When you ask professional storytellers to name their role models, the people who shaped their ideas about what a story should sound like, you’ll hear many answers. Some name industry icons like Jackie Torrence or Ray Hicks. Others might talk about their grandmother’s bedtime stories or their uncle’s jokes.
Some, like Michael Cotter, might even mention a favorite teacher. But Cotter is probably the only storyteller whose kindergarten teacher was a hobo.
He’s only partly joking. In 1936, the height of the Great Depression, there was no such thing as kindergarten at 5-year-old Cotter’s local school. Instead, he took his early education from a drifter, a war veteran (and former teacher) who worked on his family’s farm.
Cotter’s “teacher” was one of many hobos the storyteller befriended in his youth.
“On Sundays, there would be these freight trains going by slowly,” he recalls. “You’d see these tough-looking men sitting in the cars. I was the one that greeted them.
“I realize now they were just dumped out without any support system at all,” he continues. “People would drift in asking for food and end up working on our farm — mostly alcoholics, but tremendous men. They have had such an influence on me. They had a big influence on my kind of storytelling. It was the real McCoy. It wasn’t theatrical; it was just telling stories. And there was an honesty about it.”
That’s not to say that Cotter romanticizes riding the rails. Sometimes, his teachers would become agitated or aggressive. As a boy, sometimes he felt frightened.
“Some of them told me things I really shouldn’t have heard yet,” he admits, remembering a time that one of the transient farmhands told him about fighting in France.
But there were also lighter moments, often around the family dinner table.
“My mother was a great cook,” Cotter says. “Whenever anyone would come through, they’d stop at the farm. So here we would have a big dinner table with hobos, clergymen, and all in between. That was really something.
“She never didn’t have time to fix them something,” he adds, referring to the drifters. “The way they’d take that piece of bread and polish that plate — that was all part of me. I can still see it in my mind.”
Cotter will share his vast collection of personal stories about farm life during his stint as Jonesborough’s teller in residence, running Sept. 20-24. Performances will begin at 2 p.m., daily in the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, an intimate theater in the heart of the International Storytelling Center. Tickets are limited, and reservations are highly recommended.
The third-generation farmer still works the land that has been in his family since 1876. His specialty is in the quiet, but profound, moments that punctuate daily life on the farm.
“There are unusual things that happen in life, only you don’t notice them,” he explains. “Or you do notice them, but you forget about them. But if you can bring those moments up, it’s just incredible. It’s like recording it. Otherwise, it’s lost, and they all just become part of a kind of blur.”
Tickets for Cotter’s performances are $12 for adults and $11 for seniors, students and children under 18. Ticket stubs will save audience members 10 percent on same-day dining at Bistro 105, The Cranberry Thistle, The Dining Room or Main Street Café.
The International Storytelling Center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Storytelling Live! is sponsored by Mountain States Health Alliance and Phil Bachman Toyota Scion. Media sponsors are News 5-WCYB, FOX Tri-Cities, Tri-Cities CW4, Johnson City Press, Kingsport Times-News and Citadel Broadcasting.
A detailed schedule of the 2011 Storytelling Live! season is available at storytellingcenter.net.
For more information about Storytelling Live! or to make a group reservation, call (800) 952-8392 ext. 222 or (423) 913-1276.