K is for Knowing Your Audience, or, the Middle School Challenge


Every storytelling audience is different. Each person in the group comes to the event carrying their own baggage: sometimes it's good things like a happy mood, restless energy, or the memory of a recent funny thing that happened to them that still has them smiling. Or maybe they come with a need for quiet and space, a bad day, a fight with a friend, too much coffee or a poor night's sleep. However large or small the group, the emotional, mental and physical energy varies widely from one person to another. And somehow the storyteller has to bring all of these together and into the story.

Middle school students can be especially challenging. Some performers say that this age group is their least favorite audience because of the zany energy levels, unpredictable hormones, the drive to be different and yet not too different, and the seeming lack of interest this age group can exhibit for anyone over 19. And when the artform is an ancient one, requiring no technology, no musical instruments, and no external razzle dazzle--well, the storyteller has his or her work cut out to make storytelling "cool."

Ever since my days working in a public library with a vibrant, active group of teen volunteers, I have enjoyed working with the middle-school group. I like their combination of child/adult impulses, their angst over who they are and who they want to be, their efforts to stand out from the crowd and at the same time their fear of being left out or left behind. They require energy, respect, directness and the ability to laugh at oneself. And if there are any stories perfectly suited for this age group, it's ghost stories.

This week I had the opportunity to spend a full day telling ghost stories to eighth grade students. It's been a standing gig for the past 5 years. I volunteered for it the first time in appreciation of two English teachers who had convinced their students to enter the local writing contest I had helped organize. Since that first year, I've been back each year on a paid basis to tell stories and share information about writing a good story. It's been exciting, surprising, touching, and funny. Each year I hear new stories, tales passed down in families about strange things that have happened, ghosts in houses and caves, weird lights--you name it, I think I've heard it.


This year one young man (I'll call him Jimmy) told us the story of a huge sinkhole. Jimmy said he walked to the edge of it and looked down. Below it seemed to be lighted up, and he saw an animal that looked like a fox walking around and around in the hole. It scared him so badly he ran away. What a strange story! And yet he swore it was true and I could see by the look in his eyes that he was recalling the scene in vivid detail. I suggested that he write it down, and he did.


A few class periods later Jimmy was back in the classroom for a writing class, and he shared his written story with me. I asked him if he would read it to the rest of this large class of about 40 students. Afterwards his teacher told me that this class was a planned combination of high and low achieving students--and the boy who read his story was in the low achieving group. "You touched something in him," she said. "He never writes like that."

I credit the stories, and the sharing of them, with this inspiration in Jimmy to write his story. I hope he will continue to write because he has a strong voice and stories to tell.

I also credit the two teachers who see the value of storytelling for their students of all levels. Storytelling encourages the imagination while it reminds people of their own experiences, feelings and dreams. As each group left me on that storytelling day, I felt a bond with them that storytelling creates--and I know most of them felt it too as they smiled shyly, stopped to tell me a story or tell me they knew my grandchildren or some other little nugget of connection between them and me. Stories erase age differences, social barriers and social awkwardness. We're all one in the stories, and my day with the eighth graders reminded me of that, once again.

J is for Jack, the Appalachian Super-Hero

This summer public libraries across the country will be presenting Summer Reading programs around the theme of super-heroes-- but who could be more super than Jack, that wily, sometimes lazy but always using his canny wit to get through troubles and tribulations.

Jack is the hero of many an Appalachian tale, and come to that, may British and European tales too. As Hans (German and Norway), Ti Jean (French), Juan (Spanish), Ivan (Russia), and others, the "Jack" persona has been slaying dragons, tricking kings, wooing princesses and outwitting ogres for centuries. So he's a natural for this summer of hero tales, I think, and I am looking forward to telling his tales to audiences of all ages.

Because that's the thing about Jack: he charms, entertains and surprises adults and teens as easily as he does children. Men in particular are drawn in to the stories about this unlikely and ungainly boy, perhaps remembering their own days of outrageous adventures. Girls like Jack because he's funny, and because he often collaborates with girls in his adventures--and he seems to like them pretty well too, as he is always trying to win over some maiden or another.

