year, and these events usually follow a similar path: munchies, liquid refreshments, perhaps dinner and music. But imagine adding a new twist: a storyteller to entertain your guests with tales wild and wonderful, true and maybe-true, outrageous and touching, humorous and uplifting.

House concerts have taken off across the nation as a different and enriching touch to the usual party. Storytellers, musicians and poets are finding the venue perfect for intimate, informal presentations of their work to audiences who may be new to their artform. For the host, a house concert bumps up their event a notch, making it not only an evening of fun but one that supports the arts. Concerts can be planned for family audiences or adult-only groups.

I have been lucky enough to be invited to present at several house concerts over the past two years. It is always a pleasure--good people, good refreshments, inviting surroundings and the opportunity to interact personally with small audiences of appreciative and attentive listeners. Many performers today are often able to book enough house concerts to enable them to travel across the country to distant events. The house concert is becoming a viable income source for many a struggling artist.

How does it work? It's simple enough. The host plans a party and invites his/her friends. How many depends on the space available but 15-40 seems to be the usual number. Food and beverages are provided by the host, and sometimes the event is a potluck with attendees also providing some of the refreshment. Each guest is asked for a "donation" of a specific amount, generally in the $10-$20 range. The money collected goes to the invited performer.

Where else can one attend a concert where they can interact with the performer and get quality, often homemade refreshments for that price? It's a great deal for everyone involved: the hosts have a great event for their friends with minimal effort and cost, the guests have a fine evening out, again at minimal cost, and the performers make enough, hopefully, to make it worth their while.

If you are interested in a house concert, get in touch and I'd be happy to discuss it with you. Call 866-643-1353 tollfree, or email me at and let's get started talking about your event.

H is for Holidays!

Here we come a-caroling!

What better time for stories and songs than the holidays? In particular, the Christmas holidays in December and early January.

For the past three years I have been presenting a program based on the songs of the season, accompanied by the guitar and singing of musician Jeff Seager. We explore both ancient ballads and modern carols--everything from the pagan roots of The Holly Bears a Berry to the frankly commercial tales behind Rudolph and Frosty. Some we sing a cappella, some with Jeff's guitar accompaniment, many with the audience singing along, and all with the joy and spirit of the season.

Each year we seek out new material so that our presentation is fresh for return listeners at venues that have us back each year. I am constantly amazed at the wide variety of songs written for this season, and intrigued by the stories behind their creation.

We are already booking dates in November and December, so if you are looking for something different for your holiday open house or other events, give us a call at 866-643-1353 (toll-free) or drop me an email at 

G is for Ghost Stories

"I know you might not believe this, but..." And so begins another tale of some strange, haunting experience, often told by someone who isn't sure they believe their own story. Frequently these are stories passed down in a family, laced with local superstition and folklore, and almost always well worth hearing. 

Download my story about how Burnt House, WV got its name by clicking here. It's a strange tale to be sure. This story is  on my CD of ghost stories, Beyond the Grave.

Ghost stories and storytelling have been a part of the Appalachian culture since the earliest pioneers arrived on the shores of America. People told stories to while away the time during long winter evenings or on the porch on hot summer days. Stories were a way to pass on family history, traditions, stories from the “old country,” and to teach children the accepted rules of behavior.

But why are there so many ghost stories? What gives this particular type of tale its longevity and popularity? In West Virginia, we have many such tales, from vanishing hitchhikers to malevolent peddlers to crying ghost babies. The degree of "hauntedness" varies. We are a state of storytellers, as you would know if you stood in line at any grocery store. We talk to strangers and we talk in stories, and that applies to telling someone about something odd and inexplicable that has occurred.Sometimes the stories are fragments, really, a mere whisper of a tale or piece of memory passed down as a "they say" story. Others are well-known, documented in books and occasionally on film or in photos. 

