Editor’s note: Linda Crandall is retired from teaching high school journalism at McCook High School and speech, drama and English at Holdrege High School. She holds a master’s degree in English Education from the University of Nebraska-Kearney and studied at the Bread Loaf School of Writing, Middlebury, Vermont. As co-chair of the Buffalo Commons Music and Storytelling Festival, past president of the McCook Arts Council, and certified speech and theatre adjudicator, she strives to bring arts and communications experiences to rural Nebraska. This month she shares her experiences at the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival with Nebraska Rural Living. Buffalo Commons will be June 9-10, 2017, in McCook, Nebraska. Portions of this essay were published previously by Prairie Fire Newspaper, Spring 2011.
Still telling stories after 21 years
It was one of those balmy days in early summer when life bursts into full bloom. The music swayed and dos-i-doed around the old Norris Park band shell as Ruthie Ungar called, “Gather ‘round!”
Under the canopy of an old elm, an eclectic group drew together, dissolved out again and spun a circle like pieces of a kaleidoscope.
My arm slid around my eight-year-old grandson’s shoulder. We giggled as we twirled and skipped to the next outstretched hand. While we danced, Jay’s old-time fiddle beckoned the harmonies of his family band and hand clapping from the crowd lazing in lawn chairs and on blankets spread over the grass.
A year earlier, I had been in the audience when Jay Ungar and Molly Mason mesmerized thousands at a Mark Twain Days concert on the Hartford, Connecticut, courthouse square. The couple had won acclaim for their performance of Jay’s haunting composition, Ashokan Farewell, when it became the musical hallmark of Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War series.
But this day, this weekend, they were in McCook, Nebraska, with Jay’s daughter Ruth and her fiancé, Michael Merenda, making music and stirring memories at the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival.
More than fairytales and dances in the park
I have been a part of the festival since its inception in 1997. However, it was during this 2002 event I realized that storytelling was much more than children’s fairytales and a dance in the park.
The night before, my children and grandchildren were beside me in a row of worn red seats at the Historic Fox Theatre. Nebraska’s state poet Bill Kloefkorn brought belly laughs with his famous shrill hog calls, and I remembered catching baby pigs with my cousins and making cozy beds for them in pockets of hay in the loft of Granddad’s Phelps County barn.
Kloefkorn’s melodic deep voice then transported us to the small-town cemetery where as a young man he had reluctantly driven his grandmother in his green Ford coupe. It was early March, and he recalled his German grandmother in her wide rosy-beige coat. “Just me and Grandmother Anna rushing the season, placing a geranium above where grandfather already is, where grandmother is, she’ll tell me later, about to be.”
I suddenly found myself drifting to the country cemetery south of the Platte River near Elm Creek on the cold February day of my mother’s funeral. Everyone has gathered in the church basement, but I see my son and daughter home from the Peace Corps standing in solitude with arms around each other watching the tractor push the dirt over my mother’s grave. My daughter’s long, black and grey tweed coat billowed in the wind while lacey snowflakes fluttered and landed, as if pulling up the covers as they say goodnight to Grandma Loraine for the final time.
I took my daughter’s hand in mine. Tears ran into our own memories and connected her present to my past. That was the epiphany of the storytelling experience, but not the end of a magic entwining of community, family and hearts. It was the sheer beauty and grace of Jay’s violin stirring the longings of my soul that made me realize that without story in song, in narrative, in poetry, in the moments we share with those we love, we lose a bit of ourselves. I know that when my two young children pushed their toy tractors through the corn stubble at the end of the field where my great-grandparents’ sod house stood, they could hear the music because they knew the stories.
Visit Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival in June
If you would like to hear the music of your past and make memories for your future, the 21st annual Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival will be June 9-10, 2017. The event not only attracts the nation’s top storytellers and musicians to entertain and inspire, but it provides a means to learn, practice and preserve the unique culture of every individual, family and community.
Festival 2017 will celebrate McCook’s 135th birthday and Nebraska’s 150th with storytellers, poets, historians, musicians, a bus tour, stage show, intimate bistro event, youth workshop, college course, and poetry slam. To emphasize history and sense of place, events will include a Chautauqua-style garden party, tour of a historic home and stories in conversation, narrative, poetry, and music at the historic High Plains Museum. The arts and humanities have been central to Southwest Nebraska and McCook’s development as the “Capital of the Buffalo Commons” from the early homesteaders to the cowboys, railroaders, community leaders in the life and challenges of this place on the Republican River Valley of the mixed grass prairie.
The festival strives to provide experience-based learning by combining super venues, outstanding artists, and enthusiastic hosts to invite audiences of all ages and ethnic backgrounds into a celebration of rural community. The artists not only entertain, they model, teach, and inspire. Headlining the 2017 festival are nationally acclaimed humorist, author, and storyteller Kim Weitkamp from Virginia; 2015 Grammy Nominee for Best Bluegrass Album and 2016 ABMA Instrumental Group of the Year, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen from Washington D.C.; 2016 Nebraska Book Award Winner poet Chuck Peek of Kearney; one of Humanities Nebraska’s most-requested presenters writer-historian Jeff Barnes of Lincoln; local musician via Nashville Ginger ten Benzel, local writer-historian Walt Sehnert, Pastor Clark and Dawna Bates as Senator and Ellie Norris, historian-author Joy Haden, local poet Ginny Odenbach, and former Gazette publisher Gene O. Morris.
Buffalo Commons began as personal challenge against rural depopulation
In 1987 Frank Popper, urban studies department chair at Rutgers University, and his geographer wife Deborah prophesied that the arid Great Plains would lose almost all of its people within a quarter-century. This area, said the New Jersey professors, should become a massive ecological reserve, which they would call “Buffalo Commons.”
McCook and its neighbors took it personally when the Poppers implied that this part of the country should never have been settled. Town leaders proposed that the southwest Nebraska tale deserved to be told. What better way to do it than through a storytelling festival. As a final rebuttal to the Poppers, why not call this event the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival?
Festival wins tourism award
The theme of Festival 1997: A community’s greatest gift is the evolving history of its people, their stories, their symbols, their enduring sagas. The festival was named the Nebraska Department of Tourism and Travel Industry’s Outstanding Event of the Year.
Festival 1998 paid tribute to the prairie peoples who “have been imprinted by the land’s horizons, its deep roots, rivers, canyons, and loess hills. It is a place where ordinary men and women live extraordinary lives.”
In 2017, Buffalo Commons celebrates “Back In Time” as a way to continue to explore life on the short grass prairie of the Republican River Valley. This year’s festival is about looking back in time while also looking forward with anticipation.