Jack tales have been in America probably since the very early days of settlement, and in what we now call West Virginia since before 1738, according to an early historian of our state, Joseph Doddridge. The stories furnished amusement for all ages in those days and continue to do so today.

So here's to Jack, a real super hero. May his adventures and exploits long live in the stories told about him by storytellers across the globe. This summer he will come alive in my programs for libraries. We'll be singing some old songs about Jack, playing out story parts with puppets and audience participation and having a fine time with these lively tales. I hope you will be in the audience somewhere along my trail.

I is for Ikie's Tomb; Or, The Boy Who Was Buried Three Times

My take on ghost stories differs from that of ghost-hunters. I am interested in what people tell me, the stories of things that happened to them or to family members, and not as much in whether the tales are "true" and definitely not in trying to contact the dead or determining if there is any paranormal activity. I prefer the story and the folklore/legend aspect; if someone tells me that it happened, I take their word as a collector of stories. Who am I to say if it happened or not? 

One of the strangest tales, told to me by a lady at one of my storytelling events, is the story of Ikie's Tomb. I had the opportunity last year to visit the tomb with a friend who knew its location and who was able to add to what I had already heard about the place.

Here's the story as I have gathered it from several sources:

A boy named Ikie Mooring died when very young. Ikie's name was probably Isaac, after his grandfather but everyone called him Ikie (pronounced Eye-key, or Icky, depending on who you talk to). Ikie died, people said from eating bad ice milk. I have wondered about that. How could ice milk kill him? One suggestion was that ice cream and ice milk were made in the old metal ice cream makers, that were soldered together with lead--could it have been lead poisoning? Another suggestion was that the milk was tainted with the brucellosis virus, known to be deadly. Either is possible, I think.

Ikie was buried first on the family's farm but his mother wasn't satisfied with that. She wanted something better for her little boy, and apparently wasn't willing to give him up to the earth just yet. So she had a concrete tomb constructed high on a ridge near her home. The tomb had a doot for entry, and also a window so you could stand outside and look within. Inside the tomb was a concrete trough, for lack of a better description. Ikie was disinterred and his body, wearing a little blue sailors suit, was placed in the trough which was then filled with formaldehyde.  I believe the trough was then covered with a sheet of glass, because formaldehyde would surely have evaporated over time. 

The mother put the child's toys into the tomb, and also a rocking chair and a broom. The mother would go to the tomb on a regular basis to sweep and clean it, and she would then take the child's body from the glass case and rock and croon to him in the rocking chair. Then she would put him back into the case until her next visit. Some stories say that when she came back down the hill there would be blue stains on her clothing from the little boy's clothing.

The family moved away to the Huntington area and the tomb was left untended. Vandals broke in the door and window; some people say dogs got in and dragged out Ikie's remains. Still others say that a local rock group stole his skull and placed it on stage during their performances. Groups often visited the site at night, and local people worried that strange rites might be taking place there. The local undertaker got word of the desecration of the tomb and alerted state authorities. With the state's approval, Ikie's remains were collected and he was buried once again in what is his final resting place, beside his beloved grandfather.

And odd twist in this already strange tale says that there were other children in the tomb as well--babies that had died at or soon after birth and were placed into stone crocks and put into the tomb. Some versions say there were two teenage girls in the tomb as well, laid one on each side of Ikie. From what I could see inside the remains of the tomb there did appear to have been three troughs, but I think perhaps those other two were intended for later use by his parents. Disconcertingly, though, there were also shards from old crocks within the tomb. Could the stories of other babies kept there be true?

A search of US Census records revealed that Ikie's mother reported having given birth to five children, but only one was living. I wondered about that, and began looking for that one living child. I found nothing. That made me wonder, was Ikie her only child who survived after birth? Did she have four stillborn children, and only this one little boy who lived? The story, whatever the truth might be, is a sad one that leaves me with many questions--and empathy for this woman who struggled so terribly with the loss of her much-loved child. 