The possible reasons for the abundance of ghost stories are several. The simplest explanation might be that the mist rising from the hills at night can create a ghostly aspect that might make a person think of otherworldly beings. Some folklorists speculate that the settlers brought with them the stories and lore of their native countries. Some of these stories were transplanted with the people who told them with new twists introduced in their new land. The heritage in this part of the Appalachians is Scottish, English, Irish and German predominantly, but with a good helping of Italian and a seasoning of Polish, Russian, African-American, and many other nationalities. British folklore, particularly that of Ireland, includes revenants of all kinds, along with both little people and giants. Some of those tales were simply transplanted and adapted to a new environment. The German tales also moved to the mountains, with their often darker themes.

Religion might have played a role as well. Many settlers believed firmly in the flight of the soul after death, and it was not much of a stretch to believe that some souls lost their way on this final journey and were trapped here on earth. Usually these lost souls had a specific reason for staying: revenge, relaying a warning to loved ones, or some other unfinished business. Some ghost stories were cautionary tales, meant to discourage children from dangerous activities. In my county, there is a story of a headless dog that supposedly haunts Tug Fork after dark and chases people. Children in that area might think twice about going out after dark if there is a chance of encountering that dog.  West Virginians are religious people, and ghost stories often carry lessons of forgiveness, retribution, unrest because of a grave sin, or warnings to listen to elders. 

Then there is the environment: towering dark mountains, deep shadowy hollows, evening and early morning fogs, the intense quiet broken only the falling leaves, an owl's call, the cry of some unnamed night creature. All lend themselves to a sense of the supernatural, of someone or something watching, lurking, in the dark and hidden places along our roads.

My interest in ghost stories began when I was a child; my parents told us the story of the haunted house in Royston, England, where they had an apartment as newlyweds. Add to that the big old house in Manassas where we lived when I was young, with its chipping plaster walls, spooky basement and Civil War relics in the yard, and my fertile imagination was well supplied. When I moved to West Virginia, however, I found that I had moved to the mother lode of ghost stories. It seemed like every place in the state had a story connected with it. In my own county, I heard almost a dozen stories of haunted places or events.

As I learned more about my new home, I found the books by Dr. Ruth Ann Musick, who collected ghost stories from around the state. Many tales were brief and vague, others were more developed with names and specific locations. The stories grabbed me because they were told by ordinary people living their ordinary lives--except there were these weird things that had happened that they knew about and were willing to share.

Ghost stories are not horror stories. Ghost stories are typically stories about supernatural occurrences, rarely include violent acts committed by the spirit, and are usually fairly short.  They are generally more haunting than scary, leaving the listener wondering what might have really happened, if the person really saw what they claimed, or why the ghost chose that place or time to appear. The haunting, unexplained nature of ghost stories probably explains their continued popularity. There is mystery in ghost stories that engages the imagination. Many ghost stories have been collected and published in books; still others are still being passed down from parent to child.

There are, of course, different kinds of ghost stories. My focus is on the stories told to me as true events or that I have found documented in some way (books, newspaper clippings, etc). I do tell some of the fictional, folk stories and not-too-spooky stories for young audiences, but my primary interest lies in the "true" ghost stories. 

Some storytellers prefer the ""jump" tales of campfire popularity, others the horror stories and literary ghost tales. All have their audiences. 

For those interested in the type of stories I tell, I offer the following excerpt from my ghost stories workshop for those interested in telling ghost stories reported as actually happening or with a historical basis :

The brevity of ghost stories and the general lack of detail means work has to be done to create a performance piece. This can be accomplished by placing the story in a frame--developing the who, what, when and where of the story. 

