Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd, Soul Sand.
Linda Goss: Well, oh, well, well! Well, oh, well, well! It's storytelling time!
Jo Reed: That's the call of Mama Linda Goss, storyteller and 2019 National Heritage Fello. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Linda Goss is a powerhouse. She's an award-winning storyteller, author, and mentor. Called “Mama Linda” in honor of her work a pioneer of the black storytelling movement, she was born in the foothills of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains to a family steeped in the storytelling tradition, Mama Linda found her calling when she was a student at Howard University, entrancing her fellow-students with her stories of family and down home. Recognizing the tradition’s transformative potential, she became a professional storyteller. She’s unearthed stories that had almost been forgotten, built on stories she had heard as a child, and created some of her own. She’s published some seven books including co-editing with Marian E. Barnes—the influential Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling
In 1982, Mama Linda and Mother Mary Carter Smith conceived of the idea of a Black Storytelling Festival and Conference, and the following year, In the Tradition was born, becoming an annual event. In 1984, Mother Mary and Mama Linda co-founded the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS)—which continues to grow and thrive. Mama Linda is also the co-founder of Keepers of Culture—a Philadelphia-area affiliate of NABS. In fact, Mama Linda Goss was named the Official Storyteller of Philadelphia. She’s received many grants and appointments throughout her life—developing storytelling tours, curating exhibits that combine visual art and storytelling, working in schools, libraries and museums, serving as a mentor to younger storytellers. She lives in Baltimore now where she is the Storyteller-In-Residence at the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. Her numerous awards include the National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, the Leeway Transformation Award in 2006, and a Gerald E. and Corinne L. Parsons Fund Award from the American Folklife Center. And now she has been named a 2019 National Heritage Fellow, the highest award the country gives that honors folk and traditional art. I traveled to Baltimore to speak with Mama Linda at the Peale Center, which is an historic building right in the center of Downtown Baltimore—so you’ll hear the occasional sounds from the streets in the background. But front and center—Mama Linda Goss and the power of story.
Jo Reed: Mm hm. Okay, well, Mama Linda, if you don't mind me calling you that.
Linda Gross: Oh, I love it, I love it!
Jo Reed: Thank you. I actually want to begin with something very basic.
Linda Gross: Okay.
Jo Reed: What's storytelling?
Linda Gross: Well, that's a hot ball question, now. That's because my interpretation and my definition of storytelling, especially black storytelling—all the different ways a story is told. All the different ways you can convey or communicate a happening to someone. So, in black storytelling we tell our stories in so many different ways. We talk them, we dramatize them, we sing them, we dance them, we paint them, we quilt them. Throughout Africa, our hairstyles tell a story. The scarring on our faces tell a story. So, the clothes we wear tell a story. When I used to tell stories about 30 years ago, when I would enter the room, I would let the children know, "Everything I have on tells a story."
Jo Reed: So how did you come to storytelling?
Linda Gross: Well, child, as they say, I was born and raised in it! I was raised on pinto beans, fried apples, cornbread, and storytelling. I come from a big storytelling family. My mother had a large family, it was 14 children, of which 11 survived. Now my father only had one brother, who died very young. But his father, my granddaddy, was a wonderful storyteller. So I grew up in it. And in the town I'm from it's full of just interesting characters. The stories just pop out at you. Everyone in the town has a nickname. There are some people whose real names I still do not know. I only know them by their nicknames. So the town kind of has that appeal, where storytelling is everywhere. Storytelling is all around you and you can make up a story about anything, about everything.
Jo Reed: What town is this? Where?
Linda Gross: Alcoa. A-L-C-O-A, Alcoa, named after the Alcoa, Aluminum Company of America. And they built that town. They built that town in 1919. And they're celebrating the centennial now. And they've invited me to come back. So in my little segregated community, the streets were named after inventors. So I was on Bell. The street before me was Franklin. And it had the three big plants. And my granddaddy worked at the pot room, and my father worked at the North Plant. And that was at one point considered the largest plant in the world! But now, the plants are gone. They're gone.
