Outside the Downs depot a cold north wind blew storm clouds across the dark spring sky.
Inside the clock ticked toward midnight. Eighty pairs of eyes penetrated the very soul of the storyteller as if to say, “We’ll be watching your every move.”
Except for the rise and fall of his voice, you could hear a pin drop.
The audience listening to Tim Lowry hung on every word. As he launched into “The Doctor to the Dead,” a lady in the front row poked her index finger into her right ear, hoping to remove any blockage so she could hear every syllable.
Forty-five minutes later as Lowry finished his last ghost story, the audience remained glued to their seats. They wanted more.
Instead, the storyteller began to visit with the listeners as they grudgingly rose from their chairs and shuffled toward the depot door. People traveled miles to hear the stories. They devoured every twist and turn along the joyous journeys.
Two ladies from Chicago followed the artists from city to city and state to state to hear their yarns. Retired – that’s what they do with their time these days.
Every spring for the last 24 years, the citizens of Downs bring nationally recognized talent to their community of 900 souls. This year Lowry, who makes his home in Summerville, S.C., headlined the Kansas Storytelling Festival held April 28-29.
Lowry is best known for his folk tales and stories from American history. His best stories revolve around his rural childhood growing up in the hills of Tennessee.
Other featured storytellers included Brian “Fox” Ellis, an author of song myth poetry and prose; Linda Gorham, who specializes in surprising twists and unconventional humor; and Adam Miller, a natural-born storyteller.
Individual backgrounds and styles made each storyteller distinctive. Tellers were rotated to four different stages and sessions were planned around the interests of children, history, music and anecdotal tales.
Anyone who attended the festival was hard-pressed to choose a favorite storyteller. All four kept each audience spellbound throughout their sessions.
Every story included a bit of history and a lesson including one of Lowry’s yarns entitled, “Out ‘n No Book.” This story talks about the stuff teachers won’t tell you including a story about a Native American (“Indian yo-yo”) made of a crow’s foot.
Ellis, on the other hand, re-enacted historical figures from our nation’s past including: Meriwether Lewis, Edgar Allen Poe and John Audubon. Decked out in the garb of that era, Ellis became a living, breathing caricature of these famous men. His stories and historical knowledge came alive on the stage.
Gorham provided a twisted slant on the classic fairytale, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Woven through her tale were references to more than 50 kinds of chocolate bars including Twix, Milky Way and Almond Joy. Some children say Gorham’s stories are “better than recess.”
The final storyteller at this year’s festival, Miller, told a 30-minute tale about the tragic life of Woody Guthrie, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. Guthrie, a folksinger from Oklahoma wrote more than 1,000 folk songs in his short life.
And you know what?
He didn’t use an original melody for any one of those songs including, “This Land is Your Land.”
Believe me, you had to be there. Each story was a gem that created pictures of people and events in the listener’s mind.
I don’t know about you, but next year during the last weekend of April I’ll be seated in Memorial Hall in Downs listening to the new batch of storytellers. Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Kansas Storytelling Festival that began in 1994.
All the more reason to attend next year’s event. See you there.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.