Build the Story’s Frame:

1    1.  Time: when did the story take place? If no date can be established, when did your informant hear of the story—how old were they? What were the times like then—i.e. Depression, wartime, post-war, Vietnam era. Set the story in a time period. Historic events? Local history? Local industry or occupations?
2.       Place: where did the story take place? Rural, city, West Virginia or another state? In a house/store/other building, or in a field/graveyard/street, etc? What did the place look like during the time period of the story?
3.       People: who told you the story? Who told it to them (if it wasn’t a personal experience)?Who were their people? Who were the main characters in the story and how did they happen to be in the place where the events occurred? 
4.       What happened? Are there other accounts of the story/events from other/perspectives/others involved? Are there similar stories in folklore? Is the event recurring, or was it a one-time happening? Is there a specific date/time/circumstance that lead to the event, i.e. a holiday, or a storm, the presence of a particular person, an anniversary date?
5.       Why does your informant think the events happened? Are there superstitions/beliefs involved? Did something occur to stop the recurrence of the event?
Place the Story in the Frame:

6.       What perspective will you use to tell the story—what narrative voice? 
7.       Now that you have gathered all this information, how much of it is relevant to the story? How much does your audience need to hear, and how much of it is really to inform your telling (and to be able to answer questions later)?
Dig Deeper—the story in 3D

8.       Is there something to be learned from the story, some moral, lesson, warning, etc? You may not want to state this specifically in the telling, but being aware of them can influence your interpretation of the tale. Is there an underlying universal theme—love, hate, loss, longing, regret, revenge? 

      9.   Build in the senses: evocative scents, sounds, surroundings. Show with the gestures, voice and expression as much as possible rather than using extensive descriptions for such things as the roughness of fabrics or the softness of a touch, etc.

Hang the Story in Place

10.   Circling back: Summarizing/ending the story. Conclusions drawn? Impact of the story on the place/people/time? What is left today—Buildings? Descendants? Place names?

I've posted many ghost stories on my other blog over the seven years I've been writing online. Here are a few you may want to read:

This ghost story was written from a brief account in a newspaper article.

The story my parents told about their haunted house in England.

A couple of ghostly poems; and here is another. And a classic from Thomas Hardy.

Ghost story and comedy, all in one! The Gatehouse Ghost story is a true story that happened to me.

Links to other ghostly information.

Strange photos we took at the old Moundsville State Penitentiary, which now does ghost tours.

Raw Head, Bloody Bones was a look into the background of this chilling tale used to scare little children.

A recipe for Bony Fingers? Why not?

Jump Tales for Halloween--just the bare bones, but easy to develop for telling.

West Virginia's most famous ghost story, The Greenbrier Ghost. This is on my new CD Beyond the Grave both as a ballad and a story. 

A ghostly tale from Rowlesburg, West Virginia.

The Wizard Clipp, another famous story in our state. Another one that's on my new CD.

A short tale, easy to tell.

I've written about the "why" of ghost stories before; this older post contains a good booklist.

A true story of something that happened to me. It still gives me shivers to remember it.

One of the stories from Jackson County, Sidna is a tale I often tell. It's on the CD!

A story told to me by a young girl, this story is on my new CD too.

Want a copy of my new CD, Beyond the Grave; Ghost Stories and Ballads from the Mountains? Email me at and I can tell you purchase details.

F is for Family

There are so many ways to interpret the title of this post.

I could talk about the importance of family stories and how these stories deepen our appreciation and understanding of our heritage. I could bemoan the loss of family time and communication as today's families speed along on widely different paths and seldom spend real time together.

I could talk about telling stories to family audiences, those performances when the audience ranges in age from newborn to ninety, when babies cry and toddlers wiggle and everyone has a great time listening. I could delve into the bag of stories that work for these audiences and why those tales work and how to modify a story so it too can be put into the family story bag.

I could talk about the family of storytellers and the ways we connect and support each other's work. I could extol the valuable assistance we offer each other through our listservs, Facebook pages, guilds and associations.

But I want to talk about the world family and how storytelling connects us all through universal themes, reminding us that we all share the same hopes, dreams, grief and joy. I see storytelling as an essential tool in the search for peace and understanding.

One of the stories I am telling this summer is based on Aesop's fable called The Bundle of Sticks, and it is a good example of how stories can connect us:

A father has five sons. Those boys do nothing but argue and fight all day, every day. The father is getting old and the continuous fighting is making him feel even older. He feels beaten down by harsh words and meanness. And he worries.