Jo Reed: And so your grandpa in your family was the big storyteller.
Linda Gross: Yes, my Granddaddy Murphy, my mother and father, Uncle Buster, they were the main storytellers in my family. Then there were other members, too. When we would get together, somebody would just start talking. They might start talking about old times. And then you would hear these different stories. And I've had some of my aunts and uncles just tell me a story on their own. So my family really taught me how to bear witness. My father taught how to bear witness. And one day in the kitchen, mama was—I think she was cooking or something. We were in there, and all of a sudden she started telling me a story. This story about her mother, who told her, Lela, and it was about when my grandmother was very young, and she came from a large family, and it was about her mother, my Great Grandmother Mount, everybody called her Mount. Now, to this day, I can't remember what my great grandmother's name really is. I just know her as Mount, Mount Hunter. And it was about her and Pappy Hunter. And what happened is that sometimes on Saturdays, every once in a while, maybe every six weeks or so, as the day was fading into the night, they would hear these horses. And it was the Paddy Rollers, or the Night Riders. And they would come up to Pappy and Mount's home, and they would make Pappy go and get one of his chickens, because Pappy was known for cooking! You know, he'd kill that chicken, he'd take the feathers off of that chicken, and he would fry that chicken. He was known for cooking really good fried chicken. And after he cooked that chicken, they would take out their guns and shoot at his feet, and he would do the buck dancing. Now as a kid, I saw buck dancing in the Westerns. Everybody's laughing about it and things like that. And I thought that's how it went. But when my mother told me that story, buck dancing took on a whole 'nother meaning. And then they would do this little game with him. A little song game like, "Where's your wife? Where are the children?" And Mount and the children, you know, the daughters were hiding. Most of them they were hiding under the bed. Now when mama told me that story, she told it to me with a straight face. She didn't cry. She didn't sound angry. She didn't show really hardly any emotion, but she wanted me to know that story. So years later, I'm talking about a few years ago. Now we're jumping to the 21st Century, I had this wonderful relationship with, I call her, Mama Fry. Dr. Gladys-Marie Fry. She was the first African-American to get a PhD in Folklore, and she did this at Indiana University.
Jo Reed: She taught at the University of Maryland! Didn't she?
Linda Gross: Yeah, she taught there for 30 years, almost 30 years. I told her that story. And she says, "That's not an uncommon story," said, "It happened to a lot of black people." So she said that, what she called that was an authentic story that was told to me. And it was told to me by my mother, and by my uncle, those were the two who told me that story. And then when I went to visit my great aunt who lived to be at least 106, and she told me an incredible story. She said that when she went to school, first of all, they had to walk to school. School was about five miles away. And they would take their shoes and put them-- put the shoelace-- put the shoes around their necks. They were not allowed to wear shoes to school. Once they got to school, they could put the shoes on. And when they left school, they had to take them shoes off and put them around their necks again, because they had like one pair of shoes at a time. And so, those shoes had to last. She also told me during in that particular time—but she was from McMinnville—that's where my mama's people come from, this would be in Middle Tennessee. And so, my great-aunt said, "At that particular school, the school had white children in it, too. But they weren't allowed to drink from the same cup." And one day she made a mistake and drank the cup that had been a white child's cup. And they threw the water out and they threw the cup away. And it's interesting out of all those memories, that's what she remembers. She remembered that incident.
Jo Reed: Now when you heard those stories, Mama Linda, when you were young, and then when you came to storytelling, and I want to find out how you became a storyteller. I just wonder how those stories influenced the way you told stories. And the stories you told.