We visited Ikie's Tomb in early November. Leaves were mostly gone from the trees and the site was lonely and remote, accessible only by four-wheel-drive. Far off the Ohio River glinted in the sun; a cold wind blew drifts of leaves across the road and the graveyard. There were only a few graves in the place, and it seemed that maintenance of the site was minimal at best. Ikie's tomb stood off by itself along a path between the trees. I left with as many question as I had had when I arrived, but with an even deeper sense of the tragedy of Ikie's life, and of his death.

I can only hope that now, as he lays in his final resting place, Ikie Gorrell Mooring at least knows peace.

You can find more about Ikie's Tomb at:

Goldenseal Magazine, Fall 2003: Searching for Ikie's Tomb.

Genealogy information about Ikie.

Museum Day!



A beautiful autumn day. Soft waters of the Ohio River flowing by. Two museums on the riverbank. Four storytellers. Can it get any better than that?



Jeff and I, on the river in Pomeroy, OH
Tomorrow is Museum Day, a day to get out an enjoy what the museums in your neck of the woods have to offer. Two of Marietta's museums teamed up to celebrate with a day of stories and music. Campus Martius and the Ohio River Museum will be hosting events all day and I am happy to be part of the celebration. I'll be joined by storytellers Judi Tarowsky and Stephen Hollen and my sometimes-partner-in-crime, musician Jeff Seager.



Stephen Hollen as Mark Twain, 2011

If you're in the area, come in and say hello and have a listen to some memorable, funny, touching and spellbinding tales and songs. And if you can't make it to Marietta, be sure to stop by a museum wherever you are, and thank the people who work so hard to create a place of learning and beauty in your neighborhood.

Campus Martius Museum is located at 601 2nd Street, Marietta, Ohio, on State Route 7, minutes from I-77. The museum is just one block away from the Ohio River Museum

The Ohio River Museum is located at 601 Front Street, Marietta, Ohio, one block from Ohio State Route 7, and minutes from I-77. Free parking is available in the museum parking lot. Ohio River Museum is also wheelchair accessible, except for W.P. Snyder. 

If you need more details or directions, call the museums at 1-740-373-3750.  

What I've Been Up To

Variety is the basis of a storyteller's life. I find myself involved in projects of all kinds, both expected and unexpected, familiar and strange new territory.

Here's a sample of what I've been doing lately:

The combination of stories and ballads proved its power again this week when Fred Powers presented stories and I sang ballads about coal mining. We hope to present this program more often in the future so stay tuned.

An ongoing project with its culmination looming is the Ripley, WV Do You Believe? Ghost Walk. I have been researching and writing stories, have the route planned and have been working with the local theater group, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Main Street Ripley and others to get this first-time event off to a good start. The stories are almost ready, the publicity is beginning, and I'm excited!

This weekend I'll be telling tales for Museum Day at the Ohio River Museum in Marietta, OH. I have performed there before, telling river tales for the Inland Waterways Festival, but this is a new event and should be a lot of fun. Ohio friends, come on out and have a listen!

Jeff Seager and I are planning our annual Here We Come A-Caroling! program for house concerts in the DC area. We still have dates available, so contact me if you're interested.

More ghost stories--for a small town festival, a college, an art center and a few libraries. Tis certainly the season! October is looking pretty busy for this storyteller, as it is also the month for the West Virginia Storytelling Festival at Jackson's Mill. Check my performance schedule in the tabs above to see if I'll be anywhere near you.

Jo Ann Dadisman and I have been putting the final touches on organizing and now promoting a workshop on telling tales from the Grimm Brothers to be presented by Susan Gordon on November 15. We will also have a concert on November 14 at 7pm, featuring Susan, Jo Ann, me and performance poet Kirk Judd. Details coming soon!

That's just a taste of what's on my plate in the upcoming months. There's much more--so much spice for the storyteller's life.

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 susannaholstein@yahoo.com 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 susannaholstein@yahoo.com