"I want to leave my farm to my sons to work together when I am gone," he thought. "But their arguing and fighting will surely cause them to lose their crops because they will never agree on when to harvest. The stock will be lost because they will argue over who should fix the fence. The buildings will fall into ruin because they will fight over which one should climb up to repair the roofs. Ah me, what am I to do?"

Finally one day the old father had an idea. He called his five sons to him and handed each of them a stick.

"Now," he said to the oldest son, "break your stick."

The son did so easily. The father moved to the second son, the third and so on. Each son easily broke the stick the father had given him.

"What's the point of this, Father? You're wasting our time with your foolish game!" the oldest son snarled.

"Maybe so, Son, maybe so. But before you leave, please take this bundle of five sticks and break it for me."

The oldest son grabbed the bundle and tried to break it. Sweat popped out on his forehead as he strained to break the bundle.

"Let me try!" said the second son. But he too was unsuccessful. All five sons tried to break the bundle but none of them could do it though they tried until their muscles were sore and their hands were blistered.

"My sons," said the old father, "you are like these sticks. Individually, you all will break but together you are strong. Work together and you and your families will prosper; continue fighting the way you have been, and you will surely be broken, and lose everything you own."
What parent does not worry about their children's future and feel exasperated when their children fight? What children have never argued with their siblings? Touching on such universal experience brings us together, and we can all feel the father's stress and love in this tale. At the same time, we can see how standing together can unite us in the face of adversity and make us stronger and better able to face the future.

Whenever a storyteller begins a tale, the audience before them slowly merges into a family of listeners. Sharing a story brings people closer together, shared experience and emotion creating a bridge that crosses over the divides of gender, age, race, economic levels, religious beliefs and politics. I cannot think of anything other than art that can have this impact on a diverse group, and of all the arts storytelling is the most personal, the most direct, and probably the simplest. I tell a story, using only my words, gestures and body language, and together the audience sees a world spread before them--a world with characters, scenery, history, adventure, and wisdom.

E is for Experiment!

It's Summer Reading time! Last week I presented my program Folktale Science for the first time, and what fun we had.

My program is a mixture of stories and experiments. The experiments pick up on some aspect of the story--blowing up balloons with baking soda, optical illusions, and everything in between. Good crowds came out at the small-town libraries in Sistersville and Paden City, WV; almost every chair was full in Sistersville and in Paden City the staff scrambled to get out more chairs as people piled in.
  My display table before the program began--lots of kitchen items, the puppets, the fiber optic lights (for demonstrating why we can't see stars during the day), and paper towels for potential cleanup.

One of the most popular experiments is making a rainbow in a jar. The experiment demonstrates density of liquids, and the children (and adults) were fascinated. The story I told for this experiment was how the rainbow came to be, a perfect fit. Sunday school teachers in the audience took note of this one for use in their classrooms.

And here you can see most of the rainbow after my volunteers added the liquids to the cup.

We played with cabbage too-well, with the liquid that remains when red cabbage is cooked. I modified the story of the Giant Turnip to be a giant cabbage instead, and my volunteers worked hard to pull the cabbage out. All were fascinated by the way the cabbage liquid changed color with the addition of bases and acids.

Bear, one of the first puppets I bought when I began storytelling, belonged to my youngest son Tommy for several years before before being allowed to go storytelling with me. He's still one of my favorite puppets. Tommy is 28 now, so you can see Bear has been around a long time. Here we are telling the story
Sody Saleratus. It is an old mountain story and gave me the opportunity for more audience participation and to try another experiment, blowing up a balloon with the soda/vinegar interaction.

 Yes, it works! You have to be careful though or the balloon will blow up. Fortunately it stayed intact during both demonstrations.

Then it was on to Paden City; waiting for the crowd to come in and wondering who would be there and how many would come. Display set up varies depending on the tables available and I always carry extra table covers just in case I make a mess or need more.