Linda Gross: Yes, well, it really influenced me, because I realized really how important storytelling is. And how important it is for a person to own the story they tell. And it's also important for them to be able to tell that story. It's important as to control the narrative, because these were stories that weren't in any books! These were passed down orally. Passed down to me. And I think that my mother and father and my grandfather, they must have seen something in me that I didn't realize was there. I wasn't going around saying, "Oh, I'm going to grow up and be a storyteller." You know, at the time, I loved history. I loved reading stories. I loved literature. But, when stories were told to me, some of them touched me in a way. Some of them I remember. My granddaddy told me so many stories. Most of the time, my brother and I wanted to be watching TV. We got tired of granddaddy telling those same old stories. So I regret that I didn't listen better. You know, I didn't listen to all the stories. I can't remember them all. I just know bits and pieces of them. So I take bits and pieces of them to create my own story. You know, so again, my father wanted me to remember. And to me, storytelling is a calling. I feel that I have been called to do this. What I do I feel is sacred. And wherever I tell a story, I'm on sacred ground.
Jo Reed: Do you still feel like Tennessee is home? Where would you call home now?
Linda Goss: What people have to realize that storytellers, everywhere we roam, that place becomes our home. For me, it began in Tennessee. Then, I traveled up to D.C., and then to MD, in Silver Spring for a while. Then I went to Philly. And now I'm in B'more, Baltimore, and I've been down to the Eastern Shore, and here I continue to explore, and preserve folklore. And that's the whole thing about storytelling—everywhere we go. And that's what I tell people. That place is my home. Baltimore is my home. You know, and I have plenty stories to tell here. And I've told stories, and I have created stories since I've been here, because again, I listen, and I love the birds, I love the wildlife here. And I notice that everybody here puts Old Bay Seasoning on everything! So I made a whole thing about it. I can't remember it offhand now, but I made a whole thing about <sings>,
"Old Bay, put it on your potatoes. Old Bay, put it on your collard greens! Old Bay, put it on your pinto beans. Old Bay, put it on everything!"
Jo Reed: You come to Howard, you said, you got your undergraduate degree there. And you came to study Drama.
Linda Gross: Yes, mm hm.
Jo Reed: Tell me about that transition to realizing you're a storyteller?
Linda Gross: Well, a lot of things happened to me at Howard. Howard was the place where really, I discovered really who I am. Because that had been a thing. I think that's the thing with a lot of black people is, "Who am I? What am I?" And so in school, and going to secondary school, I was made aware that black people had made contributions. But I was still struggling with just exactly what I was. But once I went to Howard is where I discovered—I accepted myself as being black, as being a black woman. And I accepted the fact that Africa was the motherland. That was my home, because growing up in the books, they had Africa as the Dark Continent. They had Africa, a land of savages, and things like that. And so I started doing a lot of reading. And I've always like stories. So I remember I bought this book of African folktales. And I was just amazed by it. And at Howard, you had all people, from all different places. And I had all these different friends. So I just started taking in all these different stories and I wanted to know more about Africa—more about what happened, how did all this take place to my people that we ended up over here. And so that was an eye-opener. And then my senior year, we had to do a senior project, and my project dealt with telling stories. And I remember my acting teacher, Mr. Butcher said, "Linda, you should pursue that. Maybe that's something you might want to do. You might want to go around being a dramatic speaker, where you tell these stories. Where you're bringing these stories to light." And that kind of came to me, because in my second and third year there, I would hang out at the Punchout—The Punchout was a student center. It was nicknamed the Punchout, because you stayed there too long, you punched out. So I would talk about where I was from. And for some reason, the students seemed to be fascinated by it. And they would tell others, "Ooh, listen to her, she's talking about her hometown," and about my parents. My mother's nickname was Bill. My father's nickname was Junior. So Bill and Junior. And their real name, my father's real name was Willie Murphy McNair. My mother's name was Willie Louise McNair. So they had the same first names, Willie. So the kids would tease me and call me Willie-Willie.
And even Dr. Gladys-Marie Fry, when I told her that, she started calling me Willie-Willie. So, I would tell them these stories, and they seemed to be fascinated about where I was from. So that kind of led me to storytelling. But I wasn't going around telling stories right away. I married, I had children, I told stories to my children that had been passed on to me. My husband, first he was in the Drama Department at Howard. And then he was in the Institute for Arts and Humanities, and they were do a lot of archives, and they were doing a lot of collecting. And Dr. Stephen Henderson was over that. He was a great scholar, Dr. Stephen Henderson. Anyway, they had a lot on poetry, and on music. He says, "You know what? We don't have anything on black storytelling." And he once, he mentioned that, my husband said, "Well," he says, "Well, Linda's a storyteller!" He said, "Well, have her to come in and tell us some stories!" And that's how I really started. You know, my husband really, you know, opened that door.
Jo Reed: And it wasn't long before you were actually telling stories on the National Mall at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.
Linda Goss: Well, the Smithsonian was having the Festival of American Folklife. And so I heard about it, and so I got up the nerve to call Bernice Reagan, and tell her I wanted to be a part of it. And I had to more or less kind of audition in front of her, and I was so nervous I could hardly talk. I could hardly move. And she said I needed to work on my feet.
Jo Reed: And Bernice Johnson Reagan is a singer, who directed The Black American Culture program at The Smithsonian.
Linda Goss: Yes. She took a chance with me. So that's how I, you know, started telling stories in the sense for the public—and this was in the '70s. So when I started, I thought I was the only storyteller in the world! Next thing I know everybody's telling stories! There's a storytelling organization! There's all these things going on. What amazes me, what happened to make many people in America stop doing what they were doing and tell stories? And no one has been able to give me the answer. I don't know what, again, made me to do it, except I thought I was called to do it. But what happened in the 70's when I was doing it, I met four other black storytellers, Mother Mary Carter Smith, Brother Blue, Jackie Torrence, and Harriet Allen, and we would go to these festivals and sometimes there would be one of us there or two of us there.
Jo Reed: You mean people of color?
Linda Goss: Yeah, people of color. And that's how Mother Mary and I started NABS, the National Association of Black Storytellers, and had the first festival here in Baltimore.
Jo Reed: And how long ago was that?
Linda Goss: That was in—the first festival was held in 1983. We start 1982 as the conception and then the first festival, '83, so now we're getting ready to have our 37th festival so 37 years, and Mother Mary made transition in 2007. I've picked up the banner.
Jo Reed: Now, you've done a lot about finding stories and reclaiming stories. How do you do that?
Linda Goss: Well, the first book I did was called Talk That Talk—An Anthology of African-American Storytelling, this is co-authored with Marian E. Barnes, who also has made transition, with a introduction by Henry Louis Gates and, again, it was when Moher Mary and I started this festival, this organization, the whole idea was to bring the black storytellers out. We did the call. That's why I do my call, <sings> Well, oh well, well, and I ring by bells <rings bells> and I'm calling out. I'm calling out and the people responded and when we had our first festival, people came as far as Alaska. And so from that gathering came a collection, a collection of stories, and so Talk That Talk really was the first book of its kind, rather than it being a collection of just stories, it's also about storytellers, about black storytellers. And I also have articles in there by black folklorists because a lot of people didn't even know that they existed and I wanted people to show how, again especially with me, I was encouraged and supported by so many different people and, again, and they're talking about black storytelling because this is co-authored with Marian E. Barnes, who also has made transition. But the whole idea was to show that black storytellers are your preachers, your comedians, your grand-dads, your grand-moms, and all of that. And I just love the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, so I made sure his poem, "Aunt Sue's Stories" was in that book and a story about Zora Neale Hurston. And really it was a introduction to all these people, all these stories, and many people were reading them for the first time and so, a lot of storytellers, black, white, called that book, "the Bible of black storytelling." That's what it's called, and it's now it's 30th anniversary this year. It came out in 1989 and so, again, when one thing happens, it leads to other things. So, again, I've always loved to collect stories, loved to listen to people tell stories, and people will come up to me and tell me a story. When the uprising took place here in Baltimore, Mama Vickie, she's, I think she's 87 now, and she came up to me. Now, she's calling me Mama Linda. Now, she is the elder, and she says, "Mama Linda, I am from Sandtown, and I want to tell you my story." And so she told me story and then I made arrangements with the Maryland State Arts Council to get her story recorded and so I gave them other people that they could contact and record their stories. And that's, that is preserved. That's archived. So I find people, again, all of us have stories and I'm fascinated by the stories and the Peale Center, fortunately, they got me this grant where I created this program called "How We Got Over."