Story selection and presentation varies too, depending on the age of the audience and their reactions. A storyteller is always reading the audience for clues and stories can shift and change, be longer or shorter, based on those readings.

I always include some form of audience participation in my stories for children. This young lady was really into her part!

Telling the story of how the elephant got his long trunk with a group of eager volunteers. This story leads into optical illusion experiments.

I will be back on the road this week, presenting this program for Shady Spring Library in Raleigh County, WV. I will also be telling Appalachian tales for a church camp near Huntington, WV and spending a couple days at the West Virginia Folk Festival at Glenville, WV as coordinator and presenter for the Oral Traditions Tent. I hope to see you somewhere along the way.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

D is for Depending on the Audience

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, will it make a noise? This applies perfectly to storytelling: storytelling doesn't happen without an audience. And storytellers depend on the audience in many ways.

Besides being simply a physical presence, the audience provides clues and cues for the teller. Intense listening, a questioning look, laughter, a sudden intake of breath, and even stirring in their seats all send the storyteller a message. For example:

  • A questioning look in a listener's eyes may mean the teller has used unfamiliar vocabulary. In the next sentence or two, the teller can clarify by building the definition into the story narrative.  If I said "he was feeling peckish" there might be some in the audience who would not know that Appalachian term. I could clarify by adding, "so he went looking for something to eat" which defines the word and keeps the story flowing.
  • laughter usually means the audience is with the story and comfortable enough to laugh aloud. Most people will only smile at something funny if they aren't comfortable in the environment or with the people around them. Laughter at the wrong place signals the teller to work on that section of the tale next time. Maybe he/she hadn't taken the audience deep enough into the tale, or maybe it was choice of words, or it could be simply where the event is taking place--funny in one venue might not be funny in another. I
  • An intake of breath--ah, they are really into the story and feeling what the character feels!
  • Stirring in their seats can send different messages. Stirring, looking around, whispering or talking to their neighbor very likely means "get to work, storyteller! You're losing your audience!" It could be the story was not the right one for this group; in that case the teller can shorten it up, hasten the end and move on. Sometimes inserting a question to which the audience must give some sort of response can bring them back into the tale. There are many distractions that can keep an audience from focusing: a door opening, a child crying, the lateness of the hour, too long in their seats at an event, too warm or too cold, etc. The storyteller makes lightning decisions as to what might be disturbing the group and then work with the audience to overcome the problem and get everyone back to the story. I remember one event being held in a large barn that was also used for cattle auctions. Flies were everywhere and the audience kept moving and talking to each other about it while the tellers before me were performing. When it was my turn, I acknowledged the fly problem and had everyone wave their arms in the air to scare away the flies. Everyone laughed and relaxed. The flies didn't leave, of course, but we were all more comfortable with the situation and could move along.
There are many other audience cues a storyteller will pick up on during a performance, and often the teller will make subtle changes that the listeners are not aware of. This is one reason why it is important for a storyteller to see the audience's eyes during a performance. Most performances done on stage require stage lighting; for storytelling the best lighting is if the audience lights are at least partially up so that the audience is not lost in the blinding glare of the stage lights.

Storytellers also depend on their audience for feedback after a show. Comments, memories, questions, and other interactions give us food for thought. I have heard, and been given, many good stories by listeners after a performance. A question may make me realize I need to clarify a point in the story, a hug means I have touched that person and connected with them, and that is a real reward.

So storytelling is a two-way street--the teller sends the story out, and the audience's reaction to the story feeds the teller vital information both during and long after the tale is ended.

C is for Crow

Crow on a Branch - Kawanabe Kyosai(1831–1889)
A small crow was sittin' in an oak
Watchin' a tailor cuttin' out a coat. 
Hey hey-oh! said the small little crow.

So begins one of my favorite folk songs; I call it "The Crow Song," but it is also known as "The Carrion Crow," (with variations in the wording) and as a British nursery rhyme. It is one of numerous examples of how the old songs changed during their journey to the Appalachian mountains. Crows have long been associated with death, among other superstitions; perhaps calling a group of crows a "murder" has its roots in that superstition?