Jo Reed: Tell me about that program.
Linda Goss: Okay. "How We Got Over" is really storytellers from Maryland telling stories of how they got over, how they got through segregation, desegregation, integration, how they survived, and I interviewed at least, almost 20 people. And this was done at "The Artist Exchange Radio Show," people were able to just share some wonderful stories about themselves, that was just such a joy for me.
Jo Reed: And when did you start using bells? And tell me why you do.
Linda Goss: Well, I started ringing these bells in the 70's because I was performing at the Festival of American Folklife, and I had to wake up the people. I had to get the people's attention, so I found these bells in a shop in Silver Spring, Maryland, but I ring my bells, Jo, really as I say, to wake up the people, but I really ring them for the homeless and I ring them for the hopeless, the hungry, and the poor. I ring them for the voiceless, the helpless, the wounded, and the abused, and I ring them for all living things throughout the cosmic universe. So that's really why I ring these bells because, to me, the bell is a very powerful symbol. You find bells in all cultures.
Jo Reed: I want to just talk about storytelling in general, as you said, I've wondered, too, why. I'm grateful for it, grateful, but I wonder why this burgeoning of storytelling. What have you—you've given it thought. What do you—and I'm not saying you necessarily have the answer, but what are your thoughts?
Linda Goss: I'm still thinking about it. Apparently, there is a need for it, and I think that's why people started doing it because I think, again, it's linking us up. People always talk about what makes us human—
Jo Reed: Stories.
Linda Goss: So, stories is one of them and that's the oldest way in which we have communicated and I guess as we're in this high-tech world, we still have to hold on to that story. We still have to be able to share with our families. We still have to be able to, again, tell our story, whether we're talking it or telling it using sign language, whether we're dancing, whatever way. We still got to get that story out so why people decided to tell stories that moment, something must’ve clicked in us. I really do believe it has something to do with our survival. And I think that with storytelling, it brings people together and it can bring the compassion out of us. And a story is what we all have. It's what we all have. It’s what we all have, no matter what status you have in society, or what color you are or what condition you’re in. When I was going through my cancer journey, storytelling became so powerful and I wrote a lot of race psalms and poems about people going through their cancer journey. Storytelling has helped me, so again, I use storytelling in everything, everywhere. Especially for all ages, especially for children in inner cities. We really should hear their stories. We really should listen to their stories.
Jo Reed: Well, we don’t think about listening to children’s stories, do we?
Linda Gross: Oh, no.
Jo Reed: We think about telling them.
Linda Gross: Telling them, right. We think about telling them stories and telling them what to do, when it should be the opposite as well. We should listen to what they have to say.
Jo Reed: Now how do you incorporate young voices into NABS?
Linda Gross: Yeah, so at our festivals, we do a while thing for the youth. They go on a heritage tour. They’re in their own space. They share stories and they put on a program. They put on a concert, a youth concert. We give them awards. We have the Liars' Contest, that’s our biggest event, the Liars' contest.
Jo Reed: Tell me about that.
Linda Gross: Oh, the Liar's Contest! Well, if you can tell the biggest lie then you’ll win the Liars' Cup. I have never entered, Jo, because I am not a liar. But I know a lot of people who have.
Jo Reed: You have apprentices?
Yes, I have worked with five, "official" as well as people call me all the time.
Jo Reed: What is it that you try to teach them, that you try to impart with them or work with them on?
Linda Gross: Well, each has been different because I try to get from them what do they want from me? What is it that they’re interested in? So we start from there. For example, working with David O. Fakunle, who is a master storyteller and a master drummer, he created a program called Discover Me, Recover Me. He uses, again, storytelling in the community. And so, in working with him, it was a matter of passing down different stories I have learned, And he and I worked together. That was great, working with him. I’m old enough to be his grandmother. Just to work, again, to work with someone, "in this generation" is fabulous, because I learn a lot from him. And we’ve traveled together. One of the storytellers I’ve worked with, she goes by the name of Auntie JoJo. She wanted to learn about fables. And I was telling her one of the fables I used to tell, I learned as a kid, and that was Straighten up and Fly Right. She thought that was so funny.
Jo Reed: Will you share that?
Linda Gross: I can share a little bit of it.
Jo Reed: There’s a song about it.
Linda Gross: I know, I know. There’s a song about it. It’s about the monkey and the buzzard. The buzzard is just carrying on, acting a fool, you know, tricking these animals into coming off with him. But the story, in terms of who claims it, is Nat King Cole, because his father was a minister and he would tell that story. And so, Nat King Cole made the story popular and he made the song popular. So the buzzard has been stealing all these animals, taking them away. Originally, I think the buzzard ate the animals. But when I tell the story I just say he takes them to his hideout and he ties them up. But the monkey has been watching everything. The monkey said, “I'm cool, I ain’t going to be no fool. I ain’t going to let that buzzard catch me.” Now in all the other stories, the monkey is the one who gets caught. Like, Up Jumped a Monkey, the signified monkey, the monkey is a signifier. But, anyway, the monkey purposely gets out there for the buzzard to see him. He says, “Hey, hey, Mr. Buzzard. Hey, hey, Mr. Buzzard. Why don’t you fly on down here and see me?” So the buzzard flies does and says, “Hey, monkey, you like to go out riding with me? Come on, just get on my back. We’re going to have a good time.” So the monkey gets on the buzzard’s back. But this time, when the buzzard tries to throw him off his back, the monkey says, “Straighten up, Jack, you better straighten up and fly right. Straighten up and fly right. Straighten up and fly right, do-do-do-do, straight up and fly right, do-do-do-do. Straighten up and fly right, cool down, buzzard, don’t you blow your top. The buzzard took the monkey for a ride in the air. The monkey thought that everything was on the square. The buzzard tried to throw the monkey off his back. The monkey grabbed his neck and said, “Now, listen, Jack. You better straighten up and fly right, do-do-do-do. Straighten up and fly right, do-do-do-do. Straighten up and fly right. Cool down, pop, don’t you blow your top.”
Jo Reed: That was great.
Linda Gross: That was, what you call, spur of the moment. I had to think what were the words to that song.
Jo Reed: That was great. So 2019, National Heritage Award, tell me what that means to you.
Linda Gross: I’m very honored to receive this award. It means a lot to me. I wish my mother and father were here, and granddaddy were here to see it because it would just mean so much to them. It means a lot to my hometown, because my hometown has been so supportive of me. And I come, again, out of such a tradition, just like when I say what is storytelling, I do a lot of poetry now. I do a lot of praise songs that are story poems. People may not consider that storytelling, but I invite people to come to the land where I was born. Come down to Tennessee and meet my family who was there, meet the people, meet Mama Minan, meet the people I grew up with, meet my classmates, and so this is very important to me because of my family, and because of Tennessee. And that's to me what the essence of storytelling, is that you're able to find out about people, you're able to ask the question, you may not always get the answer, again, like you were saying. This thing about why all these people telling stories, sometimes it may take years to come up with the answer, but at least you're in a situation, where you can ask the question. It's also important to always seek the truth and always seek the goodness in people, no matter how bad a situation might be. There's always goodness out here, and that's what I try to do, and that's what storytelling has led me to do. I've always said, "I define who I am, and how I create my work."
Jo Reed: That was storyteller and 2019 National Heritage Fellow, Mama Linda Goss. Mama Linda and the other National Heritage Fellows will be honored at two events in Washington, D.C. in September. Follow us on Twitter @NEAArts for all the details.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple if you like us, because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.