Seeing a "black crow" is considered bad luck, but that leaves me wondering what other kind of crow could possibly be seen, since all the crows I am familiar with are black! Are they all bad luck? Hardly seems fair to the crow. My husband calls mourning doves "rain crows" and believes that hearing one means rain is on the way. He says that his family and neighbors in southern West Virginia always called them rain crows and I had to prove to him with photos and books that his rain crows were actually doves.

The crow is often confused with the raven and the the folklore associated with each is also intermingled. The crow, in some cultures, was seen as a messenger from the gods and believed to be the bringer of messages of prophecy and either good or bad omens.

Some other superstitions attached to crows:
  • a dead crow in the road is a sign of good luck (but not, apparently, for the crow). This probably comes from the practice of hanging a dead crow in the garden to frighten off other crows. As one old-timer told me, "The only good crow is a dead crow."
  • Seeing two crows flying together is considered good luck in some places, but bad luck in others. I guess it all depends on where you live.
  • a crow on the roof means Death is on the way to the house.
  • A Missoula cemetery website offers this advice: "One crow = Bad luck. Two crows = Good luck. Three crows = Health. Four crows =Sickness. Five crows = Death. Lots of other interesting graveyard folklore in this document.

My husband's father once had a crow as a pet. We know now, of course, that it isn't wise and is in fact illegal generally to keep wild creatures as pets, but back in the 1950's no one thought much about it. Chuck (Larry's dad) had a variety of wild animal pets from time to time: raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels, a fox--so when he found a baby crow he naturally brought it home. The family raised the crow on a doll bottle at first, then gradually moved on to other foods as the crow, now named Jimmy, grew. They had him for 7 years until an unfortunate argument between Jimmy and the hogs lead to Jimmy's demise. Larry has many tales about his crow, and some of them have become a story I sometimes tell.

Crows feature in the folklore and stories from countries around the world. Wikipedia says that "In Chinese mythology, the world originally had ten suns either spiritually embodied as ten crows and/or carried by ten crows: when all ten decided to rise at once the effect was devastating to crops, so the gods sent their greatest archer Houyi, who shot down nine crows and spared only one. This mythology comes from a text in Shanhaijing, among other sources.[49]

Aesop certainly knew a thing or two about crows; the story of the crow and the pitcher is a good example:

A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it. He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life.

This reminds me of Mark Twain's story about the blue jay trying to fill a cabin by dropping acorns down the chimney. The result was a bit better for the crow trying to fill his pitcher, a more reasonable goal.

My Dad used to say this about planting corn: "one for the rain, one for the drought, one for the crow and one for me." This is close to a saying collected by the Missouri Folklore Society: "One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow."

Other crow stories and songs:
The Fox and the Crow, from Aesop: Wikipedia gives information and links to many versions of this fable, including musical ones.

The Native American tale Rainbow Crow is retold by S.E. Schlosser here. You can find many legends of the Native American Crow people on this site.

Story-Lovers has a plethora of links, books and more, all about crows.

Crows continue to intrigue scientists too. Find out about some current research and findings at the Cornell website.

I'll wrap up this post with another favorite ballad called The Twa Corbies. It's also known as The Two Crows. Some years back a storyteller whose name I cannot recall taught it to me as Biddy McGee McGaw which is very close to this version, also from the Appalachian mountain region:

"The Three Black Crows." 
Obtained from Miss Mary Franklin, Cross­nore, Avery County, North Carolina, August n, 1930. (From the Traditional Music website
1. There were three crows sat on a tree,
   Old Billy McGaw McGee!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
And they were black as crows could be,
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
2. "What shall we have for bread to eat?"
    Old Billy McGaw McGee!
"On yonders hill there lies a horse."
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
"We'll perch ourselves on his backbone,
And pick his eyes out one by one;"
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
"Caw! Caw! Caw!"